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UNC makes the switch from Sakai to Canvas

DTH Photo Illustration. UNC has begun the switch to Canvas. Professors have to choice between Sakai and Canvas.

After years of UNC students and faculty using Sakai, recent rumors around campus indicate that the University may now be moving away from the software. 

The rumors are true. The University will continue transitioning to Canvas — the learning management system with the largest market share in North America — as its primary course website hub.

Professors will have the option to use either Sakai or Canvas this upcoming semester, allowing for a smooth transition period. This means students might be using both learning systems this semester depending on their professor. 

Suzanne Cadwell, UNC's director of educational technologies, said she hopes the University will fully transition to using Canvas so that it does not have to support and use both systems. 

"We hope that it happens sooner rather than later, but it is absolutely at the discretion of the academic units to make that decision — so we support them," she said.

Students seem to agree with Cadwell. 

UNC junior Emma Brown said that while she has never used Canvas before, she prefers that the University use only one application.

"It’s just kind of important to me to have everything consolidated as much as possible," Brown said. "So, I’d prefer to fully use Canvas or Sakai."

The University started the switch to Canvas during the fall 2021 semester, by having a small cohort of eight courses pilot the application. 

"It was interesting," Cadwell said. "We had a smaller cohort for fall, and that particular cohort actually skewed more positively for Canvas. With the larger cohort, it came out essentially a little in favor of Canvas but really very close with Sakai for preferences." 

The larger cohort was composed of 52 courses in the spring 2022 semester. Cadwell's team found a correlation between a student's year and their preference of application, she said. 

The majority of first-year and sophomore students favored Canvas, while junior and senior students preferred Sakai. 

"Students are more comfortable with a system that they have more experience using," Cadwell said. "So for juniors and seniors, they may have not come from a high school that was using Canvas."

However, Cadwell said one thing was the same for both cohorts — there were rarely any technical support issues reported. 

Canvas provides 24/7 support via an online chat or phone number for students to use if they have any technical issues.

"You've got a problem at 2 a.m.? Then there's someone who works for Canvas, who's a Canvas specialist, who can help you with your problem," Cadwell said. 

Professor Tina Souders was part of the smaller cohort, where she taught a graduate-level social work course. She was excited to share positive feedback regarding Canvas' technical support and recalled an evening when she was having issues setting up her class modules.

"So I tried out their chat option," Souders said. "And somebody came on and chatted with me in real-time and helped me solve the problem and then also sent me a transcript of that chat session, if I needed it to follow directions."

Another benefit of using Canvas is the application layout — formally known as the interface.

Professor Eric Hastie was part of the larger cohort, where he taught Advanced Human Anatomy and Physiology. He said he is leaning into Canvas "full speed ahead." 

"It was extremely intuitive, very easy to use and it just looks cleaner," Hastie said."It's more modern."

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Lillian Craven, a UNC junior, said she thought Sakai was user-friendly, but that she was not a fan of the interface. 

"The user interface was ugly," she said. "But it was functional." 

Cadwell said many students prefer Canvas not only because of the aesthetically pleasing interface, but also because of an available app that keeps track of assignments on mobile devices.

Overall, most of the feedback received from UNC users about Canvas was positive.

"I really think it's a good system that integrates well with all the other learning tools we're using,"  Hastie said. 


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