Even without a pandemic, Instructure faced a transformative 2020. The learning management system provider—best known for its Canvas product popular among colleges—is officially under private equity ownership.
One of the benefits of this change is a focus on long-term planning over displays of quarterly growth to impress shareholders, says Mitch Benson, the company’s chief product officer.
For example, despite increased activity on the platform—concurrent users on the Canvas LMS were up 60 percent from typical use patterns and video submissions are up tenfold from typical use patterns pre-Covid-19—the costs of moving more data and training more educators will keep the company from a short-term windfall, Benson says. That information might have scared stockholders months ago. But it’s OK by Instructure and its new owner, Thoma Bravo.
“To meet the expectation of demands is priority,” Benson says. “I guarantee that will come at an opportunity cost.”
So what else is next for the Salt Lake City-based edtech company? Previous expansion plans had been put on hold by a disappointing corporate learning product, activist investor interest and an acquisition that became messy at times.
Here is what we expect from Instructure in the near future.
Find A New CEO and CFO
Perhaps the first order of business for Instructure is to find permanent leadership. The company in the interim is led by Charles Goodman, an operating partner at Thoma Bravo and former CEO of Thoma Bravo portfolio company Frontline Education, which provides administrative tools to more than 12,000 educational institutions. The company is also on the search for a new CFO.
Goodman will only lead the company temporarily. Instructure has enlisted the service of an executive search firm to find candidates. It may also look at candidates within the company. Josh Coates, for example, served as Instructure CEO for about eight years and is its current executive chairman.
One name floated by company watchers is Ray Henderson, the former chief products officer at ANGEL Learning. After ANGEL was acquired by Instructure rival Blackboard, Henderson served as president of learning platforms for Blackboard until 2013.
Another possibility is Scott Pulsipher, current president of Western Governors University.
WGU President Scott Pulsipher talks workforce readiness gap in 2017
Decide About Bridge
Also high on the list is for Instructure to figure out what to do with corporate learning LMS Bridge. The company’s layoffs in January impacted primarily employees who worked on this product. It seems likely Instructure will try to sell Bridge or spin it off. The company will not end the product.
Education market analyst Trace Urdan of Tyton Partners says corporate learning budgets are likely to contract with an economic downturn, making a corporate LMS tool like Bridge less attractive to buyers.
That said, the scale of a possible recession could send more white-collar workers back to college to strengthen their skills until the economy improves, which could mean Thoma Bravo is in the education business at the right time. Which leads to the next item ...
Buy Something (and Maybe Invest)
Though former CEO Dan Goldsmith is no longer with Instructure, his comments on the company’s growth path before the acquisition may provide clues to how Instructure can grow with its new owner’s deep pockets.
The company’s interest in developing a data analytics service—once codenamed DIG and now known as Insights, per Benson—hasn’t gone away. Possible uses of the service include measuring impact of new teaching technologies, engaging students at risk of dropping out and predicting how students perform in courses.
Instructure could buy a company that helps with international expansion. Or it could invest in a Canvas product with a smaller price tag and fewer features that would do better in international markets, dominated by rival Moodle, says education analyst Phil Hill.
But of course, like everyone else in edtech, the rush of schools to online learning could change priorities for Instructure. Demand for synchronous video may have the company in search of features and tools to beef up its Canvas Studio product, says Hill. Instructure may seek a way to increase Canvas' share of K-12 school districts, a much more competitive arena.
Online program managers and companies with software designed around student success and administrative services are acquisition targets for Instructure, which appears closely matched with rival Blackboard in the LMS space, says Trace Urdan. Thoma Bravo is unlikely to break Instructure down and sell its remains. “They are builders,” Urdan says.
Hill believes that acquisition drama may have cost the company some of its goodwill with customers and it may take time to rebuild trust and confidence in users. Other LMS companies have seen more wins starting last summer, “a strong indicator of the loss of goodwill,” Hill says. “They have to learn how to listen to their customers again.
In a way, the COVID-19 outbreak is a chance for Instructure to provide quality customer service in educator training and support during a tumultuous time. To that effect, Benson says that the support team has many temporary workers whose shifts can change based on demand. Plus, other departments within Instructure, including engineering, product management and marketing, have volunteered to help with support and training.
In response to academics’ concerns about the use of student data once Instructure went private, the company formed an advisory committee on student data privacy made partially of educators.
Instructure founder Brian Whitmer also cautions against easy comparisons between Instructure and rival Blackboard, which itself was sold to a private equity firm in 2011 after a time as a publicly traded company.
“The market perception is different, the industry as a whole is in a different place, and the product focus isn't as bifurcated as Blackboard's was at the time,” Whitmer said in an email. “The big risk for them is that nobody is really there to push them, so it'd be easy to just lean back and tweak their operational efficiency.”
While Canvas’ technology stack and user interface are “starting to show signs of age,” Whitmer said, “there are opportunities to really rethink the teacher/learner workflow that could be really exciting.”