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For Upstart Learning-Management Company, an Educause Moment

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Anaheim, Calif. — Brian Whitmer does not look like the co-founder and chief learning officer of a major education-technology company. Here in the Educause exhibit hall, he looks like a college kid.

Mr. Whitmer stands beneath the elaborate setup of his company, Instructure, chatting with several potential clients. Baby-faced and blond, he wears jeans with an untucked button-down shirt and a large black backpack slung over both shoulders.

“I’m actually 30,” he says. “I just look young.”

Like him, Instructure is entering a new phase of its life. On Thursday the Campus Computing Project announced the results of its annual survey of campus-technology use. Part of the survey tracks the market positions of companies that provide learning-management systems to colleges. Instructure’s system, Canvas, clocked in with an 8-percent share of the learning-management market—up from 6 percent last year and 1 percent in 2011.

At this year’s conference, Instructure has shelled out for prime real estate in the exhibit hall, erecting a set piece that includes a hanging canopy. The company, now five years old, has more than doubled its venture financing since last year’s conference, announcing $30-million of new investment over the summer. Now it’s preparing for its cotillion: It wants to go public, and has made no secret of its intention since the spring.

At Educause, peacocking is common among ed-tech vendors. Instructure’s display is about 25 yards from that of Blackboard, which dropped from 45 to 41 percent of the learning-management market this year, according to the Campus Computing Project.

“The tone is very different” this year, says Mr. Whitmer. “Even last year, when we came, there was plenty of excitement about Canvas, everybody saying, ‘Oh, we hope this goes somewhere, we hope this is legitimate.’ But in the last year, we’ve grown to where we now have 500 institutions using Canvas. That’s almost double where we were last year.”

Mr. Whitmer was a college kid when he helped found Instructure with a Brigham Young University classmate, Devlin Daley, in 2008. They eventually hired their professor, Josh Coates, as chief executive. (Mr. Daley left the company this year.) At the time, Blackboard’s proprietary product dominated a field that already included open-source platforms from Moodle and Sakai. Desire2Learn had a foothold, too. The market was nearly saturated.

But Instructure saw an opening. Blackboard had been fending off the open-source challenges by promoting the service and support that was included with its expensive platform licenses. In 2011, Instructure started to give away the source code for its Canvas platform and make its money by selling support services separately.

Blackboard has maintained its top position in learning-management platforms among nonprofit colleges. But in recent years it has acknowledged that more and more colleges would rather use an open-source platform while contracting with a vendor for support services. Last year Blackboard bought Moodlerooms, a company that provides support services to colleges running the open-source Moodle platform.

The kids at Instructure, it seemed, were on to something.

Some people attending the conference here agree. On the first day a demonstration of Canvas’s features drew dozens of onlookers. Several hours later, over lunch at a nearby picnic table, a director of academic technology at a Blackboard-client university was overheard speaking highly of Canvas’s videoconferencing software. Later, technologists from Brown University, the University of Central Florida, and the University of Maryland praised Canvas.

There have been one or two hiccups. In the fall of 2012, Instructure’s system saw widespread traffic jams because of what Mitch MacFarlane, a vice president, describes as “bad math.” But over all the adoptions have gone smoothly, and students and professors seem to like the Canvas platform.

Mr. Whitmer is still young compared to many of the ed-tech heavies roaming the Anaheim Convention Center this week. But he’s only a year or two younger than Blackboard’s co-founders, Matthew Pittinsky and Michael Chasen, were when they took their company public, in 2004.

Going public can bring complications. Instructure would have not only  university clients but also shareholders to look out for. Shortly after its IPO, Blackboard embarked on a flurry of acquisitions and lawsuits that, while making the company more valuable, alienated some of its constituents and led some observers to nickname it “Blackborg.”

Instructure wants to go public not so it can start buying out other companies, but to avoid being bought out itself, says Mr. MacFarlane. “The IPO strategy is specifically so we don’t become the other guys.”

For their part, the campus administrators who gathered here say they are not worried about Instructure’s next phase.

“Every vendor goes through various life cycles,” says Joel L. Hartman, vice provost and chief information officer at Central Florida. If going public helps make it stronger and more autonomous, then that is good for everybody, he says. “I think the longevity of the company is the key step in choosing any vendor.”

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