A Brief History of Learning Management Systems at UC Berkeley

The Instructional Technology Program (ITP) got the first campus wide Learning Management System (LMS) service going at UC Berkeley. 

Initially, we supported the low-end versions of both Blackboard and WebCT. At first, Blackboard and WebCT were separate corporations, and initially they only offered low-end, cheap versions of their respective LMS products. They eventually developed more robust, and much more expensive, enterprise versions of their LMS.

As ITP’s assistant director, I was heavily involved in purchasing and setting up the low end versions of these systems, and with lobbying for a budget increase to purchase an enterprise level LMS for the Berkeley campus.  

However, there were groups with some additional suggestions. I recall a big meeting where three positions were put forward. They were not necessarily in conflict with one another, but each had a different focus.

1) I argued for additional funding to buy a commercial enterprise level LMS, and for additional FTE to scale up help desk support at ITP.

2) Richard Henderson, who was the main IT guy from the business school at the time, argued for a scaled down system, which the registrar (Susie Castillo-Robson) also liked. 

The objective of this system would be to get nearly 100% coverage of all classes in a relatively short period of time. It would simply let the professor enter a one or two paragraph description of his/her course to supplement the official course catalog description. And, it would provide an email list of the students in the course. As I recall, this system could also provide a link to a separate webpage for the course, if there was one. Or, if the professor used an LMS, it could point to the coursesite on the LMS. The idea was that Student Information Systems (SIS) would develop this system, and ITP would provide help-desk support.

Richard did not argue that the campus should not have an enterprise-wide LMS. But, he did suggest that it would take years to get all courses covered by an enterprise LMS. Also, some departments, divisions, and professional schools either had, or had plans to have, their own LMS.

3) Howard Besser, an instructor from the School of Information Systems and Management (SIMs), argued that faculty should have separate websites (or at least web pages) for each of their courses. SIMs had a grant for their graduate students to develop web pages for faculty. Howard was in charge of these students, but he thought ITP should take responsibility for managing the webpages on an ongoing basis. His students would just get them started, and then he wanted to hand them off to ITP for ongoing maintenance.

Just before ITP got merged into the Office of Media Services (OMS) to form Educational Technology Services (ETS), ITP did get a budget to purchase an enterprise level LMS. But, we also got assigned the task of supporting the project ideas put forward by Richard and Howard.

But, then the merger happened, and the new ETS director (Victor Edmonds) and the new head of the CCCPB-IT committee had second thoughts about moving ahead with plans to buy an enterprise LMS. 

(Note: CCCPB-IT was a campus wide committee involved with ed tech policy that was initially headed by Prof. Alice Agogino and IST head Jack McCredie. I staffed this committee. Eventually, Jack and Alice stepped down, and Statistics professor Phil Stark took over, which was about the time OMS and ITP were merged into ETS. CCCPB-IT stands for: the Chancellor’s Computing and Communications Policy Board (subcommittee for) Instructional Technology.)

The new ETS unit got the LMS budget ITP had just received, but Victor and Philip decided to kill (or indefinitely postpone) the plan to buy a commercial enterprise level LMS.

Later, Victor hired Mara Hancock, and eventually they decided to join the Sakai initiative to develop an LMS in coordination with other schools. Eventually, the system developed by SIS fell by the wayside, as did the idea of letting SIMs grad students develop web pages for faculty, and then hand them off to a support unit like ITP for maintenance.

Several years later, ETS decided to switch from Sakai to a commercial enterprise level LMS: Canvas.


Beshears, Fred

Faculty to get help with websites
by Fred Beshears, ITP
Berkeley Computing & Communications
April-May 1997

Note: This article describes ITP’s initial efforts to help faculty create course websites. Some faculty want to roll-their-own course website, often with the help of a graduate student. This is what Tony Bates calls the Lone Ranger model of course content development. At this point, ITP has not started to offer coursesites on an LMS, but that was coming soon.

New tools help instructors create and maintain course websites
by Fred M Beshears
Berkeley Computing and Communication
Academic Computing
Sept-Oct 1998

Note: This article provides the campus with an introduction to a Learning Management System. It also describes the need for standards. Also, it describes the four LMS that ITP has evaluated: WebCT, CourseInfo (which eventually becomes Blackboard), TopClass, and Web Course in a Box. After the evaluation period, ITP decides to just support WebCT, but eventually ITP decides to also support BlackBoard. At this point, both the WebCT and Blackboard systems are low-end. These companies are just getting started and have not released their enterprise-level LMS products.

Seminar examines standards for developing online course
management and digital library systems
by Fred M Beshears
Berkeley Computing and Communications
Nov-Dec 1998

On August 17, the Instructional Technology Program (ITP) sponsored a seminar featuring presentations from the directors of five major projects that are developing software and standards for online course management systems and museum and digital library information systems.
Note: For this event, ITP brought in representatives from all nine UC campuses as well as the UC Office of the President. ITP also received a budget to become a member of IMS Global. For around ten years, I was Berkeley’s representative on the IMS technical board.

Blackboard Inc.

“Blackboard LLC. was founded in 1997 by Michael Chasen and Matthew Pittinsky and began as a consulting firm contracting to the non-profit IMS Global Learning Consortium.”

“In 1998, after Cane met Chasen at a conference on adaptive learning, Gilfus and Cane decided to merge CourseInfo LLC. with Chasen and Pittinky’s Blackboard LLC. The combined company became a corporation known as Blackboard Inc.”


Instructure, Inc. is an educational technology company based in Salt Lake City, Utah. It is the developer and publisher of Canvas, a Web-based learning management system, and Canvas Network, a massive open online course (MOOC) platform. The company is owned by private equity firm Thoma Bravo.

Instructure was founded in 2008 by two BYU graduate students, Brian Whitmer and Devlin Daley,[3] with initial funding from Mozy founder Josh Coates (currently the executive chairman of the Board)[4] and Epic Ventures.[5]

In December 2010, the Utah Education Network (UEN), which represents a number of Utah colleges and universities, announced that Instructure would be replacing Blackboard as their preferred LMS[6] supplier. By January 2013, Instructure’s platform was in use by more than 300 colleges, universities and K–12 districts, and the company’s customer base had increased to 9 million users by the end of 2013.[7][8]

In February 2011, Instructure announced that they were making their flagship product, Canvas, freely available under an AGPL license as open source software. The announcement received coverage in the press.[9][10][11][12] In February 2012, the company launched Canvas K–12.[13] As of 2020, while the core remains open source, according to its GitHub FAQ many of its functions and add-ons are proprietary.[14]

In November 2012, Instructure entered the massive open online course market by launching Canvas Network.[15]


“CourseInfo was founded in late 1996 as a software provider founded by Cornell University students Stephen Gilfus and Daniel Cane.”

IMS Global

“The mission of IMS Global Learning Consortium (IMS Global/IMS) is to advance technology that can affordably scale and improve educational participation and attainment. To ensure the learning impact of technology-enabled innovation is achieved around the world, IMS Global’s influential community of educational institutions, suppliers, and government organizations develops open interoperability standards, supports adoption with technical services, and encourages adoption through programs that highlight effective practices.””

History of IMS Global

“In 1995, IMS came into existence as a project within the National Learning Infrastructure Initiative of EDUCAUSE. In 1999, IMS spun out of EDUCAUSE to become an independent non-profit organization. While IMS got its start with a focus on higher education, the specifications published to date, as well as ongoing projects, address requirements in a wide range of learning contexts, including K-12 schools, corporate and government training. IMS continues to have a close relationship with EDUCAUSE and numerous other education and training associations.”


“In 1995, Goldberg began looking at the application of web-based systems to education. In 1997, Goldberg created a company, WebCT Educational Technologies Corporation.”

2 thoughts on “A Brief History of Learning Management Systems at UC Berkeley

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: