An e-learning platform (also called an online learning management system or LMS) is a website that embeds various Internet media and educational processes. The basic unit for an e-learning platform is an individual course, but a student's entire course load can be offered within the same website.
An e-learning platform comprises three main components, each with various functionality and access levels (often called a view):
1) Student view - students can read, view and/or interact with course content and communicate and collaborate with teachers and fellow students.
2) Instructor view - instructors can structure courses, post content, interact with students, receive assignments, and post grades for their designated courses.
3) Administrator view - a more technical role, administrators run the LMS, which includes both front-end decisions such as granting access rights and archiving, as well as back-end work such as ensuring the platform integrates with other necessary technology.
There are other types of access levels such as guest (i.e. can only view designated areas) and teaching assistant (i.e. similar to instructor but with reduced privileges).
Most e-learning platforms have a core offering and optional additional functionality (which may be add-on or plug-in software). Within the core offering instructors choose which tools to use and how to structure their course.
There are two dominant leaders: Blackboard and Moodle.
Blackboard is a for-profit company. Blackboard will either enable users to install and run the system on their own servers or offer a hosted solution (i.e. that is the software and database resides on the company's servers and is maintained by them). For extensive information on Blackboard the University of Toronto's Blackboard pages are helpful.
Moodle is open-source, which means a global collective of people jointly develop and support the software and make it available to others to use for free. You can download the software and install it on your server and run and customize it for yourself. Alternatively, there are companies that will host the software for you on their servers and maintain it. To get a sense of Moodle, there is a demo that allows you to see a sample of it from a student or teacher view.
Other main LMS organizations include Desire2Learn a commercial service based in Kitchener, Ontario, Haiku, and Sakai an open-source solution.
Goals of a e-learning platforms
- information - offer course material
- communication - news and discussions amongst instructors and students
- collaboration - jointly-authored assignments or presentations
- evaluation - grading by instructors, feedback from
Informational tools may consist of:
- Lessons - instructor-supplied text or multimedia content (e.g. podcasts, videos)
- Resources - instructors or students can post webpages, PDFs, images, audio, or video files
- Glossary - a course-related terms appearing as links or a list
- Announcements - posted by instructor to the LMS homepage
- Updates - course news or recent discussions received via RSS feeds or emails
- Forums - threaded discussions
- Chats - live text-based chat room
- Wiki - collaborative document editing
- Calendar - team and/or class-based scheduling
- Blogs - individual text-based articles
- Groups - instructors can divide classes into smaller units
- Quizzes - with automatic grading (if multiple choice)
- Assignments - allow students to upload a file and receive grade & comments
- Grading - instructors assign grades and manage class averages
- Surveys - poll the class on course topics or offer their evaluation of instructor
- Ratings - students can provide assign their value to a lesson
- integrated, all-in-one place solution, which allows:
- connections and cross-linking of various course materials
- only one interface for students and teachers to learn
- simplicity of finding all course material
- web-based administration
- can ensure all course content follows academic institutional policies and jurisdictional regulations (e.g. accessibility, privacy, security) - if not using a hosted solution
- no advertising appears (except with some free, hosted solutions)
- extensive functionality
- streamlined grading processes
- requires some IT knowledge and skills (if not using a hosted solution), such as
- integration with web server and database
- quality assurance and trouble-shooting
- back-ups and archiving
- user tech support
- hosted solution may entail data being stored outside of Canada (and therefore not subject to our laws, e.g. privacy)
- high cost for commercial software or for hosted solution
- likely more functionality than most instructors need or students will ever use
- cloistered environment, which omits participation and exposure to other interested people or ideas
There are benefits (beyond financial) to using non-integrated solutions such as free web-based applications such as blogging tools, social networks (Facebook), Google Docs, Twitter, YouTube, etc. EDUCAUSE published a 2-page paper on this topic entitled 7 Things You Should Know About LMS Alternatives
e-Learning platforms cover a broad array of concerns from technological to pedagogical and from usability to feasibility. This post was meant to cover the basics.