Online learning platforms

Online learning platforms are online tools that are used to deliver and support learning. To achieve that every Learning platform consists of a wide range of different ICT (Information Communication Technology) systems.

All of these platforms can have multiple uses. They can enable learning from distance by providing the tools that are needed for that ( Tools for tests, grading, registration of the student etc ) But also they can be used to enhance the classic way of learning this, increasingly popular, way of learning is known as "Blended Learning".

There are several different terms to describe these systems and platforms and all of these terms are used each one being almost the same as the others and only differate in slight details.
More specifically : "A VLE(Virtual Learning Enviroment) is a computer program that facilitates computerized learning or e-learning. Such e-learning systems are sometimes also called Learning Management System (LMS), Course Management System (CMS), Learning Content Management System (LCMS), Managed Learning Environment (MLE), Learning Support System (LSS) or Learning Platform (LP); it is education via computer-mediated communication (CMC) or Online Education." [1]

There are lots of different online learning platforms that can be found over the internet. Most of them share lots of common features and characteristics like the following :
"

  • The syllabus for the course
  • Administrative information including the location of sessions, details of pre-requisites and co-requisites, credit information, and how to get help
  • A notice board for up-to-date course information
  • Student registration and tracking facilities, if necessary with payment options
  • Basic teaching materials. These may be the complete content of the course, if the VLE is being used in a distance learning context, or copies of visual aids used in lectures or other classes where it is being used to support a campus-based course.
  • Additional resources, including reading materials, and links to outside resources in libraries and on the Internet.
  • Self-assessment quizzes which can be scored automatically
  • Formal assessment procedures
  • Electronic communication support including e-mail, threaded discussions and a chat room, with or without a moderator
  • Differential access rights for instructors and students
  • Production of documentation and statistics on the course in the format required for institutional administration and quality control
  • All these facilities should be capable of being hyperlinked together
  • Easy authoring tools for creating the necessary documents including the insertion of hyperlinks - though it is acceptable (arguably, preferable) for the VLE to be designed so that standard word processors or other office software can be used for authoring.

"[1]

Some catalogs with most of the different learning platforms can be found in the following sites:
edtechpost catalog (slightly old)
cms-matrix catalog (a catalog with Open source and commercial platforms with comparison capabilities)
opensourcecms catalog (A catalog of open source cms with their ranking achieved by user votes)

Due to their large number we decided to present and compare here only six of those platforms. The criteria of the platforms that were chosen were that these platforms are some of the most well-known and that they have received good comments for their features community and support.

The Platforms that will be presented are:

ATutor is an Open Source Web-based Learning Content Management System (LCMS) designed with accessibility and adaptability in mind. The first public release of ATutor was in December of 2002.[2]

The Claroline project was initiated in 2000 at the Catholic University of Louvain (Belgium) by Thomas De Praetere and was financially supported by the Louvain Foundation. Since 2004, the main code of Claroline is co-developed with CERDECAM, research center of ECAM (Engineering higher school - Belgium).[3]

dotLRN consists of a set of components that are certified by the dotLRN consortium to be dotLRN compliant. Started at MIT, now a non-profit consortium with members at a number of universities and companies around the world. Members pay a fee to participate in the OpenACS consortium, but anybody who fulfills the requirements can become certified and contribute.[4]

ILIAS is a web-based learning content management system (LCMS) and collaboration platform. The product is the result of the ILIAS open source community. Project coordination and most development are done by the University of Cologne.[5]

Moodle is provided freely under the GNU Public License. It was developed based on a pedagogical philosophy (social constructivist). Moodle can be installed on any web server with a php interpreter and fully supports using mySQL or postgreSQL databases. Martin Dougiamas is the originator, lead developer, project manager and release manager of Moodle, present on moodle.org since 2002. Moodle.com was launched in 2003 to offer commercial service by Moodle Partners (Swiss Moodle Partner: mediagonal AG, Fribourg).[6]

OLAT initially started as a student project at the University of Zyrich in the year 1999. OLAT was the winner of the medida prix http://www.medidaprix.org/ and was then consolidated as a university project. The development of OLAT is led and funded mainly by the University of Zyrich (Switzerland). Official support for OLAT is available at the Multimedia & e-Learning Center www.id.unizh.ch/mels for Swiss university members. Commercial support is available through goodsolutions.[7]

A good comparison between the aforementioned platforms is offered by the edutools site in the following link edutools comparison

As the Open source learning platforms become more and more known and improved they draw a lot of attention on them and lots of well-known institutions tend to choose open-source learning platforms or change from commercial platforms to open source.

A small number of examples with institutions that chose one of the platforms we present follows:

  • Claroline

A list of all the organisations and institutions that use Claroline can be found here list of claroline installations

in that list there are lots of very well known Universities like university of Glasgow, Washington State Community College and University of Pittsburg

  • dotLRN

A list of all the organisations and institutions that use dotLRN can be found here list of dotLRN installations
from that list names like Greenpeace, Harvard JFK School of Government, MIT Sloan School of Management certainly show that the platform is used by well known institutions

  • ILIAS

A list of all the organisations and institutions that use ILIAS can be found here ILIAS installations
in that list we can see univeristies like Technische Universität (TU) Berlin, Université de Nice Sophia Antipolis (Nice), Académie de Bordeaux

  • Moodle

A list of all the organisations and institutions that use Moodle can be found here list of Moodle installations to view it you must register to moodle forums
From that we can see that institutions like Texas A&M University, MIT Teacher Education Program, University of Georgia use Moodle
*

  • OLAT

A list of all the organisations and institutions that use OLAT can be found here list of OLAT installations
From that we can see institutions like Pädagogische Hochschule Zürich, University of Zyrich

From the above it is clear that all of the presented platforms have some very well-known institutions on their side using them. A fact that alone is a very good advertisment for them that will eventually make even more institutions and organisations to choose those platforms.

ALTERNATIVES TO TRADITIONAL LMS

The traditional LMS systems that were presented above have been the receivers of very strict comments the last 4 years. The main reason for those comments is the inability of the traditional LMS to provide an open and free enviroment for learning. The people that support these theory point out that the traditional LMS have fallen into the pitfall of restricting the learners and actually make them follow one specific (and most of the time wrong) way of learning, something which comes in total conflict with the latest learning methods.

The main LMS weaknesses are listed in the folowing list taken from George Siemens report "Learning Management Systems:
The wrong place to start learning" [8]

"

  • The tools we use define the manner in which we undertake learning tasks. Using a structured tool like an LMS drives/dictates the nature of interaction (instructors-learner, learner-learner, learner-content).
  • The interface - generally, the initial reactions to the interface is confusion for many learners. I've instructed with various platforms, and the most difficult/disorienting challenge for new learners is figuring out how the interface works and where to get the information she/he needs. This confusion is due to two flaws in the LMS: 1) LMS' try to do everything - simpler tools, with the intent of performing one task seem to be easier for end users to understand, 2) LMS' are designed as a learning management tool, not a learning environment creation tool ( interface design explores the importance of social considerations: the key criteria in interface design is obviously "what does the end user want/need to do". Current LMS interface design relies too heavily on "what do the designers/administrators want/need to do").
  • Only recently (and in limited ways) have LMS vendors started extending tools and offerings beyond simple content sequencing and discussion forums. WebCT and Blackboard have recently formed partnerships with synchronous tools to allow for easy integration across platforms. It's progress, but still within a "locked-down, do-it-our-way" platform.
  • Large, centralized, mono-culture tools limit options. Diversity in tools and choices are vital to learners and learning ecology. Over the last several years, I've encountered many instances where an instructor was not able to achieve what she/he wanted with course design due to the limitations of WebCT. In essence, the LMS determines what an instructor could do. It should be the other way around - instructor needs first, tool selection second.

"

What is suggested as an alternative is the use of many different web tools that already exist. All these tools are mentioned in the following list taken from Michael Hotrum's report " Breaking Down the LMS Walls" [9]

  • Social tools to allow for self-expression (e.g., blogs, wikis, syndication protocols, etc.)
  • Digital repositories of personal artifacts (e-portfolios)
  • Tools for content interaction and collaboration (shared workspaces, collaborative tools)
  • Tools for connecting with instructors/ mentors/other learners (discussion forums, peer-to-peer social tools, virtual communities)
  • Tools for searching and ranking educational resources (search engines, semantic content filters)
  • Tools that engage and facilitate higher-order learning (databases, spreadsheets, simulations, expert systems, and virtual worlds)

One good example which can be considered as one of the sites alternative to the traditional LMS is Jiskha. Jiskha is a website dedicated to helping students and teenagers with their school homework. To achieve this it uses a forum for students to post their questions which then are answered by experts. The students are also give the chance to search for a solution already given to on similar problem to theirs and also a link database is provided for students to search further in other sites.

CONCLUSION

Although LMS in their current type have been the targets of criticism because their are not completely compatible with the modern ways of learning and obtaining knowledge, they are the only reliable solution of tools that can support higher education. They will continue to lead until all the new features that were introduced by web 2.0 (blogs , wikis etc.) can be organized into one new learning solution.

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