Editor’s Note: This article has first been published on edcetera – straight talk on edtech.
Today’s article goes back to the origins of my career in blogging. When somebody asks me how I got started I usually tell him or her that it was really quite accidental. Based on having a successful tutoring business online I soon got so many questions from fellow tutors and online educators about how to establish their own online presence that it really made more sense to put my thoughts and advice out there in form of a blog than to answer each question in an individual email.
And that’s exactly what makes the basis for this article, a question by a fellow tutor tweeting at me and asking whether I could give him some examples of virtual learning environments to use for his courses based on my previous writing about the virtual learning environment (VLE) / learning management system (LMS) or simply put learning platforms.
Just for clarification, in the article I will use the term VLE equal to LMS as I find that in North America people usually speak of learning management systems and are most familiar with that term.
When reading articles on the various different solutions and services that fall in this category they are usually written from an institutional perspective, along the lines that a renown university or school just partnered with one of the big MOOC platforms and will offer their online courses and instruction through it.
The smaller university, college or even individual professor, however, are mostly overlooked in this scenario as it wouldn’t make an as impressive headline, I suppose.
I will thus categorize some of the available platforms and discuss their advantages and drawbacks with the small IT team or even individual educator in mind. Somebody so to speak who has to do it all by herself, from the creating a course over managing the content and mastering the hosting on the respective platform.
Please, keep in mind that this list doesn’t claim to be a full list of what is currently available in the market.There are other LMS / platforms out there with essentially the same or very similar functionalities as the ones described in this article. The list is essentially based on the services I have used or tried out at least during my days as an independent tutor and on interviews and talks I had with founders of LMSs in the past.
Hosted solutions usually come in the form of a so called SaaS (Software as a Service) package. Depending on the plan you will have your own domain and a certain disk space to upload videos and other lesson material.
As prices for disk space and bandwidth have gone down significantly over the years a hosted solution often starts with free accounts to test and even the big packages don’t cost you an arm and a leg.
Moodle, or good old Moodle as I call it, is a free LMS platform and today the most widely used free system in education.
Moodle is mainly being developed by Moodle Headquarters in Perth, Australia but the open source license essentially allows any developer to create modules or add-ons or share ideas, concepts through the Moodle Community. The platform has of course all features you would expect from a LMS system.
Personally, I find it visually unattractive not to say boring which brings down my enthusiasm to use it every time. But if you aren’t looking for customization and you like an “academic looking” LMS, then Moodle is definitely worth your time.
Unlike some of the startups in this vertical, Moodle can also look back at more than a decade of further developments so it’s fairly safe to say that it’s here to stay and won’t run out of money any time soon.
Instructure, a privately held corporation, is behind the development of the Canvas learning management system and Canvas Network, a massive open online course (MOOC) platform. Canvas being a cloud-native software operates as a SaaS (software as a service) solution using Amazon Web Services.
It exists in different versions adapted to the need of institutions in higher education and K-12. The Canvas Network allows both institutions and individual educators to use it as a platform for their online courses. Being a fairly young company, Instructure was founded in 2008, the design of Canvas is much more modern compared with Moodle and the platform is relatively simple to use.
When thinking about launching courses on Canvas you should keep in mind that this is still a startup, and for better or worse things in startups tend to change quickly. Think, for instance, of monetization ideas for the platform or the acquisition by a competitor.
mooc.org is a collaboration of edX and Google who will jointly develop the platform. However, edX will operate and own mooc.org as it is based on its open learning platform. The aim is to allow all the different stakeholders involved, namely institutions, businesses and individual instructors, to easily build and host their courses online.
The launch of mooc.org is planned for the first half of 2014. Details about pricing have not yet been published but will probably depend on whether an individual instructor, a business or institution is behind a course and how many students are expected to enroll.
Without having further knowledge, edX presumably is under less pressure to generate money than other platforms in the space. I think the inclusion or maybe even focus on individuals and smaller businesses is a smart move. mooc.org could definitely grab marketshare in this otherwise underserved segment of e-learning.
This one will be interesting to watch past launch.
Everpath to me is interesting as it has the ambition to define a niche rather than fitting in somewhere by claiming to be the “all-in-one solution for hosting, registration, payments and course delivery”.
Everpath sees itself as a Saas solution, the main difference to other players in the market being that instructors can teach from their own website and thus drive traffic to their own web estate rather than directing students to a platform.
Although Everpath is currently focused on the two verticals of business coaching and technology training according to startup’s profile on AngelList, instructors can ask for an invite to take part in the private beta.
As the name suggests, self-hosted solutions require more action from the administrator’s side. You need to find a webhoster, sign up for a domain and in general know quite a bit about what is going on behind the scenes of a website.
The upside of self-hosted solutions is of course a far bigger control when it comes to branding, customization and so on.
Sensei is a plugin for WordPress from Woothemes and starts at $129 for a single site license. If you’re already familiar with WP, for instance if you have a blog running on it, that’s definitely an advantage because remember, Sensei is a plugin not a theme. That said, Sensei is compatible with any WP theme. With the Sensei plugin you can create courses, write lessons and add quizzes. You’ll also get some analytics student performance.
Although the Sensei plugin was created as an LMS, you can also charge for your courses if the company’s other plugin WooCommerce is activated.
As you can see, such a solution demands at least some technical knowledge and understanding. I would recommend this as a solution to people with self-hosted WP blog and familiar with WordPress plugins.
To give you an idea of what you’ll need to master, I recommend you have a look at Woothemes guide of getting started with Sensei.
Finally, Open edX is the open source code of the edX platform that can be downloaded by everybody with the necessary skill set.
With the Open edX platform you can run your own edX clone, if you will and there are already several examples of big institutions that opted for running their own MOOCs based on Open edX. There is for example France Université Numérique, France’s national MOOC platform or Forum Academy, the new MOOC platform of the World Economic Forum.
To give you an example of individuals who created a MOOC platform based on Open edX I would like to point you to another French initiative called Neodemia. The creators of Neodemia Laurent Boinot and Samuel Soubeyran were avid MOOC users themselves and as they both have the necessary skill set they chose Open edX for their project and already attracted BNP Paribas, a major French bank, to host a MOOC on Neodemia.