Teaching Online: Choosing the Right Platform

Last week, I told a local superintendent that online learning was a great way to leverage his best teachers, expand options for students, and eliminate high cost courses with small enrollments.  He asked what platform was best to use for online courses offered in his district.  With a lot of help from our friend Adam Renfro, here are 10 questions to consider when choosing an online learning platform.
1. Do you want to run licensed or purchased courseware?  If so, a learning management system is probably the way to go.  One choice will be between proprietary and open source.  Here’s a few examples of each

  • Proprietary: Blackboard, BrainHoney, Desire2Learn, Learning Studio
  • Open: Sakai, Moodle, Haiku

At the Maryland OER for the 21st Century conference today Christine Voelker reviewed the total cost of ownership between Moodle and Blackboard.  The results were surprisingly similar for remote hosting (which is probably cheaper than self-hosting for most districts)—about $69k for Moodle and $77k for Blackboard (assuming 2500 users).  Calvert and 8 other districts chose Moodle.  Calvert is hosting it with MoodleRooms.  Christine handed out A Guide to K-12 OpenSource LMS Options by Natasha Wanchek in THE Journal.
Pick an LMS—that used to the be the end of it, but with the rise of blended learning and an expanding array of platforms and tools, you have more questions to ask and more options to consider.
2.  Are you transmitting to students or creating a learning community?  Some of these platforms are adding more social and communication features. Blackboard combined Elluminate and Wimba to create Collaborate that allows big groups to simultaneously share content sharing, audio and texting.
For full video conferencing GoToMeeting, Skype, JoinMe, and Google + hangout (all reviewed by Sarah in Top Apps for Web Conferencing)
3.  How much data do you need on student and teacher performance and use?  You will probably want data for when students log in, how long they logged in, which pages they visited, where they clicked through to.  It’s all good info for the instructor.
4.  With collaborative features, anything that archives is a great bonus.  It’s one thing to be able to teach an online synchronous lesson in something like Collaborate, but being able to archive and then curate after allows for teachers to become like Sal Kahn.  And they can use to flip their classrooms, too.
5.  How much use of asynchronous communication tools do you expect?  Is there internal messaging or will you need to provide email accounts?  Personal accounts are okay, if you don’t mind seeing ThugLuva55 on your message boards or in your inbox.  An RSS feed can ensure that new messages or announcements hit student and teacher email boxes.  Edmodo* is a great platform for mashing up content and making/managing assignments with a facebook-like conversation stream.
6.  How important is mobile access?  Kids see their computers as places where they park and store their data.  But they drive around on their smartphones and tablets all day.  So is the LMS smartphone compatible?  Does it have an app?
7. Can everything be done on the Cloud or will students need to do assignments in something like Word and then attach them?  With some strategy, you can bypass attachments, and the almost certain frustrating compatibility issues that comes with them, by using Windows Live or OpenOffice regardless of the LMS you use.
8. How proprietary is the platform?  When a district’s LMS contract is up, and they are ready to move to a new, bigger, fancier (or less expensive) LMS, how difficult will it be to move content to another LMS?  Maybe a Learning Object Repository is something that should be used from the start to make an LMS switch less painful.
9. Do teachers want a robust assessment feature?  If the LMS doesn’t have one, Engrade out of L.A. is a good place to start to supplement your LMS. Good features to look for in LMS assessments:  a) self-scoring assessments that pull questions from a question bank and orders the questions differently for each user;  b) Automated feedback for each question; c) Something that allows for rubric scoring,; d) a standards-based gradebook with dashboard or badge system; and e) Plagiarism tools.
10.  How important is the ability to share and/or license with other districts?  Like Calvert County, you may want to collaborate with other districts to ease content and resource sharing.  A handful of states are working on a Shared Learning Infrastructure.  You may trade off speed and flexibility for cost and content.
Next gen platforms will have big learning object libraries, both open and proprietary, a tool-rich social layer,lots of analytics, smart profiles that queue recommended experiences, and aligned services that support students, teachers, and schools.  In the mean time, platform and tool choices are rapidly expanding so stay flexible and keep learning!
*Edmodo is a Learn Capital portfolio company where Tom is a partner.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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John Kleeman

Interesting not to see SharePoint on the list - a lot of people are looking at SharePoint as a best of breed learning platform, see for instance http://blog.sharepointlearn.com/2011/09/08/sharepoint-best-bred-for-education/

Ulrike Rettig

Choosing a platform for online teaching is a great way to go. You can "load" the CMS with your own material, change it, add audio, visuals, etc. The key is to finding one that's not too complicated for someone who is primarily interested in providing quality content but also wants control of the more technical side of providing content. Good luck and have fun. Teaching online has been a wonderful new adventure for me after doing traditional classroom teaching for over 20 years. I've found webiva.org to be great, it's the basic CMS for gamesforlanguage.com Ulrike

Matt Hurst

You mentioned Edmodo (5) as an option for a Facebook like social network / LMS. I've listed several others like Edmodo on my blog:


Tom Vander Ark

Thanks for the additions Matt

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