Online Course Delivery

Monday, January 23, 2006

Learning Management System

Welcome! This web is a project created from an assignment in the Distance Education Professional Development Program at University of Wisconsin-Madison.

In this project, we are going to discuss about key issues of Learning Management Systems, including popular platforms in US; new teaching strategies; interaction among students, between students and the course materials, and between students and faculty/trainer; advancement and impacts of newly merged platforms; LMS selection; as well as terminology, important names in the field and resources for further study.

Common misconceptions
"Technology is all so expensive";
"With the technology, learners can learn effectively without self contribution";
"With the technology, there are not much left for educator do";
"Live video is the only way to deliver a real instructional experience"
Three years ago, many people might get ideas like these, but now, we all now that they are misconceptions. Open Source provides great opportunities for people who intend to improve the validity and effectiveness of learning and teaching. People can find Open Source contents and teaching materials in MIT and many other sources, Open Source VoIP, Open Source Podcast, Open Source blog/Vlog, Open Source LMS and many other resources, lots more than one can absorbs. Technology doesn't have to be expensive nowadays.

However, technology has not advanced enough to transmit the knowledge and store directly into the brain. Learning will still depends heavily on learners' self-direction, actively engaging and instructors' endeavor on teaching strategy, methodology, as well as philosophy. Learning technology itself cannot do anything to help people learn.

On the other hand, technology did provide diversity and convenience for teaching and learning approach. Live video, simulation, and situation-based approach of teaching are all good ways to give learners a "real" feeling of experience.

Learning management systems embrace innovative technology and aim to place the learner and educator in control of their own education. With the research of constructivism, multiple intelligence and so forth as supporting philosophies, the future LMS should be able to serve individual learning needs and foster personal potentials.


While the project initiating, I search and read articles, materials from websites. After gathering more and more information, gradually, I built up concept framework for LMS including topics related and what should be addressed in the report. In order to breed an interactive discussion, I look around and search for appropriate tools that are easy to use, convenient for noting the process and recording the conclusion. I tried every candidate tool, filter out ill-fitted ones and finally decided to choose Wiki as the collaborative thinking and writing tool. I create a Wiki space and recommended it to groups with brief tips to start. Two third of the groups successfully login and expressed their interesting in trying the tool that is new to them. Unfortunately, our members didn't take action as they intended to and the Wiki was left unused. Following description is my original expectation for the way we would carry out the project.

By that time, every group member was voluntarily surveying at least one LMS platform. We continue trying to experience the selected platforms and post daily findings to project Wiki. For those LMS that surveyors can't find a chance to experience it, we searching over WWW and reviewed evaluation reports published by authoritative organizations. Or, we interview experienced users to get their comments. In the meantime, groups brainstorm and come out with an outline for our final report with the consideration to target learners and course objectives.

After back and forth of writing, commenting and modifying, our project report was completed. We move it from Wiki to blog in order to get a better appearance and clear presentation. The final task is, "lead the one-week forum on LMS". Groups predict and list questions that might be raised during that week and share responsibility to every members. These questions and other questions that are brought up during the forum will be gathered in a knowledge base, "FAQ on LMS".

Product survey
What features should or are expected to provide in LMS? Edutools, a project of WCET, provides a list for LMS features, includes to categories of tools: learner tools and supporting tools.

  • Learner tools are,
  1. Communication tools, such as, discussion forums, file exchange, email, online journal/notes, real-time chat, video services, and whiteboard.
  2. Productivity tools, such as, bookmarks, calendar/progress review, orientation/help, searching within course, and work offline/synchronize.
  3. Student involvement tools, such as, groupwork, self-assessment, student community building, and student portfolios.
  • Support tools are
  1. Administration tools, such as, authentication, course authorization, and registration integration.
  2. Course delivery tools, such as, automated testing and scoring, course management, instructor helpdesk, online grading tools, and student tracking.
  3. Curriculum design, such as, accessibility compliance, content sharing/reuse, course templates, curriculum management, customized look and feel, instructional design tools, and instructional standards compliance.

There are plenty of products merging into the market. Some of them are proprietary while others are Open Source software. For the former category, there are Blackboard, WebCT, Desire2Learn; for the latter category, there are ATutor, ILIAS, Moodle, Sakai.

Fans of Open Source LMS claim that they are "head-to-head with Blackboard on feature and crushes the commercial competition of price." Are Open Source LMS platforms taking the lead? The article published on last Oct. in ASTD Learning Circuits provides some ideas.

Due to limitation of time, we could only survey 4 of the most popular LMS in
US academy. They are Blackboard, Desire2Learn, Moodle and Sakai. Two of them are proprietary systems and the other two are open source systems. Our focus for the survey includes strengths and limitations, advancement, impacts, actual cost for acquisition. We also provide teaching practices for each LMS to present the examples for new teaching strategies and interactions of that system.


Selecting the one fits your needs
The technology will determine how your organization will use its learning management system. Therefore, it's important to clearly define what you needs in advance. In this section, we list the considerations that you and your organization would like to ask yourselves before purchasing LMS.

For whom interested in knowing more about the subject or intend to study further, we provide,


Who's Who

If we look into future, what would a learning management system look like? It might not look like an LMS at all. From my study these weeks, I've found that some courses were demonstrated in an open environment, a course blog that links to all individual student blogs; an instructor blog for syllabus design; a course Wiki for collaborative writing the final report; a RSS aggregator for students to share their research resources. I found it very effective to inspire deeper level learning and critical thinking, judged by my learning experience in similar environment. Some educators and researchers believe that, in the future, it will be a virtual learning environment that gives the learner, and instructor the flexibility to move between various paths according to learning needs and styles. There is no one fits all LMS. Instructors should be encouraged to blend various tools to create an environment that fits the characteristics of a specific subject and target learners. Most of the merging tools are low-cost or free, and easy to use once you get started. When educators pay an insight look at the rich resources surround them, they will find that a social of learning is shaping admirably.



Susan Lulee






Moodle is a learning management system (LMS) - a free, Open Source software package designed using sound pedagogical principles, to help educators create effective online learning communities. Current version is 1.5.3 (Jan., 2006).

Moodle started from an Internet-based postgraduate course called "Constructivism" at Curtin University of Technology, by Dr. Martin Dougiamas, for teachers engaged in professional development through distance learning. They constructed the web site using a new open source courseware system called Moodle, Martin's Object-Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment. Since version 1.0 of Moodle announced in 2002, there are 8729 sites from 146 countries who have registered, speaking 70 languages, with 222195 courses, more than 2 million users and 400 thousand teachers (statistics on Moodle official site, Jan. 2006). Including, Teachers College of
Columbia, British Open University and many famous schools. It can scale from a single-teacher site to a 40,000-student University. Actually, Open University is working on providing Moodle for their 200,000 students who are globally distributed.

MOODLE - Video Introduction
Here is a video introduction for Moodle at University of Cornell. Since this is a big file in size, it might take you several minutes do download and play.

Strength & Limitation
Several evaluation reports that Moodle are highly recognized in communication tools, the creation and administration of learning objects, comprehensive didactical concepts and tracking of data. Concise evaluation and feature description of Moodle can be found at EduTools. Learners can use Wiki in Moodle and create personal home page. The testing, scoring, grading and student tracking tools of Moodle are explicit. Moodle provides 3 default course templates: activities arranged by week, activities arranged by topic, or a discussion-focussed social format. The system also provides 10 course interfaces templates for instructors so that instructors and have personalized look and feel. Moodle supports the use of SCORM objects that give freedom for instructors to migrate learning objects from other systems. Moodle can run on any browser supporting HTML 3 or higher and cascading style sheets (CSS).

Although Moodle was considered to be easy to use software, however, you'll need a web server to install the program; you also need web server software (e.g., Apache), PHP scripting language and data base (e.g., My SQL). These programs are commonly used for configuring a web server. However, for teachers, they are still an issue that they have to conquer before they could build their courses on Moodle. Another weakness for using Moodle, especially when you didn't purchase services from its commercial partners, you can't always expect 24x7 speedy responses for your questions although there are free support from Moodle organization and several user communities that will generate answers for most of questions. Moodle miss to provide some features that are getting more and more popular in version 1.53, such as, instructor-controlled whiteboard, video services, student community building, central learning objects repository for instructors.

Cost of acquisition
Moodle is free to download and use it on any computer. There is zero cost for acquisition. Thanks to the big and growing installation base, Moodle users can easily find inexpensive supports, hosting service starting from $5 per month; freelancers for customize design can be found with a simple click in Google search. Moodle is distributed under the GNU Public License.

Teaching Practice

Although a huge amount of schools are adopting Moodle for their courses but most of them do not allowed guests to enter. Here are some examples for you to get initial ideas about how Moodle is working.
EdLab Seminar at Teachers College in
Columbia University
A Chinese course using Moodle can be found here.
Bromley College of Further and
Higher Education, UK, described their experience in implementing Moodle here.

As an Open Source software, Moodle support a social constructivism of internet-based teaching by providing pedagogical aspects missing from many traditional e-learning. For example, student personal home page provides opportunities for learners to build their own knowledge base and record learning process that is very important for reflecting and self-direction; workshop group module support peer review and project based collaborative study; student tracking and performance reports give instructors a handy tools to reflect and adjust teaching methods without time consuming; tight feedback helps to maintain learner enthusiasm.

If we reviewed Michael Moore's transaction theory of "distance, dialog, and structure", we'll easily grasp the good and bad for selecting Moodle. When instructors encourage learners to let the mind wander and do something creative without exactly particular purpose, the learning pace and direction became sort of difficult to control by instructor and could present a kind of loosing in process. Instructors are always advised to select platforms carefully according to the characteristic of subjects and learners.

-- Susan


Sakai is an Open Source academically oriented educational software. The Sakai Project, launched in 2003, is a $6.8M community source project with a purpose to design, build and deploy a new Collaboration and Learning Environment (CLE) for higher education not only as a course management system but also a platform to support research collaboration. Current Sakai release is 2.1.0.

Software development project of
Sakai is founded by the University of Michigan, Indiana University, MIT, Stanford, the uPortal Consortium, and the Open Knowledge Initiative (OKI) with the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The number of SEPP, a for-fee community that is open to educational institutions, currently is around 80. It is supported by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and SEPP member contributions. IBM, Apple, SUN, Pearson and other leading companies have become Sakai commercial affiliates.

Strength & Limitation

Although it is less than two years since Sakai announced it's version 1.0, Sakai is improving quickly to compete with the best LMS available. One of the reasons is because Sakai was created from ground zero. It builds on previous works, including OnCourse of Indiana University, Stellar of MIT, CourseWorks of Stanford University, CHEF of University of Michigan, and UPortal of Open Knowledge Initiative (OKI). As Sakai 2.1 was released to public last December (2005), Sakai become ready to be used systems. Discussion forums, file exchange, internal e-mail, real-time chat, calendar, progress review, and help/search features provide users handy communication and productivity tools; tools for building course site and project site, self-assessment, student community building and personal home page help to improve student involvement; multiple options for testing, scoring and grading provide instructors practical assessment tools. Some weakness or missing features reported on Edutools evaluation was improved in version 2.1.

However, currently, Sakai can be considered as a platform that under pilot test, exploring and adopting by tens or maybe hundreds of user sites instead of a widely deployed and stable platform. Technical support might be limited to user communities and newsgroups.

A standard environment for running
Sakai includes Java, Tomcat and MySQL. Users might need Java engineers to configure and fine-tune the system.

Cost of acquisition

Sakai is free for download and distributed under the Educational Community License Version 1.0. Due to limited installation, hosted services might be able to only be found from Sakai Commercial Affiliates.

Teaching Practice
Rice University
is in the process of piloting Sakai for deployment named OWL-Space.
Various institutions that are exploring or adoption Sakai are listed here.

Sakai put more emphasis on supporting research collaboration than other platform. Sakai not only allows instructors or students to create course site, but also allows them to create project sites. Each project site can have its own shared file exchange, discussion tool, calendar, announcements, chat, and group email list. Also, users can maintain their own passwords. These features help users constructing a comparatively independent project working space. This is a good support for constructivism and problem-based learning approaches.

You can find a video introduction to start using Sakai: Getting Started with Sakai


Selecting the one fits your needs

A List of consideration before puchasing LMS

Internal Issues

  • Existed technology
  • Attitude of decision makers


  • Extendability:The products that have better system architecture and adhere to accredited standards are the one has more potential to extend in the future.
  • Compatibility: Support as many document formats and courseware files as possible will give you more freedom to work between different software and increase the productivity.
  • Integrality: To integrate with other systems, such as human resource system, accounting system, will help to track budget, personal skill, completion of goals and analyze useful reports.
  • Usability: Easy to use for all people involved: tutors, administrators, and learners.
  • Scalability: Possible to scale up to larger learner base.
  • Implementation: Easy to implement, deploy and maintain.
  • Support quality: Vendor supports onsite help, manual, hot line helpdesk and etc.

Functional Requirements

  • Integration with HR
  • Administration tools
  • Content access
  • Communication: discussion forums, file exchange, e-mail, online journal, chat, video services and a whiteboard.
  • Content development
  • Content integration
  • Skills management
  • Assessment capabilities
  • Adherence to standards
  • Productivity: learning supplementary tools, e.g., bookmarks, calendar/progress review, orientation/help, searching within the course, and working offline/synchronize
  • Configurability
  • Security


  • Cost of acquisition
  • Cost of implementation & deploy
  • Cost of maintenance


Accessibility A characteristic of technology that enables people with disabilities to use it. For example, accessible Websites can be navigated by people with visual, hearing, motor, or cognitive impairments. Accessible design also benefits people with older or slower software and hardware. -- LearningCircuits

ADL (Advanced Distributed Learning) Initiative by the U.S. Department of Defense to achieve interoperability across computer and Internet-based learning courseware through the development of a common technical framework, which contains content in the form of reuseable learning objects.-- LearningCircuits

ADSL (Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line) A type of DSL that uses the majority of the bandwidth to transmit information to the user and a small part of the bandwidth to receive information from the user. -- LearningCircuits

Aggregator An aggregator or news aggregator is a type of software that retrieves syndicated web content that is supplied in the form of a web feed (RSS, Atom and other XML formats), and that are published by weblogs, podcasts, vlogs, and mainstream mass media websites. -- Wikipedia

AICC (viation Industry Computer-Based Training Committee): An international association of technology-based training professionals that develops training guidelines for the aviation industry. AICC has and is developing standards for interoperability of computer-based and computer-managed training products across multiple industries. -- LearningCircuits

Assessment The process used to systematically evaluate a learner's skill or knowledge level.-- LearningCircuits

Asynchronous Learning Learning in which interaction between instructors and students occurs intermittently with a time delay. Examples are self-paced courses taken via the Internet or CD-ROM, Q&A mentoring, online discussion groups, and email. -- LearningCircuits

Authoring Tool A software application used by non-programmers that uses a metaphor (book, flow chart) to create online courses. --Brandon-hall research

Blog A blog is a website in which journal entries are posted on a regular basis and displayed in reverse chronological order. The term blog is a shortened form of weblog or web log. Authoring a blog, maintaining a blog or adding an article to an existing blog is called "blogging". Individual articles on a blog are called "blog posts," "posts" or "entries". A person who posts these entries is called a "blogger". A blog comprises hypertext, images, and links (to other webpages and to video, audio and other files). Blogs use a conversational style of documentation. Often blogs focus on a particular "area of interest", such as Washington, D.C.'s political goings-on. Some blogs discuss personal experiences. -- Wikipedia

Case study A scenario used to illustrate the application of a learning concept. May be either factual or hypothetical. -- LearningCircuits

CMS (content management system) A centralized software application or set of applications that facilitates and streamlines the process of designing, testing, approving, and posting e-learning content, usually on Webpages. -- LearningCircuits

Compliant (standards-compliant) E-learning that meets established standards of, and has received official approval from, an accrediting organization. -- LearningCircuits

IMS (Instructional Management System) Global Learning Consortium Coalition of government organizations dedicated to defining and distributing open architecture interoperability specifications for e-learning products. -- LearningCircuits

Interoperability The ability of hardware or software components to work together effectively. -- LearningCircuits

LMS (learning management system) Software that automates the administration of training. The LMS registers users, tracks courses in a catalog, records data from learners; and provides reports to management. An LMS is typically designed to handle courses by multiple publishers and providers. It usually doesn't include its own authoring capabilities; instead, it focuses on managing courses created by a variety of other sources. -- LearningCircuits

Online Community A meeting place on the Internet for people who share common interests and needs. Online communities can be open to all or be by membership only and may or may not be moderated. -- LearningCircuits

Open Source software 1) Generally, software for which the original program instructions, the source code, is made available so that users can access, modify, and redistribute it. The Linux operating system is an example of open source software. 2) Software that meets each of nine requirements listed by the non-profit Open Source Initiative in its Open Source Definition. -- LearningCircuits

Portal A Website that acts as a doorway to the Internet or a portion of the Internet, targeted towards one particular subject. -- LearningCircuits

RSS RSS acronym for Really Simple Syndication, a family of XML file formats for web syndication used by news websites and weblogs. -- Wikipedia

SCORM (Sharable Content Object Reference Model) A set of specifications that, when applied to course content, produces small, reusable learning objects. A result of the Department of Defense's Advance Distributed Learning (ADL) initiative, SCORM-compliant courseware elements can be easily merged with other compliant elements to produce a highly modular repository of training materials. -- LearningCircuits

Self-assessment The process by which the learner determines his or her personal level of knowledge and skills -- LearningCircuits

Self-paced learning An offering in which the learner determines the pace and timing of content delivery -- LearningCircuits

SQL Language for accessing information in a database and updating entries. -- LearningCircuits

Synchronous learning A real-time, instructor-led online learning event in which all participants are logged on at the same time and communicate directly with each other. In this virtual classroom setting, the instructor maintains control of the class, with the ability to "call on" participants. In most platforms, students and teachers can use a whiteboard to see work in progress and share knowledge. Interaction may also occur via audio- or videoconferencing, Internet telephony, or two-way live broadcasts. -- LearningCircuits

Wiki a type of website that allows users to easily add and edit content and is especially suited for collaborative writing. -- Wikipedia

Brandon-hall Research

Selection norms

Terms that tightly related with LMS. General terms like, Internet, byte, CD-Rom, browser, etc. are omitted

Who's Who

Brandon Hall a leading independent expert in e-learning, CEO of Brandon Hall Research.

Michael G. Moore
Dr. G. Moore is a pioneer in distance education, with...

Stephen Dawn, E-learning Group of nstitute for Information Technology, Canada, Stephen’s Web.

George Siemens, instructor of Red River College, Canada. One of his popular blog is elearningspace.

Ray Schroeder, Professor Emeritus/Director Office of Technology Enhanced Learning, University of Illinois at Springfield. One of the blog he runs is Online Learning Update.

Michael Feldstein , an assistant director at the SUNY Learning Network. He was a member of the Open Source community around MIT's dotLRN Course Management System. His home page is e-Literate.

Jay Cross, editor of LearningCircuits, CEO of eLearning Forum. He's home page at Informal Learning.

Terry Anderson Professor amd Canada Research Chair in Distance Education, Athabasca University.
His personal blog is Virtual Canuck.
Todd Nicolet Manager, Online Instruction Group, University of North Carolina.
Stanley Varnhagen Associate Director, Center for Academic Technologies for Learning University of Alberta.

Selection Norm
Widely read blog authors
First three reviewers of Online Course Evaluation Project of EduTools


Me on Nov. 2004

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