A COMPARATIVE REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY E-LEARNING SOLUTIONS
Florida Atlantic University (UNITED STATES)
The explosive growth in distance learning programs worldwide in the past 10 years has fostered a need for increasing levels of technical expertise among instructors in charge of teaching online courses. It is now absolutely essential that professors and teachers become functionally fluent in several tools for online e-learning tasks, such as content creation, dissemination, synchronous (real-time), and asynchronous communications with and among students, among others. The number of offerings in e-learning solutions is very large and mastering each individual solution and their features is an overwhelming task. In this new field, even the terminology can be confusing, with expressions such as Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), Learning Management System (LMS), Content Management System (CMS), and Learning Platform (LP), among many others, being used to define what essentially is a set of tools necessary to provide a virtual environment for e-learning.
This paper provides a roadmap for the development of e-learning solutions. It updates and expands our previous work in this topic [Hsu99] and focuses on contemporary tools and best practices, with special attention to how these tools succeed in exploiting the social dimension of e-learning, using Web 2.0 technologies. It provides a friendly step-by-step analysis of the most critical stages involved in the design and deployment of e-learning solutions, with advice on the processes of selecting, using, and maximizing the potential of available tools.
The main contribution of the paper resides on a detailed comparative review of four contemporary course management systems: Blackboard, eCollege, Moodle, and Sakai. Blackboard and eCollege are well-known commercial solutions, whereas Moodle and Sakai are their most serious open source competitors. Together, these four solutions comprise more than 90% of the high-education e-learning market [Smi08].
The analysis process comprises the following aspects: communication tools (e.g., discussion forum, real-time chat, internal email, whiteboard, online journal), productivity tools (e.g., calendar, synchronization, bookmarks), administration tools (e.g., course management, gradebooks, test creation, student tracking), content development tools (e.g., content sharing and reuse, packages or cartridges, course templates), and technical specifications and restrictions (e.g., server requirements, browser compatibility issues, plugins). For each group of tools, I provide an objective comparative analysis of what each tool has to offer, their relative strengths and weaknesses, and how far they are from an ideal solution. In addition to a meticulous technical comparison among the four selected solutions, I leverage my personal experience of more than 10 years developing distance learning content and using course management tools to provide the reader a useful and helpful guide to the process of selecting, adopting, and deploying e-learning solutions.