Learning management systems

Large, all-purpose learning management systems typically include features aimed at facilitating collaborative learning - although many of these systems do not seem to get much past providing for threaded discussion groups. The two best known large commercial systems are Blackboard and WebCT, but there are many, many others and some, such as IBM's Lotus Workplace Collaborative Learning claim to be strong on collaborative learning features. There are also many open-source and free learning management systems (see list below), some competing directly with the large commercial offerings and others focussing on unique features.

Reviews of open source learning management systems

Scott Leslie kindly pointed us to the following comparative reviews of open source learning management systems:

Institutions running open source learning management systems

In an effort to help allay fears about whether open source systems are really ready for the big time, Scott Leslie (2004) points to some very useful lists of sites using open source learning management systems such as Moodle, Atutor and .LRN.

List of open source/free learning management systems
(also see the comprehensive list, with links, at edtechpost)

  • Moodle is one of the most prominent open source learning management systems. It is coded in php and "grounded in social constructionist pedagogy" with the usual set of features (chat, assignment submission etc), but also some more interesting ones such as journals and peer assessment. Martin Dougiamas and Peter Taylor's (2003) paper provides useful background on the philosophy and development of Moodle.  Derek Morrison (2004) has written a short review of Moodle, Moodle Meanderings, in which he highlights both strengths and weaknesses of the system.
  • Segue "is an open source content management system designed for e-learning that combines the ease of use of course management systems with the flexibility of weblogs for creating various types of sites including course, news, journal, peer review and e-portfolio." Particularly exciting about Segue is that it is "based on a publishing model of content delivery which regards faculty not as course managers but as authors and/or editors and students as contributors/collaborators. Indeed, Segue encourages the publication of course work (where appropriate) and opens the classroom to the world community. At the same time, Segue allows for a site to become a personal workspace, where site owners can develop ideas in a private web-based environment accessible anywhere; or a community workspace, where individuals or groups can share ideas amongst only themselves."
  • Interact is an open source "Online Learning and Collaboration platform" developed by the Christchurch College of Education which claims to have much the same features as the big commercial products.
  • CourseWork is an open source course management system based at Stanford University. "Using CourseWork, instructors and TAs can set up a course Web site that displays announcements, on-line readings, a dynamic syllabus and schedule, on-line assignments and quizzes, a discussion forum for students, and a grade book. CourseWork is designed both for faculty with little Web experience, who can use CourseWork to develop their Web site quickly, and for expert Web-users, who can use it to organize complex, Web-based materials and link them to Web communication tools." 
  • ATutor is an open source learning content management system with the usual bells and whistles. Two unusual features is that it tries to cater for disabled learners and that "development has begun on a group learning environment [ACollab Groupware] that will integrate with ATutor to produce an constructivist teaching and learning environment. Features will include a shared library, group document drafting, a contact index, and an integrated Course/Group/Personal Calendar." July 2003 . Update: ACollab was released in June 2004. It can work with ATutor or on its own. It is "ideal for groups working at a distance developing documentation, collaborating on research, or writing joint papers".
  • The Manhattan Virtual Classroom is an open source online classroom system. It "is a password protected, web-based virtual classroom system that includes a variety of discussion groups, live chat, areas for the teacher to post the syllabus and other handouts and notices, a module for organizing online assignments, a grades module, and a unique, web-based email system open only to students in the class."
  • The Open Learning Management System is an 'open code' system developed at the University of Utah Department of Psychology which allows lecturers to draw on content from learning object repositories such as Merlot, the Harvey Project, SMETE, EDUCAUSE, Nicenet and the Educational Object Economy. Like most learning management systems, the implict learning model is still one in which lecturers construct lesson for students and students submit work for grading by lecturers, with little provision for students to access and contribute to repositories directly. However, as with most learning managements systems there are ways of getting around this and setting up more collaborative spaces. For example, the e-Journal function is primarily intended as a way for students to create material to be graded by lecturers, but it can be opened up to groups of students for collaborative work. Students are also not necessarily forced to 'take' course elements in a linear sequence, but can elect to set up a 'virtual desk' on which they position course elements as they see fit.
  • KEWL (Knowledge Environment for Web-based Learning) is an open source system developed by the University of the Western Cape in South Africa.
  • LogiCampus is another open source "distance learning and course management system that is freely available to Colleges, Universities and Schools". It runs on top of another free, PHP-based "application server" called LogiCreate which should facilitate extending the system as it handles sign-on and security issues and provides a modular framework for plugging additional functionality into.
  • Fle3 is a learning management tool developed by the Learning Environments for Progressive Inquiry Research Group at the Univerisity of Art and Design Helsinki, Finland amongst other things focus on computer supported collaborative learning (CSCL). Rob Reynolds (2003) says in his Xplana comparative review that "if you are pushing a collaborative, group sharing learning environment, you should ditch everything else and give this a try". Unfortunately the demo would not load in early January 2004, but the screen shots look interesting.
  • Burrokeet is another open source learning content management system being developed (early 2004) for the University of the West Indies.
  • Wordcircle is a free, php-based open source system. Does some of the usual things - calendar, discussion etc.

Content Management Systems

Learning management systems typically have some content management functionality (some are referred to as Learning Content Management Systems), but it is also worth considering systems that focus primarily on content management.

  • Drupal is one of the best known systems. It is "an open-source platform and content management system for building dynamic web sites offering a broad range of features and services including user administration, publishing workflow, discussion capabilities, news aggregation, metadata functionalities using controlled vocabularies and XML publishing for content sharing purposes."
  • In a nicely structured essay James Robertson (2004) considers the strengths and weaknesses of open source content management systems and the key decisions to take when considering their use.
  • opensourceCMS is an extremely useful site which allows one to try out a large number of open source content management systems without having to go through the hassle of installing them. Among many other useful goodies it also has a section on how to choose a content management system.
  • Also have a look at the sections on blogs and wikis in this book - two other approaches to managing content.

Beyond learning management systems

In The brave now world of learning (pdf document) Sam Adkins (2003) argues that in the business environment the days of learning managements systems as separate entities are over. Instead, they are being assimilated into integrated enterprise workflow systems. These systems embed learning  (in the form of content, simulations, collaboration opportunities) into the workflow on an as-needed basis. "Learning is experienced as a by-product of real-time collaboration with people and machines in the context of workflow."




Collaborative learning environments sourcebook

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