Finding The eLearning Platform Of Your Dreams

Finding The eLearning Platform Of Your Dreams
Summary: Looking for that special eLearning platform? In many ways, it's like looking for a spouse. This article helps you avoid looking for love in all the wrong places, and instead outlines some strategies for finding the eLearning platform of your dreams.

How To Find The eLearning Platform Of Your Dreams

"The longest sentence you can form with two words is: 'I do.'" - H.L. Mencken

Last month’s article discussed learned-centered eLearning and wine. This month's article about finding the eLearning platform of your dreams discusses eLearning and beer - as well as comic books, dating, marriage, and divorce. And if that isn’t enough of a hook, there is also a puppy.

I spend a fair amount of my time working with Ministries of Education across the globe on designing eLearning systems. For a ministry and the government agencies that are funding eLearning programs, there is no greater consideration than the actual eLearning platform itself. The platform represents a huge investment of time and money - and choosing poorly can often doom an online education program to failure before it has even started.

Choosing an eLearning system is arguably the most significant investment an educational institution makes in terms of online learning. In this sense, it is like choosing a spouse. In fact, university instructor and student satisfaction with their eLearning platform is roughly equivalent to Americans’ satisfaction with their spouses (slightly more than 60 percent for the former; slightly less than 60 percent for the latter (Barnes, 2015; Dahlstrom, Brooks & Bichsel, 2014)). Given the similarity in satisfaction and the long-term stakes involved, this article suggests that you might want to choose your eLearning platform (or Learning Management System) the  same way you go might choose a spouse!

Part I: Looking: If You’re Rich, I’m Single

Question 1: What Qualities Are Important To You In An eLearning Platform?

As with a spouse, it all begins with what you want in your potential eLearning platform or Learning Management System (LMS). Most of the time, the qualities are pretty uniform - a place for content, uploading and downloading assignments, instruction, communication, discussions, analytics, assessment and grading functions. Essentially, most of us want a Learning Management System that’s responsible, a good provider, reliable, solid - functional, non-sexy characteristics.

But there’s more to consider - these are the “blonde, brunette, or red-head?” type questions: Do we want our eLearning system to be a place for collaboration and cohort-based learning or self-paced learning? Will our learners be expected to produce content or just consume it? Will there be synchronous or asynchronous communication?

And of course, since we are talking long-term relationships here, for many people looking for a long-term Learning Management System, there are core value considerations - propriety system, cloud-based system, or open source system. Many in the online world hold very strong views on one or the other. It’s like not being able to imagine yourself dating a (fill-in-the-blank) liberal/conservative, locavore /non-locavore, Red Sox fan/Yankees fan.

Question 2: What Can You Afford?

"You can't always get what you want... but you just might... get what you need." - Mick Jagger

Once you’ve decided on what you want in your eLearning mate, there is the question of cost (nothing kills romance like discussions about finances). With eLearning systems, costs range from lots up front, to minimal, to free (which often means you pay nothing up front and ultimately pay lots in the back end).

To keep it simple, we’ll explore the three options around love (proprietary, cloud-based, or open source) - with the help of Archie comic books.

1. Commercial Learning Management System.

Commercial Learning Management Systems are the most robust of your eLearning platform options. They often contain not just the platform or "classroom" itself, but content management tools, analytics, authoring tools, third-party apps, access to external content, a mobile version, Software-as-a-Service, training, and support. They look good (and they know it), they often have fancy templates and accessories (think Reggie Mantle in the Archie comic book series - without the smugness... or maybe with the smugness!). As a partner they can't be beat. They're rich. They are slick. They will give you the jewels, the trip to Europe, winters in Florida....

The downside? They are hard to change (mainly because most proprietary platforms don't or won't release their source code). And they are expensive. They cost a lot because they do a lot. But kind of like Prince William, they may marry a commoner. That is, they will usually negotiate with you.

2. Learning Management System-Like Systems (Cloud-Based).

These are not exactly Learning Management Systems in the strictest interpretation of the term, but rather platforms where you could hold online courses. Briefly I’ll describe two variations - a social media cum Learning Management System-type system like Edmodo and a MOOC platform like Open edX. These are typically free, though Edmodo has tiered versions for which you pay. An option like Edmodo, if you are a school, may work. Edmodo is extraordinarily popular with teachers because of its ease and with administrators because of its cost (in that sense, like Archie with Veronica and Betty, Edmodo it is the Archie Andrews of eLearning platforms). It’s also built for collaboration.

There are others. Open edX, like Edmodo, has a nice clean interface but is designed for self-paced learning (it probably belongs more in the next category). However, edX is part of the Harvard-MIT consortia (so Veronica's father, Mr. Lodge, would approve). It offers the possibility of using Harvard and MIT (and other university) content as well as development tools and management tools.

Like Archie, not flashy or robust or exciting, but steady, kind of fun, and perfectly adequate. A good provider.

Question 3: Didn’t You Promise Beer?

Hold on, it’s coming...

3. Open Source Platform. 

Finally there are open platforms. Moodle and Sakai are two of the most well known. Moodle is the most commonly used Learning Management System across the globe. The main advantage to Moodle is that it is free; but as the old eLearning joke goes, free as in puppies (finally, the puppies!), not like free as in beer! (I have to thank  Sheryl Barnes, Program Manager, Digital Learning in Residential Education at MIT for sharing this one with me.)

Figure 1: With open-source, free platform, "free" is like puppies, not beer. (See Notes 1 and 2).
Dolce Beer

Moodle is the Dilton Doiley of Learning Management Systems - super smart, versatile, but a bit nerdy. A platform geeks love because you can customize like crazy. But for non-geeks who don’t want to be married to someone who spends all free time building things in the garage or coding through the night, Moodle may not be for you.

There is a fourth option: You can build your own Learning Management System. But I can't really work it into the love and marriage metaphor, so we'll just leave it...

Part II: The Dating Game

Question 4: Um, This Is Embarrassing, But How Do I Start My Relationship With A Potential Learning Management System?

As you would with any potential mate. You Google them, check out their Facebook site, check out their web site (ignore the “case studies” - the most cynical interpretations of research ever). If you like this Learning Management System, suggest the meeting-for-coffee equivalent—documentation and a conversation. Maybe more commitment; a demo. If you are thinking this might be "the one" (or "one of the ones"), request a sandbox where you rapid prototype some content for your potential users.

Question 5: How Long Should I "Date"?

That will depend on your time, resources, and how much of a commitment-phobe you really are. Some people spend two weeks; others two years (in Ecuador, where I did this for the Ministry of Education, I spent 6 months). I don’t think that taking a few months to explore 4-5 Learning Management Systems with which your institution will probably be conjoined for the next decade or so is too much deliberation time.

Remember though, your Learning Management System provider (assuming you’re choosing a commercial platform) will promise you everything - summers in Europe, the Arts Channel vs. ESPN, eternal love, and fidelity. All problems can be fixed with an .API. And of course the site doesn’t go down during exams… nor do they snore or watch NASCAR. Don’t fall for any of it! Find out about previous and current relationships by checking references. Get a strong pre-nuptial agreement with all requirements detailed in writing. Above all -apologies for casting a cynical pall on young love-, make sure you have a strong divorce clause (your Learning Management System will help you move all content out of this system and into a new one if you so choose). It’s the equivalent of you get the house, the car, the money - he/she gets the teenagers.

Part III. Marriage (The Triumph Of Imagination Over Intelligence…)

Question 5: What Happens When I Purchase The Learning Management System?

You have rented the U-haul, the banquet hall, done the New York Times wedding announcements, legally created a new gender-neutral surname, and your college roommate is flying in from Sydney to be the best man. You are committed.

Once you pull the trigger and "marry" your Learning Management System, it’s hard to divorce. You will have invested lots of content and course development time. Your job now is to make sure students and instructors know how to use it AND do use it! Hopefully, your Learning Management System provider will provide on-site, video and online training, tutorials and support. Hopefully, your students and instructors will learn to love the Learning Management System and wonder how they ever managed before it came along.

Part IV. Separation, Divorce... Second Marriage (The Triumph Of Hope Over Experience)

- Oscar Wilde

Question 6: What If I Am Unhappy With My Learning Management System?

If you are unhappy with your Learning Management System, you’ll join the 60 percent or so of university instructors and students who are unhappy with their Learning Management System, too. It’s a huge deal to change your Learning Management System, so in my experience most institutions hang in there in a loveless marriage with their Learning Management System. But all is not lost. Some of you will be able to divorce and marry again - swapping out your old Learning Management System for a younger, hotter version who really does understand you. But you might do well to keep the admonition of Oscar Wilde (very unfortunate in love) in mind.

Others of you will not be so fortunate. Sunken cost theory will predict that since you’ve invested so much in terms of time, content, and training, that you’ll keep the Learning Management System you have and keep pouring money into it. You may end up following Heather Locklear's advice - since you can't keep changing men, you'll settle for changing your lipstick. You may start to tinker at the margins of your Learning Management System - perhaps not requiring that students post or work as much in the system, adding new features, perhaps using other online tools (Nearpod or Zaption or Hangouts). Instructors may unofficially move to another Learning Management System that is free and that they like better.

Question 7: Any Final Advice For Choosing My Learning Management System?

Choosing your Learning Management System often comes down to some combination of competing factors - political (bureaucratic), technical, and financial. It’s important, as in life, that you marry for love; that you choose the Learning Management System that its potential users love and will use. Otherwise, you may be stuck, like so many couples and instructors, in a loveless marriage. Or if you can’t be with the one you love, you will, as Stephen Stills reminds us, need to learn to love the one you’re with!


  • Photo 1: Dolce, a mixed breed puppy, born in June, 2016. Like all puppies, Dolce needs food, walks, bathroom training, shots, obedience lessons, love, affection, shots, chew toys, and needs to be kept away from shoes and toes. Photo: Mike Sullivan
  • Photo 2: The beer is a Bavarian Maß. It notes the amount of beer in a regulation mug - exactly 1 litre (33.8 US fl oz). Like all German beers, it contains the name of the brewery. Photo: Mary Burns, August 30, 2016. Munich, Germany