The Many Faces of Online Learning

The Many Faces of Online Learning

Choosing an online school involves weighing several options, including the type of degree programs that are offered, the costs involved, and the reputation of the school. As part of the decision-making process you should also consider the actual classroom you will be working within when you access your course, especially if you do not have a lot of experience working with a technology-enabled environment.

An online classroom is established through software that is referred to as a learning management system (LMS) or course management system (CMS). While these phrases are used interchangeably they refer to the process of creating an online classroom. There are differences between the various software programs and it can affect your learning experience because all online classroom platforms are not created equal.

How does a school decide which platform to use? The most common reasons cited include the cost of the system and the overall support provided. There are other important factors, including the availability of reports (to monitor usage, attendance, etc.), the scalability of the system (being able to adapt it as enrollment increases), and the ease of implementation into the school website.

There are two categories of course management systems and they are based upon ownership. For example, schools that utilize Blackboard have purchased a license to use that platform. The school is also provided with installation and user support from Blackboard because they do not host the CMS on their servers.

In contrast, a system such as Moodle is called an Open Source course management system because a school does not have to purchase a license. They download it to the school’s servers and have an ability to modify it as needed. The cost for an Open Source CMS is less than the purchase of a license; however, the school is responsible for utilizing developers to adapt the software and the school is also responsible for providing technical support.

As you explore online school websites you are not likely to find the name of the platform used. I checked several online schools and many simply stated that learning takes place “over the Internet,” or learning occurs in “high-tech environment,” or the school offers a “user-friendly online classroom.” If possible, ask your advisor for the name of the course management system. I’ll provide you with insight for the four most popular systems utilized by the largest online schools – Blackboard, eCollege, Sakai, and Moodle.


Blackboard first entered the market as a provider of online course management systems for non-profit schools, including community colleges. That’s how I first became familiar with Blackboard – when I was teaching an on-ground class for a community college. I could submit a request to the IT department to have an online course shell set up and I was able to use it in any capacity. I quickly discovered that it was an effective method of connecting with students beyond the weekly class session. What has changed since that time is the number of enhancements that are available for instructors to use, including audio and video features.
Blackboard initially lagged behind eCollege with the for-profit industry but eventually caught up and has developed a significant presence with online schools. The most common reasons why schools have utilized Blackboard include the name brand, reliability, and number of reporting tools that are available. Blackboard Inc. merged with WebCT to dominate the course management system market. I worked with WebCT as an online student and it was very similar in design to Blackboard. Blackboard also acquired another popular competitor, Angel LMS, and now boasts a roster of 2,200 educational institutions. 

The Blackboard course management system is very user-friendly for instructors and students. On the left-hand side of the home page students find a group of primary categories – announcements, information, communication, documents, etc. This system is designed to address the needs of different learning styles because an instructor can add audio and video segments, along with interactive learning activities such as simulations and games. The discussion board is easy to work with and has alternate views – one continuous thread or grouped by students.



In 2007 eCollege was purchased by Pearson, a well-known publishing company, for $477 million. This was a good fit for Pearson because they have an education division that sells a majority of the textbooks and digital materials for higher education. eCollege grew rapidly because it was designed to meet the needs of for-profit schools, which helped it become a direct competitor for Blackboard. eCollege has been recently combined with Fronter (acquired by Pearson in 2009) and now the course management system is referred to as Pearson LearningStudio.

The eCollege platform is also user-friendly and easy to navigate for instructors and students. When I first used eCollege, it was vastly different from other platforms I’ve worked with and yet I found that I could quickly learn all of the functions and features because of its simple design. There is a navigation bar across the top of the homepage that provides access to the online gradebook, course documents, and a drop box or place to submit assignments. There is also an email function that sends the message to the recipient’s school email account.

On the left-hand side of the home page there is a course home tab that includes a link for the syllabus, and underneath it there are tabs for each week of the course. With one quick click students can easily find what they need without having to search through the classroom. The discussion board is also very easy to find each week, it is easy to use, and all of the threads are grouped together for ease of viewing. Recent enhancements to eCollege have included the addition of a text editor box for discussion board postings, which includes a spellcheck feature.   


Sakai CLE (Collaboration and Learning Environment) is an open source software program that was developed by a group of educators; the University of Michigan, Indiana University, MIT, Stanford, the uPortal Consortium, and the Open Knowledge Initiative (OKI). Sakai is presently utilized by 350 schools and it is “grounded in collaboration and open sharing of knowledge”. There is a “community” of volunteers who are responsible for updates and further development of the software.

Sakai is somewhat similar in its homepage design to Blackboard. On the left side of the home page there are tabs for announcements, a gradebook, assignments, tests and quizzes, and resources. The discussion board allows threaded conversations; however, students can start their own new thread and that tends to clutter up the discussion forums and makes it difficult to read the postings. As long as replies are posted within one thread it is then possible to view the responses as one continuous thread (which allows you to visually see the progression of the responses) or grouped by students.

Another challenge I’ve discovered involves formatting the classroom postings. You cannot transfer what you’ve written in a Word document directly into a message window and instead you are required to use a Paste from Word button and it does not retain the original formatting. In addition, as students include links or use larger fonts, the screen expands and becomes unreadable at times. A challenge for instructors is that the email feature is set up with an option to send a copy of the message to the instructor’s school email address and also post the same message within the classroom mail center.

I’ve worked with Sakai for approximately a year now and I’m still discovering its features and tools. Overall, I prefer the design and ease of functionality of the eCollege platform.


Moodle is an Open Source Course Management System (CMS) and is an acronym for Modular Object-Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment. As of January 2010, Moodle boasts a “user base of 45,721 registered and verified sites, serving 32 million users in 3 million courses.”

Similar to Sakai, every school that utilizes an open source CMS has an ability to adapt and modify it, so there isn’t one standard format. However, the overall design and use of the platform is the constant element. I’ve worked with Moodle as an instructor and found it to be a complex system to set up. There are handbooks and manuals available, along with tutorial videos posted on YouTube, yet I still find the platform difficult to navigate and cumbersome to set up. In addition, the interface that students view often looks cluttered and unprofessional.

I’ve read many positive reviews from instructors about Moodle and yet in contrast, I have students express frequent frustration when they are trying to work within the classroom. What has likely influenced my perspective is having worked with Blackboard and eCollege prior to working with Moodle. It is very likely that a school gets what they’ve paid for, or didn’t pay for.


Before you make a decision about a particular online school, see if you can determine the name of the course management system. Take time to research the functionality of that system and explore the demonstration videos available on YouTube. In addition, ask about technical support because as an online student there may be times when you are working and need assistance – and some online schools have limited hours available for support. In addition, if there are tutorials or workshops offered by the school once you decide to attend, be sure to utilize those options so you can become familiar with the classroom features and functions.
What has your experience been like with these course management systems? Let me know @DrBruceJ

By Dr. Bruce Johnson

Photo © Herry Choi/TongRo Image Stock/Corbis
LMS photos © by Kelly Kingman


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