Online Learning Services
As online learning has gone mainstream, it has never been more important to choose an educational Learning Management System (LMS) tailored to your institution’s mission and goals. But with the myriad choices available these days, that could be a daunting task. We walk you through some of the most powerful LMSes and online learning platforms available for both K-12 and higher education.
Online learning appears to have reached a tipping point. The most recent Distance Education Enrollment Report from Digital Learning Compass revealed that 30 percent of students at U.S. degree-granting, higher-education institutions enrolled in at least one online course, and nearly half of that population enrolled entirely in online courses. Meanwhile, the most recent Inside Higher Ed Survey of Faculty Attitudes on Technology found that 42 percent of faculty respondents had taught a fully online course for credit—that’s up three points from last year and nine from 2013.
But what exactly does online learning look like? Just as an in-person class encompasses both the 12-student graduate seminar and the 400-person lecture, online education takes many forms. Some courses feature blended or flipped classrooms that integrate online work into in-person courses. Others are fully online and rely upon a mix of real-time (synchronous) and pre-recorded (asynchronous) lectures, activities, and assessments. And still others make in-person courses publically available without academic credit as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Even within these categories, there is considerable variation; for example, I have previously discussed innovation within the context of a fully-online program (George Tech), a web-based coding boot camp (Grace Hopper Academy), an online seminar (Minerva), and a MOOC (ModPo).
Whatever form online education may take, educators and administrators generally rely upon some kind of LMS to develop and assign course content, track student progress, and measure and report student outcomes. The educational LMS space has matured considerably since I began covering it several years ago. The market has consolidated around a handful of major vendors, and with that concentration there is greater uniformity in design and features. Today, most LMSes are responsive, highly interoperable, and cloud-hosted.
Nevertheless, students and teachers can still choose from a range of “LMS-lite” platforms, particularly in the K-12 space. I choose the term “online learning platforms” tactically, to encompass both educational LMS, as well as learning tools and platforms that can integrate with those systems or serve as minimalist alternatives to them.
Any discussion of online learning ought to be grounded with an understanding of the strengths and limitations of each tool or platform. Just as important, however, is the need to think clearly about the culture, values, and resources of your institution. For instance, Instructure Canvas might well serve the University of Central Florida, but it’s likely overkill for Harlem Academy (which embraced Schoology). Both platforms are Editors’ Choice winners, but for different reasons. We help explain some of those distinctions and provide students, teachers, and administrators with an onramp to online education.
The Higher-Education Space
In higher education, the shift toward online learning is perhaps less a testament to innovation than a response to exigency. As states have de-invested in public colleges and universities, students and their parents have borne rising tuition and service costs. Policymakers have embraced community colleges and online education programs as vehicles to drive down costs, increase curricular flexibility, and expand access to higher education.
In adopting online education programs, college and university administrators must balance innovation with integration. Many schools have already invested in such technological infrastructure. The LMS emerged from higher education with distance education efforts such as The Open University and NKI Distance Education Network. Many colleges and universities adopted Blackboard Learn in the late 1990s or D2L Brightspace in the early 2000s. Switching platforms would require support for and maintenance of existing courses. Thankfully, a shift toward greater interoperability means that schools don’t necessarily have to choose. For example, Pearson’s online homework, tutorial, and assessment products (MyLab & Mastering) can be integrated into all four of the major educational LMSes—Blackboard Learn, D2L Brightspace, Moodle, and Instructure Canvas.
Those “big four” increasingly represent the LMS higher-education market as it exists in the U.S. and Canada. According to Phil Hill’s most recent report (Fall 2017), 87 percent of institutions and 91 percent of student enrollments rely upon either Blackboard, Canvas, Moodle, or D2L Brightspace. While Blackboard remains the most popular LMS (28 percent of institutions and 37 percent of enrollments), Canvas is hot on its heels, accounting for 21 percent of institutions (up from 17 the previous year) and 27 percent of enrollments. While Moodle is used by more institutions than Canvas (25 percent), it accounts for only 12 percent of enrollments, which suggests that it’s most popular with smaller institutions. Meanwhile, D2L continues to secure new adopters: It’s now used by 13 percent of institutions (up from 11) and 15 percent of enrollments.
The K-12 Market
K-12 faces a unique set of challenges. School districts tend to embrace online education via in-person instruction inflected with digital work. Unlike higher education, primary and secondary schools tend to have fewer legacy investments in online learning. Teachers, rather than administrators, drive adoption of tools and platforms, making decisions based upon cost, application, and ease of use. For example, I’ve written before about the K-12’s fast embrace of Google G Suite for Education, which is now used by half of all U.S. primary and secondary students. Google has (astutely) marketed services to teachers, a strategy that has proven less effective in higher education.
Primary and secondary education teachers have proven most receptive to what I call “LMS-lite” platforms such as Google Classroom, Schoology, Edmodo, and Quizlet. Each of these platforms can be used to track and assign online work associated with blended learning, which sometimes correlates with improved student learning outcomes. These platforms are less feature-rich than the LMSes that dominate higher education: I don’t know more than a few ambitious educators who use any of these platforms to offer fully online courses. Instead, these services tend to be better tailored to end users—teachers, students, parents—in terms of both cost and ease of use. An inquisitive middle school or high school teacher could experiment with any of these platforms free of charge.
It’s no wonder, then, that these public-facing platforms are ubiquitous. Schoology boasts 20 million users across 50 states and 130 countries. Google brands Classroom as mission control for the 70 million students and teachers who use G Suite for Education. Edmodo tallies more than 87 million members. And half of all U.S. high school students use Quizlet, according to a recent CNBC report.
The enormous popularity and rich learning communities associated with these platforms have blurred the lines between the K-12 and higher-education spaces. For example, one-third of U.S. college students use Quizlet, which faculty can embed in online courses using any of the big four LMSes. Meanwhile, Schoology now offers both higher education and corporate versions of its platform. Moodle, on the other hand, may be most popular among colleges and universities, but it has also been embraced by high schools seeking a modular, open-source platform that can scale beyond Schoology or Edmodo.
Choosing Your Platform(s)
The three Editors’ Choice winners traverse the boundaries between K-12 and higher education. Instructure Canvas has seen its rating rise since I first reviewed it several years ago. Today, it represents one of the most capable platforms available, thanks to native cloud hosting, extensive integrations with other tools and platforms, and a fresh new interface. Instructure also offers a corporate (Bridge) and an open-source version of the platform that rivals the second Editors’ Choice winner, Moodle, a feature-rich developer-driven platform well-suited to colleges and universities on a budget. Schoology provides a compelling third option for educators looking for something between an academic social network and a learning management system. Unlike other minimalist K-12 peers, Schoology bundles advanced features through which administrators can integrate it with existing tools and platforms.
Still, the best platform isn’t necessarily an Editors’ Choice; it’s the one that best addresses the needs of your institution. For instance, the latest version of Blackboard Learn represents a remarkable step forward from one of the most established names in the business, on the strength of its cloud-hosted Blackboard Ultra. D2L Brightspace gets better each time I review it. Schools interested in competency-based education will likely prefer Brightspace to any of the Editors’ Choice winners. Edmodo and Quizlet have earned prodigious popularity for good reason: Both platforms are incredibly easy to add to existing in-person courses. And while Google Classroom won’t soon replace a standalone LMS, educators might prefer it as a frontend for the most popular educational productivity suite (G Suite for Education).
Fortunately, you don’t have to choose just one platform. One of the most promising developments in the educational LMS space is a shift toward greater interoperability via public APIs and support for Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI), through which administrators can connect a platform to an existing LMS or Student Information Systems (SIS). For university administrators in particular, LTI is a key standard, as reflected in our updated comparison chart above. It’s also increasingly pervasive; all but Edmodo and Google Classroom support the standard.
Another important consideration is native web hosting, which spares administrators from configuring servers and self-hosting their LMS. This is another feature that is, thankfully, growing more common. Even Moodle, D2L, and Blackboard offer optional hosting via MoodleCloud, Brightspace Cloud, and Blackboard Ultra, respectively. Factors such as instructor-led training, gamification features, and mobile support (responsive design) have become fairly ubiquitous among all the LMSes.
Finally, it’s worth noting that the visual clarity of a chart comes at the cost of contextual nuance. For example, while the base version of Schoology doesn’t support importation of existing, packaged courses (SCORM), Schoology Enterprise does, and although Blackboard doesn’t bundle a dedicated e-commerce module, administrators can achieve such functionality through the optional Building Blocks. For these reasons, and many others, I encourage readers to reference the full-length reviews.
Other Tools of the Trade
Online education doesn’t stop with these eight platforms. The Great Courses Plus and Apple iTunes U provide compelling ways for students and inquisitive readers to continue learning, and the credential tracker Degreed can help those learners track their formal or informal education.
Other PCMag analysts have evaluated online platforms that will help you learn another language, learn to code, or train your employees. I invite you to explore each of these resources and to share your discoveries via the Comments thread.