The Virtual Classroom: Online Learning Platforms

A Learning Management System (LMS) is the software colleges use to deliver classes online. It provides an interface for carrying out even the most basic tasks, like viewing course materials and submitting work. One could also think of these platforms as digital classrooms where most online learning and teaching takes place. This section explains what LMSes do, how they impact learning, and how to get the most from them.

Learning Management Systems: Uses and Features

Learning management systems are virtual hubs students and professors rely upon for nearly all online learning functions. They are a medium for communication and collaboration. Students might log in to LMSes to attend lectures and access course materials. Professors use LMSes to deliver instruction, monitor discussion, and track learner outcomes.

Because they manage most aspects of online learning, these systems define how and when students learn. For example, courses that use web conferencing tools to deliver live, interactive lectures can recreate the spontaneity of classroom discussion; those that use prerecorded lectures and forums provide a more flexible learning environment. LMSes also determine how students communicate, demonstrate knowledge, and access support. Dr. Susan Aldridge, president of Drexel University Online, discussed how course technologies impact student community and learning during an interview with OnlineEducation.com.

“In addition to traditional instructional methodologies, such as textbooks, case studies, and group projects, Drexel’s online students use a variety of interactive technologies to submit their assignments and communicate with their professors and classmates – many of which are designed to replicate what we educators call the social and cognitive presence of face-to-face learning,” said Dr. Aldridge. “For example, online discussion forums are the virtual version of in-class discussion, in that the professor poses a thought-provoking question about the unit or topic being studied as a prompt for student reflection and response, both individually and collectively. Yet because these forums are asynchronous, students also have more time to actually weigh the issues and develop their ideas, which most of them will tell you offers a distinct advantage over in-the-moment, face-to-face communication.”

Core Tools and Functions

There are several learning management systems on the market today. According to a 2015 report from Edutechnica, the most widely used commercial LMSes that year were Blackboard Learn, Brightspace, and Canvas. The leading open source systems: Moodle and Sakai. Each of these platforms offers a balance of basic features and advanced tools, yet capabilities vary. Neil Caiden, Community Director at Aprereo, makers of Sakai, discussed the field of during an interview with OnlineEducation.com.

“There is largely a functional parity in the LMS marketplace. To be competitive, LMSes need a core set of tools like a grade book, assignments tool, announcements, quizzes, chat for synchronous communications, and forums for asynchronous communications,” said Caiden. “Most competitive LMSes also have… some sort of adaptive release mechanism [to] ensure students are covering the material in a way that will help them best absorb [it].”

Common LMS Features

The following table highlights features LMSes frequently provide. Not all colleges use the same platforms in the same ways, and developers add, update, and remove tools from time to time. Readers should visit learning management systems’ official websites for a current, more comprehensive list.

Course ManagementCommunication
Schedules and syllabiEmail
Assignment tools and trackersCloud-based collaborative tools
Virtual grade booksForums and discussion boards
Various instructional mediaLive chat modules
Access to materials and lecturesSocial media
Resource librariesStudent and instructor blogs
Student access logsVirtual conferencing
AssessmentSupport
Exam modulesTools for students with disabilities
Practice tests and quizzeseTutoring
Self-assessmentsVirtual library
User authenticationLMS demos and tutorials
Security and Privacy
Anti-viral softwareFirewalls
Data-encryptionIdentity verification

Next Generation LMS: High-Impact Tools and Features

As online education grows, so does demand for more sophisticated learning technology. In 2015, EDUCAUSE and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation published a blueprint for designing a Next Generation Digital Learning Environment (NGDLE) that would enhance learning and adapt to higher education’s changing needs. Among its recommendations: a Next Generation LMS (NGLMS) that would make online degree programs more accessible, personalized, and effective. Technology developers like Instructure and D2L have already incorporated many of these tools into their platforms. Jared Stein, Vice President of Research and Education at Canvas by Instructure, addressed the trend in an interview with OnlineEducation.com.

“Educational technology is continually advancing, and in waves,” said Mr. Stein. He said educational technologists “push the limits of what modern technology can provide for learners” in terms of both automating instruction and enabling communication and collaboration between students.

Among these emerging tools and their potential benefits:

Learner Analytics

Learner analytics tools personalize student instruction to a degree difficult to achieve in a face-to-face environment. LMSes track individual learner behaviors—like participation, comprehension, and time on task—then compile this data for professors’ review. Instructors use this information create learner profiles, identify potential difficulties, adjust course materials, and differentiate instruction. While most online degree programs can benefit from learner analytics, this data can be especially important in self-directed programs like College for America (CfA), a division of the Southern New Hampshire University. CfA’s competency-based model lets students learn at their own pace, rendering typical courses unnecessary.

“Students connect initially and on an ongoing basis with a Learning Coach to develop the mindsets, skills, and habits of self-directed learners,” CfA Chief Learning Architect Yvonne Simon told OnlineEducation.com. “Learner analytics data [allows] us to recognize problems and risks earlier and respond sooner and more effectively.”

Adaptive Learning Technology

Adaptive learning technology puts learner analytics to immediate use in the online learning environment. Systems that integrate “dynamic” tools analyze students in real time and adjust curricula and instructional methods automatically. According to D2L’s official website, researchers at the National Scientific Research Council of Canada found students using adaptive learning tools spend an average of 30 percent less time on task and do 25 percent better on tests. D2L Vice President of Market Strategy Kenneth Chapman discussed the company’s own adaptive learning technology, LeaP, in an interview with OnlineEducation.com.

“D2L believes that LeaP represents what next-generation learning environments need to do: Be centered around the learner and their specific needs,” said Chapman. “Students can work with LeaP to understand key concepts at their own pace… [They] aren’t left behind the way so many are when every student gets the same materials in the same way, at the same time.”

Synchronous Support Features

Adaptive platforms identify online students’ needs and deliver targeted support in an automated way. Synchronous support features let students secure immediate help from live professionals. This format lets learners determine the focus of their support, which may go well beyond virtual office hours and eTutoring services. A growing number of online colleges use synchronous support tools to deliver academic, career, research, and technical services over the Internet. Some, like CfA, make these tools accessible night and day.

“A synchronous online tutoring service is now available to students 24/7 for learning concerns that [advisors] may not be able to handle in a written back and forth,” said Simon. “Tutors can help students improve skill gaps or provide the additional scaffolding or practice necessary to move forward.”

Other Advanced Tools

The features highlighted here represent only a fraction of those emerging in the LMS market. The following list offers a snapshot of other advanced tools.

  • Gamification: Native or instructor-designed games to enhance engagement and knowledge.
  • Mobile Tools: Smartphone and tablet-friendly apps and features that allow students to access course technology on-the-go.
  • Personalized Learning Paths: Functionality that allows students to choose from various learning media and whether instruction is delivered synchronously or
  • Advanced Social Media: Platform-based social features that allow students to create detailed profiles, post updates and links on personal walls, follow other students’ updates and activity, and more.
  • Career and Academic Assessments: Tools to help students identify personal learning styles, plan courses more efficiently, and set career goals.

Readers can visit Next Generation Learning Challenges online to explore additional breakthrough learning technologies and models.

Expert Advice: Getting the Most from an LMS

Learning management systems grow more sophisticated over time, not necessarily more complicated. D2L’s Kenneth Chapman told us developers go to great lengths to ensure its Brightspace LMS requires no advanced plug-ins or technical knowledge “that can quickly get in the way of [students’] learning.” Canvas’ Jared Stein said Instructure also prioritizes ease of use over quantity of features. This user-friendly environment is important: students who know the technology can work through online programs efficiently. In order to really succeed in them, however, they must also learn to use LMSes effectively.

Educational technology experts we interviewed offered advice for maximizing the benefits of online learning systems. Their recommendations include:

Match learning tools with learner tendencies

According to Jared Stein, online learner success begins with knowing the technology and themselves. He told OnlineEducation.com that students should get into the learning environment early to identify the features most likely to keep them connected and engaged while fostering good learning habits.

“[Students] need to self-assess their own strengths and weaknesses in order to be best prepared to succeed online, as in any learning environment,” said Stein. “Are you a procrastinator? Are you able to engage easily with your classmates? Do you struggle using online technology?”

Many online colleges allow students to test-drive platforms before courses begin. While most LMS developers offer free trials and demos, one should keep in mind colleges frequently add or omit features.

Use LMS features that provide structure and community.

Students new to online learning may wonder if they can stay on task and connect with peers without a physical classroom. Learning management systems have tools specifically designed to recreate the structured, interactive learning environment they would expect from face-to-face courses. It is up to students to use these features—something D2L’s Kenneth Chapman addressed with OnlineEducation.com.

“If I had to give advice to students, it would be to take advantage of personal management tools—task lists, calendars, group spaces, integration with Google, Dropbox, etc.—to make sure they are getting the most out of their environment, and the opportunities to collaborate and learn from other students,” said Chapman.

Students can contact colleges’ technology offices to learn what features online programs use, and how.

Start strong and stay the course.

Even the most intuitive LMSes have a learning curve, and more follow as schools implement new features. Colleges occasionally switch systems entirely to improve learning outcomes and expand online programs. Though mastering these tools is essential for student success, some students underestimate their value or assume they can catch up later. CfA’s Yvonne Simon suggests this is a mistake.

“[It’s] tempting to put things off, however, this strategy is not the most effective,” said Simon. “It is better to dive in, commit to your program, and figure out how everything works in the first month.”

Tackling these challenges right away can do more than minimize stress down the line. According to Simon, students who start online programs “strong” usually perform better in them.

“Early progress is highly correlated with ongoing success,” said Simon, though she noted students should not expect everything to come right away. “Put in effort; reduce the fear; develop a growth mindset; listen to feedback from peers, [professors, and advisors]; engage in discussions and challenges that are meaningful and interesting to you; reflect; go again,” she said. “You’ll get there!”