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A Moving Target: eLearning Vendors Take Aim in a Changing Environment

Everyone knows that technology d'esn’t stand still. But eLearning companies are busily vying for their share of a very crowded market. How do you define this space? Frequent new product launches, company alliances, and changing interpretations of product categories may keep us guessing for some time to come.

The online learning product landscape is changing. Products are morphing into new “shapes”; companies are acquiring their competitors to expand functionality; users are finding themselves looking at learning management systems (LMS) that are enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems that are application service providers (ASP) that are community portals... and so on. Faculty who simply want to put courses or course components online have to wade through a host of available choices.

The labels can be confusing: course management systems, learning management systems, competency management systems, portals, Web-based instruction, collaboration tools.... To further complicate matters, one person’s definition of any of these might be different from someone else’s. What exactly is eLearning? What differentiates a learning management system from a course management system?

To help make sense of the eLearning landscape, we’ve taken a snapshot of today’s market—a brief inventory of eLearning companies who offer products in four broad categories (see table, page 30). As a guide to understanding the product categories and related technologies, we’ve also provided a basic glossary (page 32) of current online learning labels, standards acronyms, and buzzwords.

Toward a Common Understanding

To encourage some common application of terms and functions, standards groups have been diligently working to develop standards for eLearning products. Ideally, these standards will allow for interoperability of eLearning components, such as quizzes and tests, content modules, and student records and data. Standards should allow users to share and manage their learning content and data regardless of the product with which the material was created.

For the purpose of our online learning product inventory, we use the term eLearning as a general, over-arching category for online learning tools, products, and systems. The eLearning market space can best be described by outlining major functions. Below are some of the things eLearning products can do for teaching and learning. They allow instructors to:

  • Organize and catalog learning resources for retrieval as needed by learners.

  • Perform needs assessment of students’ skills to determine possible areas for remediation and to provide a starting point for instruction.

  • Present course material (text, graphics, and links to external sites and materials such as CD-ROM-and-textbook Web sites).

  • Provide uniform training materials with single-point rollout and update them (instructors can more easily make changes to a single Web “workbook” than update numerous printed workbooks).

  • Tailor delivery of course material to meet individual student needs.

  • Track student progress through material.

  • Provide anytime/anyplace access to course material. (An exception to this is synchronous communication, such as shared whiteboards, text or audio chat, and group browsing—all of which require that participants be logged in at the same time.)

  • Relegate to an asynchronous environment items and tasks that can (and perhaps should) be done outside of class, thereby enhancing F2F class time.

  • Create visually appealing interfaces to courses and training, allowing for branding.

  • Evaluate student progress.

With products merging and vendors offering a myriad of services besides the simple delivery of learning materials online, back-end functionalities are becoming more prominent. In many cases, the true value of the new alliances cannot be fully realized unless an institution decides to wholly embrace a particular product or product line. Then the back-end functionality—ease of access, seamless integration with student records, smooth interface between tasks—can be fully appreciated.

To an individual instructor, the usefulness of many of the “new and improved” features may not be clearly apparent at first. As in the “olden days” of Web-based instruction (the mid-to-late 90s), it is again becoming important for instructors to communicate with their network administrators and academic administrators to help determine which products are truly going to provide a good return on investment.

While the instructors’ needs may be simply for an online course manager, the back-end features (such as a smooth—perhaps even real-time—interface with the registrar’s computing system, single log-in portal access for students to their financial and other records, and minimal IT maintenance and overhead) are all considerations that might impact which particular product or suite of products is best for deployment at a given institution.

Issues for Teaching and Administration Shape the Market

Administrators often see adoption of eLearning as potentially providing access to new or larger off-site markets. But, what they don’t always realize is that online courses, at least the way they are created and delivered in most higher education environments, involve increased interactivity among faculty and students, resulting in increased workloads for faculty.

eLearning implementations may, in such cases, actually result in a potential reduction in the number of students that can be served effectively by an individual faculty member. And while such interactivity can arguably result in better learning, it d'es not necessarily result in cheaper learning. Finding an eLearning solution that efficiently integrates with existing back-end systems can minimize some of the additional workload.

How can instructors be creative with eLearning? To answer that question, it might help to first look at the more typical uses of eLearning products, such as consolidation of access to online resources (bibliographies, Web sites, journals, and articles), communication via e-mail, and discussion of course material asynchronously outside of F2F class time.

While these are certainly good uses of eLearning technology, there are those who are embracing the opportunity to rethink how they have traditionally taught material. In the process, they are coming up with creative ways of having students interact with the material that would not have been possible without eLearning.

They are designing courses that allow for specified release of information and learning modules based upon performance criteria: once a student has shown mastery of a particular topic, subsequent topics are automatically released.

Instructors are providing pre-F2F class preparation via self-tests and automated feedback. They are having individuals or groups search for Web sites and resources and create annotated Webliographies to share with others. They are creating collaborative environments for learners, utilizing one or more features such as synchronous application and document sharing, group browsing with audio voice-over, whiteboards, and two-way audio and video.

The accompanying eLearning inventory may help you appreciate the evolving nature of eLearning. It includes 30 of the current eLearning players. It is not an inclusive list, and it d'es not reflect endorsement of particular products.

It is provided simply as a means of helping readers understand what types of products are out there and possibly as a starting point for comparison. Products are listed with their associated URLs and include a few descriptive words from the companies’ own Web sites.

Course Management Learning Management System Portal Turnkey What they say about themselves...
ANGEL (CyberLearning Labs Inc.)
C helps educators manage course material and communicate quickly, easily, and effectively
Anlon Academic
C technology-enhanced campus courses in highly accelerated time frames
Aspen Enterprise Learning Platform (Click2Learn)
C helps to deliver information, instruction, and performance support to employees, partners, and customers
C C C enterprise software products and services that power a total e-Education Infrastructure
Campus Pipeline
3 3 C C software and services to help institutions of higher education direct and build their version of a unified digital campus
C placing training, dynamic information, key documents and more into the right hands at the right moment
3 3 3 C comprehensive services to help colleges and universities manage their technology and provide focused, turnkey continuing education programs
C C C C eCollege designs, builds, and supports high quality online degree, certificate/diploma and professional development programs for colleges, universities, school districts, and state departments of education
C allows companies to leverage their employee knowledge to improve business processes, operational efficiency, and employee performance
C C C C develops proprietary technology that enables and enhances…online learning
Education to Go
3 3 3 C to provide students who are unable to access traditional classrooms with flexible and affordable courses of the highest quality
Educator (
C content delivery and publishing, communication, and evaluation capabilities
Element K
C best-in-class content, a state-of-the-art LMS and responsive, knowledgeable service
3 3 3 C integrator of scalable eLearning solutions…hosts Angel, Blackboard, First Class, IntraLearn, Prometheus, and WebCT
First Class (Centrinity)
C C C enables educational institutions to improve overall communications and the collaborative process among educators, students, and the community
C C combines the functionality of expensive LMS's into a single enterprise-class, field-configurable software application
C C C single log-on entry point providing an intelligent, integrated, and Internet solution for your campus
3 3 3 C scalable, online course management and delivery platform, hosted on Jones' servers, with 24/7 technical support
LearnerWeb (MaxIT)
C automates the training management function
LearningSpace (Lotus)
C C C distance learning platform integrating live, asynchronous and self-paced content delivery
C infrastructure support for the entire eLearning lifecycle
C Web-based technology to manage the entire learning process
3 3 3 C end-to-end solutions higher education's administration of teaching and learning
The Learning Manager (TLM Corp.)
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