e-Learning Platforms and Tools: Part 1

By: Mathew Byrne

The big four course management systems (CMS) continue to rule the landscape of e-learning platforms in academia. However, the e-learning space is becoming increasingly crowded as nonacademic platforms and several e-learning tools have emerged as more than just complements to the powerhouse systems. It is probably rare that nurse faculty would choose to “re-platform” outside of their enterprise CMS, but they definitely could be involved in choosing a new institutional platform. More commonly, faculty may be seeking complementary tools or platforms that aid in achieving the goals of a particular learning experience.

With a multitude of free and cost-effective platforms available (e.g., Google Suite, Ruzuku, Udemy), the big four platforms will need to be equally innovative or purchase or integrate with popular tools in order to stay competitive. Part 1 of this two-part post explores the considerations that go into choosing a supplemental platform and offers recommendations for evaluating different types of digital teaching/learning tools.

There are key factors to consider if there is a new platform in your future. The first is to understand the differences between an e-learning platform and a teaching/learning tool. Typically, a platform offers multiple services and functional options, such as student roster management, a gradebook, discussion forums, and/or content sharing options). Therefore, choosing a platform is a complex process because the platform typically serves groups of people in a variety of different ways. Below are some platform-focused considerations including context, the suite of tools, and the often overlooked technical aspects.

  • Context is everything! A huge part of determining the right fit is knowing which groups will use it and what they will be using it for. Are the users undergraduates, graduates, or an interprofessional group and how tech-savvy are they? Will the platform support some type of simulation or laboratory experience? Will it be used as part of a face-to-face experience, hybrid offering, or a fully online learning experience? What are the learning outcomes for the assignment or assignments that will be supported through the use of this platform?
  • Check the platform’s toolbox next and make sure that the context matches up to the tools available. How many different teaching/learning tools are offered and how well do they integrate across the platform? Finding the right mix of features mentioned above must also be considered, alongside how easy it is to set them up and to learn how to use them. Analytics are also an often overlooked but key feature. Faculty need to be able to evaluate not only student engagement but granular detail like time-on-task and use of particular features of the software.  
  • Most faculty don’t think about the hidden technical facets of a platform, but they can quickly become a massive headache. One of the most overlooked aspects of a CMS is the level of connectivity between a school’s systems, including course enrollment, course/faculty evaluation, and grading. A complete lack of connection between the CMS and institutional systems implies manual or duplicative work on the part of faculty or support staff. Many of the new online platforms allow for easy email invitations that onboard a student or put some of the burden on the student to enroll.
  • Cost cannot not be overlooked. An enterprise CMS can be a large expense, depending on the level of integration with the school’s systems, suite of tools purchased, and services provided. For a simpler platform, it is often possible to get a free version, either for trial purposes or for a limited set of functions. In some cases, an educational email address may allow for more extended access and use for both students and faculty. Like any of the other factors for platforms or tools, the cost must be weighed against what is offered and its fit to the goal of the learning experience and type of learners. Keep in mind that your time is valuable! The “cost” may very well be a factor of the time and energy you spend in learning about, setting up, and using the platform.

In part 2 of this blog, we will explore a more focused set of criteria for evaluating technology tools. Keep in mind that institutions typically have instructional designers or support specialists who should be available to faculty for these very types of needs. Always consult and collaborate to ensure you are not bypassing institutional policy and to see if there aren’t already tools that could be used to meet the needs that you have. Otherwise, prepare to explore and play among the many options that regularly emerge!

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