A New Generation of Learning Management Systems and Environments

Traditional LMSs mainly support formal and organization-centered learning environments. With the advancement of Web 2.0 particularly on open content sharing and social networking services, a new generation of systems is emerging to facilitate teaching and learning. The new systems (or new features added to current systems) are expected to support newer teaching and learning environments as well as to impact the traditional administration and business models. What features of these systems are desired, and how will they impact higher education? The following are some of the features I see of most importance.

  • Open: the traditional LMS is a relatively closed environment with restrictions on registration, access control, resource sharing, and long term availability. A more open environment is expected to interact with external resources and applications easily, and it should provide easy and flexible access and lifelong support.
  • Social: a social learning network (a social network created specifically for the purpose of learning) is an open online learning community for learning, discussion, resource sharing, and collaboration. Being social is a human nature in learning needs. The new system incorporates common social networking features such as learner profile, learning progress update, cross-course forum, study group, special interest group, public learning material review, etc.
  • Flexible learning organization: traditional way of learning in higher education institutions is organized by rigid courses and semesters. The new system may need to support more non-formal and informal learning, and help to incorporate the recognition and assessment of them to the formal structured learning system. Some features may include flexible learning units at various levels/lengths (single task, learning module, course), knowledge map or learning path, and gamification (which somewhat complements the formal credit system). This flexibility can greatly increase subject coverage and number of learning tracks, which is particularly true in the ever growing IT industry.
  • Personal learning environment: a personal learning environment is learner-centered. The system is expected to provide adequate self-service in a personal space where learners can store and manage their own learning materials, monitor learning progress, build resources and knowledge repository, all with lifelong access

Some pilot systems and services have emerged to realize more open, social, flexible, and personal learning environments, including CourseSites, OpenLearning, OpenClass, einztein.com, sophia.org, CodeAcademy, etc. Most of these systems do not yet share a common understanding of open and social learning, and they vary greatly in features and structures. The evolution of the system also requires, and probably as a driving factor for, the change of the current higher education business model. It’s a challenge as well as an opportunity for the development and adoption of such systems in higher education.

The discussion above is from our book chapter:

Stone, D. and Zheng, G. (2014) “Learning Management Systems in a Changing Environment”, in Wang, V. C. (Editor), Handbook of Research on Education and Technology in a Changing Society, Hershey, PA: IGI Global – http://www.igi-global.com/chapter/learning-management-systems-in-a-changing-environment/111885

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Systems to Support Virtual Office Hours

It is common now for instructors to hold virtual office hours, when students can communicate with instructors without physically coming to the office. However, sometimes phone and emails are not that effective to deal certain issues. Here I want to discuss some applications and technologies to hold virtual office hours.

Let me start with a summary of some office hour activities:

  • Simple communications. This is a basic form of out-of-classroom contact between students and instructors. It is usually on simple issues with limited rounds of questions and answers, and can be quickly resolved just by talking.
  • Discussion. This is when students want to discuss more complex topics with the instructor, like presentations, research topic, study guidance, etc. These activities are not limited to verbal communications, but also include activities like drawing on paper, collaborative browsing, sharing of resources, working on computer files, etc.
  • Teaching (see Learning and Teaching During Office Hours). Sometimes students will come to ask for help on certain course content subjects, in which verbal explanation is often not very effective. The session may involve writing, drawing, demonstration (especially on technology subjects), and other hands-on operations.

Here are some common applications and systems to support these virtual office hour activities:

  1. Asynchronous communication applications such as emails and discussion boards.
  2. Online synchronous communication tools. There are several choices to consider:
    • Many course management systems (BlackBoard, D2L, Moodle) have built-in messaging tools.
    • Using general instant messaging tools, such as Live Messenger.
    • Popular social network sites (such as FaceBook, where most students already have accounts) usually provide integrated chatting applications.
    • Setting up a chat room, where multiple people can join and chat. Here is an interesting one called Party Chat. Google Hangout is a more recent one.
  3. Advanced collaboration applications. These applications not only support communications, but also provide some advanced features like application sharing, desktop sharing, collaborative viewing and editing, white board, etc. These are good for more complex office hour activities. Some examples:
    • Skype has a desktop sharing feature, in addition to video chatting.
    • Groove has many application sharing tools.
    • Google Docs (especially Spreadsheet) provide great synchronous collaborative editing and resource sharing features.

I think a desired virtual office hour application is basically some specialization of an online collaboration system. It is best to be part of a learning or course management system, with the following features (but not limited to) to support major types of office hour activities stated earlier:

  • support synchronous and asynchronous communications;
  • support text, voice, and video communications;
  • support file/document sharing, desktop sharing, application sharing, and other collaborative actions;
  • support one-to-one and one-to-many sessions;
  • support recording and broadcasting of general issue discussions.

Do you hold virtual office hours? Do you know or use any other good applications? Please share your experience.

Some other good readings:

Virtual Classroom for Online Classes

Last week, VenueGen demonstrated its beta system for virtual conference at DEMO 2010. It was very impressive and I immediately thought about trying it for my online class. So requested a trial account and installed the system. My object is to test drive the system to see whether it can be used for actual online class sessions.

I listed below some of my experiences and evaluations of the beta system, particularly for online class. I also took a set of Venuegen system screenshots and put them on Flickr.

  1. What I have tried successfully:
    • Created an avatar (but my avatar was ugly based on my photo so I did not use my own photo).
    • Uploaded my files (PowerPoint, PDF, images) and display/project them on the big virtual screen.
    • Used virtual browser and visited many websites.
    • Played YouTube videos on the virtual screen.
    • Used the whiteboard for free drawing.
    • Moved around the classroom with various gestures.
  2. But I did not find a way to:
    • Share my desktop and demonstrate any local software.
    • Copy and paste content.
    • Use a laser point or highlighter to point to certain regions on the virtual screen.
    • Record the class session.
  3. And I did not have a chance to:
    • Interact with students.
    • See if students can use the big virtual screen, and share their work.
    • See if students can work in groups and collaborate.
    • Test the microphone.

My overall impression:

  • The idea is excellent, but as a beta version system, there are a lot of bugs, inconsistencies, crashes, and other usability issues.
  • The system is not really designed specifically for online classes. I found many classroom features missing, some of which are important to have.
  • It is not ready for serious online class use at this time; but I know it got potential.