Course Management Systems

Writer(s): 
Paul Daniels

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Ask almost any educational technology specialist what the most exciting software development has been in the last five years and they will probably mention course management or learning management systems (CMS or LMS). If you are not quite sure what the buzz is about, read on to find out how easy it has become to supplement your current courses with online content.

A CMS consists primarily of a set of robust web-based tools that administrators, instructors, and learners alike can use to manage online content. CMS software can be divided into three general areas: study skills, communication, and productivity. Since the software uses a point and click browser-based interface, teachers with little or no technical skills are able to upload and update course material.

This month's Wired column will briefly compare the core functions of six open-source CMSs as well as outline some of the features of the editor's choice. For a more detailed review of course software, visit www.edutools.info/course/compare. Since all of the software listed below is open source, it can be downloaded and installed free of charge.

Software Links

Core Functions

Most CMSs include the necessary functions to host an online course, such as a discussion forum, a file upload/download area, a course calendar, user authentication, and computerized testing and scoring. There are, however, a few points you should be aware of before making your decision based only on functions. Since open-source software is developed by the community, one of the most important considerations is community support—not only user support, but also support for creating and updating the software. A software package that has a larger user base is generally updated more frequently and offers better user support. View the release notes for the version number and upgrade dates. Other important elements are the look and feel of the software and the ease of use.

Differences

Noteworthy differences in the software packages include support for internal mail, personal folders, and student tracking. ATutor, KEWL, and Manhattan Virtual Classroom all support internal email whereas the other packages require students to use an external email address. This may not be much of a concern since most students already have an external email address. A more significant difference is the ability for students to save and retrieve documents from a personal folder. Currently, out the of the reviewed software packages, only .LRN (DotLRN) and ATutor support personal folders. Moodle is currently implementing this function and offers a downloadable beta version of a document management system. A third key difference between the packages is the ability to track student progress. Moodle and ATutor track and log reports on students' access to course content, forums, and assignments. Moodle logs additional information such as IP addresses and number of attempts for assessments and assignments. Claroline and Manhattan Virtual Classroom offer limited student tracking.

Hardware and Software Requirements

Most open-source CMSs can run on OS X, Windows, or Linux. The exceptions are Manhattan Virtual Classroom, which runs only on Linux, and KEWL, which requires Microsoft's SQL and web servers. DotLRN requires AOLServer, a freely available web and application server, whereas Moodle, Claroline and Atutor require MySQL or PostgreSQL database software, PHP, and web server software, preferably Apache. If you are running OS X or Linux, you may already have Apache web server, MySQL, and PHP installed. If you are interested in installing open source software on an Apple, visit developer.apple.com/internet/opensource. Microsoft users can find the necessary server software at hotscripts.com/PHP/Software_and_Servers/Installation_Kits/index.html. If running a CMS on a school server that is supporting a few hundred students, I recommend a computer with a 2GHz CPU, 1 GHz of memory, a SCSI hard drive, and most importantly, a backup system. If your user base becomes larger, you can always add a second IDE hard drive dedicated for user data.

Editor's Choice

Of all the open-source CMSs, Moodle is by far the most robust as far as features are concerned. In addition, it is also the most user-friendly system for both teachers and students. In the next section, I will touch upon a few of my favorite features and a few add-ons that can be used to enhance Moodle.

Useful Functions
Journal

Perhaps my favorite is the journal feature. The teacher can quickly add any number of journal assignments to a course. I find the online journal especially useful for short weekly paragraph writing assignments in which students outline their ideas in class and then finish up their paragraph writing online outside of class. The latest version has a spell-checker and a WYSIWYG editor that allows students to add images to their writing. The instructor can view, respond to, or print all journal entries from a single page.

Glossary

Another versatile function is the online glossary. Not only can this glossary be used for creating shared class vocabulary lists, it can also be tailored to generate any type of shared collection including images, sound, or video files. However, there is a 120MB limit on attachments.

Web Pages

Having a web presence is a motivating factor for learners participating in an online learning environment. Moodle does have a few options for homepages. Each user can upload an image and limited HTML code, such as links to outside pages. Students can also use the journal function to create web pages but currently these pages cannot be made public. I have been using an interesting software package called Gallery gallery.sourceforge.net, which allows students to upload images and add captions and comments under each image. The software is browser-based and automatically resizes images, creates thumbnails, and sets font colors and borders automatically so students can have a professional looking web presence without any web editing at all.

File Management

Although Moodle's document management system (DMS) is still in the beta stage, I have been using it in class with several hundred students with few problems. The DMS provides students with a personal online document folder similar to Yahoo's Briefcase. Currently, it does not allow the administrator to set user quotas and has other minor bugs, but is otherwise a very powerful add-on.

Calendar

The online calendar is what every teacher and learner needs to stay organized. Global, course, group, and user events can be entered into the calendar. A small sidebar calendar on each course page keeps students up-to-date. Users can also navigate to a larger monthly view.

Surveys and Questionnaires

The survey module is a bit confusing because it is not a resource for teachers and students to create their own surveys, but rather a fixed survey that researchers can use to collect data related to learner perceptions and online learning. The choice resource allows instructors to create simple surveys for students. If you are interested in having your students create online surveys and questionnaires, you might want to have a look at an open source software package called UCCASS www.hotscripts.com/Detailed/34024.html. However, it is a tricky task to integrate databases so that the survey software can share Moodle's user account data. Another option is to install Moodle's developmental-stage questionnaire module. More on this can be found at moodle.org/mod/forum/view.php?id=2642.

Web-based Email

If you've decided you really want to use Moodle but need web-based email for your students, you might want to consider setting up your Moodle software on a Redhat Linux server and use a web-based mail package called SquirrelMail (included with Redhat 9.0). Since both SquirrelMail and Moodle support LDAP, username and password data can be stored on an LDAP server accessible by both Moodle and SquirrelMail. A simpler solution would be to use free webmail services such as Yahoo or Hotmail, although there are problems with this. First, separate username and password management for email and for Moodle can cause confusion. Second, SPAM and ads associated with free email services create unnecessary complexity for language learners.

Support

If you need further information or support on setting up CMS software, visit the websites that appear at the beginning of this article. Moodle, for example, has an excellent community support forum, as do some of the other sites. If you can't find what you are looking for or feel this is far too complicated, try contacting the editor of this month's Wired column.

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