Online education continues to grow at a stunning rate, with kindergarten through 12th grade programs expected to rise an additional 30% yearly. At the college level, the growth rate sits at about 10%, and 65% of higher education institutions consider online courses (if not degree plans) essential to their success. The course structure's comparatively low cost and high accessibility and flexibility appeal to teachers and schools alike. Students like Internet-based or blended classes because they engage them using familiar communications tools.
An increased emphasis on interactivity, open learning, and collaboration have all revolutionized education initiatives both online and off. The best platforms for designing, organizing, and maintaining these courses must change along with technology and the latest trends. Fortunately, most of the major online learning platforms — as well as some startups — embrace these movements toward these new educational spaces.
iversity commits itself to interdisciplinary approaches, openness, and flexibility, offering up a free collaborative tool for Internet-savvy professors. But their platform targets more than just educators hosting online classes. Academics also take advantage of iversity when compiling and analyzing research. They sign up as individuals rather than via the institutions for which they work. This allows them a far easier time communicating with partners around the world than email and teleconferencing ever could.
"On un.iversity.org, professors and students can easily set up courses and work groups. These can be password protected or open and you can easily collect content (like links or files), organize dates, communicate, comment and discuss topics," explains iversity managing director Jonas Liepmann.
"We get a lot of very positive feedback from our users. The feedback we get most is, that users thank us for making iversity more intuitive than the LMS they now," he says. "The reason is simple: Most professors and students don't want to think about the software they are using, they want to think about the subjects of their courses."
"iversity fosters the exchange of ideas within your institution. Our platform will allow you to provide a better learning experience at lower cost to more students. Open Courses are the best way to showcase their teaching excellence using state of the art technology and online didactics," he says, explaining why educators and scholars need a platform like iversity. "Given the right topic you can attract tens of thousands of students from around the globe — and the media attention that goes with it. Our digital infrastructure enables you to identify the best and provides you with an opportunity to recruit them from Master's or Ph.D. programs."
He also provides some insight into what users might expect in the coming months and years. "iversity's Open Courses will make courses of the best professors in the world accessible to everybody and will use the possibilities of web technology to let people interact and collaborate in courses with hundreds and thousands of students," he says. "In the future we will focus on the openness of our courses — by developing Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). We believe MOOCs will change the way we teach and learn."
What makes Edmodo so appealing to educators and their students is the innovative merging of the traditional online learning platform and engaging technologies like digital badges and apps. Free to use, it serves as an excellent supplement to or outright replacement of the brick-and-mortar classroom. Edmodo also enables heightened communication between teachers and their students, coworkers, administrators, and parents; among the tools at their disposal are assessments, grade books, forums, and syllabi helping them stay organized.
"Edmodo's user-friendly and intuitive interface makes adopting the platform easier for students and teachers, which has helped play a major role in our organic growth. In the past year alone, Edmodo has tripled its total user base, now exceeding 18 million registered users globally, including participants from 86 of the largest 100 U.S. school districts and every country in the world," says Edmodo COO Crystal Hutter when asked about the company's growth and popularity.
She explains why users find the platform so accessible and worth exploring: "Edmodo complements the learning process from end to end. Our technology augments the learning process by helping teachers provide high quality content and apps to students in the classroom, in their homes, and on their mobile devices."
"The platform connects teachers to their students, teachers to other teachers, and classrooms to classrooms across the world. Edmodo offers free and premium apps that seamlessly integrate and enable teachers to streamline all educational tools and resources into one place. This brief video shows Edmodo's capabilities," says Hutter.
"Edmodo connects all learners with the best people and resources to build the highest quality education," she says in regards to why teachers, schools, and districts should consider Edmodo when designing online classes. "Our platform provides a safe and free environment for students and teachers to collaborate, share content, and use educational apps to augment learning."
"These powerful, easy-to-use and engaging capabilities scale personalized instruction for every student. We designed Edmodo to get students excited about learning and give teachers access to amazing content and tools."
Summer 2013 will see the release of online learning juggernaut Blackboardâs xpLor initiative. Unlike previous efforts, this one heavily emphasizes collaborative learning, even allowing teachers to share course materials with fellow professionals, who then edit the documents to suit their own needs. It marks yet another major shift towards open education, relying on a platform merging cloud and social media technologies.
"Just as learners need to collaborate to be successful, so do content authors and course builders and xpLor helps do just that," says Stacey Fontenot, vice president of product marketing for Blackboard. "It promotes professional development and networking so faculty can learn best practices from each other and create dynamic, more engaging courses."
"The current education landscape is chock full of new challenges and hurdles. Leaders are under pressure to grow programs, improve the quality of courses, and support non-traditional teachers and learners," she continues. "Blackboard, as a company, is focused on finding ways to help tackle some of these big problems in education. We will continue to be creative in finding ways to leverage technology to help leaders meet these new demands."
Fontenot explains why the open, cloud structure works so well for online classes. "Course materials tend to get replicated several times, either within an institution or across professional development networks," she says. "Traditionally, various barriers and restrictions have made it hard for faculty to take the content and plug it into their institutions' LMS. With xpLor, users can create course materials in the cloud, tag it with searchable keywords, and have it automatically integrate into a wide variety of LMSs."
"xpLor makes it easy for institutions to standardize online curriculum and present it via a variety of learning management systems," Fontenot says. "The content can be used to support regular courses and programs as well as extensions and special cases, such as large-scale open courses."
Education Insider named Moodle its People's Choice Award winner for Best Online Learning Platform. Voters particularly love its open source structure. This approach allows them greater control over customized learning modules, adding and subtracting features as necessary. As with iversity, Moodle reaches out to more than just academic institutions.
Businesses partner up with Moodle for training purposes; schools use it to set up online courses or supplement and organize brick-and-mortar classes. The platform's greatest strength lies in its flexibility. "Hundreds of developers and millions of educators" play with its code daily, each with their own unique, creative approach. To pin down Moodle as one specific thing or another is impossible, as it assumes different forms as necessary for each class or business.
And the Rest
Along with Blackboard, Aplia also earned Finalist in Best Online Learning Platform status from Education Insider's People's Choice Awards. This particular program stands out because of its automated grading and question-and-answer services, allowing teachers more time for detailed comments. They can also upload their own course materials, including full textbooks, and some quizzes are even available to the public. Like Moodle, its customizable interface earns it the most acclaim.
Canvas is another popular online learning platform influenced by social media. One of its most notable features allows students and teachers alike to incorporate their Twitter and Facebook feeds into the discussions. Educators like the quick, automated grading options, as they free up time for the precise feedback students require.
In terms of versatility, Adobe Connect frequently crops up as a favorite learning platform for educators. Rather than a straight-up classroom management system similar to Blackboard or Edmodo, it performs best as a web conferencing tool. This makes it particularly ideal for teachers in online and other distance learning courses wanting to incorporate face-to-face (or a reasonable facsimile) instruction into the curriculum.
No less than The Economist praises Lore for its seamless merging of social media and online education. It takes advantage of student familiarity with the likes of Twitter and Facebook to bring them more engaging lessons. For instructors, Lore also provides organizational tools to help them keep track of grades, rosters, syllabi, course materials, and other essentials. But the Facebook-inspired interface makes it stand out most.
iTunes U is one of the industry leaders in the open courseware movement. Both an outlet and a straightforward online learning platform, educators upload videos, podcasts, and other media for their classrooms and share them with the public or privately within their own classrooms. They also use it to plan and organize their own interactive courses, or simply keep track of day-to-day tasks. iTunes U bills itself as "an entire classroom in an app," so users will need an iPad to get going.
Every online or blended teaching style out there could benefit from one or more of these learning platforms. Educators might prefer incorporating social media, relying on apps, or providing a stunning array of customizing options. No matter these platforms' specific offerings, they all push education towards an open, collaborative future.