Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Course Management Systems that Connect

Andrew Trotter reports in Education Week that course management systems (CMS) are becoming more popular in K-12 education. As teachers and schools incorporate more technology, they need packages that can condense or contain multiple functions needed instead of using separate programs for email, live chat, grade keeping, homework assignments and more. Course management systems are continuing to add new options for teaching and collaborating online.

Blackboard is a well-known CMS often used in colleges and universities. Blackboard recently released Blackboard K-12 School Central, a package for "virtual course delivery, professional development, and classroom instruction." School Central includes various synchronous and asynchronous tools that teachers need for online collaborative learning and connecting students to experts and other members of the local or worldwide community. School Central has live chat, interactive discussion boards, live virtual classrooms, and group work pages. School Central includes Wimba's Collaboration Suite Express that makes the instant messaging, virtual classroom and voice discussion board features possible. Though it does not seem to have an interactive video conferencing tool, School Central offers a great array of tools and options for inter-classroom collaboration and the input of outside experts.

Moodle is a popular choice with teachers for its pedagogical underpinnings and adaptability. Because it is free and open source, school systems or technology resource personnel can craft the CMS to suit the school's or district's needs and stay secure. Unlike Blackboard, Moodle is free. In addition to the usual course management tools like grade books, assignment modules, quiz tools and databases, Moodle offers some basic tools for remote collaboration, such as live chat, asynchronous forums and wikis. New on the scene are Moodlerooms, virtual classrooms for online courses or for supplementing a traditional four-walls class. Various resources, from text files to Web pages, can be organized within a Moodleroom. If a teacher or school isn't already using Moodle, there is a fee for Moodlerooms setup and use. How well Moodlerooms accommodate synchronous communication and how Moodlerooms work differently than the virtual classrooms already offered by Moodle is unclear from the web pages. If you are registered with Moodle, there are several help pages and courses to help you understand the inner workings.

Sakai also offers a free Collaborative and Learning Environment (CLE) system and the 2.5.0 version has just been released. The core tools of Sakai include email archives, drop boxes, chat rooms, forums, RSS feeds and wikis to name a few. Additional tools for assignments, grade books and syllabi can be added. Some of the tools still in development include shared whiteboards, multipoint audio and podcasting. Chat rooms in Sakai allow for real-time talk between registered users. A teacher can create multiple chat rooms for specific purposes, especially useful for a one-time expert visit or for repeated semester-long contact with a particular person. The examples of institutions using Sakai currently all seem to be universities but Sakai does offer a similar range of tools as Moodle and Blackboard with some remote collaboration options. It remains to be seen how useful Sakai is for middle schools who may be already committed to or used to Moodle and its options.

CMS that incorporate tools for online or remote collaboration and virtual interaction will more than likely grow in popularity with K-12 teachers as the push to move to project-based learning and collaboration grows stronger. It remains to be seen how School Central will compete against the free and adaptable Moodle. Are you using a CMS to connect your students virtually with other students, classes or people or is it primarily for classroom use? Is Moodle the CMS of choice? Does it have limits that constrain its use for collaboration with outside experts? Is it easier to use separate tools or programs for separate uses like interactive videoconferencing?

SOURCE: "Market for K-12 Course-Management Systems Expands" 2/27/08
SOURCE: "Blackboard School Central Brochure (PDF)" 2/27/08
SOURCE: "About Moodle" 2/23/08
SOURCE: "What is Moodlerooms?" 2007
SOURCE: "About Sakai"
photo courtesy of Lumuxart, used under this Creative Commons license

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