by Michael Shaw, MSc

August, 2003
Issue 7
I N S I G H T S    I N T O    U S I N G    E D U C A T I O N A L   T E C H N O L O G Y


Although the practice of mainstream e-learning is still relatively new to many, e-learning systems, and in particular, learning management systems (LMS), have noticeably gone through several iterations since their inception in the 1990's. The continued realization of e-learning’s tremendous potential coupled with the many shortcomings found in over 200 LMS’s that have crept onto the market have helped to identify new and improved system and process requirements. The biggest of these requirements has always been the need to easily create, organize and deliver quality content that is pertinent and easily transferable to the workplace or the classroom.

Learning management systems were developed to take advantage of new networked technology and meet requirements to administrate, store, organize and deliver content, as well as offer a variety of collaboration and basic authoring tools. The biggest complaint from education and industry regarding LMS's has been that it was too difficult for teachers and trainers to actually create engaging content that took full advantage of online formats. This need gave rise to many popular e-learning sayings in the 90’s such as, “Where's the beef?”; “We laid the tracks and put the train on it, but there's no freight!”; “We built it and they did not come.”; “Content is king, but we don't have any!”. It is still somewhat amazing to still see in 2003 that the e-learning process in many organizations is still typically weakest at the design and production level – lacking attention, resources and/or expertise in areas such as writing, graphic design, audio and video production, digital imaging and instructional design for online learning.  In other words, expertise in each medium that comprises multimedia is lacking, including pedagogically sound design for new technologies. I've seen video clips with lousy lighting, poor framing and bad editing with little or no educational value proudly displayed by some very high level companies.

What is helping to address some of these noticeable skill shortages in content development and creation, are new user-friendly content creation tools that reside in larger systems and articulate well with other applications. Some provide instructional and presentational design templates that can enable content experts to quickly and easily produce better quality learning products without external expertise or too many hand-offs within the organization. In addition, the whole concept of reusable learning objects (RLO) is finally coming of age (RLO's are 'chunks' of instruction, typically smaller than a whole course, but complete with a learning objective and learning outcome; they reside in a system where course creators or even learners can create and access them quickly through new metatagging schema or taxonomies). Making these types of tools ubiquitous does not necessarily mean a drastic improvement in quality, but the philosophy behind them is sound, and they can certainly help. 

In just the last few years, knowledge management and e-learning have been colliding, merging formal learning practices from the areas of training and education with informal knowledge sharing practices.  The nascent dialogue between and various mixed marriages of portal solutions, content management systems, learning content management systems, knowledge management systems, reusable learning object methodologies and learning management systems are significantly changing the products and processes required to satisfy society's huge demands for lifelong learning via the Internet.

The term ‘portal’ has thin and thick definitions, but it may in fact be quickly becoming the ultimate defacto term that can include most enterprise knowledge and learning solutions, as it has the ability to encompass many layers of functionality and application. Typically, a portal provides a personalized, single point of access to a range of network services, but it can also include a variety of communication and collaboration tools, and even an even wider range of tools for creating, cataloguing, distributing and tracking content. In other words, your LMS, LCMS, KMS, CMS, LOR, etc. can be referred to as just another facet of your organization's ‘portal’ or even 'sub-portal'. That would make life easier, wouldn't it? A portal or sub-portal could belong to an institution such as a college or university, or in the case of K-12 education, be integrated with other portals across a province or country, with access to large repositories of learning objects. Just imagine if the Ontario Ministry of Education developed a centralized object repository that articulated with a National one, and licensed a portal solution for all K-12 schools in Ontario. This sort of future development is inevitable. It will be interesting to monitor the growth and evolution over the next few years of uPortal, which is a free, sharable portal being co-developed by institutions of higher-education. Another sharable portal/LCMS under development is Plone

The vendors and providers that will win the race will be the ones that offer various modules or layers that are truly integrated and knitted together within a total portal solution, or can at the very least accept applications that have total interoperability. You can see this happening today with the partnering of many smaller vendors with companies such as Microsoft and IBM. Standards such as those associated with SCORM, AICC and IMS may help relieve compatibility anxiety for customers, even if it's only reassurance from a marketing perspective alone at present. With this model, an organization's portal solution might include an e-learning module with specialized content creation modules. Once again, the key will be modules or layers that are truly integrated, and not just applications or third party products that are thrown into the mix to seemingly provide a 'total solution'. 

The real losers in the portal game will be organizations with highly-positioned, traditional IT departments that can't get their heads past the paradigm of totally controlling and regulating online access and publishing practices. 

The key question for many organizations at this time will be whether to jump into some sort of portal solution or try and integrate or migrate existing e-learning solutions to a portal.  Growing with a portal solution that is in development is another alternative that could produce a much higher ROI in the long term, but may be a bit more costly and even a bit confusing to implement initially.  Who knows - those responsible for choosing an e-learning solution for their organization may sleep a little easier with an integrated portal solution in place. Whatever the case, during the next year or so we can expect a scramble for market dominance in the e-learning portal arena, and the demise of many traditional LMS companies. 


A report that explores the progress being made in deploying institutional portals
Adriane Electronic Libraries Program