Vol. 7. No. 2 M-2 September 2003
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Online classrooms for FREE?!
A Review of Free Online Learning Management Systems (LMS)


Online courses are moving into the mainstream and, as with all technology-driven teaching tools, the software commonly used to deliver online courses can be prohibitively expensive. Classes take place online through the use of software packages that have special classroom features such as discussion forums [Editor's note: A TESL-EJ review of free online discussion forums, can be found here], calendars, "chat rooms" where participants can communicate in real time with each other, and quiz and polling capabilities. Files such as word processing documents, sound files, pictures, and videos can be uploaded to the virtual classroom for viewing by students. Thus, the "platform" is essentially a place that looks like a private website and is intended to work like an electronic classroom. The classes taught on these platforms are accessible via the Internet, and are usually private, meaning that only individuals who are registered for the class can see the password-protected website. A platform for online courses may also be called an LMS (Learning Management System) or LCMS (Learning Content Management System).

The most commonly used online class platforms in the United States are Blackboard and WebCT. These platforms are used by major colleges and universities, as well as community colleges around the country. However, they are far too pricey for small schools, companies, and individuals who wish to host online courses. Fortunately, there are a number of free platforms available for online courses. In addition to being free, these platforms are also top quality, and one could argue that some of them are, in fact, better than Blackboard and WebCT. Most are also inarguably more adaptable than commercially available platforms.

There are two types of free platforms for online learning. First, there are those hosted on a public site. This means that the user just signs up and uses the platform, but the platform "lives" on a server somewhere in cyberspace. The second type of platform is those that must be downloaded (saved) and hosted on the user's own server. If you are very knowledgeable about computers or if you have the support of someone who is, the latter type of platform may be an option for you. Otherwise, you will need to use a platform that is hosted on a public site. [-1-]

Publicly Hosted Sites

There are not a lot of publicly hosted sites out there. The most readily available publicly hosted sites are Yahoo! Groups and BSCW.

Yahoo! Groups — http://groups.yahoo.com/

Yahoo! Groups is free and is hosted on a public server, so the user does not have to deal with server issues. Because it is such a large, widely used system, it is not easy to get it to change, but Yahoo! is generally an innovative company, so it will surely continue to improve. It was not created for online instruction per se, so you will not find an "assignments" section, for example, though you can accommodate this with other functions. Discussions cannot take place individually in their own spaces, but this could also be worked around (for example, by having a discussion in a Word document in the "Files" section). There are special places for uploaded documents and photos, and a section for links. Yahoo! Groups sites can be set up in a number of different ways, public or private. Users can choose to have all messages delivered to their mail inbox, which is convenient because then users do not have to go to the website to see if there are new messages in the class. In sum, Yahoo! Groups is not set up to work exclusively as a virtual classroom, but it can be adapted to serve many of the same functions. You can sign up and get started in a matter of minutes.

BSCW — http://bscw.gmd.de/

BSCW (Basic Support for Cooperative Work) supports uploading of documents, event notification, and group management. It was not created for ESL teachers, but for the "international scientific community." While it is appropriate for its intended purpose, it is not ideal for language classes.

Platforms Hosted by the User

The free online class platforms that must be hosted on your own server are "open source applications." This means that the software is available free for limited use under the terms of the GNU General Public License (GPL). This basically means that the user can copy it, distribute it, even charge for it, but cannot get patents on it. Also, the source code (all the programming language that makes the program work) must always remain open and available for viewing by anyone looking at the site so that it does not become proprietary. However, unless you are a techie who is planning to take the source code and use it for a program that you want to patent, you are safe to use it.

Even if you do not have access to a web server at your company or institution, there are web hosting companies that can host your site for a small fee, and some online companies will even host your site at no cost to you. Click here for a list of some sites that can host your website for free. Though you may need technical help from your institution to set up these sites on your server or a remote server, the ones I have chosen are relatively straightforward and make it easy for instructors to construct online classes. Here are some more details about the open-source LMS platforms I have evaluated: [-2-]

Moodle — http://moodle.com/

Moodle looks great, and it is not without significance that it is easy on the eye the more pleasing something is to look at, the more likely someone (i.e., your students) will want to look at it. It was created as a Ph.D. dissertation project, and has taken on a life of its own. Moodle is advertised as "easy to install, use and maintain on Linux, Windows and Mac OS X platforms." It has an excellent, detailed teacher's manual. Users (students and teachers) specify their own time zone, and all dates (assignment due dates, calendar dates) are translated to that time zone. This is handy for an online course that has students all over the world. Moodle has many capabilities including forums, journals (private between student and teacher), quizzes, resources, and a section for displaying assignments. Teachers have access to full user logging and tracking, and assignments are date-stamped when uploaded to the server, making class management in cyberspace more user-friendly. Teacher feedback can be appended to assignment pages. Discussions can be viewed nested, flat or threaded, oldest or newest first. My favorite Moodle feature is that of photos displayed along with messages. I am not good with names, but I am good with faces. This has been a hurdle for me in online classes, because I can never remember who said what based on a name. Moodle displays a photo of the person writing the message, right next to the message (the user has to upload his/her own photo once during setup). Yahoo! Groups, Blackboard, and WebCT do not have this capability.

Fle3 Learning Environment — http://fle3.uiah.fi

Fle3 is an open-source web-based learning environment from Finland, created for online classes. It was put together using very colloquial English, and though it could be very fun for an informal course or a course about colloquial language, it probably needs to be further developed. It is not as sophisticated as some of the other platforms, but it could be what you are looking for if you want to start small.

The Manhattan Virtual Classroom — http://manhattan.sourceforge.net

The Manhattan Virtual Classroom is a password protected, web-based virtual classroom system that includes a variety of discussion groups, live chat, areas for the teacher to post the syllabus and other handouts and notices, a section for organizing online assignments, a grades section, and a unique, web-based email system open only to students in the class. It was developed at Western New England College. I cannot believe that this is free and that people actually pay for Blackboard! It has a very detailed tutorial, and I expect that it will become very popular as more people discover it.

ILIAS — http://www.ilias.uni-koeln.de/ios/index-e.html

This platform consists of an authoring tool for creating courses, personal desktops, mail/forum systems, group system and administration. Universities, educational institutions, and any interested person may use the system free of charge and contribute to its further development. ILIAS was developed at the University of Cologne. ILIAS allows users to create, edit and publish learning units in a single system. The demo initially shows up in German and you have to figure out how to get it into English (I do not know German and I figured it out, so it is not too difficult). You can see who is online at any given time great for chat purposes, though there does not seem to be a chat function. It was recently adopted by the Euroversity e-learning initiative, so I expect it to continue to grow and improve as time goes on. [-3-]

ATutor — http://www.atutor.ca

ATutor is a Canadian open-source Web-based Learning Content Management System (LCMS) designed with accessibility and adaptability in mind. It installs quickly, and educators can quickly assemble Web-based instructional content. As documented on its website, "ATutor is the first fully inclusive LCMS, complying with international accessibility standards and allowing access to all potential learners, instructors, and administrators, including those with disabilities who may be accessing the Web using assistive technologies." Something useful for EFL instructors teaching learners with very low-level English skills, full language support is available through ATutor's central Translation Database. A capability to look for in the future is called "Text-to-Speech." As described by the creators of ATutor, "Research is currently underway to integrate a text-to-speech server with ATutor that converts text content into audio form, and returns it to the user as a file that can be listened to in one of many common multimedia applications." There is an online how-to course for students and instructors, which is very detailed, user-friendly, and straightforward.

ATutor is very user-friendly. It has an interface for modifying documents without using HTML this means that you can change fonts, font colors, underlines, and the like without having to learn a computer language. It is all set up to work something like word processing programs. ATutor has online test capability, and stores tests that have been completed. It has a unique tool called "My Tracker" which tracks your own navigational patterns this means that students can track their own use in addition to instructors being able to track student use of the site. For those who do not like reading everything on a screen, ATutor has a print compiler, which really helps those students or instructors who want to print out notes or a transcript of a discussion.

dotLRN — http://dotlrn.org

dotLRN is an open source e-learning system. Like Moodle, dotLRN originated as thesis project, in this case, at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology. It has a homework dropbox, news "portlet", course evaluations, branching surveys, and event registration. Subgroups can even have their own calendar, file storage, forums, and polls. FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) can be easily edited by the administrator. DotLRN is about as complex as they come, surpassing most other online course platforms. The high level of complexity, however, could be a drawback for students (or instructors) with less than advanced computer skills! [-4-]

Please see the table below for a concise comparison of the various platforms.

Platform NameSite runs on public (host) serverOverall Appearance
(Max ****)
Menu AppearanceEase of UseDisplays picture of student/ teacher with messageCan upload filesPolling? Discussion Forums? Live chat? Multiple languages?Calendar?
Yahoo! GroupsYes***
A bit busy, sometimes flashy ads are distr class=tblacting
Good, categories are very clearFine, once registr class=tblation kinks have been handledNoYesYesNoYesNoYes
BSCWPublic server OR your own server***
Uncluttered, no ads
ClearEasy to useNoYesNoYesNoYesYes
Very basic; very bright colors are not surprising from Finland!
A bit confusing. I felt the need to use the "back" button on my browserMessages can be displayed by thread, by author, etcYes!YesNoYesNoYesNo
The Manhattan Virtual ClassroomNo***ExcellentQuite easy to navigate; very professional, detailed instructor's manualNoYesI think soYesYesYesYes
ILIASNo, but site can be hosted in Germany for a small price***
Not as commercial-looking as some of the others
Menu uses icons rather than words ~ good thing once user gets accustomed to themEasy to use; excellent "help" section also has glossary & search NoYesNo, but test function could be adaptedYesNoYesSort of
Very sleek, easily modified by individual user (e.g., menu locations, icons vs. text, font, colors)
Somewhat similar to BlackboardSo many options! Preferable for students with computer knowledgeNoYesNo, but test function could be adapted YesYesIn the near futureNo
Look & functionality like a more complex Yahoo! Groups
Very sleekEasy to use, navigation is very logicalNoYesYes simple and advancedYesYesNoYes
MoodleNo, but site can be hosted for a small price****
Themes/skins allow for easy font/color/layout, etc. to suit local needs
Excellent!Fantastic!YesYesYesYesAugust 2003Yes, plus easy navigation between languagesYes


In summary, Yahoo! Groups is the best site to use if you have low technical expertise or IT support. Moodle, The Manhattan Virtual Classroom, and ATutor are the best if you have the support you need to set up and run the platforms on your own or a remote server. dotLRN is fantastic, but very complex. However, it might be great if, for example, you are teaching English for Specific Purposes to engineers. Thanks to the creators of these LMS's, we can now see our students in cyberspace for (almost) free!

Saskia E. Kameron
South Puget Sound Community College
Olympia, Washington USA

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