Four Kitchens

LMSs and more: Drupal in Education

5 Min. ReadDigital strategy

At Four Kitchens, we have done quite a bit of work within the education industry. As we began looking into expanding our footprint within the education web technology space, we discovered that there was a corresponding need in the marketplace waiting to be filled; especially within higher ed. Universities and higher ed institutions continue to look for ways to cut costs, deliver content more effectively and easily, ease administration, and facilitate online learning/training. While several (open source and proprietary) solutions exist, there seems to be little clarity into what the options are, and perhaps more importantly, what the possibilities may be.

So we set out on a quest to understand the “lay of the land” a little better. Broadly speaking, there are three categories of solutions:

Learning Management Systems (LMS)

Succinctly, an LMS is a software application for the administration, documentation, tracking, reporting, and delivery of education courses or training programs. There are an incredible number of LMSs available to choose from; some proprietary, some open source, some completely custom built, some entirely off the shelf. Traditionally, LMSs have focused more on content delivery than content management, which is part of the reason we found that almost no academic institution is entirely happy with the LMS they chose to implement. Said another way, a complete solution for an academic institution involves the best aspects of CMS and LMS, and traditional LMSs have been very poor at CMS functionality.

Part of the problem, I venture to guess, is that there is surprisingly little available documentation around what the business and functional requirements of a good LMS are! The argument could be made that every academic institution has different needs and it is thus difficult to compile a unified set of requirements. But despite those differences, is there core functionality that we can distill as universally applicable? It would seem that at a minimum, the requirements of an LMS are:

  1. Classroom management (attendance, etc)
  2. Delivering content to students
  3. Collecting completed assignments
  4. Reporting student performance
  5. Streamlining administration
  6. Improve customer service
  7. Developing and queueing standard content, and providing opportunities to tailor content
  8. Provide self-service learning for students and employees
  9. Deploying learning resources and programs quickly
  10. Extending, maintaining, and enhancing communities

Some of the LMSs that we feel best meet these objectives are:

Canvas: Arguably the most robust and full featured LMS offering currently available, Canvas is on a meteoric rise and has been gaining use in both the higher ed and K-12 segments. It is an open source and open API product, and is one of the few LMSs that has a free mobile app to go along with it.

Sakai: Sakai is a full featured LMS built by many universities including University of Michigan, Indiana University, and Stanford, which has been adopted by several universities across the country. It is not open sourced, but operated on a community backed license. Corrected information: It has a very permissive open source license.

Moodle: Moodle is a fully featured and powerful LMS, but the once dynamic open source community behind it has seen some attrition. The LMS isn’t on the leading edge anymore, but with continued support from developers, it continues to remain very relevant.

ELMS: Headed by Bryan Ollendyke of Penn State University, ELMS is the most prominent Drupal based LMS. A lot of progress has been made, but there is still some work to be done, and Bryan is a well of knowledge on the subject and is happy to talk to anyone that wants to help further its development.

Blackboard: The original dominant LMS, Blackboard has been falling out of favor with the emergence and popularity of open source solutions. Through acquiring Moodle two Moodle partners, Angel, and continued development, Blackboard still has a full feature set, as well as a mobile app.
Update 10/23/2013: Blackboard has acquired 2 Moodle partners, not Moodle itself.

While perhaps biased, Instructure (the makers of Canvas) have a feature comparison chart on their website.

Update 03/18/2013: The above line was removed because the feature comparison on Instructure’s website is not accurate.

Site building solutions and tools

Site building tools are especially important to higher ed institutions, as they frequently need to provide academic units and departments an easy way to brand themselves under the institution’s overall brand. ImageX Media, Chapter 3, Funny Monkey, and several others have done excellent work to provide open source solutions that provide the ability to manage content, rapidly deploy sites, control branding, etc. Our four favorite Drupal based solutions are:

Social based “LMS” platforms

This class of solutions is centered around giving teachers and students a way to interact easily online. It shifts away from the “heft” of traditional LMSs to try to facilitates easy communication, discussions, sophisticated learning opportunities (traditional and e-learning), content distribution/sharing, etc. Taking the view that allowing educators and students to connect more easily provides the greatest value, all the other functionality and bells and whistles are built around that core premise. While none of these services use Drupal, the big players are:

Edmodo: With 7.4 million users at over 80,000 schools, Edmodo is considered one of the best solutions for Elementary and Middle Schools. It boasts very good security safeguards and granular permissions controls, a high degree of personalization, and customers speak highly of the responsive support team. Edmodo was the first of its kind, but is now seeing increased competition from the next two in this list.

Lore (Coursekit): Lore is at the newcomer to this arena, but is moving to the forefront rather quickly thanks to strong financial backers. It is “Course-centric”, in that each course has it’s own private “social network”. Users love its clean and elegant UI.

Schoology: Schoology combines some of the best elements of Lore and Edmodo. One of the big selling points is that unlike Edmodo’s “wall” which can get cluttered. Schoology has threaded discussion boards to make content easier to find. It also has better security and permissions granularity controls than Lore. Despite the lite/social nature of the service, Schoology bills itself as being able to perform full-blown LMS functions.

What to choose?

With all these options out there (and these are truly just a sliver of the pantheon of offerings), it is easy for education institutions to feel completely overwhelmed by the choices available. Perhaps this is natural given our open source leanings at Four Kitchens, but we believe that the best option for education institutions is the one that makes data exchange, interoperability, and connected systems most easy to achieve. The process efficiencies, cost savings, ease of administration, reporting that higher ed and K-12 institutions crave can only be realized when the systems work in concert. A comment made by one educator that I talked to should be of particular note to technical service providers; he said, “All these educational services and websites try to be software and lock you in. What I would REALLY like is for a way to make all these systems talk to each other. If you can do that, you’ve got a real winner!”