Digital learning platforms (also called eLearning platforms or Learning Management Systems) have changed education because they’ve made classroom-style learning possible no matter where you are!
With the popularity of distance learning on the rise, there are now dozens of online learning platforms to choose from. But which is the best online learning platform? And how can you pick the right learning platform for your classroom needs?
In this article, we’ll give you a critical overview of seven of the best eLearning platforms to help you get a sense of the different features that online learning systems have to offer. We’ll also explain four steps that you can follow to choose online education platforms that are a great fit for your schools, teachers, students, and parents.
Let’s get started.
What Is an Online Learning Platform?
Online learning refers to an approach to education that happens--you guessed it--totally online.
Online learning happens in a virtual classroom, which is just a centralized online location where students and teachers can come together to learn. In most cases, school districts will require all of their teachers to create virtual classrooms using something called a Learning Management System, or LMS for short. This is the heart of the online learning platform that helps teachers run their classes...and allows students to participate!
One quick note: you might be wondering whether an online learning platform and learning management software are the same things. Technically speaking, the learning management software is one tool that specifically organizes and powers the class, while the online learning platform consists of everything that makes the class possible, including things like videos, messaging clients, and even video calling software that’s not part of the LMS.
LearnUpon.com explains it this way: while almost all LMS systems can be considered eLearning platforms, eLearning platforms rely on multiple other services (rather than just one LMS software) to bring a virtual classroom to life.
But here’s the most important thing to know: eLearning platforms allow educators to present all of their course content in a digital format to students online.
In other words, online learning platforms are where students go to class. They’re where students complete course readings, attend virtual lectures and discussions, take quizzes and tests, and submit assignments. They can even work on and complete group projects through an online learning platform!
An example of an online learning platform that you may be familiar with is Canvas—which we’ll talk more about later—but the eLearning platforms and LMSs used by K-12 schools can vary. This is because there are a lot of options to choose from.
Don’t worry, though--many schools provide training, tutorials, and IT support for teachers who need a little help navigating their new online classroom. If your school doesn’t provide this kind of support, most LMSs provide assistance if you need it.
There are tons of online learning platforms, so choosing one can be an intimidating process. We've put together a list of the best ones out there to help! (Nick Youngson/NYPhotographic)
The 7 Best Online Learning Platforms
Choosing an online learning platform and learning how to navigate it can be tough, so we’re here to help. We’ll go over the key features of seven online learning systems to help you get the lay of the land.
ViewSonic provides digital whiteboarding suites for education, called myViewBoard. This digital learning tool can be used to prepare and deliver engaging lessons online, promote collaboration, and convey ideas visually.
myViewBoard may be best suited for schools and teachers that are seeking to enhance how they present digital educational content. For instance, if educators at your school want to rely less on print-based assignments and activities and work in more of an audiovisual format, myViewBoard can be used for this purpose.
Through the “cast-in” and “cast-out” features on myViewBoard, teachers and students can share, remotely edit, and annotate images and canvases in real-time. For many students, this can feel more like a real classroom, since they can answer questions and write on the board as part of each lesson. If you’re a teacher, myViewBoard can be easy to set up, too. That’s because it can also be integrated directly with your school’s existing Cloud service.
Having said that, if you’re not having “live” meetings with your students, then myViewBoard might not be the tool you’re looking for. It’s a better choice for teachers who are teaching synchronous, or live, classes.
Blackboard Unite is an online learning platform designed for remote learning in a K-12 environment. Using Blackboard Unite, teachers lead the way using tools that can be personalized based on teaching approach and specific student needs. Lots of colleges and universities use Blackboard because the personalization tools create lots of flexibility for educators no matter which subject they teach.
If you’re the type of teacher that wants control over every aspect of how your course works, then BlackBoard is a good choice for you! The downside is that Blackboard is so customizable that it can be a pain to get through your initial course setup. You might pass on BlackBoard if you’re looking for an eLearning platform that has a more straightforward course creation system.
Also, through the Blackboard Unite LMS, teachers and students can access a secure virtual classroom that’s easy to use and private. (No Zoom bombing here!) In the virtual classroom, teachers and students can connect and collaborate using video, audio, screen sharing, and white boards. Through Blackboard’s accessibility tools, teachers can format digital content into inclusive formats, such as Electronic Braille, audio, and ePub.
Many educators, parents, and students find Blackboard particularly useful because of its mobile app. Blackboard’s mobile app is free, easy to use, and enables teachers to communicate with students and update course content on-the-go.
#3: Canvas eLearning
Canvas is a comprehensive eLearning platform that provides a virtual classroom for teachers. Canvas is a popular platform for all levels of students, from kindergarteners all the way through high school seniors. That’s partly because Canvas specializes in integrating with a school’s existing student information system. That way it can pull information from a variety of resources into one place without a huge fuss.
Among Canvas’s best features are an Outcomes feature that allows teachers to build learning objectives into their courses, and a SpeedGrader tool that can be used to align grades on various assignments using rubrics. Through SpeedGrader, teachers can provide detailed feedback on assignments through annotations and even use a device webcam to provide face-to-face feedback to students—and save precious time in the process.
Another appealing feature of Canvas is that content, assessments, and even entire courses can be shared among teachers through Canvas Commons to promote collaboration. These features allow schools to engage students in the highest quality learning materials and instruction.
Canvas’ robust features and collaborative nature make it a popular learning tool for many K-12 teachers. Unfortunately, its customization features are limited, which means it’s not a great choice for teaching college classes.
Alma is an online learning system that allows teachers to curate calendars, curriculum, rosters, gradebooks, and provide curriculum and assignments through a student and parent portal.
But Alma does more than just provide a system where teachers can create an online classroom. This online learning tool is worth considering for those who want to integrate school management, reporting and analytics, instructional management, communications, admissions and enrollment, and online learning into one system.
Overall, one of the greatest advantages of Alma is that it takes busywork off of teachers’ and administrators’ plates through its wide range of accessible features. This allows educators to focus on the most important work of engaging students in a quality online learning experience.
Having said that, if analytics don’t really matter to you—or if you want an online learning platform that’s just focused on creating a virtual classroom—then you might try a few other eLearning systems first.
PowerSchool Learning, formerly called Haiku Learning, is an eLearning platform designed specifically for K-12 educators. It allows teachers to run an online class, and users can do things like create interactive web pages, present online projects, and host class discussions.
Using PowerSchool, teachers can create a class website, develop their own digital assignments, or curate and integrate other educational materials found online. PowerSchool allows students to view an ongoing calendar of assignments and activity scheduling and due dates. Teachers can also easily send due date reminders and class announcements to students, take attendance, keep an online gradebook, send feedback on assignments to students, and access stats on student engagement.
Additionally, the platform’s district-wide feature allows administrators to manage their schools in order to keep everyone on the same page. This feature can make it easier for administrators to promote collaboration among teachers as well.
True to its name, PowerSchool is a powerful tool for educators. But it can be tough to learn, and some teachers have reported that it’s tough to reach PowerSchool’s representatives if you need extra support. If you’re looking for an eLearning platform that’s more user-friendly, then you might check out another software instead.
Schoology, which was recently purchased by PowerSchool, is designed to facilitate online education that can be personalized for elementary, middle, and high school students. Even though it’s owned by PowerSchool, Schoolology is a completely separate product. This online learning platform enables educators to create interactive assessments, pace learning based on student proficiency, and design activities that allow students a choice in how they learn.
Schoology also allows incorporation of school districts’ existing student information systems and Google and Microsoft documents. This may be a big draw for districts that want to lessen the burden of transitioning a class to an online format for teachers. The ability to integrate existing documents and info as-is will save time and effort and allow teachers to focus on personalizing their Schoology classrooms to meet the needs of their students.
Another major perk of Schoology is that it seamlessly integrates content from external sources. From Khan Academy, to Google Apps, to BrainPop, Schoology makes it easy for teachers to supplement course content with relatable educational resources from all over the web. Schoology also makes it easy for entire educational communities--students, teachers, administrators, coaches, and parents--to communicate and collaborate.
Schoology is a great option for teachers who are looking for a user-friendly, all-in-one platform that can integrate with their existing resources. But if you’re already a PowerSchool user, or if you need a more streamlined program, Schoolology might not be for you.
#7: Google Classroom
While designed for use across a range of industries, Google Classroom is also a top choice for online learning in K-12 education and on college campuses. Google Classroom integrates the main Google applications--Google Docs, Sheets, Slides, Gmail, and Calendar--into a streamlined platform to manage teacher and student interactions.
It’s important to know that the main purpose of Google Classroom is to simplify creating, sharing, and grading assignments. Here’s how this works: teachers typically share a code or link with students that invites them to join the Google Classroom. Teachers can then set up a class calendar that populates with assignment information and deadlines that updates immediately for student access. Teachers can create individual folders in Google Drive within the Classroom that are personalized for each student. Students can use these folders to receive and submit assignments and assignment feedback.
Google Classroom is appealing because of its ease of use and universal device accessibility. Some drawbacks to consider include the lack of support for integration of external files and services and automated quizzes and tests. In other words, Google Classroom is a great fit for streamlining the process of making assignments accessible to students and receiving completed assignments, but this platform may need to be integrated with other online learning systems in order to meet all of a school’s needs.
4 Steps to Choosing the Best eLearning Platforms
Now that you know a little bit about some of the best eLearning platforms, here are the four steps you can follow to figure out which platform is right for you.
Step 1: Set Clear Goals
The first step to deciding on an eLearning platform is assessing what needs the system should meet and setting clear goals. To do this, you may want to start by brainstorming with fellow administrators and teachers to discuss what features you think are right for your students. Do they need live lectures, or would they do better with video recordings they can watch on their own time? Do you want to use discussion groups as part of the class experience? Do you need a whiteboard to help walk students through complex problems?
It boils down to this: it’s better to fit the online learning platform to your students than the other way around!
Once you’ve talked with all the important stakeholders about the online learning needs, you’ll probably want to set some clear-cut goals. These are quantifiable outcomes that the best online learning platforms will help you achieve. For instance, maybe you want every student to receive face-to-face verbal feedback on end-of-semester projects. Given this goal, you’d need to search for an online learning platform that provides video conferencing tools and/or the ability to upload and share videos with students.
Step 2: Explore Your Options
Once you have a clear sense of your needs and goals, you can hunt for the best online learning platforms! Our list of the best online learning platforms has probably clued you in to the fact that there are a lot of options, which is why it’s important to know exactly what you’re looking for.
Take your time researching online education platforms: read reviews and testimonials, find out what system school districts like yours are using, and check out the various features offered by each online learning platform you look at. Dedicating time and effort to this process will ensure everyone is satisfied with the online learning experience once it gets underway.
It’s also important to factor cost into your decision. Some of these eLearning platforms are only available at the enterprise level, meaning a whole school or district has to commit to using them in order for you to have access. Other platforms, like Google Classroom, are more accessible for individual instructors. Knowing your budget can help you pick a platform that fits your needs and your finances.
Step 3: Try a Demo
Once you get to the point of narrowing down the options to a couple of choices, it might be worth it to schedule a demo of the systems you’re eyeing to help you finalize your decision.
Playing around with a live demo and watching tutorial videos can help you visualize exactly what the system can do for your schools. A demo can also give you a sense of how accessible the technology is for teachers and students, and how much training and scaffolding will be needed to get everybody on board.
Step 4: Evaluate and Select
The final step to picking an online learning platform is to choose one! During this step, you may want to review your research on online education platforms with other educators. Doing this will help you confirm that the choices you’re considering are a good fit for teachers, students, and parents.
If you’re choosing an online learning platform for your whole school, make sure you’re checking in with teachers who will be using the software to make sure it’s really what they need. (Some of these platforms lock you into a contract, so it won’t be easy to switch if it’s not working out.) This is important for individual educators to consider, too: you don’t want to fork out tons of your own money for a system that isn’t useful for you.
Once you’ve made your choice, you’ll get to the fun part: setting up your classroom and preparing for your students! The right eLearning platform can make this a simple and (mostly) painless process.
If you’re a student, you might be a bit confused about how online classes work on your end. How do you take a course when you aren’t actually sitting in a classroom? This article will demystify the process for you!
Are you a student that’s taking online classes? Check out our daily schedule for distance learning that can help keep you on track.
Don’t worry: we have tons of tips for you to get the most out of your online classes. Here are our 6 tips for doing well in the digital classroom.
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Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.