In this article I will recapitulate few excerpts from the e-learning literature in an attempt to give a clear picture on e-Learning models. The purpose is to give a brief idea about this new trend in higher education which pushes towards utilizing information and communication technologies (ICT) to the fullest extent. First, I will discuss the benefits and limitations of ICT-based learning, and then I will go over some of the existing virtual learning environments (VLEs). Next, I will be discussing models for online courses, some web-based learning management systems, and finally I will list few points to consider when going for an e-learning solution.
The current structure of higher education in many countries around the world consists of small percentage of the population drawn from a much wider spectrum of nontraditional students. The current trend which is pushing towards the goal of mass higher education and widening participation, taken alongside an almost continuous reduction of funding for higher education in many countries, means that what was considered to be ‘good practice’ in the old traditional universities – lectures coupled with regular seminars and small tutorials plus good individual access to tutors – is becoming unsustainable for all but the wealthiest and most elite universities. The use of technology, particularly information and communication technology, to support learning promises much. This technology provides the learners with an environment that allows them to distribute their studies in terms of place, time and pace, and most importantly, the ICTs give teaching staff more opportunities to actually communicate with students than just face-to-face.
With the advent of the web technologies, the past few years have witnessed radical changes in the field of education and particularly in the instructional delivery methods. A number of schools, colleges and universities worldwide have adopted web technologies into their educational framework. Web based educational frameworks have several obvious advantages offering unprecedented degree of flexibility and interactivity; some of these advantages are:
Flexibility and control: The learner is not restricted by geographical locations or time constraints while still enjoying full control of the learning process.
Reduced cost – Coping with increased student numbers: Courses developed for the web prove cheaper to run because of less dependence on highly qualified teachers every time the course is presented.
Improved interaction: ICTs provide a number of ways for tutor-student synchronous and asynchronous interaction besides face-to-face tutorials.
Enhanced tracking, monitoring, archiving and retrieving processes: ICT can greatly improve tracking and monitoring processes and also will decrease handling errors.
Sharing and re-use of resources: ICTs can reduce the need for the scarce resources and allow for their sharing among more students.
Collaborative work: ICT’s enhanced interaction facilities can remove barriers of all sorts among learners and hence facilitate an easier environment for them to carry out many kinds of group projects.
Student-centered learning: ICT-based learning places the student at the center of the learning process. It provides greater flexibility in terms of learning time and pace.
It should be noticed that ICT-based learning is not just a question of web-enabling course material. Today, web-based learning is a topic of considerable research and empirical studies to understand the ways in which it differs from traditional models of learning, the implications of such differences, and the ways to use the newly available technological infrastructures effectively. The apparent differences come from two fundamental points: the lack of face-to-face contact with the faculty and peers, and the moving of control from the teacher to the student. The implications of these differences are related to two main factors:
Student Motivation: Lesser control over the student adherence to the study calendars.
Assessment: Lesser accuracy in assessing the students’ work effectively, especially in practical tests.
The idea is to come up with an appropriate application within the institution’s learning paradigm so that some of these negative implications can be alleviated. These applications might include requiring the learners to participate in a set of mandatory face-to-face tutorials which give both the teacher and the learner opportunities to build motivation, assess progress, convey the course content, formulate suitable testing mechanisms, and undergo oral, written, and practical tests.
Example ICT-Based Learning models
E-learning is currently a very active area of research. The progress in computer and communication technology alongside the increasing interest in e-learning recently resulted in many universities combining many aspects of e-learning into VLEs. It is worth mentioning that the concept of VLE is a fairly new and current one.
There are a number of universities that have built their own VLEs. The Arab Open University, for example, uses a hybrid system combining ICTs and traditional learning methods. The AOU model uses ICT to support content delivery, e-Testing, e-Assignments, and computer-mediated communication; while requiring the students to attend mandatory face-to-face tutorials.
Another example is the VLE built by the National University of Singapore http://www.nus.edu.sg. The VLE in NUS was first developed in 1998. It is used as a supplement to classroom teaching for over than 2,400 courses and 28,000 students.
The United Kingdom Open University is a well-known example of schools depending on ICTs to deliver high quality courses. The UKOU uses FirstClass to mediate interaction between students and tutors with limited and optional face-to-face interaction. One of the main distinguishing features of the academic programs at the UKOU is the quality of the courses in these programs. Sample courses information can be found at http://tu170.open.ac.uk/info.
The above list is not meant to be comprehensive as they are so many other examples around the world.
Existing online courses follow three basic models, these are content-plus-support, wraparound, and integrated models . We will discus these three models in the sequel.
The content-plus-support model relies on the separation between course content and tutorial support. The contents are the static unchanging part of the course which can be presented in a variety of ways such as printed, audio, video, or web materials. The tutorial support can be delivered by phone, email, conferencing, or even face-to-face whenever possible. The level of on-line interaction is low (typically no more than 20% of the time). This model is similar to traditional teaching and is the most common model currently in use, though it is the most expensive form of online course delivery model.
In the wraparound model, courses are made up from customized activities and study calendars wrapped around an existing resource such as a textbook. Thus, it is a resource-based approach to learning. The learners have the responsibility to interpret the course, carry out the customized activities, and follow the study calendars. The tutor’s role is more extensive because less of the course is pre-determined and more is created each time the course is delivered through the discussions and activities.
The integrated model is the opposite of content-plus-support model. The course consists of learning resources, collaborative activities, and joint assignments. The course contents are not pre-determined; rather the course is defined by collaborative activities, discussions and joint assignments. Resources are contributed by participants as the course develops. Hence, the integrated model dissolves the distinction between content and support, and is dependent on the creation of a learning community.
ICT-Based Learning Management Systems
A large number of ICT-based learning management tools have emerged recently. These tools help the instructor in developing course material, assignments, tests, enrollment, grading, tracking of students, online interaction as well as other course administration tasks.
There are three main approaches for creating online courses . The choice of an approach that works depends on the course requirement and the course designer skills.
Computer-Based Training (CBT): A class of tools accessible to course designers with specific programming skills. The tools can be used to create multimedia training that can be run on the Internet, from a CD, or from a combination of the two. Early versions of LearnSpace and ToolBookII are two examples of CBT tools.
Course-in-A-Box (CAB): A bunch of tools to create an online course. WebCT and Blackboard are two examples of the many systems based on this approach.
Do-it-yourself: This approach emphasizes the use of web authoring software such as Java, Active Server Pages, ASP, etc. This approach allows working at finer levels allowing complete control over the course design and hence freeing the designer from the tools limits (CBT or CAB tools). The obvious disadvantage relates to the required programming skill. However, web authoring software and languages are often used in conjunction with CBT and CAB tools in a “what works” approach .
In what follows we will list some of the well-known tools for web-based course management (mostly course-in-A-Box). These are WebCT, Blackboard, Convene.com's Ac@deme, Internet Classroom Assistant, e-college.com, and Virtual-U. The list does not end here, as there are other tools developed and being used at prominent VLE setups. Some examples on these tools are Intralearn, Softarc FirstClass, Eduprise.com, E-Education, IMSeries Asymetrix, Centra Symposium, CoSE, CoMentor, Learning Landscapes, CourseInfo and many others. For a more comprehensive survey on web-based course management tools, the reader is referred to [2, 3, 6]. A comparative analysis on the features supported by some of the web-based course management tools can be found in [1, 2, 3].
Selecting the Learning Management System (LMS)
The selection of an LMS product depends on the learning objectives. For instance the distinction between online education where educational courses cover knowledge and online technical training where courses cover skills will significantly help in deciding which LMS would be most appropriate.
Education-based LMS should automate administrative services as well as enable pieces of the learning process, enable professors to post course information, house educational resources, enable synchronous and asynchronous discussion, and provide assessment services.
However, in training-based LMS automating administrative services is often less important and the focus shifts to applications that enable and manage the learning process. For example, several commercially available LMSs have built-in software features that are adept at tracking a student’s progress to a predetermined learning path. Some examples include Learning Portal, Ingenium, and Docent which have built-in features that compare a student’s entry-level knowledge with the training needed to satisfy course requirements.
The following key criteria were used to evaluate seven LMSs during the PC Week LMS Shoot Out in October 1999 .
Installation: The instructional features and interface design within the LMS that make it easy to access and use.
Registration: Ease of registration, system response time, auditing, payments, etc.
Capability: Support and verify student compliance with the requirements such as prerequisite checking, support of book marking, profiling, individual and group tracking, automatic notification, and online testing, help, and course map.
Administration: Support of resource scheduling and conflict resolution, profile management, student record management, course budget tracking. etc.
Collaboration: Support of threaded synchronous and asynchronous communication.
Reporting: Various report generation capabilities.
Security: Access levels, authentication, authorization, privacy, and firewall support.
Scalability: Degree of scalability in terms of students, courses, servers.
Reliability/availability: Support of fast distributed database and network structures and the existence of import/export capabilities for large databases.
Third-Party Support: Support of third-party content authoring and formatting, report generation, etc.
Customizability: The capability to customize instruction to the students or tutor groups.
Fulfillment: Compliance with the academic accreditation requirements (local and world-wide).
 Robin Mason, "Models of Online Courses", ALN Magazine Volume 2, Issue 2 - October 1998.
 Sandy Britain and Oleg Liber, "A Framework for Pedagogical Evaluation of Virtual Learning Environments", University of Wales – Bangor.
 Mary O'Sullivan, "Course Creation Software: What Works for Instruction", Western Wisconsin Technical College La Crosse, Wisconsin.
 Bethoney, H. (1999). PC Week Shoot Out: "Learning Management Systems".
http://www.zdnet.com/eweek/stories/general/0,11011,2391382,00.html (November 1999).
 Katharine Golas, "Guidelines For Designing Online Learning", Southwest Research Institute, San Antonio, Texas.
 Thelma Looms, "Survey of Course and Test Delivery/Management Systems for Distance Learning", online and regularly updated survey