Prepared by Mike Simpson, June 2020
[email protected]

Update November 2020: Now that we are 9 months into the the effects of COVID-19, I feel it is time for education and business to prepare to be able to operate completely online. The pandemic is predicted to disrupt business as usual for 2 or more years. The time is now to make the move to providing education via online services. If your organization would like to discuss my training and e-learning design services please get in touch. 

There’s never been a better time to consider e-learning and get started with development of training or education resources, media and websites for your class, organization or business. The following are thoughts about e-learning approaches and tools in 2020. Your questions and feedback are welcome.

During the Coronavirus pandemic many individuals, agencies and companies are moving online. Some are caught off guard and may only have a partial ability to do education work wholly online. Others, probably a minority unless you work in e-learning or online course provision, have been ready for this and will excel.

Considering overall that some elements of the economy are in a downturn, as people face unemployment or sickness or interruption generally to school and other facets of life, it will not be possible to magically transform what you do. However as is the case with “bite-sized” lessons (to use e-learning parlance) it may be possible to either jump into a project or take small steps that will get you going in the right direction and build capacity for the future.

Consider the importance of-

  • Media (audio, video) and Images (going beyond clipart)
  • Micro-learning – learning in small chunks
  • Mobile-learning – lessons designed for small screens
  • Professionalizing your approach (high quality, reusable learning objects)

Video accounts for more than half of all online content. It’s the easiest way for a teacher to present a lecture-style lesson or for Linkedin to present an online course. Audio is often overlooked and presents a simpler path to developing engaging media. Consider also screen recordings, especially software walk-throughs to familiarize people with computer or Internet software (used in organizational onboarding for new hires). Podcasts are really just fancy audio recordings. Audio is accessible to many and often cheaper and easier to produce.

Images are an easier aspect of creating rich content. We no longer expect or want to see clipart or simplistic icons thrown into a document. Photos can be more ambiguous for more broader use and richer in interpretation. CC aka Creative Commons images are easy to find. Often they don’t require even offering credit but that is easy to provide. Sites like Pixabay or Unsplash are excellent.

Micro-learning is the idea of using mini-lessons or resources that can be developed quickly and used in bite-sized increments. If it takes only 5-10 minutes to use, the learning resource can be considered micro. Put a dozen together and you have something substantial yet digestible.

Mobile friendly or mobile first is the rallying cry of web designers who want to reach the masses. Speaking of which, using micro-learning fits in with mobile learning which approximates to learning on the go. Downloadable video chunks fit the bill but keep in mind a properly formatted PDF can also be read easily on mobile (tap the “liquid” icon in the mobile Adobe Reader app to “reflow” the document into one column).

Professional and Permanent E-learning

Nothing will replace the benefits of a course designed to be operated completely online as if affords quality and convenience. Moving toward an archive of digital and modular materials and recyclable course content is initially more costly but more rewarding to learners and cost effective to providers in the mid to long term.

Let’s look at some current trends and tools.

Emergency online learning vs E-learning

During the crisis, many teachers and programs have had to move online. This was done very suddenly and created a scramble. Teachers are turning to tools like Zoom to connect live with students and create a face to face environment. Teachers are being asked to improvise and make do to finish their current semesters. The main difference between temporary emergency online work and e-learning which is permanent and ongoing is that courses designed for true e-learning will be developed with more care and be a smoother experience for the learner. E-learning also allows for more autonomy and learner-directed learning in true asynchronous fashion (learner logs in at a time convenient to them rather than being required to be online at a specific time).

In the future more classrooms will be wholly online and true e-learning experiences will replace the temporary variety being employed now. A way to think about this is the Zoom meeting vs a video recording. Zoom is used primarily for things like live meetings or webinars. While these can be recorded, the purpose is primarily real time lectures with Q and A either during or post presentation. An e-learning course would likely have a script, present a voiceover or lecture recorded with higher quality audio and video gear and the final video could feature tighter production quality and sophistication of visuals, possibly including animation, stock or multi-camera video of the presenter or relevant related imagery.

LMS aka Learning Management System (Online Courseware)

LMS means learning management system or a software designed to facilitate distance or online learning. Various LMSs are used to provide a calendar for due dates, resources and activities, assignments and other documents, discussion forum, quizzes, and tools for teachers to conduct assessment, screen for plagiarism, manage grading and perform other course maintenance. Generally speaking an LMS is cloud-based and exists to support both online courses and face to face classes.

If you are using Moodle you are using an LMS. Other well known LMS software for institutions include Blackboard, (D2L / Desire to Learn).

If you are using Google Drive and tools like Slides or Forms you are using a grab bag of miscellaneous tools which can overlap some of the functionality of a dedicated learning management system. It’s possible for example to set up a quiz in a Google Form and then use a script to automate the grading of the quiz.

Google software cannot necessarily replace an LMS like Moodle with its suite of tools but Google does offer the comparable Google Classroom.

List of possible tools

Moodle / Blackboard / Brightspace (D2L) – used by colleges and universities, LINC programs, corporate training departments. Costs can be high unless you are using open-source Moodle and able to manage web hosting. All are ready to go out of the box but can require training to make best use of tools. Moodle can require tech support if you are not very tech-minded yourself or the hiring of a provider of managed hosting like those doing Moodlerooms.

Schoology / Edmodo – Unlike the above, an individual teacher could get a course up and running within minutes with no tech requirement. Free versions of the software allow you to set up a fully functioning online course. Most people find they can do use these types of LMS without specialized training. Some larger institutions also use corporate versions of the software (referred to as “enterprise” in contrast to “free”). – very user friendly, looks like Facebook, great social features. Though it bills itself as a K-12 solution anyone can use for any kind of class or training. – often compared with Schoology, full tool set.

Mike’s notes on the idea of a DIY LMS

If you are a teacher or trainer looking to set up an online course quickly Schoology would be a nice place to start, unless of course your organization already requires you to use a tool like Moodle. If you were forced to use a random collection of non-LMS tools like Google apps, Zoom etc then an LMS like Schoology could really help tie things together with one single online “homebase” for you to develop your course and interact with your students. (I once ran a course for teachers called “DIY LMS” and we used Schoology – it was a fantastic tool! I supplemented with a WordPress blog and asked students to draft assignments in Google Docs).

Google Classroom – I don’t have direct experience with this. Some blogs report that integration with tools like Google Drive, YouTube etc is fantastic but it doesn’t have all the features of other LMS software.

WordPress with LearnDash or Sensei LMS – WordPress powers a majority of the world’s websites and is very popular. You can use any of a dozen or so course plugins that integrate with WP. A very popular paid one for pros is LearnDash. Alternately try the free Sensei LMS, built by Automattic, the company behind products like WordPress.

Caveat: If you know WordPress or are willing to learn these are a good option but like Moodle they may require some extra tech support to run smoothly. Positives include the ability to make your LMS integrate with and look as stylish as your website or blog. The only downfall is the associated need to perform maintenance, backups etc.

Top LMS for institutions and developers 2020 (Moodle, Moodle, Moodle)

Just looking at three random job listings for e-learning developers and coordinators it is clear that to work in this area one should be familiar with Moodle. I found listings for jobs with a university, online LINC, and a healthcare provider, all referenced familiarity with Moodle as being a top requirement.

Related skills and knowledge areas for e-learning

Referring again to the employment and project picture, new hires are asked to have experience in areas like instructional design, adult learning principles, accessibility and copyright standards.

Specific E-learning Areas of Expertise 

Going beyond general knowledge of project management, communication tools, software technologies such as Office, and the aforementioned LMS systems like Moodle, applicants are asked to have familiarity with further technical standards such as SCORM / Experience API (Tin Can API) or with Course Authoring software (next section).

Types of jobs for people working in e-learning

● Project manager – supervise project and team members, develop goals and timeline
● Instructional designer – build courses following principles of general / online education 
● E-learning developer – bring content online to website or LMS, use course authoring tools such as Articulate Storyline, Adobe Captivate
● Graphic designer – design graphics, edit images, assets for digital or print
● Media producer – develop content such as audio or video, HTML5 animations
● SME – subject matter expert, such as teacher, act as consultant and writer
● Writer – see above, SME

Course authoring software (more about e-learning development)

E-learning developers are expected to know a range of software from tools inside an LMS like Moodle or Blackboard to specialist course creation software like Articulate Storyline or Adobe Captivate. You can think of Storyline as PowerPoint on steroids, able to animate elements like text, photos and graphics in a timeline similar to a video editor. Course authors can create quizzes, develop learning paths that vary according to user input or produce sophisticated engaging interactivity such as games.

E-learning authors are also expected to have some familiarity with web standards and design tools like Adobe CC (though media and graphics specialists will know more). 

Other Issues aka the “Big Picture”

While e-learning and course software tools are a plus whether for part-time training, employee onboarding, flipped K-12 classrooms, fully online college courses, or enhancing emergency distance education during a crisis like the pandemic, it’s worth discussing issues such as the equity impact of e-learning on students, and the benefits of in-class learning. E-learning is not for everyone, all the time. Each situation requires a different solution. Multiple tools might be of use and over time the needs of students, teachers and organizations may change.

During this spring and summer, and looking toward fall 2020, it is imperative though to start considering how one might effectively employ e-learning considering that business as usual, face to face education seems unlikely to be practiced during this calendar year.


Mike Simpson photo

Mike Simpson is an educator and designer from Toronto, and the founder of Ancestry Project, which won the “Digital Teaching or Learning Resource” award from TESL Canada in 2017. He’s worked at George Brown and Centennial College teaching a variety of courses in programs like EAP English and Art/Graphic Design. Mike loves education and media and finds e-learning sits in that perfect sweet spot. A lifelong learner, he completed the University of Toronto E-Learning certificate in 2016 and continues to work in e-learning, media and education development.