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Sociotechnical systems recognized many years ago that organizations functioned most effectively when their social and technological networks were compatible . This is the case exactly with e-learning systems. LMSs can't provide the managerial functions needed to support universities, and UMISs don't support the "learning" process. Both systems have to integrate and operate together to support educational institutions and e-learning.
While an instructor and graduation projects supervisor in the Faculty of Computers and Information Sciences at Mansoura University, Egypt, I often found myself frustrated with the number of graduation projects that used "e-Learning" in the title. There was a mild obsession with the managerial aspects of "the university" and abstracting the learning process from the uploading of course documents.
In my attempt to clarify this confusion, I thought about surveying a prototypical e-learning model and presenting one of the UMIS models, casting them side-by-side to help clarify the confusion by highlighting their differences. My goal is to make this piece of research available to students and e-learning researchers, so we can together overcome this confusion and start focusing on the "learning" process as the main asset of "e-learning."
Is e-Learning Always About Learning?
When you type "e-learning" into a search engine, you find the word has been widely used to refer to computer-based systems that do not necessarily maintain the objective of "learning."
Researchers believe that one of the goals of introducing e-learning was to revolutionize the learning process, either by facilitating many of the challenges that face instructors and learners daily, or by presenting opportunities that might have not existed before.
Evaluating e-learning is a wide and tough research field that needs more work. Some e-learning researchers believe that utilizing technology within the learning process has not to date achieved many objectives because requirements were not addressed correctly and clearly. Too often, the learning process and its main activities were neglected for the sake of introducing and focusing only on the technological aspects. The same group believes that one road to a solution is to start by addressing effective future e-learning requirements, current e-learning shortcomings, and today's technological limitations. Others, such as the University of Phoenix believe that online learning has achieved quite a bit of success and diffusion.
E-learning can be thought of as the learning process created by interaction with digitally delivered content, services, and support [10, 14, 46]. It involves intensive use of information and communication technology to serve, facilitate, and revolutionize the learning process [12, 26, 36, 38, 52].
Figure 1 shows three main learning models that we have come to recognize over the years [12, 26, 38, 52].
1. Traditional learning. In traditional learning, students head to a school, college, or other physical space in which to learn. Information and communication technology can enhance the learning process, but is not necessarily included. For example, data show and presentations can be thought of as an implementation of e-learning within a traditional learning institution .
Figure 1. Learning models.
2. Distance learning. In distance learning, an instructor and students are separated by time, location, or both. Education or training courses are delivered to remote locations via synchronous or asynchronous means of instruction . Distance education does not preclude the use of the traditional classroom .
3. Blended learning. Blended learning combines multiple models to learning. For example, students in a traditional class can be assigned both print-based and online materials .
Management Information Systems
E-learning tends to revolutionize and manage the learning process , not only to manage universities. Ignoring the learning process while designing and developing e-learning systems leads to management information systems (MIS), which are important in managing educational institutions activities and help educational institutions achieve a mature level of automation, but are not themselves learning-focused systems.
University management information system. Managing universities activities requires a university management information system. UMIS refers broadly to a computer-based system "collection of hardware, software, people, data, and information" that provides managers with the tools for organizing, evaluating, and efficiently running their departments [33, 54].
Examples of UMIS components include a student information system (SIS), a library information system, a faculty information system, and a finance system, as illustrated in Figure 2. Below, I present each component in brief detail, listing the reasons they can't be considered part of an e-learning system.
Figure 2. A prototypical university management information system.
Student information system. SIS is the information system responsible for managing students' data at the university. A typical student record in the SIS might includes the student's ID, social security number, name, age, gender, address, email, username, password, date of birth, faculty, university status, and department .
SIS by itself is not an e-learning system because personal data that it provides and manages differs in nature than data required for education . For example, the SIS should not be able to provide things like detailed records of what the student has already learned (at the level of learning object, rather than a module or program), or a profile of his or her learning preferences, or a development portfolio of transferable skills. On the other hand, a learning portfolio might actually include a history of the student's interaction with tutors, peers, and other significant learning conversations.
This kind of data is intended to be used to force the learning process to be a learner-oriented by adapting the system to fit the learner's needs, characteristics, and capabilities. Unfortunately, SIS does not serve this purpose, and does not handle such data. (The informative model is the model that forces one way of information transformation from instructor to learner, no matter what the personal differences are, whereas the learner-oriented model modifies the system to fit the individual based on personal data.)
Library information system. Library information systems are responsible for managing and automating libraries within faculties and/or universities. Automated libraries contain material in digitized form . The database records in these libraries reflect the managerial tasks performed by librarians in order to effectively manage the libraries. A typical record will include ISBN, name, authors, keywords, and data like section, a list of all books, a list of available books, a list of borrowed books, who is borrowing, when the books are due to return, and so forth.
Automated library information systems do not in and of themselves serve the learning process and thus are not on their own considering e-learning systems. Learners should be able to access fully available digital libraries as part of the learning process.
Faculty information system. Faculty information systems manage and automate managerial activities related to instructors, employees, courses, and the intersections between them. A typical faculty information system database record includes 1) faculty data: ID, name, departments, courses data; 2) course information: course id, name, description, instructors; and 3) faculty personal data: ID, social security number, name, age, gender, address, email, username, password, date of birth, year, department; and 4) employee data, which is the same as the instructor's data but with customized data about one's job .
A faculty information system's main goal is to organize faculty and university managerial activities; the learning process is not part of the main objective and therefore it is not, on its own, considered e-learning. The system's capabilities are to generate courses reports, for example, that includes course managerial issues.
Finance system. A finance system manages financial issues related to any organization, even if this organization is a faculty or university. However, I believe financial issues of the educational institution doesn't have anything to do with e-learning at all. Though e-learning systems might encompass some financial issues of selling courses, that doesn't entitle the e-learning system to include a complete set of a university's financial system.
UMIS role. UMIS achieved success over the years and proved efficiency and effectiveness within educational institutions. UMIS is required for any successful e-Learning implementation in the three learning models, but with constraints about the role it should play. UMIS manages educational institutions, and more attention should be paid to the learning process with the presence of UMIS .
Prototypical e-Learning Researchers have tried to define a prototypical e-learning system over the years, resulting in different points of views, not to mention a variety of terms acronyms. Each term reflects its presenter's point of view and what system features must be present. Some of these terms are:
By studying all these terms, it's clear that there is some confusion regarding which tools, features, and concepts each includes in its definition. In attempt to organize those acronyms, extract features, and tools, clarify concepts—and keeping in mind that the learning process is the main concern—Figure 3 shows one way to categorize them together.
Figure 3. As an umbrella term, "e-learning" covers many features.
E-learning implements technology that enables virtual/digital university, and/or personal learning environments. A virtual or digital university is a university that implements online learning management systems or virtual learning environments and provides tools for virtual college. E-learning is the main concept that includes enabler technologies implementation for both virtual/digital university and personal learning environments (PLE). [LMS and VLE reflect the same implementation of the same concept. LMS is widely used in the U.S. and was presented in 1980, while VLE is used in U.K. and was presented in 1983 .]
PLE represents a new trend in e-learning that claims student's right to use only one gateway to be able to access different LMSs provided by different universities. Those different LMSs should be personalized and integrated within this gateway and be able to interchange educational student data and information, so provide students with portability between different systems.
Universities and colleges are digitized by implementing ICT. The maximum extent of digital university is the virtual university, where the whole learning process is managed and maintained digitally. LMS, VLE, and extended LMS are the main implementation of e-learning today.
Learning Management System and Virtual Learning Environment
LMS and VLE are more or less interchangeable, and I use LMS to refer to both. LMS is the software that automates the administration of training. The LMS registers users, tracks courses in a catalog, records data from learners, and provides reports to management.
An LMS is typically designed to handle courses by multiple publishers and providers. It usually doesn't include its own authoring capabilities. Instead, it focuses on managing courses created by a variety of other sources [10, 14]. Britain and Liber give an example of atypical LMS .
LMS features can be categorized into four main separate systems as depicted in Figure 4. Those four systems are concerned with courses, exams, assessments, and collaborative features. LMS can be thought of as the integration of four separate systems, each presenting specific functionalities via specific tools. Figure 5 depicts the most common features that should be available in each of those four separate systems.
Figure 4. The main functionalities of an LMS are four otherwise separate entities.
Figure 5. LMSs offer a long list of component functionality.
Extended LMSs include added functionality that doesn't necessarily provide e-learning per se, such as communication tools and digital libraries. Communication tools, such as support for online conferencing and chat, enable or enhances communication among instructors and students and support the existence of a virtual community.
Online conferencing. Providing conference capabilities over the internet is known as online conferencing, and it can be take three different forms:
1. Data conferencing , or sharing data interactively among several users in different locations. Data conferencing is made up of virtual whiteboards and application-sharing software, which are often used in conjunction with an audio or video connection. A whiteboard is the electronic equivalent of a chalkboard or flip chart, and participants at different locations can simultaneously write and draw on an on-screen notepad visible to all the participants. Application-sharing software is the same as remote control software, in which multiple participants can interactively work in an application that is loaded on only one user's machine. Application "viewing" is similar to application "sharing" except that only one person can manipulate what's visible.
2. Audio conferencing usually takes place when there are three or more people who are geographically dispersed. It is provided by a conference function in a multi-line telephone, or by the telephone companies in some countries, or via VOIP .
3. Video conferencing is a real-time video session between two or more users or between two or more locations. Videoconferencing may comprise any number of end points .
A virtual classroom is the online learning space where students and instructors interact . Virtual classrooms provide unique online features  such as:
Digital libraries are libraries that contain electronic materials . Digital libraries' implementations might include digital data from academic institutions, public libraries, government agencies, and museums .
Digital libraries play an important role in the learning process due to the tremendous amount of data available to any of the LMS components anytime, and anywhere. My faculty is working currently on a project to digitize graduation projects or final works as a main source of information to fresh students and as a mean to communicate back and forth between instructors and students. This digital library will be available online so readers can review books authored by faculty instructors (if they approve, of course), and review graduation projects ideas, concepts, and documentation. Hopefully this project will enhance students' graduation projects by giving them a digital library of their colleges' work, and enhancing knowledge-sharing and collaboration among faculty.
UMIS or LMS
Universities require both UMIS and LMS for efficiency and effectiveness. Neither UMIS nor LMS can replace the other. University managerial requirements are addressed by UMIS, and learning process requirements are addressed by LMS—universities need both!
Open-source LMSs are ones for which the source code is available. Free LMSs can be downloaded and offer unlimited use, but do not typically provide source code. Commercial LMSs are another option and typically come with tech support. By surveying LMSs, it is clear to find that most LMSs implement same features as depicted in prototypical LMSs as the one depicted in "Supporting Education and Research—A higher education committee"(from Joint Information Systems Committee).
Examples of Currently Available LMSs
The Learning Manager
Internet Campus Solution
|KnowEdge eLearning Suite|
One of the international initiatives that provides information to learning institutions on investing in and using information technology infrastructure is e-Framework for Education and Research. Its primary goal is to facilitate technical interoperability within and across education and research communities through improved strategic planning and implementation.
e-Framework's techniques are not intended to be applied immediately; rather, the initiative promotes a journey that takes steps and stages to achieve interoperability goals.
Socio-technical systems recognized many years ago that organizations functioned most effectively when their social and technological networks were compatible. LMSs are responsible for learning activities while UMISs are responsible for handling University managerial activities.
But both UMISs and LMSs have to integrate and operate together to support educational institutions and e-learning.
About the Author
Haitham A. El-Ghareeb is an associate teacher in the Information Systems Department, Faculty of Computers and Information Sciences, at Mansoura University, Egypt.
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