Online Learning Platforms: What You Need To Know

  (Updated April 19, 2022)
Clay Scarborough
Clay Scarborough
High school principal; M.A. in Education, principal certification

I graduated high school in 1995, which seems ancient now. I went to school pre-internet in every classroom, and during college, the internet slowly became commonplace in our dorms, apartments, and the classroom.

I had some uber organized traditional teachers, and their papers all went into trays. They had quick, fancy grading systems; on the left chalkboard were the assignments for the week, and in the tray at the right of the chalkboard were the previous assignments that we picked up when we were absent. Picture all of that in one place within eLearning, and you get the online learning platform!

What is an Online Learning Platform?

Based on some different searches for a common definition, an online learning platform (OLP) is a webspace or portal for educational content and resources that offers a student everything they need in one place. This holds videos, notes, previous and current assignments, etc. It is a one-stop shop for student learning.

For teachers, this place would need to have the storage and ability to organize, grade assignments for students, and have a way for students to turn in work online (like those plastic trays) and keep all of their lessons organized. Without the OLP, what happened in 2020 to education could have been a disaster.

How were Online Learning Platforms Utilized During COVID?

When the world shut down for the COVID-19 pandemic in March of 2020, the necessity of the OLP was fully realized. I remember conversing with a colleague during that spring break, asking her if we would need to have a Google Classroom refresher when we got back so that the teachers who had not used it could get ready. She laughed and said, “I hope not.” In February 2020, I should have bought stock in Google.

For most of us in education, the OLP became the primary delivery method of our lessons and content. Some teachers were already using Google Classroom, Canvas, or Blackboard to post assignments, videos, learning content, and more. When living rooms and kitchens became the schoolhouse, the OLP made getting the content home more manageable.

Where I was principal at the time in rural North Texas, we still had students without internet at their house. Thus, packets were still distributed and sometimes mailed or delivered to homes and then returned. However, over 70% of our students got their work and returned it through Google Classroom.

How are Online Learning Platforms Utilized Post-COVID?

Where I am now, post-COVID, and based on other principals I have spoken to around the country, many teachers hold onto their OLPs to be that one-stop-shop for students.

I have one teacher who now uses Google Classroom for his lecture math videos, the place the students check when they come in the class for their assignment and warm-ups, copies of written notes (especially for his students who need this accommodation), and a place to turn work in. His students can go back to the videos and class notes when they need to work at home or prepare for a test.

Even some lovable “dinosaurs” that I work with have kept their OLP to keep assignments and notes for students available through the year. The pandemic changed habits, some for good and some for bad; it pushed many teachers to grow more comfortable with technology in the classroom and changed some of their habits in how they use technology.

What to Consider When Choosing an Online Learning Platform

Teachers primarily need to have their OLP of choice be a delivery system for content, then come the bells and whistles. Some OLPs will do grading for you, have chat rooms, discussion boards, time logs of how long students were on the platform, and more. That was important to us in Texas and why we used Canvas for a while because it could tell us if the students met their number of required minutes on the platform.

Online Learning Platforms to Explore

There are many different online learning platforms. Let’s start with a couple of stalwarts here: Google Classroom and Canvas.

Google Classroom

Most of you have some knowledge of this free platform. I have taught numerous educators how to use Google Classroom, which means one of the pros is that it has an easy-to-learn interface to upload videos, papers, etc. You can even grade using Google Workspace. This is one of the easiest places to manage and organize your class content.

Google Classroom exceeds in ease of use, but it does lack heavily in the parent communication side. Parents can follow the class and see the information but have to scroll through many previously posted items to find the work. Basics are off the chart, extras a little harder come by.

Canvas

Similar to Blackboard, which many colleges use, you will also find numerous schools using Canvas; thus the argument can be made that this can help students become more college-ready. We used Canvas at our high school in 2020-2021. We went with asynchronous learning at that time, so kids were at home and in the classrooms simultaneously through video, but the teachers sent all work to students through Canvas.

Creating different courses and sections is easy to update and use. There is high information density in Canvas, but the platform makes assignment lists organization easy. Canvas also sends alerts about upcoming projects, assignments, questions, and more.

Some cons mentioned about Canvas are that it is not as streamlined as Google Classroom. It has many features and customizations that can feel overwhelming, especially coming from the basic Google Classroom.

My school liked some of the bells and whistles of Canvas, especially the time feature that could tell us how many minutes a student was logged in for, as it helped us with attendance. There is a free version and a paid version that has more options.

EdApp

EdApp is a learning management system that is free. Including simple templates, it helps make creating and sharing courses and quizzes efficient and straightforward. Unlike Canvas and Google Classroom, EdApp has ready-made courses that can be used for classrooms (make sure you check your standards alignment before using!) Another benefit to EdApp is its mobile capability that allows students to learn more easily on mobile devices.

Udemy

Udemy is another platform with courses taught by instructors from around the world. You can create videos, calculation sheets, documents, and presentations. A con of Udemy is in communication between teachers and students.

One of the most interesting items I found while doing research was how many OLPs have pre-made classes online. If teachers can find lessons that are aligned with their standards, their work is done.

In short, the key to finding the best online learning platforms for you is determining the delivery capability you want and which bells and whistles you are looking for.

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*Updated April 2022
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