The best eLearning platforms for online courses

Online university programs get a boost, as schools determine the fate of the fall semester in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Online learning has come a long way since the first courses were rolled out for  the mature students who needed to "attend" school on their own schedule.  As the coronavirus pandemic sent employees and educators home, online courses have garnered more attention and relevance. 

Online universities and those ramping up their online courses may be upgrading software to accompany an expected influx of students this fall, but the one common factor between them is the type of platform used, a learning management system or LMS. Generally, online courses are asynchronous and feature familiar elements, for example, an online lecture turned virtual, required weekly discussion participation , assignments, and exams. The LMS not only facilitates the curriculum, but informs instructors on student participation, who has fulfilled requirements and who hasn't. 

Only half a decade ago, the dominant LMS programs were Angel and eCollege. Online platforms were costly for schools, and by offering discounts, administrators began considering other newer, up-and-coming platforms. Some colleges, like Western Governors University, which has an approximate 97,000 enrollment of fully online students, use portals specially designed for each course (it's actually an extended version of the Salesforce platform, combined with curated courseware).

Disclosure: TechRepublic may earn a commission from some of the products featured on this page. TechRepublic and the author were not compensated for this independent review.

Blackboard

lms-blackboard-resize-051620.jpg
Image: Blackboard

Blackboard is the grand dame of LMS and is still in use at many institutions of higher learning. Two schools best known for online courses, University of Phoenix (UOP) and  Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), had long associations with Blackboard. SNHU lists more than 80,000 online students (of 90,000 total SNHU students). At UOP, 94,472 (of  95,777 students) are enrolled in exclusively online programs. More recently, SNHU switched LSMs to Brightspace.

"Blackboard is easy to implement and to tailor," said Elane Johnson, an award-winning online English instructor, who's taught online at several universities, and used various LMS.

Blackboard

Brightspace

lms-brightspace-resize-051620.jpg
Image: Brightspace

After years of using the stalwart Blackboard, SNHU switched to Brightspace. Initially, Brightspace may be more challenging to master, when compared to other products, Johnson said. Brightspace has "Release Conditions" in which a professor can hold content for a student until they've met certain conditions, then the held content appears to a student. Instructors can give feedback on assignments, automatically release new content or courses, as well as create or use rubrics, post announcements and assignments in an activity feed, and drag content directly into a course. The company has been making LMS products since 1992.

Brightspace is "very similar to Blackboard's fancier versions," Johnson noted.

Brightspace

LearnDash

learndash-credit-learndash.jpg
Image: LearnDash

This LMS is used at University of Michigan, University of Florida, University of Washington, ProBlogger and DigitalMarketer, and is notable because it features an integration with WordPress. It has a reputation for being easy-to-use and geared toward beginners. For those easily distracted, it has "Focus Mode," which LearnDash says eliminates distractions as students navigate their course. Classes, group activities, and lectures are easily recorded, and users can also design interactive learning experiences.

LearnDash

LinkedIn Learning

linkedin-learning-credit-linkedin-learning.jpg
Image: LinkedIn Learning

Affiliated with the workcentric social media site LinkedIn, LinkedIn Learning offers video courses taught by industry experts with real-world experience. It offers free courses to build skills.  Some of the free courses include Discover Your Strength, Pitching Yourself, Influencing Others, Excel Tips Weekly, Managing in Difficult Times, Transform Your Personal Brand, Entrepreneurship Foundations, Finding Your Productive Mindset, Cultivating a Growth Mindset, and more. There are also free courses to "help you land your next job," build mindfulness and resilience, succeed at remote work, for a total of more than 15,000 courses, with dozens added each week. Courses are categorized as business, technology, or creative.

LinkedIn Learning

Podia

podia-credit-podia.jpg
Image: Podia

Podia sets itself apart from other LMS because podcasts are integrated as a teaching tool. Podia hopes to draw a range of learners using this element. At signup, users receive marketing tools, some of which include the ability to add coupons, and sales pages. Podia also gives users the ability to "drip" courses, which means the designer "feeds" classes to targeted groups. It can be connected with Slack and Facebook groups, too. 

Podia

Sakai

University of Virginia
The University of Virginia, shown here, uses the eLearning platform Sakai.
Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Sakai features the standards of a LMS as well as community-contributed tools, and external integrations available as add-on components. It offers an open-source flexibility, which allows configuration or customization.  It's the choice LMS for schools such as Duke University, Pepperdine University, The University of Virginia, Notre Dame University, and Japan's Hosei University, 

"Sakai was the easiest to navigate once a person is trained because it had the fewest options for each task," Johnson said. In addition to Blackboard and Sakai, she's used the Angel, Moodle, and eCollege.

Sakai

Schoology

lms-schoolology-resize-051620.jpg
Image: Schoolology

This full-featured LMS boasts a number of built-in integrations, and comes with YouTube, Google Drive, and Dropbox, and each of the tools can be used while inside the system. Schoology calls itself "the only LMS that connects your campus," a solution that allows students and their instructors to communicate across the campus and across the world.

Schoology

Skillshare

lms-skillshare-resize-051620.jpg
Image: Skillshare

It's an LMS, but it's also considered a "learning community for creators," with seven million creators and growing. Skillshare is designed more for those with a creative bent and those interested in interactive teaching. Photography, illustration, video, engineering, marketing, design, business and tech are some of the focal classes. Users choose from a bevy of courses at any given time, with 14 days of unlimited classes free.

Skillshare

Udemy

udemy-credit-udemy.jpg
Image: Udemy

One of the "original" LMS (2007), Udemy offers 100,000 online courses, with new additions added monthly. Courses are primarily divided into categories like IT & software, development, marketing, photography, design, business and personal development. Instructors (there are more than 40,00) are professionals working in "the real world."

Udemy offers two option plans, "enterprise" and "team." The latter focuses on smaller groups between five and 20 people. The "enterprise" can handle more users and provides additional features.

An additional business account gives subscribers 2,500 business-related courses designed to "upscale your workforce," and analytics examine learning patterns, so employers can assess what works and what does not. 

Udemy