According to a global survey, e-learning and distance teaching were the main teaching methods of about 85% of the higher education institutions around the world during the global COVID-19 pandemic. This new reality put the advantages and potential of e-learning on display. With the growing need to make modern and interactive e-learning platforms available for students worldwide, demand continues to increase for innovation, scalable architectures, and better digital experiences.
E-learning isn’t limited to sharing courses and learning materials on the internet. It expands to establishing virtual classrooms, teaching courses online in real-time, and offering entire degree programs remotely. In this article, you’ll learn more about e-learning and its advantages, as well as the technical architectures of e-learning systems and the essential system components to include while designing and building one.
#Advantages of e-learning
E-learning is usually referred to as the delivery of learning materials using interactive electronic systems. The concept of e-learning extends using online media to deliver teaching experience into interactive platforms that include enrollment, class management, online teaching, collaboration, student promotion, examination, and grading systems.
Some advantages of e-learning include the following:
- Removing location barriers by allowing students to enroll in courses that are not available where they live.
- Enabling learning institutions to reduce the physical space and focus more on investing in education quality and providing a better learning experience.
- Saving on the costs of new buildings with equipped classrooms in order to sustain growing numbers of students.
#Technical architecture of e-learning systems
When it comes to making a decision about the technical architecture of an e-learning platform, you will face three options to choose from.
The first option is designing and developing an e-learning platform from scratch. This is the longest and most exhausting path, since it requires a huge budget and a lot of time spent on research, system design, database design, software development, testing, and maintenance. Technical decisions about system architecture are left up to a team of software engineers and developers. The major downside of this option is that most educational institutions can’t afford the time and cost necessary to develop a platform from scratch during their digital transformation process.
The second option is building the system using a monolithic Content Management System (CMS). CMSs provide an out-of-the-box solution to kickstart the development of e-learning platforms, centralizing all the system components in one place. This means that the application logic, frontend, database, customizations, and any third-party integrations are located in one spot and are most likely hosted on the same server. Unfortunately, this adds many barriers to scalability and makes the development of the platform dependent upon what the CMS vendor offers.
The third and most favorable, innovative option is building the e-learning platform using a modular Digital Experience Platform (DXP). DXPs have the architectural foundation and essential modules to start building an outstanding digital experience without having to reinvent the wheel. This architecture can help you overcome the cons of monolithic CMSs and those of building an e-learning platform from scratch. Modern DXPs are built using MACH architecture, which stands for Microservice, API-first, Cloud-native, and Headless. MACH has great advantages over monolithic systems when it comes to development, maintenance, and scaling since it is SaaS-based with business logic modules individually developed, deployed, and exposed through an API, while the frontend presentation is separated from the backend logic. For more information about MACH architectures, Hygraph created an ebook that explains what a move to MACH architecture looks like and what businesses need to make such a move.
The following diagram shows the architecture of an e-learning platform using Hygraph as a MACH Modular Digital Experience Platform:
Architectural diagram courtesy of Amr Abdou
Within an e-learning system, different types of learning materials will be uploaded and made available to students to study and interact with—most importantly, video content. Video metadata plays a crucial role in storing, aggregating, and sorting video content. Hygraph provides a way to manage content metadata using remote sources which can be can be edited through a UI and queried from the frontend using a REST API or GraphQL API. This saves a lot of pain and maintenance effort for both developers and users responsible for editing the content.
#Components of an e-learning platform
The user interface components of the platform architecture are essential to boosting the e-learning digital experience, since this is where the users interact with the system. The primary users of an e-learning system are students, teachers, and school administrators. It is recommended to create separate interfaces and access areas for each type of user, with each interface providing access to a group of modules.
The student interface gives students the ability to create their school profile, view available courses, choose courses to take, track their learning progress, interact with colleagues and teachers, and attend classes.
Designing an e-learning system with a profile for each student allows teachers to interact with students and helps students collaborate with each other. The information visible on a student’s profile should differ based on the user role of the viewer. A student user might see general information and the courses that other students are enrolled in to encourage collaboration between students. The teacher and school administrator users' view of a student’s profile might include more information about the student’s educational history, including courses previously taken, previous grades, and the student’s current learning progress.
For each student to track their learning progress, a Registered Courses module should include the options to view and download the learning materials uploaded by the teachers, see class schedules, and view the video content of the lectures uploaded by the teachers.
The Available Courses module enables students to view which courses are available to them—they can see which courses they qualify for before the beginning of a semester as well as whether their schedule can accommodate the courses they’d like to take. This module greatly enhances the e-learning digital experience by enabling the students to have a better overview of their learning journey. It also helps prevent conflict that often happens during the traditional enrollment process.
The teacher interface is where instructors can manage the learning materials of the courses they teach, manage the students enrolled, mark exams, and publish grades.
Essential features of a course management module include things like uploading and editing learning materials, editing course schedules when needed, and creating and managing video content.
Teachers can interact with the students enrolled in the courses they teach and view their progress from this module. This provides teachers with a bird’s-eye view of their students' learning performance so they can measure the effectiveness of their work, reflect on their teaching methods, and personalize the teaching experience for each student.
Manage and mark exams
In an exam management module, teachers can create exam materials and grade exams. This module adds to the collaboration between teachers and school administrators, providing a view of the exam times and deadlines set by school administrators.
School administrator interface
Finally, the School Administrator interface allows the administration to oversee the e-learning process and have top-management user privileges across the system.
This module gives school administration the ability to approving new courses and confirm updates to previously approved courses, including course content, schedules, teaching materials, and teaching methodologies.
While students can choose the courses they want to take through the Available Courses module, school administrators have an overview of the enrollment process with the ability to edit and approve student enrollments.
Approve results and promote students
At the end of each semester and academic year, school administrators can approve exam results and promote students. A particularly useful feature is a view of each exam marked by a teacher, allowing administrators to handle appeals and have a better look into each student’s exam performance as needed.
The Department Management module enables administrators to assign teachers to departments and to sort courses by department. The data entered in this module affects what students can see in the Available Courses module.
Manage students and teachers
This is a general content administration module to provide additional control over the content entered by students and teachers. Besides the general management and approval access, school administrators can edit or block content on teachers' and students' profiles and course discussion boards in order to ensure that all content on the e-learning platform complies with the school’s policies and code of ethics.
E-learning has become an immensely popular method of teaching for a large number of educational institutions all over the world. With this high demand for digital transformation, the need to provide an outstanding digital experience for platform users is higher than ever before.
In this article, you have explored the technical architecture options for e-learning platforms, examining the pros and cons that impact scalability and user digital experience. You also reviewed the necessary modules to include within an e-learning platform.
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