E-Learning System Architecture
System architecture provides an integrated view: a design rationale for functionality, usability, and aesthetics. Understanding the architectural needs of a system requires that designers, developers and end-users effectively communicate and collaborate with each other about the intended goals of the system. This is why all such projects must optimally begin with a Requirements document that clearly defines the intended system processes, functionality, interface, and benefits.
Understanding E-Learning architecture allows the system designers and developers to successfully integrate the wide range of E-Learning functions that end-users require. By "end-users" we mean all the stakeholders in the system: curriculum sponsors, designers, developers, instructors, authors, content experts, learners, and administrators. An effectively designed system will address the functionality requirements of each category of end-user — what benefits they hope to receive and contribute to the system. Architecture design first involves defining the system in terms of end-user benefit and functionality, and then designing the technology infrastructure and workflows to enable those processes.
Ideally, the system design will be compatible with the following principles:
- Open architecture — support of established industry standards, especially to allow addition of future modules
- Scalability — so the technical infrastructure can grow in audience size and sophistication
- Global potential reach — so that E-Learning solutions serve the largest base of end-users, with both synchronous and asynchronous distance delivery
- Integration — seamless front-end and back-end connection to enterprise resources
- Flexible — open to emerging new technologies and use of new best practices
- Rapid and timely — complexity of the system is controlled so that the enterprise can reap business benefits quickly.
The following graphic illustrates the logical framework of a Learning Internet or Intranet portal site:
Web-based learning services. Web services are software-powered functional components that provide automated resources via the Internet. A Web service is a component that runs on a Web server and allows client programs to call its methods over HTTP. Each method on the component appears as a URI and may return data (e.g. an XML document) and accept parameters. Standards-based web services use XML to interact with each other — allowing them to link up on demand using loose coupling. This technology is based on the open SOAP specification, which enables server-side components to be available to virtually any client, regardless of language or platform.
The system architecture of E-Learning must ideally be able to integrate the following key functions or services:
Layer 1: User Access — A single entry point allows all users to access all relevant parts of the platform via a standard web browser.
- Portal: Learning Internet & Intranet
An Internet or intranet portal site provides a common access for all users. While some home page news or information pages may be open for anyone to see, entry into the into the deeper levels of the portal site to participate in web services is restricted by a log-in. The log-in takes the user into the User Mgt service for authentication: recognition of their unique ID and the roles and privileges which have been assigned to them.
Layer 2: Common Services — These services are needed by every user and are not tied to any particular pedagogic function.
- User Management
Each user is identified with a unique ID, to which roles can be assigned with distinct privileges. Roles include: learners, instructors, administrators (IT system admin and learning services supervisors), tutor-mentors, authors, content experts, etc. Roles and privileges can be changed as often as desired. Individuals can have multiple roles and therefore numerous privileges assigned to them. The User Mgt Service records and handles all of this user information and conducts the authentication process. The User Management service identifies, tracks and assigns privileges to every individual user of the system. It provides a consistent, high-quality interface to guide the user experience — irrespective of the user's role.
The Collaboration services provide communication among all users of the system. Synchronous collaboration technologies include: virtual classroom (with audio-visual, and whiteboard resources), virtual meeting rooms, and chat. Asynchronous collaboration technologies include: email, threaded discussion, and peer-to-peer instant messaging.
Event Management (Calendar / Scheduling / Reminders)
Learners need to be able to see calendar view of course offerings, and a personal calendar view of their enrollments. Further, learners and instructors need reminders to support their workflow.
Layer 3: Learning Service — These services provide core functionality for the production and consumption of E-Learning resources.
- LCMS: Content Development ( Learning Objects / Aggregation)
The LCMS is the Learning Content Management System. This system allows content to be entered into a database repository, and appropriately indexed and metatagged for easy search and retrieval. The newest strategies of LCMS are oriented to Learning Object design — with a goal of automating aggregation of LOs into course and lesson delivery, and the ability to reuse a Learning Object for a variety of instructional needs.
The LCMS provides the mechanism for an author to submit content into the repository for subsequent review, editing and final approval. This interface allows authors, content experts, reviewers and administrators to control the backend of the learning services. The LCMS should offer maximum flexibility in the authoring process: allowing importing and metatagging of all manner of content, as well as adapting the authoring workflow process to the desires of the organization.
The LMS is the Learning Management System. It is the heart of the learning services that interface with the learner — allowing catalogue review, course selection, enrollment,
student tracking, e-commerce automation, and launching the online content (course-unit-lesson).
The LMS is tightly connected to the User Management services in order to give learners access to the resources that their level of privilege allows, and to establish student tracking of their enrollments and scores. The LMS is able to generate reports of the learners' activities (scheduled and actual) and progress toward certification.
The LMS not only manages delivery of online events, but instructors and supervisors use the LMS to schedule and manage enrollment in classroom events — including room and equipment allocation. Ideally, the enrollment and scheduling system will also apply to tutoring, mentoring and practicum study that may be part of a performance support program.
The Assessment service provides author/instructors with resources to generate quizzes and tests. Typically this is a template driven system that supports selection of questions from a growing question pool (that has been validated), and automation for generating online tests and quizzes that will be automatically scored for the instructor. Resources include support for lesson interactivity (learner self-checks and challenges); pre- and post- test score tracking; learner surveys and course evaluation tools.
Another major component of the Assessment learning service may include "Competency Management" and "Skill Gap Analysis" resources. The goal of these resources is to align curriculum development with the identification of the learning needs of the organization — especially core competencies related to key staff positions. The ability to use Assessment tools for managers to conduct skill gap analysis (SKA: skill/knowledge/attitude) allows the identification of priority curriculum development needs.
- Learning Administration
The Learning Administration service allows backend management of curriculum, resources, instructors and learners. It also provides templates and resources for automated reporting. This service must be closely tied to the e-commerce functions in the LMS for efficient management of fee payments and related admin functions.
Layer 4: Databases — This level of infrastructure allows relational databases (both legacy and web-based), typically using SQL, to be interconnected with new XML database technology.
- Databases: XML & SQL
Layer 5: Infrastructure — This level of infrastructure establishes client-server network and physical hardware, utilizing standard internet technology protocols.
- Internet & Intranet Servers / HTTP / FTP / SMTP / TCP-IP
System design for business needs. There are several business needs that can be addressed by an E-Learning solution. The design of the system architecture must be oriented to business needs, which include: cost, access, modularity & personalization, timeliness, relevance, and accountability.
Cost: Workforce training comes at a price. These costs must be controlled and reduced or eliminated where possible. For instance, travel expenses associated with attending a week-long course represent a huge expense for a company. By moving at least a portion of this learning online, the cost savings can be significant. This is especially true if there are gains in efficiencies of learning also achieved by a blended approach.
The functions of the LMS and Collaboration services are especially important in achieving these cost savings. Further, there must be cost control in producing new E-Learning modules, so that existing content is reused and repurposed rather than continually re-created. The function of the LCMS and the Assessment services are essential to controlling costs of these workflows and assets.
Access / Scalability: Instructor-led training involves constraints that restrict access to learning. These constraints relate to time, geography and availability. The E-Learning system scales to make instruction available 24/7, to hundreds or thousands of learners simultaneously, and at their convenience. It is the portal site strategy of Internet / intranet which makes this access and scalability possible.
Modularity & Personalization: The goal of E-Learning is to provide a highly personalized, and therefore an optimally effective, learning experience. This is achieved through modularity of system design at every level — that allows the end-user to access the particular services or content that they require. Personalization is achieved by pre-assessments and other selection criteria that enable courses, lessons and learning events adjust to the profile and needs of a individual learner.
The User Management, LMS and LCMS services work together to achieve personalization. Building a modular architecture of web-based services allows incremental improvement of the technology infrastructure that in turn incrementally improves the users experience.
Timeliness: The goal of E-Learning is to provide access to courses on demand 24/7 at the learners convenience. Prior to E-Learning resources, once an ILT course was delivered, it might be weeks or months before it would be offered again.
The availability of curriculum resources depends upon the combined workflow of authors and content experts pouring their content contributions into the LCMS. With effective workflow management, the E-Learning resources can be rapidly developed.
Relevance: A E-Learning systems customer satisfaction is based on its relevance to meeting their learning goals. By allowing learners to select the information and instruction that they need, and by providing the prescribed learning target for the individual based on pre-assessment, the course offerings will be most relevant to each learner. The User Management, LMS, LCMS and Assessment services enable this personalization to be achieved.
Accountability: Accountability is not just an issue for learners, but also for instructors, managers, authors, content providers, and administrators. Ideally, the E-Learning system will generate metrics and automated reports for each of these end-users. Learner progress can be tracked with online post-assessments. Learners are able to provide specific feedback to instructors on each small increment of learning. Managers are able to create individualized roadmaps of learning to ensure that their employees master the skills they need. Authors are able to determine which Learning Objects are being used and to what effect. Content providers can be held accountable for reusing and repurposing existing content.