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EctoLearning is a Solid Contender for Best Free Online CMS

by Kelly Walsh on March 20, 2011

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EctoLearning offers useful course management functionality for free (and it’s all free, no limitations).

Last week I decided the next step in searching for the best free online Course Management Systems was to take a closer look EctoLearning and Edu20.org. I’d already checked out Rcampus, MyiCourse, and SchoolRack, and while I found them each to be useful, I didn’t really find what I was looking for. I’m hoping that one of these two others applications will be a tool I can gladly recommend.

EctoLearning

The basic idea behind creating a course page and content in EctoLearning is to create a group that represents the course, which automatically provides a nicely structured web page for the course. You can then create blog posts, assignments, forums, and content that you link to this group page. It’s a simple, effectively structured approach.

I’d been hoping to find a site where I could post assignments structured in the form of web pages where I would put links to articles and embedded videos as course materials. I also wanted a discussion forum where students could demonstrate comprehension of assigned work via informed discussion of the readings and assignments, and interact with and learn from other workshop participants. EctoLearning let me to do all of this, and the other tools I used did not, so clearly EctoLearning gets high marks in my book!

The structural elements of the EctoLearning platform

  • Blog: Here you create blog posts, which students can respond to. Since this area displays at the top of the group page, I added a Welcome post here, and added a second post that provides some information about what to expect upon completion of the workshop. Since the posts sort in reverse chronological order, and I wanted to create a top-down ordered set of “instructional” blog posts regarding the structure of the course, I published my posts in reverse order. The same held for Forum topics.
  • Q&A: In this area, students can ask questions and you can respond to them. You have the option of removing this section from the course group site page if you wish.
  • Assignments: Here you can create assignments with brief descriptions, and you can provide availability dates and completion dates. You can also associate content with assignments. I didn’t really need this functionality for the way I was designing my workshop (I am delivering my assignments via content and forums), but this will be important to many instructors. Refer to EctoLearning’s Help Page for more on this topic (scroll down towards the bottom for help on assignments and grades. I do have to say EctoLearning’s Help modules are not the easiest to read – they’re rather cluttered looking). Like the Q&A section, Assignments can also be removed from the course group page, which I did.
  • Forum: A traditional sort of discussion forum. You can create multiple threads in each group forum. You can turn on an “approval” feature as well. To end up with a sort of top-down listing of forums, I had to create them in reverse order (the Assignment 2 forum, then the Assignment 1 forum), since they listed with the newest one on top.
  • Content: You have choices of adding a file, a new page, an internal link, an external link or bookmark, or pasting something from the clipboard (which is really just a special case of creating a new page). You can also create Premium Content that you can charge for. Content Pages have facilities to add a variety of assessment materials (more detail on this in the next section of the post).
  • How do you invite students to participate in your course? After laying out your course, you invite students to be members of it. I set up a student account, invited this test student, and then accessed the course as that student. This is further illustrated in the video blog entry for this post.

Content Sections
One of the most powerful elements of EctoLearning appears to be the variety of “sections” you can add to content that you create for your courses.

  • “Gradable” Sections: Multiple Choice Questions, Short Answer Questions, or the submission of a file (a “Flash Cards” content feature is coming soon)
  • “Content” Sections: Text & Images, a File (“Word, Powerpoint, Movie, etc.”), or a Section Separator or Header.
  • “External” Sections:  A Web Feed, YouTube, Flickr, Google Gadget. I tried creating a YouTube link, which required nothing more than inserting a URL link to the video, but it only gave me a “cannot connect to YouTube” error message. I was still able to add this a link section, as I did in the Assignment 2 content I created.
  • “Link” Sections: External Resource Links/Bookmarks; Internal Page link.

For an overview of the course I created in EctoLearning, please watch this companion video for this post.

Note about Edu20.org
Last week, on a second glance, I saw that Edu20.org had more functionality than I thought it had originally, so I decided it was worth checking out further. Unfortunately, when I got into it, I quickly realized that their free functionality is only available as part of a 30 day trial [Ed Note: I have an email that indicates that there is free functionality available over a longer period, but this wasn't very clear to me from their web site]. Their pricing plans run from $55 a year into the thousands, depending on the mix of functionality and numbers of students. I decided to move on to check out EctoLearning, and obviously was not disappointed.

Conclusions
Simply put, I’d have to say that EctoLearning is the best free online CMS I’ve tried so far.

Am I ready to wrap up this effort and declare them the “winner”? Not exactly, but this is a very time consuming thing to blog about (having to learn each new application and set up a little course with it) and I’m ready for a break! I’m also eager to get going on work with readers like Amy Night and her work with using popular social networking tools like Twitter and Facebook in the classroom (I’ll be doing a presentation on this topic at this year’s Campus Technology 2011 conference).

So where does that leave us with free online CMS tools? Well, I think I’ll take the cue from readers like Lee Devine, one of several who commented about using Instructure from Canvas. Another real interesting option mentioned by reader Marco Ananais is the use of Moodle on Ninehub.com. Too many possibilities and not enough time! Anyway, we’ll circle back to this topic again in a few weeks. In the meanwhile, EctoLearning stands out as the best free online CMS I’ve tried so far.

Related Posts (if the above topic is of interest, you might want to check these out):
What Are The Best Free Hosted Course Management Systems On The Internet?
Free Hosted Course Management Systems, A Closer Look – Rcampus
Creating Simple Online Courses For Free With MyiCourse
Best free online Course Management Systems … the search continues

About 

Kelly Walsh is Chief Information Officer and a faculty member at The College of Westchester in White Plains, NY and is the founder and author of EmergingEdTech.com. As an education technology advocate, he frequently delivers presentations on a variety of related topics at schools and conferences across the U.S. Walsh is also an author, and online educator, periodically running Flipped Class Workshops online. His latest eBook, the Flipped Classroom Workshop-in-a-Book was published in September, 2013 and is available here. In his spare time Walsh also writes, records, and performs original (and cover) songs (look for "K. Walsh" on iTunes or Amazon.com or check out his original song videos on here on YouTube ).

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Tracey Keitt November 30, 2011 at 7:08 am

I can’t tell you how thankful I am for all your hard work with the investigation of the different options in the CMS world. I teach in Chile and our resources are quite limited so having options like EctoLearning are great. Thanks again.

business April 2, 2011 at 1:39 am

.- .Mar 6 2011 12 08 pm.With the iPad2 on the launching pad it s a great time to share this list of useful iPad apps for teachers from guest writer Paula Dierkens…There s no doubt that the iPad is an excellent device and if you own this gadget it makes sense to pick up the applications best suited to your life…. .- .Feb 27 2011 11 35 am.Our quest for free web-based CMS and LMS tools continues with a trial run and overview of MyiCourse.com…This is the third in a series of articles in which I look at online LMS CMS applications that offer free capabilities. In my first post I narrowed these down to four apps that seemed to….

K. Walsh March 24, 2011 at 8:12 am

My thanks to Graham Glass for the comments he has submitted here, and previously, about Edu20. I respect application providers who pay attention to the “blogosphere” and participate in the dialogue.

I certainly don’t mean to give Edu20.org short shrift. My observations are simply reflective of what I came across and gleaned from the site as I looked around and tried to get going with seeing what I could set up without incurring charges. If I misunderstood something, I have to imagine that others might as well.

I will revisit Edu20.org (after a brief break of the topic of free online CMS tools). Of course, if I still find that other applications I’ve looked at provide more functionality and/or less limitations in their free offerings, I may still decide not move forward with a full test of it, as I really am trying to find the free online CMS app that I am most comfortable recommending to readers.

Graham Glass March 23, 2011 at 4:27 pm

Hi there,

EDU 2.0 has a free plan and premium plans. The revenue from the premium plan members funds the free plan members. I think this is pretty clear from both the home page and most pages that you click on, including the “Features” link, the “Plans” section, and the introductory video.

We have thousands of schools using the free plan, so your decision to so readily ignore our site is disappointing. I encourage you to revisit the site and give it a proper evaluation. I think you will find the free plan to be much better than any other free LMS that you would evaluate, including EctoLearning.

Thanks,
Graham Glass
Founder, EDU 2.0

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