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Many people ask me about the difference between an LMS and VLE, and also CMS and LCMS. Although you might find articles and posts that state otherwise, I believe that there is an important distinction between LMS and VLE, and I would also use the term CMS to mean something different. Let’s start with a definition of each.

LMS stands for Learning Management System. For me these are primarily for training, rather than education. They are often connected to mandatory CPD (continual professional development) and generally tend to be used internally rather than being client-facing or used in education. Having said this, JoomlaLMS is clearly calling itself an LMS and in my view it would fit in more with the description of a VLE. So, as you see the two terms are used interchangeably. I would like to create a distinction here for clarity, nonetheless.

VLE stands for Virtual Learning Environment. These would often be characterised by constructivist pedagogical principles and are often used as a place to collaborate and extend discussions rather than merely hosting trackable learning objects. Many VLEs and LMSs have the same features, but the emphasis and also way they are being used would distinguish them. It is possible to use a Moodle, for example, for purely behaviourist mechanical drills and compliancy training and thus it becomes an LMS through the way it is used.

The reason I am making this distinction is that I still see a lot of ambiguity about the terminology in eLearning, perhaps due to its relative infancy as a discipline. I have seen institutions make the wrong choice when considering commercial LMSs and VLEs and I blame the lack of precise definition for this. In language teaching as well, we are often in the rearguard when it comes to implementing new technology, and thus many institutions fall into the trap of simply buying or creating a load of online grammar and vocabulary drills which have been authored as eLearning and then making this available to their students as the final and finished component of their eLearning implementation.

Now, I am not saying this is bad or that we shouldn’t provide such resources for our students. What I am saying though is that this is not much different from a glorified practise book. While the online format means greater access and the possibility for flash animations and embedded video/audio, at the end of the day these are still drills which are useful primarily for test preparation, but not for helping students to acquire communicative competence. No matter how good such activities look, they still fall under the category mostly of Behaviouristic CALL. With small adjustments, it is possible to expand the eLearning platform into the realms of communicative and collaborative CALL. For example, one of the tasks for students on the VLE should be to introduce themselves on the forum. Moodle supports collaborative wikis which are ideal as group projects, and can be given as assignments or class work. There are also blogs, which can be created for free and allow comments and following. These are great ways to get the class working together on projects and have the advantage of showing students ways to continue learning and practising in authentic ways after their course has finished. Another idea would be to have a high scores table or similar, which gives students the option of posting their best scores on a game and challenging other students. This should of course be optional, but works very well for more competitive students, smart.fm is a brilliant example of this.

VLEs do not have to contain all the content within them either, they should provide links to outside content and encourage students to source their own materials. On our VLE we have a side block which shows the latest RSS feeds from the BBC learning English site, which also keeps your site contemporary.

I would love to hear what you are doing at your school and if you have any questions or ideas please share below and keep the discussion going!

8 Replies to “VLE or LMS?”

  1. Great article!

    From my point of view and VLE is more focused to educational institutions (schools, academies, universities, …) and an LMS is more focused to companies.

    Educational institutions usually take a “Social learning” approach using formal (mostly ILT) and informal methods. As you said, they are replicating or extending their “reality” to a virtual world with the VLE. For the management aspects (transcripts, accounting, logistics, …) they usually have a SIS (Student Information System) more or less combined with the VLE.

    In the other hand, companies learning approaches are more focused to “Self-paced” learning in the formal side having the informal side covered with “Social SW tools” (like Jive SBS or Socialcast). An LMS is more focused to fill this gap, having a lot of management and reporting features.

    My conclussions are, that both systems can share some features, but the goals are very different. An VLE is not the same than a LMS.

  2. Great article Richard, I am currently underway with a final year project at the University of Wolverhampton comparing our bespoke VLE against the likes of Moodle and Blackboard. I will definitely be referencing your piece throughout my literature review as I sum up the key differences between VLE’s, LMS’s, CMS’s and LCMS’s.

    Thank you.

    1. Hi Scott, thanks very much for the comment. I also wrote a piece for the CALL Review (here is the link) which you might find interesting, although the focus there is more about the use of VLEs for language learning. I’d be interested in learning more about your project. If you finish it and publish it somewhere I’d be happy to add a link to it from this site.

  3. Hi Richard,

    Im doing a report on three open source and proprietary VLEs, i would be much obliged
    if you could share a word or two. My chosen three are Frog, Moodle and Blackboard. I attend
    Greenwich School Management.


    1. Hi Gregory.

      Well, Moodle is the only open source one in that list, so I suppose it would have a lot to live up to against two proprietry VLEs. Blackboard is the one preffered by universities in the UK, Frog is used mainly in schools, especially high schools. I’ve not used Frog personally, but as my mum is a teacher I’ve seen it a little. It’s got a very friendly UI and is high on security. It’s simple and has a lot of features and support, but that’s all I know I’m afraid. I liked the look of it when I saw the front end. Don’t know if it comes with authoring software to make quizzes within it though.

      Blackboard is good too, but I found it clunky at times and it can get a little labyrinthine. Most of my experience of it is lecturers using it as a repository, but the one I used didn’t have much uptake from the students, so this is just my experience and I think a well-managed one could be really great. I believe, again, Blackboard is strong on security and support.

      Moodle’s strengths are its weaknesses – being open source you get flexibility that proprietary software can’t rival. You also get it free. But, you need someone quite tech-savvy to arrange it all and manage it. One option is to use a dedicated Moodle host provider – I recommend Synergy Learning based in Northern Ireland (you might want to contact them for your paper too). This is where it becomes “the most expensive free VLE” because all that will cost money.

      Anyway, hope this helps.


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