Online Learning Tools

It’s a good time to be an organization.

Interactive multimedia tools have become the norm for online learning and the consumption of web content generally, and organizations have the opportunity to create and share digital content that educates, informs and helps people in their daily lives.

Online learning experts Rory McGreal and Michael Elliott compiled a thorough (for the year 2006) overview of multimedia technologies; an online version of their article[ii] can be found here.

A deep dive into the characteristics of interactivity in online learning by Athabasca University’s Patrick Fahy can be found here. Fahy describes online learning media as “tools for cooperation, collaboration and communication.”

Teacher presence is a vital part of the success of online teaching, Fahy writes:

Individual participant’s success with online communication depends on effective use of the technical resources available, along with the guidance and leadership provided by a skilled instructor-moderator…and tempered by the learner’s own capabilities and preferences for collaborative, cooperative, active and self-directed learning….Teaching presence is the leadership and facilitation necessary for individuals to achieve “meaningful understanding” through interaction and collaboration.[iii]

Only connect.

It’s an exciting time to engage in learning and teaching. Digital tools are made for creating any kind of online learning and training regimen you can think of. Any given organization will be interested in organizing a range of learning environments, including:

  • Training
  • Workshops
  • Classes
  • Courses
  • Live events
  • Community building and collaboration

There are other kinds of learning environments but these are perhaps the most common that organizations would create to further their pedagogical, social and organizational goals.

What follows is an overview of the major tools that you can use to support your online learning initiatives.

Here’s a list of essential tools for online learning:


Screencasts allow you to create videos of your presentations, complete with audio narration and video of yourself if you want it. These videos can be uploaded to the web and played for learners on your site or on sites like YouTube or Vimeo.

Screencasts are a flexible, casual and helpful way to help people learn online. In screencasting, you record your screen as you present or discuss something and render the recording into a video that you can post online. You can tailor your video with edits, special effects and added content. You can produce a screencast of any kind of learning video you want, from slideshows to Skype chats to tutorials.

Screencasts can accommodate a range of needs and purposes, but one thing they excel at is being conversational in nature. They are a friendly way to share and teach online. There’s an immediacy there, and a “live” feel when you do a simple one-take version. You can also turn your screencast into something more complicated with edits, special effects and other kinds of content added in like videos, slideshows and photos. Their ease-of-use creates an empowering “we can do it” vibe and they are cheap and easy to produce.

Screencasts are particularly good at creating quick, easy, helpful tutorials where you share your screen and show people how to do something. Screencasts can include zoom-in functionality and you can integrate drawing to underline, circle or otherwise enhance key information.

This is a great example of a screencast, one that shows how to produce one, by Paul Andersen.

A close cousin of the screencast is the screen recording, where you record your screen as you perform a demonstration task or share a presentation. You can simultaneously record your voice as you narrate a presentation or simply speak about a topic. Screen recordings are more limited in scope – you can’t film yourself as part of the presentation, for example – but they are extremely quick and easy to produce.


Hold online meetings or make online presentations in front of a group of people, with some interaction among the group. Webinars are able to mimic some of the features of having a group discussion with participants, depending on your capacity to manage engagement.

The mighty webinar is a staple of the online learning world. Webinars are online events where a presentation is made and people participate in the discussion along the way. People can engage by text commenting, voice, raising their “hand”, conducting real-time polls and quizzes and even drawing onscreen. Facilitators share their screen to visually support their presentation and can invite others to share their screens as well. There is more back and forth on a webinar, compared to an online presentation where it might be more of a one-way scenario.

Webinars are a great way to reach and engage anywhere from 10 to 10,000 people, but of course the more intimate, the better the level of participation. They are generally kept to between 45 minutes and an hour.

Webinars can be recorded for viewing on your website or elsewhere online. These pre-recorded webinar videos become an extremely useful and informative source of content for your members and, if relevant and where appropriate, the general public.  

Webinars can be on any topic or theme. Organizations can build up a very diverse library of episodes on training subjects and presentation on issues that educate and inform your membership. They lend themselves to a lighter tone, but webinars can also be sober briefings on important news or issues; the medium is very flexible.


Organizations are using video to tell their stories and support learning by producing the full range of video material. From 6-second Vine videos to feature documentaries, and everything in between, organizations have a full range of video options. Online video is a thing, a big thing, with Netflix and YouTube alone accounting for more than half of all web traffic.

We are hurtling headlong into a video world, where communicating and engaging with people through video will be more and more commonplace. Video has become a necessary tool for connecting with learners today. Generations are coming up watching – and making – video.

Videos introduce organizations, inform on issues, trumpet causes, describe problems and pitch solutions.

Video is supremely versatile. It can be used to achieve many different goals and objectives at once. Virtually any video content can be educational or instructional in nature, some obviously more consciously so than others. Video can delight, inspire and motivate. It can deepen our connection to others by presenting human experience in motion pictures and sound, the next best thing to live drama and real life. It is clearly one of humanity’s great art forms, and like all great art, anyone can do it. Just get a camera, grip it and rip it – and you’re on.

YouTube has reaped the video whirlwind. Today, it boasts more than one billion unique visitors every month. We share YouTube videos by the millions, embed them on our website, share them over social media. Across planet Earth, humans consume 6 billion hours of video on YouTube each and every month. Every minute, we upload 100 hours of video to the site.[iv]

The uploading, downloading and streaming of video now dominates global web traffic. Cisco Systems projects that video will account for a full 80 to 90% of all “consumer Internet traffic” by the year 2017.

Mobile is taking that traffic on the road, bringing HD TV-like experiences to smartphones and tablets:

Traffic from wireless and mobile devices will exceed traffic from wired devices by 2016. By 2017, wired devices will account for 45 percent of IP traffic, while Wi-Fi and mobile devices will account for 55 percent of IP traffic. In 2012, wired devices accounted for the majority of IP traffic at 59 percent.[v]

Your members, constituents, supporters and neighbours are swimming in video. All of us are flowing from one screen to the other over the course of our day.

All of this makes video creation and video storytelling a vital part of organizational viability into the future. Start building your team now.

Learning Management Systems (LMS)

A learning management system is software that comprehensively supports online learning by managing your courses, classes, resources and administration of your material. They also facilitate learners’ online interaction with content and communication with the instructor and each other.

Organizations can foster online learning and digital education with or without the use of an LMS. The key to understanding the role of an LMS, according to Wikipedia, is in appreciating the “systemic nature” of a full-blown learning management system:

LMS is the framework that handles all aspects of the learning process. An LMS is the infrastructure that delivers and manages instructional content, identifies and assesses individual and organizational learning or training goals, tracks the progress towards meeting those goals, and collects and presents data for supervising the learning process of organization as a whole. An Learning Management System delivers content but also handles registering for courses, course administration, skills gap analysis, tracking, and reporting.

Learning management systems are comprehensive tools for organizations that want to craft a more organized and systemic approach for their online learning program. Learners are able to access content and participate in multimedia classes on desktops and laptops; some of them can integrate support for mobile devices like tablets and even smartphones.

Leading examples of LMS’s include the open-source Moodle, used by thousands of universities, schools and businesses around the world, and the proprietary Blackboard, widely used by post-secondary institutions and the market-leading LMS provider, according to Wikipedia.

A handy list of open-source and proprietary learning management systems can be found here.

Course authoring tools

Also called content authoring tools, course authoring software lets you design and develop interactive learning objects that can be used as stand-along learning tools or integrated into LMS’s, courses and programs. They feature learner interaction such as testing and quizzing functions that engage learners.

SoftChalk is an example of a proprietary content authoring tool.

Social media

We all know how social media has become central to how we share things in our lives. It can be edutaining, as well, and why not, as it engages students who get to interact with “learning” material in ways that are fun and creative.

TeachThought has a great list of suggestions, for example, or how to use Pinterest in educational contexts.

On the more serious side, there is academic research that finds that social networking can help increase participation in online learning. And there is research that suggests that “web 2.0” tools like Google docs, Twitter and Facebook can foster students’ engagement of course material and address sometimes low levels of course content consumption.

Live events (synchronous events)

Don’t forget that live events can offer tremendous educational value – and not just for those who are present. Today’s digital tools can help otherwise far-flung people share – and learn from – live events through livecasting, blogging and social media.

Livecasting is broadcasting your event, live, over the internet for your audience to stream. All you need is a camera, some software and an Internet connection. You can do it off your laptop.

Live tweeting during spectacles like the Super Bowl and the Oscars has become a social phenomenon all its own, a way for audiences to “participate” in the event from their own homes. While tweets from your event might receive fewer retweets than Ellen DeGeneres’ record-breaking (and Twitter-breaking) Oscar selfie with the stars, and be worth less in publicity value, live-tweeting from events like conferences and presentations has become a popular way to share information and engage audiences in nonformal learning that’s fun and synchronous..

Today’s it’s commonplace for media companies to run a scroll of their live Twitter feeds by reporters covering events or for organizations of all kinds to host live “Twitter chats”, just as it is to see everyday folks live-blogging their local candidates’ debate.

And so much more: Social networking, community building and collaboration

There are so many more online tools organizations can use, from wikis to blogs to social networking sites like Ning, but these are beyond the scope of this paper at this time.



[i] Digital natives is a contentious term, and I use it here only for convenience. Age doesn’t matter – I can be young and uninterested in digital; I can be a baby boomer and tech whiz. The point is that today’s children are swimming in digital waters in a society whose economic, social, cultural and communications infrastructure have gone digital.

[ii] McGreary, Rory, and Elliott, Michael. (2008). Technologies of Online Learning  from The Theory and Practice of Online Learning, Athabasca University Press.

[iii] Fahy, Patrick. (2008) Characteristics of Interactive Online Learning Media from The Theory and Practice of Online Learning, Athabasca University Press

[iv] From YouTube’s Statistics page,

[v] Cisco Systems Inc., Cisco Visual Networking Index: Forecast and Methodology, 2012–2017,