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Most of the following tools can probably be found within your institution's Learning Management System (LMS).


This is probably the tool that is most familiar to learners who are new to distance learning, although many online learners in developing countries do not have an e-mail account, and need help in getting started.

E-mail is an excellent tool for one-to-one communication between tutors and learners, or between individual learners. It becomes a bit messy when it is used for communicating amongst large numbers of people though, because everyone in the ‘cc’ list needs to copy everyone else on the list when they reply, and people can get very annoyed when their inboxes are clogged up with copied messages. For group communication, discussion forums and wikis are generally more suitable. 

Discussion forums

Most learning management systems have discussion forums, also called discussion boards. Discussion forums enable a group of people to have a written conversation with everyone contributing at different times. The conversation is organised on the screen in so-called threads according to topic. Users click on any thread to read all the contributions that have been posted on that topic.

Participants have to be signed up as members to read the postings and contribute. At any time, any member can reply to any particular point posted by another member of the group.

Discussion boards are one of the most powerful tools available to online learners and educators for collaborative knowledge construction.


Wikis are an excellent tool for collaborative development of ideas. A wiki is a collection of web pages produced by signed-up members of any group, such as a class on a distance education course. The key feature of a wiki is that any member can add or edit pages, which enables a high degree of collaboration.

The most famous example of a wiki is perhaps Wikipedia, an online encyclopaedia that contains millions of articles written by volunteers around the world. These articles can be edited by anyone with access to the Internet.

Most wikis used in online education are on a smaller scale - wiki pages are often the product of small groups working on a task or assignment together.


Blogs (or 'web logs') are a form of personal journal written online, which can be made available to other people to read and comment on. There are millions of blogs in the public domain which anyone with internet access can read.

Most learning management systems these days now also have the facility for learners to write blogs that can be read by other signed-up members of the course.

Blogs are an ideal way for individuals to reflect on what they are learning, and to get feedback from other people on their thoughts.

One of the 'unwritten rules' of blogging is that the blog should be directed by the writer – and not, say, by the teacher – and should allow the writer to express himself freely (obviously adhering to ethical standards such as avoiding offensive content and so on), rather than simply repeating information from the course materials.

Podcasts and other voice tools

Podcasts are audio files containing voice recordings. Podcasts can also contain video materials - in this case they may be called vodcasts. They can be produced at home using inexpensive digital recording equipment, and listened to (or watched) on a computer or any MP3 player, including most mobile phones. Most LMSs allow you to upload podcasts, although you may need to find your own software on the Web to actually record and edit the sound files.

The use of voice in online learning personalises the learning process for distance learners, and has been shown to significantly increase the quality of the learning experience for learners. (Salmon & Edirisingha, 2008) The use of voice in a distance course can be a powerful way of 'humanising' the learning process for learners, who often feel isolated. 

The following ideas for podcasts are taken from Salmon and Edirisingha (2008), p. 156:

  • Pre-lecture listening to podcasts containing difficult concepts (See section on mobile devices in Unit 2 for an example of this.)

  • Podcasts with individual and group feedback on assignments (See the section on podcasts in Unit 6 for more information on this.) 

  • Podcasts advising on time management and study schedules 

  • Pre-class podcasts addressing anxieties of distance learners 

  • Podcasts by lecturers and students advising on presentations and assessed work 

  • Podcasts recording student presentations and peer comments 

  • Student-created podcasts on topics related to the course


  1. Which of the above asynchronous tools do you and your learners have access to? Which ones do you use most? Can you think of ways of introducing the ones that you are not yet using into your teaching?  

  2. If your learners were to write blogs, would you allocate marks for this work? Why or why not? Do you think there is any way you could use marks to motivate learners to blog, without this interfering with the learners’ personal expression? 

  3. Which of the podcasting suggestions do you think you might be able to try with your learners? What support will you need in getting started on podcasting?

Additional resources

Most of the LMSs used in higher education and workplace training have extensive user guides and support documentation. If you are not sure how to use a particular function on your LMS, it's always worth looking in the 'Help' menu.

The following resources contain more detailed information and guidance:

Facilitating Online: A course leader's guide. This excellent, free resource written by Tony Carr, Shaheeda Jaffer and Jeanne Smuts at the Centre for Educational Technology, University of Cape Town, is designed for anyone who is leading courses for online facilitators. Even if you are not leading such a course, you will find many of the activities thought provoking, and you will find plenty of food for thought in the course content and the appendices http://www.cet.uct.ac.za/files/file/Facilitating_online.pdf

Downes, 2009. Blogs in Education. Half an Hour. Available at: http://halfanhour.blogspot.com/2009/04/blogs-in-education.html [Accessed May 24, 2009].

Richardson, W., 2008. Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms 2nd ed., Corwin Press. This book contains a very good overview of the uses of Web 2.0 tools in teaching, and gives plenty of examples.

Salmon, G. & Edirisingha, P., 2008. Podcasting for Learning in Universities, Open University Press. This book contains case studies showing how podcasting has been used in a variety of situations. For guidelines, on how to produce podcasts, see the book's website, http://www.atimod.com/podcasting/PDModel.html

To download free, open source software and instructions for making podcasts, you can go to http://sourceforge.net/ and search for ‘podcasting software’.