March 7, 2006

Docebo: An integrated learning management system

Author: Murthy Raju

The Docebo project combines a learning management system (LMS), content management system (CMS), and knowledge management system (KMS) in one suite, available under the GNU General Public License (GPL). The integration of these components into a single suite saves users a lot of time, and provides a clean and convenient single window interface. I found Docebo to be very capable, though it does have a few glitches.

Docebo is based on PHP and MySQL, and runs on Linux and Windows. It supports Italian and English out of the box, and can be localized for other languages without too much effort.

Docebo's main strength is the tight integration between the LMS, CMS, and KMS components. Special emphasis on accessibility and compliance with relevant standards make it an attractive option for anyone planning to implement an LMS.

Since educational institutions all over the world tend to be under resource constraints, and also because of a shift towards open source technologies in academia, open source authoring and hosting tools for e-learning, such as Moodle, Ilias, Claroline, and aTutor, are in great demand.

Learning management systems have a lot in common with content and document management systems, though the systems differ in the metaphors that they use and the audience they address. Learning management systems present the content in terms of learning paths and learning units; document management systems present the content in the form of files; and content management systems are designed for articles. Integrating learning, content, and document management systems makes a lot of sense, because such similar content belongs in one place, and because much of the code can be reused across the modules since they share common functionality.

The Docebo suite has a comprehensive user management system that lets an administrator manage users in groups or by arranging them in a hierarchical fashion. For example, an academic institution might like to arrange users into a tree of administrators, heads of departments, faculty members, and students. Access to individual components of the suite, and the individual tasks inside each component, can be controlled by groups or based on positions in the tree. More fine-grained, per-user access control is also available.

Docebo LMS lets a teacher offer a course as a dynamic collection of electronic learning materials. The framework provides for a high level of interactivity between instructors and students. A teacher can post announcements for students, and students can exchange notes with teachers through Docebo.

Docebo also provides additional collaborative features, such as discussion forums and browser-based chat that works with Internet Explorer and Firefox. This interactivity makes it easy for a teacher to handle geographically dispersed sets of students.

Docebo LMS allows teachers to host their course materials in formats such as HTML, plain text, PDF, Flash, and audio files. Docebo also supports importing Shareable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM) modules into the LMS. SCORM modules, the e-learning industry standard, are archives of learning materials with an XML file that defines the structure and interrelationships between them.

LMS provides limited authoring support to help teachers quickly set up a glossary, a FAQ, or a test without knowing HTML. It also has a good reporting tool to help teachers assess the progress of each student.

An interesting optional addition to the LMS is support for Short Message Service (SMS) text messages and videoconferencing from and to any place in the world. However, the SMS and videoconferencing features cost money, as connectivity is offered by the commercial associates of the Docebo group. As far as I know, Docebo doesn't offer any way of connecting to other service providers. It should, however, be possible to extend Docebo to work with other providers.

Docebo CMS is a content management system similar to dozens of other systems, such as PostNuke and Drupal. Most open source CMS packages offer similar sets of features. Docebo CMS has all the usual components of a CMS -- forums, news, polls, downloads, banners, and so forth. It also provides a simple interface to control the positioning of components on a page.

Docebo KMS is essentially a document management system with an additional facility to add news, such as news regarding documents uploaded. Users can upload, organize, search for, and download files. KMS works as a categorized repository of files, whereas the files uploaded into LMS have to fit into the context of a course. Here too you can control access to the system in a fine-grained fashion.

The Docebo suite complies with the accessibility standards as per Italy's Stanca Law on Accessibility, which requires all government organizations to make their Web content accessible to the disabled. Stanca is similar to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act in the US.

The Docebo suite follows the implementation techniques and guidelines of the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 1.0. Docebo also has a Web site specifically for working with the community to make the suite more accessible.

The biggest problem with Docebo is its documentation. The documentation in the installation guide, the admin guide, and the teacher's guide is confusing. Lack of good documentation makes a lot of features of the suite inaccessible, and it takes a lot of time for administrators and teachers to figure out the flow. The main problem seems to be the lack of uniformity between the terms used in the documentation and those in the user interface. It is possible that this problem is limited to the English version of the documents, as the original manuals are in Italian. One redeeming feature is the walkthrough videos available on Docebo site.

The suite also suffers from inappropriate placement of some features and menus. For example, administrators' ability to choose a hierarchical tree-like structure for users is hidden inside a configuration menu item called "Keep It Simple." A good way to overcome these difficulties is to click on each menu item in all the interfaces to become familiar with everything.

Docebo also has some other minor glitches in the uniformity of the look and feel between various components. I tested the suite using English as the default language and found the work of translation of phrases into English incomplete at places. Some of the labels still show up in Italian.

I'd like to see a few features added to the Docebo suite, such as support for themes, user customizable pages, and a deeper integration of the components by providing an option for a teacher to pick up a document from the KMS and make it a part of his course content right away.

However, none of the problems are real showstoppers. With a few hours of patience, educators can overcome these hurdles and take advantage of all the features the Docebo suite offers.

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