A Rubric for Evaluating E-Learning Tools in Higher Education

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The Rubric for E-Learning Tool Evaluation offers educators a framework, with criteria and levels of achievement, to assess the suitability of an e-learning tool for their learners' needs and for their own learning outcomes and classroom context.

A Rubric for Evaluating E-Learning Tools in Higher Education
Credit: AnggunFaith / EDUCAUSE © 2018

As educational developers supporting the incorporation of technology into teaching, we are often asked by instructors for a tailored recommendation of an e-learning tool to use in a particular course. When they use the phrase e-learning tool, instructors are typically asking for some kind of digital technology, mediated through the use of an internet-connected device, that is designed to support student learning. Such requests tend to be accompanied by statements of frustration over the selection process they've undertaken. These frustrations often result from two factors. First, instructors are typically experts in their course's subject matter, yet they are not necessarily fluent in the best criteria for evaluating e-learning tools. Second, the number and the variety of e-learning tools continue to proliferate. Both of these factors make it increasingly challenging for faculty members to evaluate and select an e-learning tool that aligns with their course design and meaningfully supports their students' learning experience.

Yet, we firmly believe that instructors should be the ultimate decision-makers in selecting the tools that will work for their courses and their learners. Thus, we saw an opportunity to develop a framework that would assist with the predictive evaluation of e-learning tools—a framework that could be used by non-tech experts and applied in a variety of learning contexts to help draw their attention to the cogent aspects of evaluating any e-learning tool. To address this need, we created the Rubric for E-Learning Tool Evaluation.

At our institution, Western University, the Rubric for E-Learning Tool Evaluation is currently being utilized in two ways. First, educational developers are using the rubric to review the tools and technologies profiled on the eLearning Toolkit, a university online resource intended to help instructors discover and meaningfully integrate technologies into their teaching. Second, we have shared our rubric with instructors and staff so that they can independently review tools of interest to them. These uses of the framework are key to our intended purpose for the rubric: to serve as a guide for instructors and staff in their assessment and selection of e-learning tools through a multidimensional evaluation of functional, technical, and pedagogical aspects.

Foundations of the Framework

In the 1980s, researchers began creating various models for choosing, adopting, and evaluating technology. Some of these models assessed readiness to adopt technology (be it by instructors, students, or institutions)—for example, the technology acceptance model (TAM) or its many variations. Other models aimed to measure technology integration into teaching or the output quality of specific e-learning software and platforms. Still other researchers combined models to support decision-making throughout the process of integrating technology into teaching, from initial curriculum design to the use of e-learning tools.

However, aside from the SECTIONS model,1 existing models fell short in two key areas:

  • They were not typically intended for ad hoc instructor use.
  • They did not enable critique of specific tools or technology for informing adoption by instructors.

To address this, we integrated, reorganized, and presented existing concepts using an instructor-based lens to create an evaluative, predictive model that lets instructors and support staff—including instructional designers and courseware developers—evaluate technologies for their appropriate fit to a course's learning outcomes and classroom contexts.

Why a Rubric?

Educators often use rubrics to articulate "the expectations for an assignment by listing the criteria or what counts, and describing levels of quality."2 We have adapted these broad aims to articulate the appropriate assessment criteria for e-learning tools using the standard design components of other analytical rubrics: categories, criteria, standards, and descriptors.

We organized our rubric's evaluation criteria into eight categories. Each category has a specific set of characteristics, or criteria, against which e-learning tools are evaluated, and each criterion is assessed against three standards: works well, minor concerns, or serious concerns. Finally, the rubric offers individual descriptions of the qualities an e-learning tool must have to achieve a standard.

Although our rubric integrates a broad range of functional, technical, and pedagogical criteria, it is not intended to be overly prescriptive. Our goal is for the framework to respond to an instructor's needs and be adapted as appropriate. For example, when a rubric criterion is not relevant to the assessment of a particular tool, it can be excluded without impacting the overall quality of the assessment.

The rubric reflects our belief that instructors should choose e-learning tools in the context of the learning experience. We therefore encourage an explicit alignment between the instructor's intended outcomes and the tool, based on principles of constructive alignment.3 Given the diversity of outcomes across learning experiences, e-learning tools should be chosen on a case-by-case basis and should be tailored to each instructor's intended learning outcomes and planned instructional activities. We designed the rubric with this intention in mind.

The Rubric Categories

The rubric is intended to be used as a stand-alone resource. The following is an explanation of each category and how we framed it to meet our development goals.


Broadly speaking, functionality considers a tool's operations or affordances and the quality or suitability of these functions to the intended purpose—that is, does the tool serve its intended purpose well? In the case of e-learning tools, the intended purpose is classroom use. 

Scale. Postsecondary classrooms vary in format and size, ranging from small seminars to large-enrollment courses. In larger courses, creating small groups increases contact among students, fosters cooperative learning, and enhances social presence among learners.4 An e-learning tool should therefore not only be flexible in accommodating various class sizes but also be capable of supporting small-group work. Hence, scale focuses on the tool's affordances to accommodate the size and nature of the classroom environment.

Ease of Use. When a tool is inflexible, is cumbersome in design, is difficult to navigate, or behaves in unexpected ways, it is likely to be negatively perceived by instructors and students. Comparatively, a tool tends to be more positively perceived when it feels intuitive and easy to use and offers guidance through user engagement. The ease of use criterion therefore focuses on design characteristics that contribute to user-friendliness and intuitive use.

Tech Support / Help Availability. When technical problems or lack of user know-how impairs the function of a tool, users must know where to turn for help. Timely support helps instructors feel comfortable and competent with e-learning tools and helps students self-regulate their learning.5 While such support can come from a variety of sources—including peers, experts, IT staff, and help documentation—we believe that the optimal support is localized, up-to-date, responsive to users' needs, and timely. Such support is often best provided either through campus-based technical support or through robust support from the platform itself.

Hypermediality. Cognitive psychology emphasizes the importance of giving learners multiple, diverse forms of representation organized in a way that lets them control their own engagement.6 Hypermediality is achieved by providing multiple forms of media (audio, video, and textual communication channels), as well as the ability to organize lessons in a non-sequential way.7 This criterion therefore focuses on assessing how a tool's functions support and encourage instructors and students to engage with and communicate through different forms of media in a flexible, nonlinear fashion.


Here, we define accessibility both broadly—as outlined by the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles of flexible, adaptable curriculum design to support multiple learning approaches and engagement for all students—and in terms of legislative requirements for meeting the specific accessibility needs of learners with disabilities.

Accessibility Standards. At a minimum, an e-learning tool should adhere to mandated requirements for accessibility, including those of legislative accessibility standards, as well as generally accepted guidelines, such as the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative. The documentation for an e-learning tool should provide information regarding the degree and nature of a tool's ability to meet accessibility standards. Unfortunately, such information is often missing, raising a serious concern that developers have not valued accessibility standards in their design and support of the e-learning tool.

User-Focused Participation. Whereas standards serve as a foundation for accessibility, they are not the only set of criteria to consider in adopting a framework of universal design. Drawing on an Accessibility 2.0 model,8 the user-focused participation criterion rewards e-learning tools that address the needs of diverse users and include broader understandings of literacies and student capabilities.

Required Equipment. Given that inaccessibility is a mismatch between a learner's needs in a particular environment and the format in which content is presented,9 we examine environmental factors that impact accessibility. These factors include necessary hardware (e.g., speakers, a microphone, and a mobile phone) and the technology or service (e.g., high-speed internet connection) that users need to engage with an e-learning tool. Generally, the less equipment required, the more accessible the tool will be to a broad group of users, regardless of socioeconomic, geographic, or other environmental considerations.

Cost of Use. Continuing with a consideration of socioeconomic factors as a broader question of accessibility, this criterion evaluates the financial costs of a tool. In addition to tuition costs, students regularly face significant (and unregulated) expenses for course resources.10 The burden increases if students are required to buy e-learning tools. Instructors play an integral role in balancing tool use and costs incurred; at best, tool use is open access, covered by tuition, or otherwise subsidized by the institution.


In a review of e-learning readiness models,11 researchers found that a user's technology—that is, internet access, hardware, software, and computer availability—was integral to successful e-learning implementation. This category thus considers the basic technologies needed to make a tool work.

Integration/Embedding within a Learning Management System (LMS). LMSs are internet-based, institutionally-backed platforms that support teaching and learning at the course level. Any e-learning tool adopted for teaching should be able to "play well" with an institution's LMS.

A fully integrated tool shares data back and forth with the institution's LMS. Currently, tool integration is most often achieved by being Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) compliant. Using an LTI-compliant tool should mean a seamless experience for users. For example, accounts are created in the integrated e-learning tool without user input, and assessments occurring within the tool are synced automatically to the LMS gradebook. In contrast, an embedded tool is added as an object with HTML code—that is, the tool is "inserted" into a webpage. An example here is adding a streaming video, which users can start, stop, and pause, to an LMS web page. While both integration and embedding permit student interaction with the tools, only integrated tools offer a two-way flow of data.

Overall, if students can access a tool directly and consistently within an LMS, as allowed by both embedding and integration, the learning experience is strengthened.

Desktop/Laptop Operating Systems and Browser. Although operating systems and browsers are distinct, we describe these separate rubric criteria as one here since they relate to the same underlying question: Can learners effectively use the e-learning tool on a desktop or laptop computer if they have a standard, up-to-date operating system (OS) and/or browser? (We consider mobile OSs later, in the Mobile Design category.)

We define standard here as any commonly used OS and up-to-date as any OS still supported by its vendor. The more OSs or browsers a tool supports, the better: any tool that can be used only by users of one OS or browser is cause for concern. Selecting an e-learning tool that can be installed and run on up-to-date versions of Windows and Mac OS enables access for nearly all desktop and laptop users.

Additional Downloads. A tool that requires learners to install additional software or browser plug-ins—whether on their own system or in the tool itself—is problematic. As in the case of Adobe Flash players, which were initially popular but later blocked by many browsers due to security issues—if an e-learning tool relies on another piece of software in order to work, it risks being rendered obsolete due to factors beyond the tool developers' control.

Mobile Design

With the continued adoption of mobile devices worldwide, instructional methods and tools that deliver content using mobile technology will continue to grow and therefore warrant their own assessment category.

Access. For e-learning tools accessed using a mobile device, the best ones will be OS- and device-agnostic. This means that students, regardless of the mobile device they choose to use, should be able to access and interact with the tool either through the download of an application ("app") built for their OS or through the browser.

Functionality. Ideally, the mobile version will have few to no differences from the desktop version. If there are multiple mobile versions for different OSs, the functionality of different versions should be the same. In addition the user experience should consider the constraints of smaller mobile device screens, either by using responsive design or by offering a mobile app.

Offline Access. To enhance its flexibility, any e-learning tool that accesses the internet should offer an offline mode to expand access for those who have limited or intermittent connectivity.

Privacy, Data Protection, and Rights

While e-learning tools offer numerous potential benefits for learners and instructors, they also can entail risks. The primary concerns relate to personal information and intellectual property (IP).

Sign Up / Sign In. Institutions have a responsibility to protect student data, including name, student number or ID, geolocation information, and photos, videos, or audio files containing a student's face or voice.12 When students are asked to create an account with a third-party e-learning tool, the tool often requires them to disclose the same personal information that higher education institutions are responsible to protect. Ideally, no user of an e-learning tool will be required to disclose personal information when accessing a tool—thus guaranteeing the protection of information. If personal information is to be collected, instructors should be the only ones required to provide that information (thereby protecting students), or the tool needs to have been vetted through appropriate channels (e.g., an institution's procedures for IT risk assessment) to ensure that the collection of student data by a third-party group is being protected according to local and institutional standards.

Data Privacy and Ownership. E-learning tools can also raise various copyright and IP concerns. Tools are increasingly hosted by for-profit companies on servers external to an institution; these companies can sometimes claim ownership of the work that is residing on their servers.13 Further, some e-learning tools may protect users' IP but make their content publicly available by default. Other tools give users greater autonomy over how content will be shared. The key factors to assess here are the IP policies of the e-learning tool and the user's control over how content is shared. Ultimately, users should maintain their IP rights and be able to exercise full control over how their content is made public.

Archiving, Saving, and Exporting Data. The platforms used for hosting a tool may not reliably ensure adequate protection against data loss. Instructors should thus analyze e-learning tools to determine how data or content can be migrated back and forth between the service and its user. In part, this guards against data loss through export and backup while also offering learners the flexibility to freely move their content between tools rather than being locked into or committed to one tool.

Social Presence

The final three categories of the rubric stem from the Communities of Inquiry (CoI) model,14 which considers, in part, how the design of online learning environments might best create and sustain a sense of community among learners. D. Randy Garrison, Terry Anderson, and Walter Archer define social presence as the ability of participants "to project their personal characteristics into the community, thereby presenting themselves to the other participants as 'real people.'"15 This category focuses on establishing a safe, trusting environment that fosters collaboration, teamwork, and an overall sense of community.

Collaboration. Based on the principles of the CoI model, instructors are encouraged to design learning activities and environments that provide students with frequent and varied opportunities to interact with their peers and collaborate on activities to build a sense of community. This manifests in not only providing synchronous and asynchronous channels for knowledge exchange but also establishing a sense of community between users—for example, through the prompted creation of online profiles that allow participants to establish an online identity.

User Accountability. If students are to engage willingly, a safe and trusted environment is essential. Establishing and maintaining this requires that instructors be able to identify students, even if they are otherwise using pseudonyms to protect their privacy. Instructors must also be able to control users' contributions by moderating forums and managing forum privileges. These features not only support social presence but also aid in supporting student assessment.

Diffusion. The diffusion concept holds that commonly used tools are more readily adopted than foreign ones.16 That is, students who feel familiar with a tool are more likely to feel comfortable with and positive about using it, thus contributing to regular use, endorsement, and sense of belonging.

Teaching Presence

Garrison defines teaching presence as "the crucial integrating force that structures and leads the educational process in a constructive, collaborative and sustained manner."17 In our rubric, we interpret teaching presence as related to tool elements that enable instructors to establish and maintain their teaching presence through facilitation, customization, and feedback.

Facilitation. Effective teaching presence requires a facilitative approach, characterized as: providing timely input, information, and feedback; questioning or challenging students' thinking; modeling inquiry; and demonstrating cognitive engagement. Some e-learning tools support these activities better than others. The rubric gives preference to tools providing easy-to-use features that enhance an instructor's ability to effectively engage in facilitation activities.

Customization. As educational developers, we value alignment between intended learning outcomes and learning activities and assessments, advocating for technologies and tools that complement learning outcomes. A tool can support this alignment when it gives instructors the flexibility to customize how learners will engage with a tool, thus enabling them to focus on specific uses while disregarding other, distracting functions. Ideally, the tool also supports instructors in communicating this intentionality—making it clear to students why they are doing what they are doing.

Learning Analytics. The NMC Horizon Report: 2018 Higher Education Edition defines learning analytics as a diverse array of tools and applications that enable instructors, students, and institutions to "collect, connect, combine, and interpret data to more clearly understand learner capabilities and progress [and] fuel personalized and adaptive learning experiences."18 Reviewers of an e-learning tool should assess the availability, quality, and user-friendliness of the analytics offered to ensure the tool supports the desired data required for tracking performance, providing feedback on learning, and informing course design.

Cognitive Presence

The third and final CoI framework category is cognitive presence: engagement in "the process of inquiry that moves from problem definition to exploration of relevant content and ideas, integrating those ideas into a meaningful structure or solution."19 In our evaluation context, this category considers a tool's ability to support students' cognitive engagement in learning tasks.

Enhancement of Cognitive Task(s). Ideally, an e-learning tool enhances or transforms learning. Ruben Puentedura's SAMR (Substitution, Augmentation, Modification and Redefinition) model provides a framework for evaluating how e-learning technologies influence cognitive tasks.20 The model gives preference to tools that transform learning by modifying or redefining engagement in the targeted task, either by redesigning the activity or by establishing new approaches previously inconceivable or unachievable through other means. Our rubric encourages tool evaluators to select technologies that modify or redefine tasks rather than simply substituting one task for another without adding functional value.

Higher-Order Thinking. This criterion measures a tool's ability to help learners integrate, rearrange, or extend new and existing information to achieve a purpose or find answers to a complex problem. In considering a tool's cognitive elements, reviewers should consider its ability to support higher-order learning tasks such as critical thinking, problem solving, and reasoning.

Metacognitive Engagement. Metacognitive activities are those that prompt understanding, regulation, and reflection of students' own cognitive activities across the learning process. Many e-learning tools offer avenues for metacognitive engagement and are considered successful on this criterion when they help students "think about their learning, how they approach specific tasks, and the success of their strategies."21 This is commonly achieved through formative feedback—the opportunity to test knowledge, track performance, and monitor improvement in an effort to modify thinking or behavior for improved learning.22 The rubric directly links formative feedback and metacognitive practice, giving priority to those tools that enable instructors to provide formative feedback in support of students' growth through self-regulated learning and reflective practice.


The Rubric for E-Learning Tool Evaluation offers educators a framework, with criteria and levels of achievement, to assess the suitability of an e-learning tool for their learners' needs and for their own learning outcomes and classroom context. The rubric was designed with utility in mind: it is intended to help decision-makers independently evaluate e-learning tools.

We designed the rubric to be practical for everyday use. Although we wrote it within a Canadian postsecondary context, our hope is that other researchers will adapt the rubric for their local context in tertiary education. The rubric is freely available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Given the rapid developments in e-learning and technology-enhanced instruction, we hope others will use and build on our rubric to ensure its ongoing relevance in light of future advances in the field.


To assist with the sharing and adaptation of the Rubric for E-Learning Tool Evaluation, the authors created a Git Hub repository for the rubric.



  1. For more on the SECTIONS (Students; Ease of use; Costs; Teaching and Learning; Interactivity; Organization; Novelty; Speed) model, see A. W. Bates and Gary Poole, Effective Teaching with Technology in Higher Education: Foundations for Success. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2003).
  2. Y. Malini Reddy  and Heidi Andrade, "A Review of Rubric Use in Higher Education," Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 35, no. 4 (2010), 435–448.
  3. John Biggs, "Constructive Alignment in University Teaching," HERDSA Review of Higher Education 1 (July 2014), 1–18.
  4. Barbara J. Millis, "Why Faculty Should Adopt Cooperative Learning Approaches," in Cooperative Learning in Higher Education: Across the Disciplines, Across the Academy, ed. Barbara J. Millis (Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, 2012), 1–9; Chih Hsiung Tu and Marina McIsaac, "The Relationship of Social Presence and Interaction in Online Classes," American Journal of Distance Education 16, no. 3 (2002), 131–150.
  5. Kim Watty, Jade McKay, and Leanne Ngo, "Innovators or Inhibitors? Accounting Faculty Resistance to New Educational Technologies in Higher Education," Journal of Accounting Education 36  (September 2016), 1–15; S. Sharma, Geoff Dick, Wynne Chin, and Lesley Land, "Self-Regulation and e-Learning," ECIS 2007 Proceedings 45 (2007); Hong Zhao and Li Chen, "How Can Self-Regulated Learning Be Supported in E-Learning 2.0 Environment: A Comparative Study," Journal of Educational Technology Development and Exchange (JETDE) 9, no. 2 (2016), 1–20.
  6. Stephen A. Ambrose, Michael W. Bridges, Michele DiPietro, Marsha C. Lovett, Marie K. Norman, and Richard E. Mayer, How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching [https://www.wiley.com/en-us/How+Learning+Works%3A+Seven+Research+Based+Principles+for+Smart+Teaching-p-9780470484104] (San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass, 2010).
  7. Carmelo Ardito, Maria Francesca Costabile, Marilena De Marsico, Rosa Lanzilotti, Stefano Levialdi, Paola Plantamura, Teresa Roselli, et al., "Towards Guidelines for Usability of E-Learning Application," in User-Centered Interaction Paradigms for Universal Access in the Information Society UI4ALL 2004, LNCS vol. 3196, ed. Christian Stary and Constantine Stephanidis (Berlin: Springer, 2004), 82.
  8. Brian Kelly er al., "Accessibility 2.0: Next Steps for Web Accessibility," Journal of Access Services 6, no. 1–2 (2009).
  9. Greg Gay, "Accessibility in E-Learning: What You Need to Know," Council of Ontario Universities, [n.d.].
  10. "Policy Brief: Ancillary Fees," Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance, 2016.
  11. Asma A. Mosa, Mohammad N. Mahrin, and Roslina Ibrrahim, "Technological Aspects of E-Learning Readiness in Higher Education: A Review of the Literature," Computer and Information Science 9, no. 1 (2016), 113–127.
  12. Andreas Schroeder, Shailey Minocha, and Christoph Schneider, "The Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats of Using Social Software in Higher and Further Education Teaching and Learning," Journal of Computer Assisted Learning 26, no. 3 (2010), 159–174; Anthony E. Kelly and Mika Seppala, "Changing Policies Concerning Student Privacy and Ethics in Online Education," International Journal of Information and Education Technology 6, no. 8 (2016), 652–655.
  13. Julia E. Rodriguez, "Social Media Use in Higher Education: Key Areas to Consider for Educators," Journal of Online Learning and Teaching 7, no. 4 (2011), 539–550.
  14. D. Randy Garrison, E-Learning in the 21st Century: A Framework for Research and Practice, 2d ed. (London: Routledge, 2011). 
  15. D. Randy Garrison, Terry Anderson, and Walter Archer, "Critical Inquiry in a Text-Based Environment: Computer Conferencing in Higher Education Model," The Internet and Higher Education 2, nos. 2-3 (2000), 89.
  16. Ronnie Cheung and Doug Vogel, "Predicting User Acceptance of Collaborative Technologies: An Extension of the Technology Acceptance Model for E-Learning," Computer Education 63 (2013), 160–175.
  17. D. Randy Garrison, "Online Collaboration Principles," Journal of Asynchronous Learning 10, no. 1 (2006), 26.
  18. Samantha Adams Becker et al., NMC Horizon Report: 2018 Higher Education Edition (Louisville, CO: EDUCAUSE, 2018), 38.
  19. Garrison, "Online Collaboration Principles," 28.
  20. Ruben R. Puentedura, "SAMR: A Contextualized Introduction" [n.d.].
  21. Zehra Akyol and D. Randy Garrison, "Assessing Metacognition in an Online Community of Inquiry," The Internet and Higher Education 14 (2011), 183–190.
  22. Valerie J. Schute, "Focus on Formative Feedback," Review of Educational Research 78, no. 1 (2008), 153.

Lauren M. Anstey is an educational developer with a focus on e-learning and curriculum in the Centre for Teaching and Learning and is Adjunct Research Faculty in the Centre for Research on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education at Western University.

Gavan P. L. Watson is Associate Director, eLearning, in the Centre for Teaching and Learning and is Adjunct Research Faculty in the Centre for Research on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education at Western University.

© 2018 Lauren M. Anstey and Gavan P. L. Watson. The text of this article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.