What is a learning management system?
There is really no need for some of the complicated definitions you might encounter. Simply put: a Learning Management System (LMS) is a website that serves your learning content and enables web-based teaching and learning. Its functionality is rather basic:
- You upload your learning materials to the LMS
- Your learners register and take the courses
- After completion the LMS outputs (detailed) reports on their performance
Some learning management system software adds features like support for live trainings in order to enable blended learning (a mix of online and live training), but that’s basically it. So why is choosing the right LMS so complicated and does it sometimes feel deliberately confusing? Should you go for an open source learning management system, or pick a cloud-based SaaS solution? What about additional features like gamification, social learning and videoconferencing? Do you need a special authoring tool to create compatible content? The competition is fierce, and most learning management system providers will promise anything and everything.
To help out with the technical part of the selection progress, we suggest you make use of the many detailed checklists. That’s not the focus of this article. Instead, we want to take a step back and re-focus on the broader picture. Choosing a LMS is about common sense. It’s a lot like buying a car. Don’t buy a convertible to make deliveries. Pick the right car for the job, don’t get distracted by gadgets. Here are 5 simple steps to cut through the noise and pick the LMS that’s right for you.
1. Define the purpose of your Learning Management System
First things first: what is the purpose of your LMS? What’s your goal? What’s your organization’s perspective on learning? What are your company’s training ambitions for today – and for the future? Do you have specific learning plans in place? To find out, make sure you:
- Talk to your learning stakeholders
- Talk to the IT department
- To talk to the end-users
- List the recurring requirements
- Clearly distinguish between must-haves and nice-to-haves
True story: A large international supermarket chain invited us, as content experts, to their online learning kick-off meeting. Unfortunately, the meeting was surprisingly short, as supermarket representatives made clear that:
A) every supermarket only had 2 computers that could be configured for e-learning
B) the learners (cashiers and stock clerks) didn’t have any free time in their schedules to learn
C) unpaid learning outside hours was not an option.
So before you do anything else, ask yourself: Do your learners have the right tools and the time to learn?
2. Count the number of learners / users
Get an accurate picture of the number of learners you’re aiming for. It determines the price of a SaaS LMS and impacts the stability of the LMS if it’s hosted on your internal servers. And again, look to the future – as your organization grows, so will the scope of your trainings.
3. Set a correct budget for your LMS
A LMS is a huge cost-saver, so don’t settle for a peanut budget. Just think of how many man-hours of work, travel, and expenses you will save by moving (part of) your training from the classroom to your learner’s computer. Don’t be afraid to show this calculation to your colleagues and win yourself a bigger budget. And remember, the LMS is just an empty box. Make sure you set aside sufficient budget to invest in quality learning content.
One dangerous pitfall is the concept of a “free online learning management system”: beware that no such thing exists. Even an open source LMS will require plenty of hours worth of integration, development and support – as well as someone to act as administrator. And that’s not even accounting for employee onboarding.
True story: a large retailer asked us to create content for the free LMS they had just decided on. Three months later the courses were finished, but the LMS still wasn’t up and running. In fact, the “free learning management system” had already cost a small fortune in integration and customization – as the ever-increasing group of stakeholders kept piling on feature after feature.
4. Balance LMS benefits and budget
Once you’ve established your must-have requirements, your learners, and your budget, you have clear criteria to go shopping. Put the dealers to work and let them match their LMS to your requirements.
Don’t get distracted by trendy extras: 70% of all learning management system features are never used. This is because many LMSs have taken the swiss army knife approach: they’re chock full of built-in features that do a little bit of everything but don’t excel at anything.
Take gamification for example. If you’re convinced virtual badges and scoreboards will send your learners over the moon, then go for it. But if you really want to harness the power of didactic gamification, it pays to get advice from experts.
Account for administration and management costs
Finally, no LMS runs itself. So don’t opt for an enterprise LMS unless you really need one. Consider the workload in terms of administration. Who will examine all the reports? Can the LMS be integrated with your existing systems and how much work will that be? Focus on the must-have practicalities.
5. Try before you buy
After you’ve shortlisted your providers but before you make a decision, take some test drives. A learning management system demo is a great to way try it out yourself – both as admin and end user.
For end users, registering, navigating the LMS, and finding courses should be as easy as visiting YouTube or Facebook. In this day and age, anything more complicated isn’t worth investing in – your learners certainly won’t. As admin, try uploading and assigning a course and downloading the correct reporting. Any required training should be minimal.
Ideally you want a scorm compliant learning management system that conforms to accessibility requirements and runs equally well on mobile devices. If anything feels convoluted or clunky, then scratch the LMS off your list.
And that list is long: Totara, Moodle, Docebo, SAP, captivate prime, Mindflash, Articulate online .., so which is best? It’s almost impossible to say. Every platform has its advantages and disadvantages and market shares vary in every country. But with these five straightforward steps, you’re armed with a sharp focus on finding the best solution for your organization. And that’s the only thing that matters.
Bought the right LMS and fully implemented and integrated it with your systems? Then make it accessible, in every sense of the word:
- Don’t hide the online learning environment behind a wall of menus and additional logins
- Make sure the entire organization knows where it can be found
- Advertise to your learners and build awareness and enthusiasm
- Keep investing in quality content to ensure your learners actually progress
To LMS or not to LMS, and is that even the right question?
But what if, after all your thorough preparation and extensive research, you still can’t find an LMS that fits well with your organization? Then chances are that you don’t need an LMS – you may just need a basic platform that puts your learning out there.
Such an alternative could be anything from a dedicated website (WordPress can manage this job just fine), a polling tool, to an interactive video player that allows links and quizzing. These three alternatives for a LMS can cover the bases for user interactions, tracking and analytics. Unsure? Reach out to your learning provider for a practical solution.
Three crucial questions to ask before you create e-learning content
An LMS can make your life – and your learners’ lives – a lot easier. But only quality content will make any learning happen. If content is king, then learning content is King Kong. So how do we climb the proverbial empire state building? Ask these questions:
Who will create your learning content: content experts or learning experts?
So, you’ve defined your topics. Now define who will create the actual learnings. All too often, this task is passed on to content experts who are given an authoring tool and then left to their own devices. Every organization boasts subject matter experts who are great teachers, but online training comes with very specific parameters, and unique strengths and limitations. Because direct human interaction is missing from the picture, it takes a new bag of tricks to keep learners engaged.
Will you put learning content online or will you offer online learning content?
Putting existing presentations of recordings of seminars in your LMS are at best watered-down versions of the original live experiences. Text-heavy trainings can drive your learners to tears, as anyone who’s ever tried to read a novel on a laptop screen will confirm. A picture says more than a thousand words, and this is especially true in online trainings. Online training is a visual medium, and for it to work, you need to play to its strengths.
Will your learners watch the content? Or participate in it?
All too often, companies expect their employees to learn because it’s what they need to know. It’s mandatory. As a result, learners lean back and let the overlong content wash over them, zapping from one screen to the next until they reach and complete the final quiz. What’s missing is a clearly defined target audience and “What’s in it for me?” for that audience. Also missing are all the questions, examples and exercises you’d expect in a live training. And yet, all of these can be included in online training with standard authoring tools.
How to really make your e-learning content come alive
You want to get your learners hooked from the start. You want them to clearly understand:
- What they’ll learn
- What they’ll achieve
- What’s in it for them
Ideally, you’ll also refer to previous knowledge, so learners can build on what they’ve already learned. In presenting the content materials, you’ll want to offer a logical series of bite-sized chunks of learning.
You’ll also want to add plenty of variation: it’s imperative to guide the learner through a logical path, with plenty of examples and exercises in between. Practice makes perfect even in online learning, and feedback provides invaluable learning moments.
Finally, you’ll want to test learner understanding, provide context for their scores, and include supporting materials to make the content stick. Too ambitious for online training? Not at all. The above points are drawn from Robert Gagné’s 9 points of instruction. They have been a staple of the training world for decades and they’re the essential ingredients of an online training. Learn all about this methodology in our upcoming blog “Nine events of Instruxion”. And as always, feel free to share your comments or questions