The Only Learning Management System Guide You Need in 2021 (Seriously)

The Only Learning Management System Guide You Need in 2021

Choosing a learning management system for your organisation is no small ask. After all, it’s a large financial investment much like a house—particularly in the sense that if you’re smart in your initial market research, you’ll find the value you gain from it increases over time. If not, well, the overheads will certainly increase as time goes on, but the experience you have in it will certainly leave a lot to the imagination. With a little bit (or a lot) of knowledge, you can make an educated decision on what is the right learning management system for your organisation’s needs. This guide will explore everything from the evolution of the LMS and why a learning management system is important, to judging features by their functionality and the less-thought-of things you really should be considering when purchasing an eLearning solution and some alternatives to the learning management system itself.

About this guide

This guide is no less than the sum of all our knowledge about the learning management system, colloquially shortened to LMS. There’s a lot to unpack, least of all because the learning management system is a nuanced and ever-evolving technology. We’ll walk you through:

This guide is not intended to be an authoritative step-by-step when buying an LMS. The buying process looks different for every organisation, and we know better than most that the LMS is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Many of our clients came to us seeking to get out of a restrictive contract or clunky, ill-fitting system. It’s an all-too-common phenomenon for the average organisation to fall victim to good supplier marketing, a sense of urgency, and a lack of time.

With that in mind, what this guideis meant to be is an exploration of the LMS as it can be used, some of the less talked about facets of the technology, some of the pitfalls for you to avoid and exactly how to avoid them.

So, let’s start with some basics.

Infographic of the three main reasons to implement a learning management system.

What is a learning management system?

A learning management system (LMS) is a software application that handles all aspects of the learning process. It's the architecture for housing, creating, delivering and tracking learning. Sounds simple enough, right? This is because, at heart, an LMS is meant to be as user-friendly as possible. The term “user-friendly” is important here, because the LMS is as much a tool for facilitating learning as it is managing learning. In this way, the learning management system really has three core functionalities:

  1. Learning facilitation and goalsetting (user-based intention).
  2. Learning assessment and management (instructor-led process).
  3. Supporting learning as part of workforce plans (organisational).

The ability to align individual goals with organisation-wide objectives is why the LMS is used as often by corporate organisations as it is higher education institutions. Where things start to get a little trickier to understand is when we talk about its infrastructure and the nuanced everyday experiences it leverages.

Why do we need a learning management system?

Assuming your learners or intended learners are adults, there are a myriad of reasons to employ a learning management system. The learning needs of adults are incredibly diverse and directly impacted by personal priorities, lifestyle, health, and their employers’ needs among other things. This makes an adult’s orientation to learninglife-centred.In other words, the learning experience is informed by their own experiences and environment, which gives greater need for the learning experience to be self-directed and socially informed. It also means that for the most part, adults are motivated to learn information that will satisfy current needs, interests and experiences.

However, this creates two possible problems that may obstruct you from effectively training your adult learners or employees:

  1. Their current priorities are so fulfilling or demanding that they cannot sacrifice time out of their workday or week to attend traditional face-to-face training.
  2. If they are then forced to undertake it on their own and in their own time, they might disengage with what is then an isolated learning experience.

So, the question is less about why you need an LMS and more about how it can help facilitate, motivate and engage your people. There are two distinct ways:

  1. Putting the power back in learners’ hands, known as asynchronous learning; and
  2. Creating a learning experience and community (synchronous learning).

Self-directed learning

Think about the last seven days. The majority of your time was likely spent at your job. If you’ve got kids, the rest of your time may have been used to do any combination of the following: school pickup, sport drop-offs, homework help, dinner to organise, social events to tee up. That’s not including any of the other things most working adults try to fit into their week, like exercise, grocery shopping, housework, catchups with friends, even just doing nothing in your downtime.

Many of these activities may be done on autopilot, since a lot of mental energy can be used up during a workday. Others are done to actively disengage. Consider how it would feel to sacrifice some of that time to go sit in a room somewhere and use more brain power to carry out a teacher’s instructions because your employer wants you to. Not that enticing when we phrase it like that, is it?

Now consider if your employer provided you with a tool that you can access at any point of your week and on any type of device, when you decide you have the time, and with coursework that a) improves your ability to do your current job and b) is part of an actionable plan to move above your current role. (Sounds much nicer.) This is what’s known as self-directed learning.

 Rather than being a process that’s solely dependent on external metrics of success, self-directed learning using a learning management system allows individuals tomaster crucial personal and professional skillssuch as:

  • Seeking and evaluating quality sources of information.
  • Organising information in meaningful ways.
  • Strategising for and prioritising and managing tasks.
  • Contextualising new information within their environment.
  • Problem-solving and course-correcting without intervention.
  • Self-identifying strengths and weaknesses.

Self-directed learning encourages the intention to create athorough understanding for oneself— not just one that pleases an assessor—and is usually achieved when learners connect new material with their own knowledge and experiences. This is incredibly important when creating meaningful learning experiences, because it ensures learning doesn’t become mechanical.

You might then ask, What’s the point of even having a tool to facilitate learning if we want learners to do it themselves? We’ll counter with our own question: Remember what we said about framework? Where an LMS really comes in handy is in ensuring that whatever the path to understanding and competency looks like, it will always reach an outcome that is representative of a universal language within your organisation. This may be for a capability, job role, policy, value... the list goes on.

Essentially, the purpose of an LMS is to shape the learning pathway for learners to progress along at their own pace, while ensuring the content along that pathway reflects a metric of success, learning objective or strategic business goal.

Social learning

In terms of employee training, eLearning is often the best choice in terms of avoiding delays to productivity, ensuring security and offering flexibility. But on that latter note, some learners may see online learning as more of anecessity than a choicethese days, given certain lifestyle and economic constraints (dependants, lack of transport, cost of travel, global pandemics, etc.). This could mean the perceived independence offered by an online learning platform might not be as enticing as first thought—particularly when you consider there will inevitably be coursework that is considered dry no matter the delivery (cough, compliance, cough). Then there’stransactional distanceto consider, or the idea that any change in interaction, course structure, or sense of learner autonomy can aggravate a sense of distance between learner and instructor, and cause learners to disengage.

Why would we describe a clear reasonnotto implement a learning management system in a guide about learning management systems? It’s really a segue into the second motivation provided by said LMS: Social learning. Studies have found that regular interaction between learners and instructors and learners and their peers through a learning platform forms more meaningful learning opportunities, fosters learning communities, aids in identifying learning priorities, and improves attitudes, completions rates and performance. Social learning can also boost retention and reduce attrition, therebyincreasing learner persistence.

LMSs then leverage their native online environment for one of the things it does best: Providing opportunities to collaborate and learn. Many LMSs are infused with features like forums, content sharing, and live messaging. Where self-directed learning addresses more formal learning strategies, social learning is informal and involves learners validating new knowledge by sharing and affirming it against others’ understanding. This makes its way into the environment in which learners’ use this new knowledge, meaning thatlearning then becomes experientialand new skills are better internalised and retained.

The evolution of the LMS—and why this matters to you

Again, you might want to ask, Why consider where the learning management system has come from? Why worry about the future of the technology, we hear you ponder? Weexpect technology to evolve, you say? We’re not just talking about the future path of eLearning technology here. We’re talking about how education has evolved, and the ways in which learners’ needs have and will change, too. This is important to know because it will impact the features you're using now, and how your learners will respond to those in future.

We’ve moved from aneducational dynamicin which the learner-teacher relationship is outcome-oriented and based on a power structure, to one rooted in collaboration and which is process focused. This is mainly because there were more than a few flaws with this former system:

  1. It treated all learners as the same, providing the same coursework to complete in the same amount of time. This discounts lifestyle, priorities and goals, amongst their diverse motivations and conflicting needs.
  2. It put learners of differing aptitudes on the same playing field. Far from being an exercise in equality, this could force either a) high-achieving individuals to be held back or b) lower-achieving learners to fall behind.
  3. Achievements are held to a constant level of mastery, which obviously doesn’t reflect how success is defined in different industries, vocations, job roles, organisations and even to individuals.

Now, this isn’t to say that the instinct to defer to anyone (subject matter experts, professors, mentors, teachers) who we consider better informed on a topic than we are, is flawed. But orienting an entire learning experience around this makes learning a passive response, not an action—and it doesn’t consider something rather vital to the employee training process: contextualisation.

The core ethos of the LMS (fuelled in part by the mass adoption of digital technologies and by extension mobile learning) has always been that the learner is not a passive actor, but rather the driver of learning. The system and teachers are facilitators, which means:

  1. Learners are treated as individuals, given time to complete work when it suits them and move on to more challenging tasks as designated within the system. The teacher is no longer the primary knowledge source, but rather facilitator, guide and coach.
  2. Learning pathways can be created that cater to the aptitude, current skillset and knowledge gaps of individuals. These pathways can be mapped against organisational outcomes or individual goals, giving an appropriate level of challenge to tasks. It also takes unnecessary competition out of the equation and provides meaningful motivation to complete courses.
  3. Achievements aren’t graded with a gold star on a class board. They’re judged by a learner’s capacity to internalise new knowledge and apply it in their environment. Ultimately, this makes their work lives and workplace more productive and cohesive.

How learners are driving this change

However much they furthered a new approach to education, legacy LMSs couldn’t outrun their user-related limitations. They weren’t compatible with mobile devices, restricting access to desktop computers, they weren’t easily customisable, they lacked administrative and reporting features, and they were slow as hell. Much of the most innovative changes in LMS technology have occurred as the first tech-savvy generation entered the workforce. Yes, we’re talking about millennials. As learners, they want:

  • To be shown the value they’ll get in return for their time and effort
  • A wide variety of choice in content and formats
  • An informal, on-the-go experience
  • More personalised learning experiences than ever before.

This means the role of the learning management system is going to evolve, from humble facilitator of learning and learning management to potential change agent. In the last two decades, organisations of all sizes have started to recognise the LMS as the foundation for holistic enterprise eLearning. Rather than being a tool solely for learning, it’ll support all areas of business using artificial intelligence and machine learning to suggest content as it adapts to learners’ needs. The future is less about learning environments, and more about human-centred learning experiences. 

Everything you need to know about LMS features & functionality

Understanding what differentiates a learning management system from other eLearning systems is all about understanding what the LMS canactuallydo.

The features of an LMS are what drive its functionality. They’re also key to aligning your business needs with your eLearning needs, so it’s important to understand what you need a learning management system to be able to do for you.

Most LMS vendors service certain industries, so they are more comfortable with or focus energy on the features that complement those industry activities. We always implore clients to consider LMS features holistically in terms of what they can facilitate, solve or provide. The problems, needs and considerations you have will be wholly unique to you but should feed into your overall business goals regardless. Think:

  • Reduced administrative spend.
  • Decreased turnover.
  • Increased employee retention.
  • Better regulation of compliance.

Then think about what kinds of functionality can support those goals. It’s more than likely there’s a feature for it, it just might not be one you immediately think of (or one that a supplier immediately offers to solve a problem). As an example, capturing user data is commonplace in most learning management systems. That’s obviously used to understand engagement and progression so you can build better learning content. But did you know that that data can be integrated with HRIS data to align with workforce planning? In this way, you can also understand individual competencies when succession planning or forecasting for the roles you may need in future. Two very different birds, one stone.

Whencomparing different LMSs by features,it’s important to consider the obvious and not-so-obvious ways the corresponding functionality can benefit your use case. While the below isn’t an exhaustive list, it is a jumping off point for when you begin shopping around.

Learning pathways

Learning pathways are an individualised approach Instead of creating a course load for an entire cohort of learners, you do so to address the gaps in skills or knowledge of one. These may be:

  • Non-linear (courses are chosen non-sequentially to broaden knowledge)
  • Linear (courses are taken in sequential order to deepen knowledge).
  • Curated by a HR leader or manager.
  • Chosen by the learner through self-assessment.

Functionality: Personalisation

We’ve made it clear that expecting one program to suit the masses is not a smart strategy. It also puts your organisation in just as untenable a position, missing the opportunity to create the “ideal” pathway for progression in your organisation. Learning pathways group content in increments so that learners can obtain knowledge in a logical way. It gives learners control over their learning experience and provides a more intrinsic motivation toconsistently self-directonline learning. Plus, as an automated process, pathways reduce administrative burden and by extension, administrative overheads.

But you may not have considered…

Creating learning pathways for job roles. Alongside creating pathways that address current skills gaps, you can design them to mitigate ones that are likely to arise as employees ascend within your organisation. Not only does this make you more attractive to prospective talent (by indicating how you nurture and invest in your staff), but it also creates clarity around the capabilities and levels of proficiency needed throughout the organisation. When employees have a clearly structured pathway to a higher role or possible promotion, they are much more likely to engage in learning that helps them progress.

Infographic outlining the benefits of LMS learning pathways.

Reporting analytics

A user-friendly dashboard for reporting and performance tracking will help you monitor things like online training initiatives, how learners are progressing, and completion rates. You should be able to view as granular as individual learners and as macro as your entire organisation. It’s essentially one big measure of how effective an LMS really is.

Functionality: Understanding impact

Yourreturn on investment for trainingwill be greatly informed by an LMS. This is a functionality that directly benefits system admin and instructors, as it enables you to understand the impact and effectiveness of your current resources and pathways. Some of the more popular reports an LMS can generate include:

  • Individual learner progression, which is particularly important to ensure comprehension if your training is entirely online and/or self-directed.
  • Engagement rates. This is not only engagement in the sense of how popular certain courses are, but how long learners interact with content and how they interact with each other.
  • Completion rates. Are learners actually finishing the work you set them?
  • Attrition and satisfaction. Inserting points of feedback such as short surveys throughout training programs will give you a better understanding of learner satisfaction.

But you may not have considered…

Your leading indicators. While most reports are generated to reflect if an intended result has been achieved, you can use robust reporting capabilities to forecast the learning resources you may need in future or to mitigate future problems. For example, a program may have low or slow rates of completion which impedes learners’ ability to progress to more advanced and critical courses. By utilising reporting metrics, you can understand how long learners spend on individual questions, the number of correct and incorrect answers, and even attrition rates that will help you refine your content, or even create different resources altogether.

Infographic outlining the benefits of LMS reporting analytics.

Gamification

Gamification is essentially a tool for motivation. It incentivises the learning process by offering points, badges, leader boards and other rewards for learner progress and course completions. However, it’s not about games for the sake of games, because the point of gamification is not to entertain. Gamification seeks to change behaviours

Functionality: Driving engagement

The external motivation (offer of positive reinforcement instead of a neutral or no response) creates aperceived personal valuefor learners, which bolsters the intrinsic motivation and satisfaction of learners and ultimately inspires a change in behaviour. Successful gamification triggers a desire formastery, autonomy and competitionamongst peers through real-time feedback, which is what drives behavioural change. Referring to advancement as “levelling up” is another gamified way to showcase the reward for mastering a course; the implied stagnancy or “failure” of staying at one level driving a desire to understand new skills enough to proficiently demonstrate them.

But you may not have considered…

Gamification can also help learners with theirability to future cast,which in turn underpins strategising activities. The more learners are rewarded for innovative problem solving, the more it will become an intrinsic skill to think outside the box in their everyday work. You might create a program that ask learners to offer creative solutions to potential business problems, which gets them to recognise patterns, work interdependently with others, and eveniteratively grind through a problemto find a solution—ultimately translating to a competitive edge by way of your workforce.

Infographic outlining the benefits of LMS gamification.

Anytime, anywhere accessibility

Bring-your-own-device compatibility is incredibly important to ensuring learners can indeed complete training at their own convenience. It also lowers the need for travel, doesn’t restrict learners to scheduling study in work hours (and possibly deprioritising other important projects), and makes the learning experience user-led, as promised.

Functionality: Usability

Screen and device-friendly design isn’t just about serving the needs of a dispersed workforce. It’s also crucial for learners with disabilities. Screen readers for those with diminished sight, the option to have audio recordings for the hard of hearing, and high-contrast text for colour blindness are all issues of usability that can otherwise fly under the radar. The easier a learning management system is foralllearners to access and use, the more buy-in you’ll experience and the more inclusive an environment you’ll create.

Keep in mind: There areweb standardsthat need to be upheld to ensure true accessibility— but that doesn’t mean you can assume all LMSs will be disability-friendly.

Because you may not have considered…

If your own network is accessible. We’ve seen many organisations using legacy intranets or old networks (cough, Internet Explorer, cough) that are no longer supported by new software products. They aren’t the workplace solution they once were, because therate of technology changehas left them serving a basic and replaceable IT function with poor user experience (UX), and without clear purpose aside from, well, being “your” network.

By resisting crucial changes internally, you’ll negate any of the work a vendor has done to create responsive screens, while potentially excluding freelancers, consultants and remote workers from being able to access the system.

Infographic outlining the benefits of LMS accessibility.

What not to do when comparing LMS features

It can be easy to put the cart before the horse when looking at learning management system features, the cart being the feature and the horse being your needs. But the horse needs to guide the cart, otherwise you’ll be going nowhere fast.

  1. Judge by hype

Here’s your first clue: Innovation for innovation’s sake is not valuable. Machine learning is one example of technological innovation that is still in its infancy (in the grand scheme of things) but which already has a number of actually useful applications in LMSs. For one, it’s being used to facilitate a completely learner-driven environment, wherein it recommends new content for individuals based off their consumption habits and goals and the habits of those around them. This will only benefit other features or facets of the LMS environment, like ensuring microlearning practices embed exactly the right content at the right time.

On the other hand, most artificial intelligence we use today (Google Home, Siri, Alexa) is known asnarrow AI,meaning it focuses on a specific task lacking unlimited learning capabilities Hollywood would have you believe. Something like virtual reality, while enticing, isn’t applicable for the majority of LMS use cases. used in It’s not easy to develop, nor is it affordable for supplier or buyer. Because of this, it’s best used in training for situations rooted in safety, like flight training or medical emergencies. (So, not your average conflict resolution course.)

  1. Expect the same result as others

Reading case studies, success stories and use cases are an excellent gauge of what an LMS and LMS vendor could do for you. But, much like reading reviews from others that espouse the absolute skin-changing properties of a moisturiser, you have to put the product into context. Do they have dry or oily skin? What climate do they live in? Do they use the moisturiser year-round or seasonally? What other products do they use it in conjunction with? These are fairly personal considerations and deciding factors—which means unless you can find a client with the exact same conditions as you, you’re likely to only be able to get a simple understanding of the experience with a vendor. (Which is valuable in its own way, though it won’t address the reason you stumbled upon it.)

  1. Consider every feature a “must-have”

Onerequest for proposalmight have hundreds of items on it. Not all of those can be considered crucial to successful implementation and use. You’re only setting yourself up for failure if you decide all features are non-negotiable—and worst of all, you’re then relegating yourself to expensive systems and dismissing the potentially more affordable and possibly more appropriate ones. Features should serve a functional purpose, which is why it’s crucial to do aneeds analysisand define the goals and outcomes an LMS should achieve. If you try to cram every feature into the must-have tier, you could end up with an over-complicated user experience (for admin and users alike) and obfuscate the learning experience.

Bonus factors you shouldn’t judge an LMS on

Features aside, there are also a few things that don’t define a learning management system (regardless of what good supplier marketing might make it seem):

  • The brand/vendor’s brand. It’s not unlike buying name brand vs home brand at the supermarket. Just because there isn’t a famous logo (and hefty price point) attached to the product doesn’t mean it isn’t right for your needs and budget. It’s better to judge by their reputation amongst current (and recent former) clients to gauge the quality of their service.
  • The discomfort of introducing one (or indeed any foreign process to an established environment). This is universal, and growing pains are usually mitigated with buy-in, training and a demonstration of exactly how the new process will improve users’ lives.
  • Your bias for your current system. If you believe your current LMS is the worst out there, even the most average LMS will look great. Similarly, believing you have the best system because it was the best choice at the time of implementation may rule out LMSs that are a better fit for your evolving needs. Use your experiences as the knowledge for finding the best fit your organisation, not something that is simpler better than what you’ve got.

The top 6 things to consider when choosing a learning management system

These are different to the features to watch out for, because we’re talking about the considerations around the experiences of buying and using a learning management system now and into the future. Our top 6 things to consider when choosing an LMS:

  1. Relative advantage
  2. Trial vs implementation
  3. User experience
  4. Compatibility
  5. Blended learning
  6. Workforce planning.

1. Relative advantage

This is a funky idea.Relative advantagerefers to the notion that something appears more appealing when compared to its predecessor, particularly in terms of innovation. Consider the release of a new iPhone (and if you’re not an Apple convert, put yourself in the mind frame of those sheep you look down on). People are wondering how much thinner (or thicker) it will be, how sharp the camera is, if it’ll be able to tell them the white cell count in their blood. Each new release is perceived as an upgrade to the relatively fine phones we already use—which is why we continue to buy them.

In the context of the LMS, the advantages we’re talking about are:

  1. Financial
  2. Pedagogical

Think of the pain points in your L&D strategy, eCommerce process or administrative operations. Are your resources stretched thin? Are your processes tedious and labour-intensive? Is there a distinct lack of interest in your training offering? These are the factors that will diminish the relative advantage of an LMS. Yet, that relative advantage is the selling point for buy-in.

Why you need to consider relative advantage

Relative advantage directly correlates to the adoption of new technology. In terms of your user base, that means the perceived advantages it offers over existing systems or practices will outweigh any cost or learning curve. If users think the LMS is harder to navigate than existing systems, will diminish their social standing with peers (I.e., make them uncool by using an uncool technology), a wearisome addition to their day or simply that it doesn’t provide any value, they won’t use it. Ergo, the learning management system is a pipe dream without stakeholder buy-in. Enough people have to not only want it, but see the value of it, to be able to buy and implement one. You are, after all, attempting to convince people that this new LMS is compatible with current organisational values, experiences and needs.

Aside from adoption, it’ll also be important when choosing a learning management system. Your users will (read: should, must, have to, need to) be stakeholders in this process, and so they’ll need to be consulted during the buying process. An LMS vendor will need to be able to demonstrate how theyconsistently reinvent the wheelto meet the needs and address any risks of their clients. This doesn’t mean pandering to your every whim (sorry, not sorry). Vendors, particularly those of the cloud-based variety, should have a development roadmap that is based on their clients’ needs as much as matching industry advances. Take video games: they’re often designed with the intention to evolve for their users, making them participants in the design of the game. Consider it a large red flag if LMS vendors don’t have a roadmap or aren’t willing to even show you the highlights of it.

2. Trial vs implementation

There are two kinds of trial periods:

  1. Everything goes according to plan, and you find an eLearning solution that perfectly matches your needs on paper and in practice.
  2. You stumble through the haze of supplier marketing and discover the many ways it can obfuscate the decision-making process.

Here’s the thing. Some LMS vendors will make themselves as desirable as possible to you because you meet many oftheirqualifiers. You might have the right number of users, the reputation, the budget, be in the right industry—it doesn’t matter to you, necessarily, but it might mean that they’ll shape their trial, demo or product documentation to highlight their best features. This will only really show if you trust them blindly and realise your mistake after implementation (and when you’re already locked into a contract). Something like data migration is a large and security-reliant task but isn’t necessarily something you’ll learn about in a trial. It could be a long process that blows out implementation timelines, especially if you don’t data map to ensure your formatting is compatible.

Why you need to consider trial vs implementation

Free trials and demonstrations are your best friend. We are not trying to say otherwise. But there is only so much that can be gleaned from a trial, and unless you’re getting end users to trial potential systems (not a common occurrence, in our experience), you’re likely only going to understand if it ticks the boxes on your RFP or if what it does offer is worth the cost. It’s simply not always time or budget-friendly to have all end users interact with a learning management system on a trial basis. Therefore, one of the smartest ways to ensure good uptake and to mitigate issues before they reach the masses is to stagger onboarding.

Consider the areas you project to be most successful, such as compliance training or onboarding. Utilise these as your testing ground with select cohorts, which will then give you the opportunity to streamline the user experience. You can also then see how the LMS works in a blended learning environment. Say new employees are given access to an onboarding course or portal before their first day. They could have access to office maps, welcomes from their team and the organisation playbook, so they’re not walking in blind on their first day. Then, when they do officially start, they’ll get to meet their team and learn more about the hands-on aspects of the role. Plan for this early and you won’t be surprised by the reality of implementation later.

3. The user experience

Yes,theuser experience. Not just user experience. Not a user’s experience.The user experience. It might just beone of the most important factorsof the entire eLearning experience, not least of because it affects:

  • Engagement
  • Uptake
  • Business or learning objectives
  • Day-to-day processes

No, we’re not being dramatic. If we’re talking about introducing a learning management system for the purpose of employee training, you’ll notice the ripple effects of a successful LMS adoption. You, as a high-level stakeholder, can choose a learning platform that you believe is the right fit but ultimately it is end users who decide if it works in practice.

What is the user experience (UX), first and foremost? It’s often described in terms of functionality and usability in the LMS realm, but some have posited it includes a user’s perceptions and responses to using or in anticipation of using a system. Most people respond emotionally to not just web design, but all design. This is what makes good design, good design; it’s so user-friendly, aesthetically and practically speaking, that you don’t notice it’s been “designed”. People want to get a good first impression (the visceral response), enjoy the ease of use (the behavioural response), which will lead them to consider the pros and cons of using it (reflective response). None are more important than the others, but consider how a reflective response could override a visceral one.

Why the user experience matters

It’s easier if we dot point this:

  1. Mostpeople can’t multitask.Good UX gives just the right amount of information for the user to navigate to the next stage of the system. Too much information or stimuli and they’ll check out. It also gives users a sense of control, which in turn creates a sense of trust between the user and the system—increasing rates of engagement, completions and conversions.
  2. Most people scan pages in an F formation. This means they scan the first line of a webpage before moving down vertically until they find something interesting again to scan across. This is why you’ll notice logos or navigation bars in the top left corner or running along the top of a page, because it’s right where users are already looking. Anywhere else, and you’ll just frustrate users. It’s also why items like widgets, videos and images are often used in dashboards; it breaks up the monotony and makes it easier for the eye to spot what it needs.
  3. Most people want recognisable interfaces going to refer back to any supplementary training content given to them; they want subtle cues that get them to where they need to instead. Can’t find a course? They’ll search for it in the search bar. FAQs? Usually in the footer. It’s about recognition over recall.
  4. Most people’s response time will increase as the number of options presented to them does. Bad UX makes people jump through hoops. This will result in them struggling to make system-related decisions over learning. Good UX doesn’t make things complicated. It gives people what they want, where they want it. Good UX is a comfortable experience.

4. Compatibility

Your learning management system needs to play well with other systems you and your users already use. Sounds cliché, but consider that an LMS is supposed to complement systems and processes that already exist in your organisation. On this front, there’s a few facets of compatibility you’ll want from an LMS: content, integrations and, yes, your internal systems. 

Compatibility of your content

Much like an image will need to exist in any one format (JPG, PDF, PNG, GIF, etc.) to be compatible with certain tasks, your content needs to be compatible with the learning management system it will live in. There are certain standards in the eLearning industry for this reason, but they can easily enough go over a buyer’s head as something for a supplier to deal with. Spoiler alert: While it’s a technical concern, it’s not solely a vendor’s responsibility to be on top of.

1. SCORM (Sharable Content Object Reference Model) is designed to keep the quality of your content high, ensure learners can follow a path, and that the preceding two factors run efficiently. It’s essentially the little runner that passes messages between the back end of the LMS and the content. SCORM is crucial because it manages:

  • The order in which content is arranged.
  • How progress is saved.
  • How assessments are marked.
  • How information from learning content is tracked and stored.
  • The compatibility of content across multiple devices.
  • How LMSs can read and host content.

In this case, we’re talking more about compliance than compatibility because SCORM is pretty much the baseline for LMS specifications. It’s a technical standard. This is important to keep in mind because not all learning resources are automatically SCORM compliant. If you’re purchasing third party content or creating your own, you could waste time and money on content that isn’t even usable. On the plus side, SCORM compliant content is essentially future proof; it’ll likely work with new technologies over the years and is easily migrated between systems.

2. xAPI (Experience API or TinCan API) is SCORM’s successor. It’s a software intermediary that allows two different applications to communicate through the internet. If you’re sending a message through WhatsApp or checking the weather on your phone, you’re using an API.

Though SCORM continues to be an industry standard for laptops and desktops, xAPI helps track and record learning experiences through any device—meaning it’s crucial if you have bring-your-own-device accessibility. Learning needn’t start in an LMS for it to be tracked, thus enabling true anytime, anywhere access. xAPI can also monitor offline activity, experiential learning, social learning, real life activities, simulations, and learning games. Any information sourced by xAPI is sent to and stored in a learning record store (LRS), something an LMS may or may not have. This is important for learners in particular; since LRSs can also “talk” to one another, they can then take any learning data with them from one organisation to another.

Comparison chart outlining the differences between SCORM and xAPI in LMSs.

Compatibility with integrations

We love a good integration. The ethos behind LMS integrations is that more is more; in this case, more options, more value and more data. They ensure your learning management system is sustainableand viable. They can automate many manual processes. They’re able to provide the metrics that contribute to strategic workforce planning, learning pathways and succession planning. Essentially, you really, really want a learning management system that is compatible with other systems. We’ve got an entire guide onLMS integrations,but we’ll present you with some of the most important for your consideration here:

  • SSO, aka Single Sign On, which enables people to access multiple applications with the same username and password—reducing password fatigue and the hackable passwords that come with it.
  • CRM (Customer Relationship Management) which creates a source of truth for customer interactions. Salesforce is a popular CRM integration, but there are many that help create a central repository of information such as buyer personas, shopping habits and revenue. It'll depend on your preference and your vendor’s offering.
  • Webhooks autonomously enable actions that “push” data, like reminder emails. These are a background integration more than most, but they are one that prop up the intuitive and user-friendly nature of an LMS.
  • eCommerce integrations are useful for selling content, saving money and branding. They enable you to offer secure payment methods “in-house”, so you avoid paying fees to external financial services, and guarantee customers’ data is safe. On another note, eCommerce integrations can also help you track impressions, valuable data that can help you improve your business and/or content.
  • Third party content providers give your learners a greater depth and breadth of available resources. Where eLearning courses needn’t be created in-house, or in the instance you simply don’t have the time or resources to create it yourself, you’ll find providers like LinkedIn Learning and Skillsoft help bridge skills gaps and ensure there’s no stagnancy for learners waiting for content.

Compatibility with internal systems

We’ve talked external, now let’s talk internal. A learning management system should play well with your existing systems like HR and payroll above all else, least of all because those are likely legacy systems or suites that are deeply embedded in your current business processes.

1. HRIS (human resource information system) or HCM (human capital management) suites store all your sensitive people data. Managing this data is often a complex process, let alone duplicating or comparing it with learning data in an LMS. Integrating your LMS with your HRIS means not only is the learner experience enhanced, but the administrator experience is greatly streamlined.

Consider the scenario in which a new employee is onboarded. Their recruitment data (employment history, existing qualifications, skillset, etc.) will have already been captured and stored. Once they’re hired, there’ll be contracts and tax paperwork. Not to mention the entire onboarding/induction process, which could generate entirely new personal data about their goals with your organisation. All of this will be manual and rely on manpower if you don’t integrate your LMS and HRIS. An LMS-HRIS integration will automate most the data movement throughout, ensuring there’s no duplication effort, no silos of data, less room for error and saving time for administrators.

2. We touched briefly on intranets internal networks earlier to gently encourage you to make the change and move to a more modern-day approach. However, working with many government agencies has given us an appreciation for the security, time and resourcing risks this kind of change could invite. If this sounds like your organisation, enquire with vendors if their LMS is compatible with older networks like Internet Explorerandwhat their quality assurance process is. As networks age out, you’ll find more and more bugs could arise if a vendor isn’t testing new developments on the specific network and devices

Why you need to consider compatibility

The largest benefit that a compatible LMS offers is no duplication of effort. Reformatting content, creating new accounts and having multiple silos of data is short path to poor UX and high attrition. Discrepancies in data, even down to one misplaced letter, can reduce the value of data (learning and people) in a rippling effect. Commissioning reports on inaccurate data could out turn inaccurate or obscured results, which may mean you won't have a clear idea of your return on investment or the impact of learning and development. It could also simply mean the LMS becomes is viewed by employees asjust another systemin the pile, another technology thatblurs the linebetween home and work, or evenbloatware.

5. Blended learning

There’s research to suggest that a digital approach to learning alone won’t hammer the points you want to drive home. The biggest challenge that eLearning faces is that many people rely onhuman connectionto maintain motivation and assign meaning to their studies. (Remember way back when we were talking about the isolation factor behind social learning?) After that, the second biggest is that the variety of coursework a learner may be undertaking at any one point—alongside the other stimuli they take in throughout the day from work, media and social activities—is complex and not always complementary. Even in the work environment, an employee may be learning skills that pertain to another job role that aren’t immediately applicable to the one they are currently in.

You also need to consider that introducing a new technology will always be a human capital problem, one that requires time to learn and acclimate to. What if some of your learners don’t have a way to access online learning? Perhaps they don’t have the luxury of time. Perhaps they don’t have the motivation at home, because there have other priorities to tend to. The online learning experience can feel sequestered. Many people can self-motivate, but just as many others rely on some kind of interaction to drive them—either from instructors or peers. Many things can only belearned incidentally or on the job,and are better supplemented by theory online. We can keep going; there are many reasonsnotto undertake a digital learning approach, but one that combines real life experience with the relative ease of eLearning.

Why you need to consider blended learning

This isn’t to say you don’t need a learning management systemat all.Rather, we want to convey that you need to understand the difference between the processes an LMS can:

  1. Better, streamline or outright replace; and
  2. The ones it can complement.

For example, an LMS can automate the paper chain of assessments, reduce costs associated with travel and venues, and limit the impact to day-to-day productiveness. But, again, consider a training program like onboarding. While an onboarding portal is incredibly useful for both new employees and organisations to have as a point of reference, it can’t replace the impact of meeting team members face-to-face, seeing work in action, learning the nuances of office culture, and being able to ask questions in real-time to learn as a problem happens.

Blended learning also feeds into the design of an LMS. Good LMS design is instructional; it focuses onfacilitating learning to realise learning objectivesin a user’s life rather than being the driving force in the process. The task, learning needs, learning objectives, and environment are addressed through themost appealing and effectivesolution, usually sequenced content and the visual display of it. This is what creates a valuable learning experience for both learner and instructor. Good instructional design allows instructors to choose the right mix ofpedagogical strategies and methodsbased on the knowledge or skills being assessed. This in turn ensures the right interactions happen at various stages of the learning process, giving learners the best chance at adopting the knowledge or skills in question.

6. Workforce planning

Betcha didn’t thinka learning managementsystem could not only support, but drive your workforce planning activities, did you? Many learning management systems are used by organisations, businesses and corporations to upskill and reskill employees. These organisations, businesses and corporations will have strategies behind the courses that employees undertake to upskill and reskill. It makes no sense for the strategy and execution to be siloed, with the LMS being only a means to an end. This is why many LMSs today act as the powerhouse for those workforce planning and learning strategies.

An LMS with workforce planning capabilities can automate most of the grease work, like:

  • Determining the number of new employees that need to be hired in different roles and departments.
  • Determining the skillsets required to effectively contribute to long term business goals.
  • Highlighting areas or roles at risk of being vacant too long.
  • Creating accelerated learning pathways that help reskill employees for the right roles.

And the reasons you want to look for an LMS that can help with workforce planning are tenfold:

  • It lessens redundancies, streamlines succession plans, ensures you’re hiring for roles that will actually contribute to your bottom line and goals, and allows you to create more effective and cohesive teams.
  • It saves the money that the average recruitment process can cost (up to a third of the role’s salary, if you didn’t know).
  • It shows employees clear pathways of growth and development within your organisation, making you more attractive to potential recruits.
  • It helps you better retain, utilise and develop top talent.

Why workforce planning matters

The world in which our workforce exists is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (known as VUCA). This means that anything from new technology to political upheaval can affect the state of the workforce, the skills in it, and supply. It’s not enough to be training the employees you have for the roles you already have; you need to be considering the employees you’ll need in future for roles that don’t even exist yet. This means your organisation isn’t reeling when sudden changes happen, making you more agile and competitive.

Workforce planning through a learning management system further builds greater business confidence from the ground up. When your employees see pathways for promotion within their place of work, it demonstrates to them that you are willing to invest internally and that the hires you have made were done with purpose. Considering an HRIS integration as well, it allows you to create more useful and meaningful learning content because that content contributes to a greater outcome than simply ticking ‘professional development’ off a list. All in all, it allows you to make more effective and evidence-based decisions about resourcing, online training initiatives and strategic business functions. Win-win.

Comparing the two main types of LMSs

Yes, there are technically a few differenttypes of deploymentwhen it comes to LMSs. For brevity’s sake, we’re going to compare the two most popular options: cloud-based and open source. Like the iPhone and Android, it’s a fairly divisive comparison with consumers usually preferring either for an immutable list of reasons.

You may be thinking,well, if the divide is that clear, surely I’ll easily prefer one to the other?Well, yes, but also, no. It might be easy to identify the things you do or don’t like about one over the other, but that’s not the way you should be comparing LMSs. In the simplest form, deployment is about who is responsible for maintaining the LMS software and where it is hosted—meaning you have to consider your own internal capabilities as much as what a vendor can do for you.

Cloud-based

There are a few distinct (but not mutually exclusive) qualifiers for the cloud-based crowd.

  1. Growth and/or expansion are part of your business goals.
  2. You have a geographically diverse set of users.
  3. eCommerce is part of your wheelhouse.
  4. You’re looking for a pricing package that includes support. Software as a service, if you will.

While these aren’t the be all and end all when it comes to reasons for choosing a cloud-based learning management system, they are certainly amongst the most common deciding factors we see. A cloud-based LMS is one that is quite literally hosted via the Cloud, meaning it is stored on and accessible with an internet connection. There’s no traditional hardware associated with these LMSs, nor is there the issue of managing that hardware and the software on your end. This has its benefits:

  • Most cloud solutions are cost-effective in the long-run there are lowered operating costs for you and any new features can be efficiently applied en masse.
  • Ease of use is a big proponent of this model. As pseudo-websites, they are designed to have a low learning curve and mimic the feel, navigation and look of other websites you’re probably familiar with.
  • Have we mentioned elastic scalability enough in ourresources?Cloud-based LMSs can effectively autonomously match your input at any given moment, meaning it’s possible without human intervention.
  • The near-amorphous nature of this model means accessibility high on two fronts: firstly, anytime, anywhere ( or bring-your-own-device and mobile accessibility) access that itself contributes to accessibility for those with disabilities

You might notice that the cloud (and its home on the internet) is the underlying factor for advantage, but it’s also that same quality that can give some buyers reason to pause.

Consideration #1: The downside of internet reliance (Part 1)

The first disadvantage of the cloud-based LMS is that you and your supplier are at the mercy of either’s internet connection. If it goes down, so does your access to the system. If there are deadlines attached to training—say, compliance training—this could have ramifications beyond being a simple power outage; in the worst-case scenario, you may find your organisation facing fines and/or pushing back other deadlines impacted by a lack of training. Make sure to enquire with LMS vendors about their back up plans, specifically if progress is auto saved and can be recovered in case of emergency.

Consideration #2: The downside of internet reliance (Part 2)

The second risk of having an internet-based software system is that it might be hacked. However small and accounted for, this is a real possibility, more so if a vendor has several big-name clients. It pays to have your own contingency plans in place for even unscheduled downtime, and to question vendors about their own security measures. Those that are important (i.e., non-negotiable) to have include:

  • IRAP (Information Security Registered Assessors Program) is the Australian Government standard forcyber and information security.Assessments should be completed every 24 months, so ensure to ask vendors about what third-party certificates they hold. It could also be helpful to ask if they’ll update you when this is renewed or updated, as they are varying levels of IRAP assessment a vendor may hold.
  • Interrelated is the Australian GovernmentInformation Security Manual(ISM), which provides risk management framework for organisations to protect from cyber threats. This is one that can benefit your own internal processes, so it’s more than worth keeping abreast of.
  • Multi-factor authentication and SSO (Single Sign On) seem small, but they can mitigate the everyday ways in which security can be compromised. The former means only users who already exist in your systems can access the LMS and the latter piggybacks on this by utilising the same login credentials learners use to avoid password fatigue.
  • Security certificates like SSL (Secure Socket Layer) and TLS (Transport Layer Security) keep internet connections secure to safeguard sensitive data as it is sent between two systems e.g., people data that is pushed from your HRIS suite to your LMS. This is an effective encryption measure likely employed by many of the servers you already use—you’ll be able to tell because HTTPS will appear in the URL.
  • Spoof monitoring and anti-virus filters are another way to ensure network security. This essentially means layers of firewalls are used to segment the network, filter the traffic between the web, system and data, and verify access as being from a trusted source (see multi-factor authentication, above).

Consideration #3: Hidden fees in pricing

Okay, here’s the thing. Most cloud-based LMSs are more cost effective in the long run than self-hosted solutions, but that’s if you read the fine print. There are vendors out there who will reel you in with what seems like an incredibly affordable upfront fee. But this may foreshadow cost-related problems in future; namely, that the system won’t scale cheaply, new features and development could cost you extra, and support may not even be included in your bill.

The big-ticket item to keep an eye out for in pricing is a dedicated account manager. Some vendors will tier their pricing so that the top (and most expensive) level of support provides you with access to an account manager and other resources while the basic level relegates you to ticket system—where issues can languish for months if your vendor isn’t on top of things. There may also be fees for setup, data migration or customisation. A little tip: Ask for free trials. A demo is great, but vendors can simply demonstrate pre-determined pathways that skim functionality that aren’t included in your baseline fee.

List outlining four criteria for ensuring a cloud-based LMS is right for your organisation.

Open source

You might have heard the question,“Free as in beer or free as in speech?”The former scenario comes at no cost to you. The latter is a freedom on your part. Free vs freedom. And thus, we have described in roundabout terms the open-source learning management system.

In fact, the ‘free’ component of open-source software is written into it with the acronym FLOSS (or Free/Libre and Open Source Software). You are free to do as you will with open-source software, provided it’s for the betterment of the platform and to improve the service it provides users. You will still have to purchase open-source LMS software, but you’ll then have access to the source code. This has a number of advantages, including:

  • The ability to completely customise
  • Complete control of the back and front ends.
  • Access to a community of users for troubleshooting and upvoting developments in the source code.
  • No costs associated with suppliers, for support, development and/or maintenance.

On the other hand, there’s a common thread amongst these advantages: You need technical expertise to really get the most out of an open-source LMS. With that in mind, there are afew factors to weigh upbefore committing to the freedom of an open-source LMS.

Consideration #1: The cost of hosting

Most open-source software requires hardware, or a physical home in which to live. We’re not talking about your average desktop hard drive. This is more a case of real estate for infrastructure, which is why many open-source LMSs are also self-hosted LMSs. And with that real estate comes costs that will likely exceed whatever budget you had first outlined. You’ll probably need to set up a server that can support your projected number of users and their usage (which can be hard to predict), which will come with its own costs year-on-year, and then you’ll need to have the IT expertise to maintain this. All in all? A process that needs to be as fine-tuned and expert heavy as possible.

Consideration #2: The nuances of good LMS design

Do you know what UI and UX stand for? If you do know what user interface and user experience are, would you then say you’re proficient in UI and UX design? If your answer is yes, you can skip to Go. If not, well, herein lies a rather large hurdle of self-hosted LMSs.

Yes, you have control of customisation. But sometimes designing something to look good means you lose some more intuitive functionality. In terms of good LMS design, one could argue that functionality ranks above aesthetics, particularly because good LMS design means the system is user-friendly, intuitive and a wallflower-like facilitator of learning. On the other hand, an aesthetically displeasing look may turn some learners off. Being an IT professional also doesn’t mean that you’re qualified in UI or UX design, so it might be that you need to employ a designer for that purpose or that an open source LMS isn’t actually the right fit for you.

Consideration #3: The complexity of software

We know that you know software is a finnicky thing. But it’s a factor you cannot skip over when you’re considering running, hosting, maintaining and upgrading an entire system for potentially hundreds, if not thousands, of users. Consider how you might manage and mitigate:

  • Bug fixes, and how often they may arise. Do you have the resources to address these in real time?
  • End user support, specifically the time and personnel needed to man it.
  • Development, development roadmaps and development timelines (because good code takes time, both on your end and the developers working with the source code).
  • Migration of data. The key point here is that there may be security risks attached to highly sensitive data. Does your organisation have the protocols to oversee this?
  • Integrations between the LMS and other systems, as well as plug-ins.

Without the right capabilities in your organisation (or the resources to acquire them), these tasks will be large hurdles you find hard to overcome. We can say from experience these kinds of tasks can take trained developers days, weeks and months to carry out smoothly and even then, there can be bumps in the road.

This is something to remember even with highly qualified team at your disposal; Software needs a lot of your time, for however long you intend to use it for. Maintenance, upgrades and support are continuous and evolving cycles that cannot be left unnurtured, which is where you start to see the parallels between expertise, cost and value.

List outlining four criteria for ensuring an open source LMS is right for your organisation.

Which is right for our organisation?

It essentially boils down to one thing, what is feasible for you to manage? While we’ve hammered home the point that the onus of an open source learning management system is on you, there are still some cloud-based LMSs that require your technical intervention to work smoothly. It helps to consider of an LMS in terms of the big three:

  1. Application
  2. Core features & functionality

Application

What you intend to use an LMS for will impact the features, functionality and length of contract you’ll likely need. Most buyers tend to be in the market for employee training, online training or eCommerce (to sell some kind of third-party training). Defining your specific use case and intended outcomes will help you better determine the features you need, which ultimately helps you realise the deployment that best suits your budget, objectives and capabilities.

Features & functionality

Comparing features between systems can be daunting, so we recommend comparing features against the needs they’ll serve. If your use case is employee training, you’ll likely find learning pathways, third party content integrations, customisable certificates, and mobile learning capabilities enhance the user experience. On the other hand, eCommerce functionality may not be as important if your coursework is provided free of charge to employees. We usually recommend that you align features with the capabilities of your IT team, and if you’re utilising a vendor, have them take part in afeasibility study.

Deployment

As we’ve already discussed, how an LMS is hosted will have the biggest impact on (while also being impacted by) your budget. We’d recommend leaving this one until last to decide—even though it is largely defined by your budget—because the features and functionality you want to address your use case will inform the method of deployment.

Are there alternatives to learning management systems?

Sometimes, something with thousands of 5-star reviews just doesn’t work for you. It’s frustrating being that one-star, but it doesn’t mean you’re a lost cause. You just need to address the problem from another angle.

Granted, if you want to host and tracking eLearning with full administrative power and grand scheme goals, you’ll likely still find a learning management system is the answer (meaning the vendor is the issue and you might have to go back to the research stage). On the other hand, there are instances where a full-scale software ecosystem just isn’t what you’re looking for.

You have a limited budget

We’re talking not enough to support a multi-year contract that runs into the thousands for an LMS. Plugins are smaller scale options for those who don’t need an entire system to manage their learning needs. If you already have aWordPresssite, you can purchase (and even download free) LMS plugins that allow you to create, manage and run online courses using WordPress—essentially like your own LMS in WordPress.

Some great WordPress LMS plugin options include:

  • MemberPress,which enables you to create, manage and sell courses and digital downloads. It specialises in creating membership bundles for specific courses.
  • LearnDash,which integrates with other WordPress membership plugins and allows you to sell courses under a pricing model of your choice.
  • LifterLMS,another LMS plugin through which you can sell courses. It also has addons to manage affiliates and connect to your email marketing service and other eCommerce plugins.

On the plus side with these models, too, is the opportunity to generate revenue against a limited budget.

When you definitely can consider a plugin

If you have the budget to buy your own domain and the human resources to create and administer online training content yourself, it’ll likely be a more valuable choice overall. It also means everything will still be in-house, so you’re not paying for any external support.

When you really shouldn’t consider a plugin

  • You have no technical expertise in your organisation. WordPress is not the most user-friendly do-it-yourself option. Take our word for it: Even seasoned developers don’t often sing WordPress’ praises.
  • You need more functionality than course creation and commerce. Most plugins draw the line at interaction between admin and user, and user and content. Extra features may also cause the plugin to wig out and can cost extra.

Your training is seasonal or for a select cohort

Microsites or native networks serve as good bases for short-term programs or campaigns. They’re popular in higher education, though building a microsite can be a good option if you have the IT capabilities or resources to hire external experts. The reason you need these capabilities is because a microsite should have its own location separate from your intranet or home network but with an affiliated URL.

When you definitely can consider a microsite

If you’ve got significant brand equity with your cohorts to begin with, no matter how small or transient they are. It’s often also a way to build a brand-within-a-brand, such as new graduate training inside of a large corporation. For this reason, microsites are best for organisations with strong branding and a loyal user base (loyal in the sense that they access all their work, education or training through you).

When you really shouldn’t consider a microsite

  • If you don’t have the development capabilities or resources to pay for those resources, you quite literally will not be able to build a microsite (and Wix really doesn’t help here). Even the most simple but functional site will take time and money to create.
  • You have a large cohort of users. Large amounts of traffic may overwhelm a small site causing crashes and accessibility issues.
  • If you want more astute reporting metrics. One of the main reasons LMSs are so popular is because of the tracking and reporting functionalities that allow admin to understand things like learner progression, skills gaps and engagement.
  • You don’t have a strategy to support it. There’s no point in creating an extraneous arm of your business without planning for oversight or the future. The connection between a microsite and your main network or site should also be intuitive so it doesn’t feel like an odd and mostly useless limb, either.

You only offer a few short training courses

Where LMSs are an entire ecosystem unto themselves, housing learning, tracking, eCommerce, career mapping and workforce planning, eLearning portals are hubs for digital learning content and online training courses—which is their main point of difference to the learning management system. Portals are often cloud-hosted so they can be tacked onto an LMS or accessed through your intranet. Think of an LMS as the mainland and a portal as an island; they are part of the same country, but the activities the island can offer are more concentrated compared to what is on the mainland. eLearning portals can vary in their complexity, acting as launchpads to more sophisticated virtual learning environments (and oftentimes being used as an addition to an LMS).

When you definitely can consider a portal

If you’ve got specific and/or limited courses. Alternatively, if innovative and intuitive software isn’t the selling point, an eLearning portal might be more manageable and suitable for your needs. There’s also the fact that a portal is a scalable solution on, ironically, a smaller scale, so it’s entirely possible to accommodate more courses or users if you need to.

When you really shouldn’t consider a portal

  • If administration is as important to you as learning management. An LMS is ideal for a holistic learning experience, interweaving user, instructor and admin roles and encompassing assessment, course creation, reporting and pathway planning. A portal is a gateway for learners to access and interact with learning content.
  • You have more than one cohort, unless you have the time to create many portals. While you can offer different courses or training content within a portal, one portal usually delivers one overarching program, like onboarding.

You only want to manage content

Course management systems (CMS) share the functionality of course delivery and assignment with the LMS, with the main difference being that the CMS is limited in its functionality while this is only one facet of a learning management system.

Most CMSs are more facilitators for instructors rather than a holistic online learning environment. Think of the whiteboard: It allows for knowledge transfer, but it’s one part of the learning experience. Same goes for the textbook. It’s a tool between instructor and learner. On their own, neither is an autonomous actor in the learning experience. Still, the CMS has its strengths.

When you definitely can consider a CMS

If passive learning is your wheelhouse. Learners are essentially reading or watching resources in a CMS, which means there’s no quizzes, levels or feedback. CMSs are adequate for topics that don’t need explanation or testing, or ones that are complemented by in-person reinforcement. We’ve heard of successful version control using a CMS, as all versions of learning content can be managed in one central location.

When you really shouldn’t consider a CMS

  • If assessment is a big part of the learning process, as is usually the case with employee training utilised for workforce planning. A CMS can’t help you define or enforce proficiency, since its purpose is to provide static learning.
  • If you’re looking for a learning platform that covers all bases. Use cases for CMSs are not defined by the system itself; it can be used alongside other systems to fulfill greater needs.
  • You need detailed reporting on users’ learning activity. An LMS automates this for you and allows you to break reporting down to understand factors like completions, engagement, and individual users.
Chart showing the reasoning for choosing four software alternatives to the LMS.

Our learning management system summary

The learning management system is a nuanced software. It can be both soft and hardware, cloud based or self-hosted, utilised for employee training or eCommerce, applied in almost any industry. But perhaps the largest point to takeaway about the LMS as a tool for learning is that it can enable user-led discovery and instructor-led training, all the while supporting your entire organisation.

Taking it back to its roots, the LMS was designed to supersede a power based educational dynamic with a user-led and outcome-oriented learning experience. Sounds cliché, but it’s key when considering the age of the majority of your users. They’re adults (duh), which means they have their own priorities and responsibilities outside of the training you may be offering. And spoiler alert... Just because you’reofferingthem training doesn’t mean they’re necessarily under any obligation to prioritise it. This is why the amorphous LMS is so handy.

However, it can be easy to be blindsided by this all-encompassing solution. Choosing the right learning management system for your needs requires understanding what you are trying to achieve by using an LMS—because this is how you’ll determine the features and type of LMS that are best fit for your organisation. The functionality of features can be multi-faceted, in the way that gamification can motivate employees in the present and build their future problem-solving abilities. Some other feature vs functionality enigmas include:

  • Learning pathways to address an individual's skills gaps and fairly standardised learning pathways for job roles.
  • Robust reporting analytics to determine your ROI on training and to forecast the future learning resources you’ll need.
  • Anytime, anywhere and any device accessibility for an inclusive eLearning environment and general usability.

Of course, while we encourage you to think laterally about how features actually function, we implore you not to get caught up judging features by the wrong attributes. Avoid:

  • Judging by hype. Software developments move quickly, but many developments are still in their infancy and haven’t been tested enough to determine true efficacy.
  • Basing your expectations on others’ results. No one-size-fits-all solution, remember?
  • Deeming every feature a must-have. Don’t be afraid to sacrifice a nice-to-have.

We recommend value judging by the experience of using one. Think about these 6 considerations:

  1. Relative advantage, or the idea that technology that is perceived to be innovative and life-changing increases rate of adoption. Ask vendors for their development roadmaps if you want to get a good idea of their plans for the future.
  2. The reality of trial vs implementation. Create testing grounds within an LMS to weed out bugs before they affect your entire.
  3. The user experience. Simply put, if learners can’t easily use the system, they won’t.
  4. Compatibility of your content, internal systems and external integrations. In the event your LMS doesn’t play well with other systems, you’ll find yourself duplicating effort, siloing data and leaving room for error.
  5. Blended learning. What processes can LMS streamline or replace, and what are those it would better complement?
  6. Workforce planning. The future of learning supports your organisation by ensuring you have the right people with right skills when you need them.

After all that, there’s also the choice between LMS models. The two really worth comparing are cloud-based and open source LMSs. Cloud-based is:

  • Highly scalable
  • Cost-effective long-term
  • Easy to use.

On the flip side, cloud-based LMSs can be heavily reliant on the internet and may come with hidden fees at a vendor’s discretion. Inversely, an open source learning management system gives you complete control over three main fronts:

  • Customisation
  • Development

But on the other hand, burdens you with the responsibility of customisation, development and maintenance—which requires some serious technical expertise.

There are alternatives to both options, too, if you realise that an LMS is outside your budget, your content needs are concentrated, you only offer a few courses, or your training is seasonal. We’ll admit the learning management system isn’t the right fit for everyone, which is why this guide is about determining what solution is the right fit for your organisation.

Book a call
Acorn Logo

Book a call with the team at Acorn today and let’s build the best LMS for you, together. We’ve maintained a 100% retention rate since launching thanks to our incredible platform, great customer service and people-focused approach. So get in touch with one of our eLearning experts for a free discussion about how we can help you truly unlock the potential of your employees.

Experience Acorn for yourself

At Acorn, we’ve designed a system that supports organisations looking to invest in their most valuable asset – their employees. We take the time to learn about our one million (and counting) users to ensure our intuitive LMS is the right fit for them. Get in touch with one of our eLearning experts to chat about how Acorn can help achieve your goals.