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Weighing Up Your LMS Options? We’ve Done the Hard Work For You

Weighing Up Your LMS Options? We’ve Done the Hard Work For You

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Learning management systems (LMS)—and therefore the LMS options available to you—have come a long way since its inception in the early ‘90s.

Aside from the fact it’s nearing the big 3-0, the first big change is that the LMS is no longer a one-size-fits-all product. As technology and software have evolved, so too has the shape, feel and intended use. Buyers today have over 1000 options to choose from, with varying applications, deployments and features.

So how does one find the golden needle in the technical haystack? By breaking it down. In this guide, we walk you through a couple of ways you can differentiate LMS options and identify some of the factors you might need to weigh up when choosing the eLearning solution which best fits for your organisation. Be warned: This is a deep, deep dive.

What is a learning management system?

Learning management systems are software applications designed for the creation, tracking, hosting and delivery of training programs. While the LMS can be a native desktop app, most learning management systems are cloud-based and offer users the ability to access online courses any time, anywhere and from any device.

What businesses can use an LMS?

It got its start in educational institutions, but the learning management system can be used by any type of organisation—from non-profits and government agencies to small-to-midsize businesses and private enterprise—seeking to leverage training.

In this sense, it’s not a question of ideal client but intended use case—because that will determine the best learning management system for your budget. The best way to assess your LMS options is to consider how a system will help you affect the outcomes you’re looking to achieve through online training. Let us explain a bit more.

Comparing LMSs by use case

It can be hard to determine if a learning management system is going to fit your needs based on looks alone. That’s where the use case comes into play.

Most LMS vendors will focus on a certain industry or function, such as:

Why consider use case? It’ll help you appraise how well an LMS will meet your needs and understand how certain features are meant to be utilised.

We recommend you approach vendors for case studies cases to understand their applications, but in the meantime, here are perhaps the three most popular use cases for the LMS.

Employee training

Perhaps one of the most popular uses for the LMS is internal training for employees and professional development. Organisations gravitate towards an LMS for their training needs as they can facilitate, monitor and report on self-guided learning to support strategic workforce planning.

Why use an LMS for employee training?

In short:

Third party training

Registered training organisations (RTOs) provide vocational education and training to their learners. It would be easy to consider RTOs directly under the umbrella of employee training or even commoditised content, as they often are utilised by corporate entities to further upskill employees. But we consider them more adjacent as they’re not an in-house solution.

RTOs are industry-accredited assessors and providers of training, usually offering qualifications in certificates and diplomas—meaning that those qualifications can only be bestowed by an RTO.

Why should an RTO use an LMS?

Similar to employee training, an LMS utilised by an RTO can:

Commoditised content providers

Again, this use case may seem similar to the last—but commoditised content providers aren’t usually “selling” a qualification.

Most often, they provide content or courses as part of a paid service such as consultancy. This is usually a B2C transaction. We’ve seen mortgage brokers, leadership trainers, and psychologists employ an LMS to interact with and/or educate their clients.

Why use an LMS for commoditised content?

Whilst not as common as corporate training or external training, providers of commoditised content may enjoy some of the following benefits from an LMS.

The pitfalls of not considering LMS use case

You need to be realistic. The most complex and feature-rich LMS may be enticing, but the price tag that comes with that may not be appropriate for a small business. There are certain factors about your organisation or business that may change over time, and there are problems which might arise over time.

Failing to understand your own capabilities, future needs and general need for an LMS—the pain point it’s addressing or opportunity it’s exploiting—could see you locked into an expensive contract with a half-baked system. That only drains the L&D budget and shows stakeholders you don’t understand business strategy.

To avoid this, consider:

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Comparing cloud-based and open source learning management systems

Another facet to consider is LMS hosting or deployment.

Deployment refers to how a learning management system is hosted and, by extension, who is responsible for maintaining, updating and upgrading the software. Next to use case, it’s one of the most important ways to distinguish which LMS will best serve your organisation’s needs.

There are three main types of LMS deployment you’ll want to consider here:

  1. Open source
  2. Proprietary
  3. Cloud-based.

Open source

The term open source is self-explanatory: It refers to code that is freely available to modify and redistribute. The phrase “as in free speech, not free beer” is used to described open source or “free” software. It essentially means vendors can charge what they like for said free software, but not the knowledge that powers it. This leaves the source code open for future development by people other than the original coder, based on the idea many minds can improve it.

Open source is often labelled a free model as the client is not paying a vendor for support, maintenance or development. Instead, users get freedom to customise the learning management software as necessary for minimal up-front cost.

WordPress, as an example, is a commonly used open source software product. The most common observations of WordPress are praise for the ability to customise it but complaints about how clunky the system is to use. That pretty much sums up the open source LMS experience: You get out of it what you put into it—and the more you know how to use it, the more you’ll get out of it.

Open source LMS security

Open code can fall trap to the stigma of poor security. However:

  1. The first thing to note is that no software is free of potential security risks. Weak passwords, failure of users to follow security protocols and even flawed implementation can impact the security of any software systems. The common denominator? Human error.
  2. And while open source is available for others to alter and share, it’s not available to manipulate. The ethos behind open source software is that all can benefit from the work of a few—which means that any changes that are made are prioritised and vetted by a community. Users must still accept the terms of a license when using open source software, such as that any instances of code modified from the original source must also be made available.

In fact, the collaborative nature of the open source LMS gives them a distinct advantage: Transparency. Having a much (much, much) larger group of people working on open source software means bugs or vulnerabilities are likely to be amended more quickly.

If you’re really concerned about the security of open source software, we recommend looking at their version history and reading community forums as these will flag past security issues.

But that brings us to point three in mitigating security concerns of open sources LMSs.

  1. You need the right capabilities within your organisation to maintain and manage an open source LMS.

Even with the advantage of multiple sets of eyes, open source LMSs aren’t updated as frequently as proprietary products or cloud-based solutions, nor are your code issues bound to be prioritised if the community at large doesn’t upvote them. That’s why it’s often necessary to have your own in-house team that can manage issues as they do arise or develop upgrades as you desire.

Open source LMS costs

If you’re looking to install a platform to create courses, deliver multiple training programs and track learner progress en masse, source code alone won’t get you very far. Costs (financial and otherwise) will start to rack up for:

Flow chart demonstrating some key questions to ask when deciding between an open source and proprietary LMS.

Proprietary

Both open source and proprietary refer to licensing, referring to how they can be used and distributed. The difference is that the source code for proprietary software is not freely available, with licensing fees that dictate access to it.

Where Android phones are open source, iPhones are closed. (It’s really no surprise Apple keeps their secrets extremely close to their chest.) And much like an iPhone, proprietary LMSs require a large initial investment for what is a user-centric solution in the long run.

When you buy proprietary, you’re also trusting your vendor with support, maintenance and innovation which has both its advantages and drawbacks. So, in essence, you can make some minor, aesthetic changes to proprietary LMSs—but nothing structural—and either way, you’re paying someone else do it.

Proprietary LMS costs

Proprietary LMSs are licensed, restricting them from further modification and distribution. The system is owned by the vendor, and you pay a licensing fee per user, with an additional fee for subscription and/or maintenance.

Proprietary LMSs are often more expensive than open source, as you’re paying the LMS vendor for support, development, maintenance, hosting and their service. But the heavy lifting is out of your hands; tech debt, bug fixes, industry compliance, innovation and testing are the vendor’s wheelhouse.

However, the trap of proprietary LMSs can be vendor reputation. Bigger isn’t always better when it comes to vendors, and you may find you’re paying a large fee for a low tier of support. Consider that proprietary products can also either be open source, installed or cloud-based, meaning there is a wide range of fees—license, subscription and maintenance—you could be paying.

Proprietary LMS maintenance

You’ll be on the vendor’s schedule when it comes to testing and implementing new features, and at their behest if you want to customise the look of the platform.

But that means you don’t have to worry about any technical tasks (yay!) and the more popular proprietary LMSs will often maintain regular feature deployments in order to stay competitive. On the other the hand, bug fixes rarely happen overnight, particularly when there may be many clients flagging many bugs.

Flow chart demonstrating some key questions to ask when deciding between a proprietary and cloud-based LMS.

Software-as-a-Service

The name of many organisations’ game is to grow, which is where the Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) or cloud-based learning management system comes into play.

The ubiquitousness of the cloud (read: since the learning management system lives on the internet) means there’s no clunky hardware and hence no physical space to worry about when scaling the system up. It’ll likely have a good number of high-level features, too, such as reporting, tracking and career pathways that can be easily integrated with existing systems.

The cloud-based LMS is arguably the most popular model on the market, and for good reason. They’re flexible, scalable and easily accessible the world over, making them a great option for businesses of all sizes with geographically dispersed clients and/or employees. As the name implies, the software is provided as a service, meaning you’re paying for the vendor to manage maintenance, development and upgrades—a win if you don’t have the time or resources to undertake this yourself.

This makes the cloud-based LMS a much more user-friendly and holistic learning environment than other learning platforms.

Cloud-based LMS costs

Again, the figure one sees is not always the whole story. We’ll admit to that as a cloud-based LMS vendor, because we have many clients who come to us having been burned by hidden fees.

Consider, if you will, hard and soft costs when it comes to cloud software—aka the upfront costs and the hidden. Let’s start with the upfronts.

On the flip side of the coin, you should consider:

Cloud-based LMS security

There are two scenarios you have to weigh up when considering a cloud-based LMS:

  1. The event of a technical or power outage, which could impact access and indirectly, deadlines and learning goals.
  2. There is always the possibility, however small and planned for, that a cloud-based LMS could be hacked.

These are valid issues even we ask you to consider against the needs of your organisations. It pays to have your own contingency plans in place; what you would do in the event of unscheduled system downtime, for a start. But—and it’s a big but—one of the key benefits of SaaS software is the user and data controls you can implement to reinforce security.

There’s no such thing as a guest user in the cloud based LMS, as most utilise Single Sign On (SSO) and multi-factor authentication processes to manage user logins—which essentially means the user and their credentials must already exist within your systems. This shuts down any unfettered access right at the gate. There’s also the fact most of these systems are accessed through a secure, data-encrypted connection (often SSL or HTTPS), which leads to our next point.

The security of your network is key to cloud security. This can be mitigated with layers of firewalls that filter the traffic flowing between the learning management system, its data and the internet. Firewalls are crucial for anti-virus filters and spoof monitoring (aka ensuring hackers don’t disguise their unverified access as a trusted source).

If security is the big-ticket item for you, we recommend asking vendors for a) their disaster recovery plan (in the event of emergencies) and b) third party certificates from external assessors that verify their security standards are up to date and in place. Hot tip: A feasibility study is your best bet for ensuring (in writing) that you’ll get all the security requirements you need.

Comparing LMS pricing and licensing

Pricing and licensing are two fairly interchangeable terms here, in the sense that some LMS platforms will be priced and offered via a license.

That gives you two broad umbrellas to shop under: Cloud-based and self-hosted pricing. The former covers, as expected, cloud-based learning management systems. The latter encompasses open source and proprietary learning management software.

Cloud-based

Depending on the vendor, there are a few pricing models out there. Most are charged as subscriptions and include varying levels of technical support.

Self-hosted

For open source and proprietary systems, you’ll either buy the software outright or pay via license. Again, technical support is rarely included—just the LMS platform.

Final considerations when purchasing an LMS

Beyond use case, hosting and pricing, there are other things you need to consider when comparing different learning management systems.

We mentioned a few of these earlier and even in our other guides—but in our experience, there’s no such thing as being over-educated when searching for a learning management system.

The factors that define your choice between options will be unique to your organisation at the end of the day. But we still believe there are a few—six, to be exact—key points of consideration that will ultimately help you decide what is worth your time and money.

1. Content compatibility vs content authoring

Most online learning solutions require content to be in the form of SCORM or xAPI (formerly TinCan). This leaves you two options when implementing a new LMS: Convert current resources or turn to a course authoring tool to start from scratch.

If you’re unable to convert your current resources, you may have to consider recreating them (which is time-consuming post-purchase) or finding a solution that can support your current file types (time-consuming pre-purchase but time-saving down the line).

Keep in mind

Not all LMSs come with in-built course authoring tools, nor will the vendor necessarily help you create content, either. If custom course content is something you need, you’ll need to shop around for a vendor who has those capabilities in-house or offers an integrated authoring tool.

2. Interoperability vs workload

The best learning management systems offer integrations with a swathe of internal and external software. Integrations act as conduits, impacting the richness of data and long-term success (cough, ROI, cough) of an LMS.

You might want integrations such as:

Keep in mind

These may all sound like standard offerings, but alas, these few examples will cost additional fees that depend on your vendor.

Regardless of if you’re looking at an open source solution with your IT team or a vendor-serviced LMS, installing and maintaining secure connections for these integrations is a lengthy and nuanced process. In the pursuit of a streamlined experience, you may find you overload your system, budget and the user experience.

3. Budget vs projected number of users

Some suppliers will only charge per active user, so you only pay for what is being used. Others still will charge you regardless of user access and consumption. Either way, your numbers are likely to fluctuate if, amongst other things:

Keep in mind

The more accurately you can predict how your number of users will change, the easier it will be to choose a pricing model that’s affordable for your organisation. (And that makes it easier to forecast future resources, including integrations.)

4. Personalised analytics vs big data

Say you need to monitor compliance and compliance training records. Or you want to understand the efficacy of custom content in comparison to content pull from third party providers. Maybe you’re tracking employees on learning pathways as part of succession planning. Whatever the case, you want an LMS with reporting and analytics tools.

Above all that, you want these tools to be user-friendly. Having mass amounts of learning and people data at your fingertips is only good as long as you can accurately analyse it in the context of your organisation. Defining your organisation’s learning goals will help you determine the reporting tools that will combat data fatigue and accurately glean causation in ROI.

Keep in mind

Reporting features aren’t standardised. Ease of use will be top of your usability checklist but what you, as a technical amateur, might see as user-friendly will look very different to what a vendor, with years of technical expertise, considers easy to use.

Make sure to involve representatives of your end users in the selection process, particularly during free trials or demos, to ensure reporting is both detailed and user-friendly. Consider scheduled and custom reports, as well as reporting dashboards, here.

5. Development vs vendor timeline

This point may seem foreign and all-too-technical, but it’s actually vital to determining if an LMS can grow with you. The innovation of a vendor speaks to the long-term viability of said LMS.

Often, being a paying client (particularly of a cloud-based LMS) gets you first-hand access to pilot products vendors may roll out—which could mean you get to test out industry-first software that is incredibly beneficial to your organisation and even contribute to improving it. It’s also a way for vendors to test a new feature in a controlled environment and gives you as a client a chance to contribute to a product that directly impacts you.

Keep in mind

Development isn’t guaranteed, and some vendors won’t even make their plans for new features or functionality available. This could mean that a) they’re not actually developing anything new, b) new features are years away or c) new features may drop suddenly, without proper testing—all of which could impact your access, user experience and even fees, if new features also come with a new price tag.

6. Learning strategy vs business strategy

Customised learning pathways are old hat in LMS software these days. They allow admin to create personalised learning programs with the aim of achieving a certain outcome, such as career progression. And as old hat, they don’t quite meet the needs of business-aligned L&D.

Capability frameworks are central to many a learning strategy. Question vendors on their ability to map content to those frameworks, or better yet, if you can build, assess and manage the framework within the LMS.

This gives your L&D team better oversight of:

Keep in mind

This isn’t a common find in the learning management system offerings out there, even if capability frameworks are increasingly the tentpole of workforce strategies. Many vendors will continue to push learning paths as a way to act on capability building, but the manual labour for mapping content, cross-checking learning and people data, and planning development pathways will still be on you.

Why you need to consider an LMS holistically

Thinking about an LMS in terms of its application, deployment and its core features will give you the big picture you need.

Purchasing an LMS is much like any other large financial investment; you want to weigh up all the options before you take the plunge. The fine print with software is that while it’s innovative and constantly evolving, it’s also a product that takes time to refine and is often customer-oriented. That means that any one LMS could be trying to serve thousands of clients and the varying unique needs they all have.

So, yes, while your needs are important, not necessarily everything you want from an LMS is going to be available to you. That’s why you want to keep the above points in mind—and ask questions of your vendor—when you’re considering options, because content, integrations, pricing, reporting and development are the foundation of your system—while keeping open to the idea some smaller ticket items may be crossed off your list.

All things considered

At the end of the day, the right choice is the LMS that can realistically meet your currently unserved or ill-served needs.No vendor (us included) can prescribe a bespoke solution for you, but we can share the titbits of knowledge we’ve picked up over the years. Considering a learning management system holistically, rather than just in terms of use case, deployment or features, allows you to understand some of the trade-offs you might make when choosing an LMS solution that’s right for you. Because a solution can still be right for you even if you find you need to sacrifice a few smaller wants for big needs.

With that being said, you need to consider those three categories as separate and equally important entities to fully understand how a system will best work for your intended use, technical needs and budget. As a learning management system is an investment, you need to think about what is viable for your organisation in the long run vs what would enhance your user experience. There’s room enough for both in the solution you purchase, but it’s really about what you can afford financially, time-wise and at the cost of other priorities when all is said and done.

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