The learning management system has 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. Today’s buyer has 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.
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:
- Extended enterprise, for training franchisees, their employees and/or your external partners across different branches, departments, cities or countries. The aim is to position them as more informed representatives against competitors with standardised training at a cost-effective price point.
- Maintaining compliance training for internal employees to comply with industry standards.
- Providing professional development opportunities, created internally or through external trainers, as part of workforce or career planning activities.
The use case is a great way to appraise how well an LMS will meet your needs and to understand how certain features (cough, see above, cough) are developed and utilised. We recommend you approach vendors for use cases to understand their applications, but in the meantime, here are perhaps the two most popular uses for the LMS.
Perhaps one of the most popular uses for the LMS is internal training for employees and professional development, whether that’s in a commercial, retail, hospitality or corporate environment. Organisations gravitate towards an LMS for their training needs as they can facilitate and monitor self-paced learning that feeds into business activities such as workforce planning.
Why use an LMS for employee training?
LMSs are so widely used by businesses to train their employees because:
- They are often explicitly designed to easily scale as operations and staff grow, ultimately accommodating a near exponential number of users and content.
- They can be made accessible to geographically diverse organisations and those with remote, disabled and contractual working arrangements.
- Many LMSs are white-labelled, meaning they allow you to personalise the system and reinforce brand identity as part of the learning experience.
- The most popular type, cloud LMSs, are maintained and supported by vendors, not the client.
- Compliance training can be offered and monitored at individual, group and organisational levels. The entire process can be automated too, so employees are automatically notified by the LMS when their training or certifications are coming up for renewal.
eLearning solutions are usually widely adopted by employees because of ease of access and a technologically familiar environment. But they’re often crafted with certain experiences in mind for certain end users: compliance training functionality, astute reporting, learning pathways, Single Sign-On (SSO), and integrations with HRIS systems and third party content providers are some of the functions offered through an online employee training solution.
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. In Australia, 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:
- Automatically generate custom certificates based on that organisation’s branding.
- Host hundreds of courses that can be categorised by certification, industry and competency.
- Create learning pathways for qualifications using programs, courses and other assessment tools.
- Copy courses, so trainers can create standardised or updated versions without needing to recreate the same course or activity for hundreds of users.
- Have multiple cohorts, tenancies or instances for different groups of users.
- Host custom content or pull courses from external providers.
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 commonly seen as corporate training or external training, providers of commoditised content may enjoy some of the following benefits from an LMS:
- A central portal for clients to browse, purchase and engage with content through eCommerce integrations, limiting the number of systems a client has to interact with.
- One repository for the provider to upload and view assessments, notifications, feedback and discourse.
- The ability to create learning pathways (yes, we’re peddling this one again) that both the client and provider can plan and view.
- Webinar and virtual classroom integrations, for one-on-one or groupwork environments.
- Online-native hosting that allows the business to scale beyond physical barriers (being limited by clients in one’s city, capacity; not needing to host or maintain infrastructure on premise).
Other factors to consider about your 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.
- We’ll talk about this more in the next section, but you need to considerwhat your IT team is capable of. Do they have the time and capabilities to ensure your LMS runs smoothy? And if you don’t have an IT team, do you have the capacity or capital to create a role that looks after software—because you’ll need it if you want a more complex solution.
- Considerwhat your industry and workforce look like. Is it fast-moving? Will you need to retrain or reskill employees continuously? If so, you’ll need an LMS that can support and monitor activities like compliance training.
- What is your goal for implementation? Is the intent to train employees faster, reach more learners or create more engaging learning materials? An LMS can certainly help with all of these, but the functionality that addresses each will vary across LMSs.
Comparing LMSs by deployment
“Deployment” refers to how a learning management system is hosted and essentially who is responsible for maintaining, updating and upgrading the software—making it an important way to distinguish which LMS will best serve your organisation’s needs.
There are three main types of deployment you’ll want to consider here: open source, proprietary and cloud-based.
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 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, making them great for control of customisation, creating a bespoke platform and initial cost-efficiency.
WordPress, as an example, is a commonly used open source software product. The most common observations we hear 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. In the eLearning world, you’ll probably be more familiar with Moodle. In fact, many of the LMSs you might know of would likely be built from the Moodle source code. But this begs a couple of questions: Is freely available code secure? And how much does it cost?
Is open source software secure?
Of course, the first and foremost question people have about code that can be freely edited is related to security. However:
- The first thing to note is that no software is free ofpotential security risks. Actions like 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.
- 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. We’d like to make a final point to conclude mitigation of security risks and the price of open source LMSs:
- 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.
Is an open source LMS actually free?
At first glance, yes. At a closer look, it’s not that simple. If you’re looking to install a platform to deliver your organisation’s unique employee training, source code alone won’t get you very far. Costs (financial and otherwise) will start to rack up for:
- Hosting: Whether that’s cloud-based or on-premise,hostingcomes at a price. That might be paid in real estate (for physical on-premise hosting) or to host data online via a cloud server. If you don’t have the infrastructure to enable a fully functional open source LMS, you’ll find it hard to scale and ensure a smooth user experience.
- Installation: Migrating data from an existing system/s to a new LMS and the installation of plug-ins and integrations you may need will cost time and often money for experts to handle.
- Support & Training: It’s easy to forget about ongoing support, so consider now who you’re going to turn to when bugs arise. Then there’s expert training to ensure you can confidently use the system. An in-house IT team can often cost more than vendor support, especially when you consider other technical problems they may have to contend with inside your organisation.
- Maintenance: Who is going to own updates, upgrades and customisation? Since that’s unique to your organisation, it’s on your organisation to manage. While most new features in the source can be implemented for free, anything extra will be on your time, budget and people to deploy. And keep in mind that while you have a community behind you, any modifications you make now may not be supported by future enhancements made to the source code.
In 100 words or less, is open source right for our organisation?
In short: no, an open source LMS isn’t “free” in the sense it would cost you nothing. Your vendor fees are non-existent, so it’s cheaper than online learning solutions that are offered as a service rather than a product. And that is often why people lean towards open source LMS models. Ask yourself: Are you buying open source because you can access and modify the source code, or are you purchasing it because it is low cost? There’s no wrong answer, but you need to be realistic about your reasons for buying.
On the flip side of the coin, we have proprietary software. 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 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 (usually on an annual basis), with an additional fee for subscription and/or maintenance to keep the LMS up to date. However, not all upgrades may be included so be sure to check with potential vendors.
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, we’d ask you consider that part of the attraction for proprietary LMSs is the vendor and their standing in the industry. 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.
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 often the more popular proprietary LMSs will 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.
In 100 words or less, is proprietary right for our organisation?
If features, future and current, are not a top priority, a proprietary LMS is probably a good option for you. It’s built and maintained by specialists, so you can usually trust (with some due diligence on your part) that the software, however simple, will stand the test of time. This means the biggest trade-off to consider is cost vs support: If you’d rather not think about features, upgrades or tech fixes, you may have to submit to a higher fee for vendor support. Those fees may also increase if you grow and need to onboard more users.
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. This makes the cloud-based LMS a much easier to use and more holistic learning experience than other online learning platforms.
How much does SaaS cost?
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, there are hard andsoft costs when it comes to cloud software, aka the upfront costs and the hidden. Let’s start with the upfronts:
- Pricing models. You’ll find it’s usually per user, per active user/per use, or by way of license fee. These will be charged monthly, which gives you more freedom but isn’t as common a billing cycle, or annually, which allows you to budget more accurately but locks you into the system even if you realise you don’t like it. Keep in mind that per-use can mean different things to different vendors: It might mean whenever a user logs into the LMS or every course they access.
- Setup fees. Some vendors will charge you a fee to deploy the system, onboard users, brand it, and organise your courses. This may or may not include training for your admin, which means it really does pay to ask first.
On the flip side of the coin, you should consider:
- Tiered support. Not all vendors will do their due diligence and offer the support their clients, as technical amateurs, need. This means the support you may be paying for is simply a ticket system (as is standard), which in turn means any issues you need solved now could be waitlisted behind other clients’. A dedicated account manager included in your fee is something you want to be watching out for, least of all because they’ll keep you updated on new developments, downtime and mediate any issues on your behalf.
- Thecost of code and customisation. A team of professionals is handling a system that is directly impacted by the number of users, courses and features within the infrastructure—which requires constant nurture. This is a more complex cost to determine than hard costs, simply because those upfront fees are less susceptible to environmental impacts (such as support being tiered, based on the size of an organisation, their user base and their content).
Can you trust an internet-reliant software?
This is a two-parter. If you’re really talking about trust, you’re going to want to dissect it in terms of security and access. The short answer for both is yes, you can trust software hosted via the internet. However, there are two scenarios you do have to weigh up when considering a cloud-based LMS:
- The first real downside of the cloud-based LMS model is that you may face the event of a technical or power outage, which could impact access and indirectly, deadlines and learning goals.
- There is always the possibility, however small and planned for, that a cloud-based LMS may 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—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.
In 100 words or less, is SaaS right for our organisation?
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. However, it’s important to ask vendors about their security protocols and the industry standards they are certified to uphold.
At the end of the day, the right choice is the LMS that can realistically meet your currently unserved or ill-served needs. Afeasibility studyis your key to success here, as it helps you compare solutions on factors such as sustainability, functionality and technical support. We’ve seen many clients who needed a little more clarification, which is why we created a downloadable LMS Feasibility Study Master Guide to better compare solutions.
CTA:Download your LMS Feasibility Study Spreadsheet
Some final points youreally should consider
Beyond use case and deployment, there are other things you really 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 end up defining your choice between options are unique to your organisation at the end of the day. But we still believe there are a few—five, to be exact—key points of consideration that will ultimately help you decide what is worth your time and money.
1. Content compatibility vs capabilities
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 are unable to convert your current resources, you may have to consider recreating them (which is continuously time-consuming post-purchase) or finding a solution that can support your current file types (time-consuming pre-purchase and time-saving down the line).
To 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 may need to shop around for a vendor who can help or compromise and take the time to do it yourself.
2. Interoperability vs workload
One of the best features of the LMS is integrations with internal (and external) systems. Integrations are the additional technology that impact the long-term success (cough, ROI, cough) of an LMS, on top of its core code. You might want integrations such as:
- eCommerce integrations that allow you to sell content and report on conversions to maximise profit and build your brand. Think how your clients/customers and even employees might be paying: PayPal, Shopify or Stripe.
- Customer relationship management (CRM) with platforms like SalesForce. This helps those with eCommerce at the heart of their business to better communicate with and understand their customers by automating data transfers.
- Video conferencing (we’re talking Zoom and Teams). If you’re limited by physical factors or your user base is geographically dispersed, this is an important integration to enquire about.
- Collaborative tools. This could be shared calendars, so a deadline is never missed, or even a sandbox environment that allows multiple editors to create the one resource in real-time.
To keep in mind
These may all sound like standard offerings, but alas, these few examples may cost additional fees depending 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 both your system and the people powering it.
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:
- Your content is commoditised. Usage will fluctuate if you, say, limit the number of users who can access a six-week program.
- You onboard new and different cohorts throughout any given year, such as graduate programs or consultants and contractors.
- You only use the system for processes like compliance training, which renews at certain points of the year.
To 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.
4. Personalised analytics vs big data
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 capabilities.
Above all that, you want these capabilities 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.
To 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.
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 supplier directly 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.
To keep in mind
Development isn’t guaranteed, and some vendors won’t even enumerate on their plans for new features or functionality. 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.
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 is innovative and constantly evolving, it’s also a product that takes time to refine and is often customer-oriented. While you want your vendor to work with you in mind, any one LMS could serve thousands of clients and the varying unique needs they all have.
So, yes, while your needs are important, not necessarily everything youwant from an LMS is going to be available to you. That’s why you want to keep the above five 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
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 isviablefor 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.