Choosing the right learning management system (LMS) is something every E-learning professional needs to do at some point. Which is not really surprising, seeing as nine organizations out of ten use either a cloud-based or an on-premises LMS in their training programmes. Thanks to this, there’s no shortage of articles with titles like "The XX Best Learning Management Systems", “XX Tips to Choose the Best Learning Management System”, “How to Choose the Right LMS” or “Recommendations on choosing an LMS”.
Why, then, did I feel it was necessary to write yet another article on this topic? You see, I do not, in fact, plan on telling you which LMS is the best. I will not even help you to make the choice. Instead, I want to broaden your understanding of the subject matter, and teach you to ask the right questions. Who to ask the questions of? First of all, yourself, your colleagues, and managers, to get a clear understanding of what you are looking for in a LMS. Once you have formulated your needs and set priorities, you will be able to start shopping around and talking to LMS vendors with a clear idea of what you need in mind.
Besides the right questions, I will list the features I believe to be compulsory for a modern-day LMS to bring attention to things you cannot afford to do without. Essential functionality that will make your job easier and more efficient. Modules you may not think of at first, but whose absence will be felt more keenly as you gain expertise. In addition, those who make it to the end of the article will receive a nice bonus as the cherry on the cake.
Understanding your organization’s needs
Before you start choosing the LMS, you need to have a clear understanding of what your organization is looking to do with it.
What goals do you plan to accomplish with the help of the LMS? Preserve and accumulate expertise, or continuously educate your staff?
Are you looking to train everybody in equal measure, or only the employees of specific departments? The peculiarities of the skills that need to be taught may require specific, non-standard functionality, which will narrow down the list of possible vendors.
How complex is the content that needs to be developed with the LMS?
Do you have employees that possess the necessary qualifications and expertise to create new courses? If not, do you plan to hire professionals that will bring the required skills into the organization, or to train people you already employ?
How much time are you willing to spend on creating the training courses?
Whether you have prior experience working with LMS or not is also a big factor.
Do not bother talking to vendors until you have answered all these questions. Having at least a basic understanding of your organization’s needs and requirements, as well as the goals you need to accomplish, should be your starting point. Once you have the answers on hand, you can proceed to the next stage - selecting the key features depending on your unique requirements.
Selecting the key features
What functionality and features are required to make eLearning a success in your organization is very individual and depends on your company’s requirements and needs. Successfully implementing eLearning in a Toyota dealership will require a very different approach than training clercs in City Bank. The content will differ vastly, of course, but so will the teaching method and the way of introducing new material. In the former case, the focus should be made on hands-on practice tasks and interactive multimedia lessons (having access to augmented reality will be a big plus here). In the latter case, training courses teaching about the use of internal software, as well as about the operations and procedures specific to the bank are the order of the day. Carefully consider your organization, its areas of activity and the common everyday tasks its employees must learn to perform when considering which LMS to buy.
This being said, I will now list the features I expect to see in any modern LMS. Some of those are essential, but some may not be of use to you specifically. I hope that this list will help you better narrow down your requirements, as that knowing which features to look for and which to skip can both simplify your search for your ideal LMS and drive down the cost of acquisition.
1. Cloud-based SAAS or on-premises solution
To make an educated choice, consider the following factors:
Does the chosen solution comply with your organization’s security requirements? Those can vary greatly depending on your sphere of activity and internal procedures and rules.
Are you ready to service the chosen solution yourself or will you need hired help? Going with the on-premises model will add to the burdens of your IT department, indirectly increasing the cost of ownership.
Do you trust the cloud? Having the system run on a blade in your server room is reassuring, but a cloud LMS can be deployed in a fraction of the time, requires no maintenance, and leaves your IT people free to carry out their regular duties. On top of that, a cloud LMS can be accessed from anywhere in the world and is always up-to-date.
2. Built-in course authoring tools
Buying an LMS is only half the battle. Training courses don’t grow on trees, and so you’ll need to either buy them from a third party or to create them from scratch. If the former is not an option for your organization, you will have to roll up your sleeves and get to work. In the earlier days of eLearning, courses were usually built in specialized Course Authoring Tools (CATs), such as Adobe Captivate and Articulate Storyline. Back then, after you finished building a course, you had to export it in one of the industry-standard formats, then import the result into an LMS. The price for a license for such a standalone CAT could reach $1400 - $1800, which, at the time, was quite a lot of money.
Luckily, the times have changed, and these days some LMSes come bundled with advanced course building tools that pack all the essential features - and oftentimes much more besides. Unless you have very specific needs that can only be fulfilled by using a highly specialized course building suite, you can do just fine working in an LMS featuring a built-in course builder. Such tools are usually much easier to learn and are cheaper to boot, which is a welcome bonus.
The ability to create non-linear courses is a welcome bonus. This feature helps you to make instruction more interactive and engaging. Besides, it enables you to create adaptive courses that take the students’ degree of understanding the material into account. Every learner will feel comfortable because the perceived difficulty of the course will correspond to their level of expertise.
3. User interface
You can buy the most sophisticated LMS on the market, but all its advanced features will do you no good if its user interface is terrible and inconvenient (cough, Moodle, cough). You are going to feel sore about using the system, and your employees will hate it too. Think that convenience is overrated? Think again. Here are some advantages having an accessible and user-friendly LMS will grant you:
Improve knowledge retention and students’ grades.
Decrease the amount of time spent on building courses and administering the system.
Motivate the students to engage in training.
Improve the students’ ability to navigate the LMS interface.
Increase the frequency with which students visit the LMS.
Say what you will, attractive outside appearance contributes a lot to a positive first impression. If the user interface of your LMS repulses users instead of attracting them, your learning is not likely to succeed. Do not underestimate this factor when shopping for an LMS.
4. Storyboarding tools
Few LMSes on the market come with built-in storyboarding tools - they are usually sold separately, or come bundled with a course builder. However, sometimes storyboarding tools are included in LMS as a part of the system out of the box. If you have never heard about storyboarding before, I recommend you to read the following articles to learn about this concept and the advantages it can bring to your e-Learning project: Storyboarding: A Simple Way To Get Professional In Course Authoring and Storyboarding: Key Point Of Success In Collaborative Course Authoring.
In a nutshell, storyboarding is a preliminary stage of course building often employed in companies that take course building seriously. With the help of this methodic, a mockup of the future course is created, complete with all constituent parts, so that the resulting course structure can be demonstrated to the management or to a prospective client. Having a handy storyboarding tool makes the course planning stage go swiftly and helps a lot during the course building stage proper.
5. The ability to access courses from smartphones and tablets (M-Learning)
The number of smartphones and tablets in use around the world is growing at a breakneck pace. The statistics say that the number of people connecting to the Internet from a mobile device has eclipsed the number of those using a regular computer or a notebook. Today, the mobile is king, and you must take its demands into consideration during course building. In general, the LMSes on the market feature different levels of mobile devices’ support:
The ability to log in to the LMS from a mobile device. This level implies access to only the most basic of features of the LMS: checking test results, viewing personal messages, downloading supplementary materials and so on.
The ability to access online courses and other instructional content from a mobile device. For this feature to be of any use, it is very important that the courses themselves could be displayed on low-resolution screens. Few course building solutions can boast of the ability to create courses able to fit any screen. Some support creating courses in multiple resolutions, letting the course builder check how the finished result would look on this or that device on the go. They also usually feature the ability to tailor the course to a specific resolution should the work in progress prove to be less than pleasing.
The ability to build courses and manage the LMS from a mobile device. The rarest and most technically challenging level of optimisation, but also one that yields the richest rewards. An LMS with such a capability enables you to develop courses using a tablet, or to assign tasks to students from a smartphone. Although in a few years most LMSes will likely have this ability, as it is all but essential in today’s world, so far only a handful of vendors were able to implement it satisfactory.
6. The ability to create tests and surveys
Testing the students to see if what they’ve been learning is taking hold is vital for a number of reasons. First, it tells you whether the training program is having the desired effect. Secondly, test is a strong motivator that makes learners think again and try to remember what's what. Besides, tests are a useful tool for understanding which topics a student has understood sufficiently well, and which require studying some more. Tests and questions are useful indicators, and are good both for the students and the teachers.
In my opinion, there’s no need to bother with building courses and implementing training programs if you do not plan to test your students to see how well the material is understood and how well the students remember what they learn. This is true for all organizations, regardless of their areas of activity. Without testing, instruction is meaningless, and so having a handy tool for the creation of tests is a big plus for any LMS.
It bears mentioning that nearly every LMS has at least some test-related functionality. However, in practice in many cases it has no more than basic functions and is inconvenient to use, so don’t take the vendor’s word for it - make sure to try the feature out before committing.
7. Statistics and reports
Both education professionals and managers like to look at numbers and are fond of graphs that can be read at a glance. Numbers and graphs help them understand how well the students are doing and keep their hand on the pulse, and so it is hard to underestimate the usefulness of tools that gather statistics and generate reports. Today, it is hard to find an LMS on the market that doesn’t have this functionality. However, not all LMSes do statistics equally well.
For example, in addition to the general data about how well the students are doing in regard to this or that course, it is very handy to have access to detailed information about individual students, as knowing about their strong and weak suits is very important to the education manager. Statistics about the results of individual tests are very valuable, and so is the information about the general trends in the education process. And should your LMS have the ability to give you the low-down on individual questions and on how often this or that answer to a specific question is picked, the usefulness of such a tool is hard to overestimate. The more detailed and granular the data your LMS can give you, the better you will be able to isolate the shortfalls in your courses: which topics are poorly or insufficiently covered, which questions are misunderstood often and should be re-formulated, which tests are too easy to serve their purpose, which possible answers confuse students, and so on.
If, on top of that, the data can be presented in the form of graphs, pie charts, and pivot tables instead of just numbers, it’s one more feather in the LMS cap. Being able to read data easily makes the life of e-Learning professionals much easier, and makes overseeing the learning process much simpler.
8. Issuing certificates
In certain spheres of activity (e.g. medicine), yearly certification of employees is mandatory and is overseen by regulatory bodies. In addition, many education professionals employ certification as a motivational tool, even when there’s no requirements for mandatory testing. If you plan to certify the students who complete your courses, take the ability to generate certificates into account when shopping for an LMS.
What should you check for? Whether the system generating certificates is flexible enough. Whether there’s an ability to change the certificate’s layout and design. Whether the LMS comes with pre-generated certificate templates - or maybe the ability to create your own templates? Look for the LMS that would allow you to hide individual text fields, move them around, and add custom ones to the certificate.
9. The ability to import and export courses and course elements
There’s always a chance that sooner or later your organization may have to switch to a different LMS. Nothing lasts forever, and a solution that appears ideal now may no longer suit your needs in a few years. The world of tech is changing at a breakneck pace, new solutions enter the market all the time and bring with them new groundbreaking ideas. This makes it necessary to have the option of exporting the courses you’ve created to transfer them to a different LMS.
If you already have created a number of courses and are now looking for a replacement LMS, make sure that the new solution is able to import the data in one of the industry standard formats (SCORM, Experience API/Tin Can API, AICC, etc) - pick whichever one you’re most familiar with.
10. The ability to integrate with other systems
Every company or organization usually has a list of software routinely installed on employees’ computers, and it is not unusual for an employee to spend most of their time on the clock operating this software. For that reason, companies often look to integrate software into the already established business processes, and are looking for solutions that play well with the software already in use.
This makes it worthwhile to check whether the LMS you’re considering supports the authentication mechanisms being used, whether it can be configured to synchronize user accounts with the systems already in place, etc. Adopting a solution that supports the industry standard integration tools (Open API, webhooks, TinCan API and so on) is much easier than one that doesn’t.
This is all for today. I believe I touched upon all essential features one must consider when choosing an LMS. I hope my advice will make choosing one that best suits your needs and requirements easier, and as a bonus, I’d like to share with you a questionnaire LMS-Requirements-Checklist with a detailed list of different features an LMS may have. It was composed by Mike Baker and Jason Kistler of Citizen Bank when they were looking for an LMS for their bank and was first made public during the DevLearn conference.