Modern Training, Technology and Product

LMS Basics: What is a learning management system? 

Posted on: June 24, 2024By: Patrick Icasas

Sometimes it’s important to take a step back and go back to basics to move forward even faster. With that in mind, we’re exploring a cornerstone of learning and development: the LMS. Let’s dive in!

What is a Learning Management System (LMS)?

In its most basic form, a learning management system is a software application that helps organizations manage learning content, administer programs and prove completion and compliance. Although the history of the LMS dates back to the early 1900s, it started to gain traction in the 1990s accelerated by the development of multimedia and the expansion of the internet. 

Modern learning management systems deliver complete courses to learners at scale and can report on both their performance and the effectiveness of the courses. 

What is the purpose of an LMS?

An LMS is designed to help organizations plan, build and distribute educational courses to large numbers of learners in an online format. An LMS also helps learners build skills and knowledge more effectively by leveraging more compelling content like videos, quizzes, games and more.

Who uses an LMS?

Any organization with a potentially large number of learners can take advantage of an LMS. Common examples include:

Schools

Educational institutions are constantly looking for new ways to engage their young students and learning management systems are a great fit—in fact, the education sector is where the LMS was originally born. An LMS excels at providing rich educational content such as video, animations and more, which can be more compelling to the younger generation.

Higher education

College and university students have a much more flexible schedule and varied workload than primary and secondary students. By using an LMS, higher education institutions allow students to study at their own pace and on their own terms. Instructors can create an online repository of course resources and distribute them to students more easily.

Corporate training

Companies use learning management systems for employee training on corporate procedures, product or subject matter expertise, company policies and the like. Using an LMS is especially beneficial for corporate training because employees tend to be scattered among different locations, making a traditional training program very difficult and expensive to implement.

Frontline training

Tapping into the scalability of LMS-based training, frontline organizations leverage a subset of this technology, called the frontline LMS, to simultaneously onboard and enable hundreds of thousands of workers at various locations within retail, grocery, hospitality, foodservice and other industries. 

Frontline Workers Looking At Lms On Tablet And Phone

Benefits of learning management systems

There are many reasons why an organization should consider adopting a learning management system:

It makes learning more convenient

In a learning management system, online training is available on-demand—a valuable convenience for employers who want to train workers without taking them off the floor for long stretches of time. They can prioritize employee workloads and encourage staff to log on to their LMS account for refreshers before their shifts or when things are slow.

The convenience factor goes up if the LMS delivers microlearning, where courses are divided into small, digestible modules. These modules can last anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes, which can easily fit into a busy frontline workday.

It accelerates learner development and growth

Many modern LMS platforms encourage the use of microlearning, and for good reason. Research shows that individuals who receive learning that’s broken down into bite-sized chunks performed better in tests than groups who took longer sessions. 

This increased learner performance, coupled with a more convenient learning schedule, can make an LMS-based course faster and more effective than traditional educational programs.

It reduces learning and development costs

Traditional learning programs have significant overhead training costs such as materials, equipment and facilities, which can quickly eat up budgets. Since an LMS is entirely online, all of the physical asset costs can be devoted to training materials instead. For example, employees may be able to view courses on their mobile devices instead of on a company laptop. This can both reduce the overall costs of the program and increase the quality of the training curriculum. Even when a digital learning solution is paired with on-the-job training (often referred to as hybrid or blended learning—more on that later), it reduces the massive cost and resources required compared to entirely in-person training. 

Types of LMS platforms

Learning management systems come in a few basic varieties, largely determined by where they’re hosted:

On-premise

An on-premise LMS is one that is installed on your own servers. The entire application is given to you by the vendor and set up by your own IT personnel. Such an arrangement gives you tighter control over access and data, given that it sits behind your own firewalls. It can also be cheaper to run since the only thing you have to actually pay for is the software license. 

Having said that, an on-premise LMS will need significant IT capital in terms of resources, equipment and security. If that’s not possible,a cloud-based LMS may be a better fit. 

Cloud-based LMS (SaaS)

These are LMS platforms that are hosted on third-party servers instead of within your own network. You would pay the vendor a regular subscription fee in exchange for access to their platform. Other fees may include additional users, support services and the like.

Cloud-based platforms are generally quicker and easier to set up than on-premise, and many vendors have Customer Success reps who can help get you started. Another advantage of cloud-based systems is that they are easier to scale. If you want to add more users, just buy more licenses. If you want additional functionality, simply upgrade to a higher tier—assuming the vendor already built the feature.

This brings us to a potential downside. Since the LMS actually belongs to someone else (the vendor), you can’t change how it works. You can still request features or ask support for assistance if you need something done, but the product roadmap is largely out of your control.

Open-source LMS

“Open-source” generally means that the software code is completely customizable. If the user has enough technical knowledge, they’re allowed to make whatever changes they want to show the software’s functionality. 

Generally, open-source LMS applications don’t have a licensing fee, so it can be a very cost-effective option. However, many organizations lack the technical resources needed to install, customize and effectively run it themselves, necessitating a hosting solution or consultant

Top LMS features

An LMS is a flexible solution with a range of different capabilities to accommodate the needs of different organizations, That said, there are a few key LMS features to look for:

Course management

Every LMS should be able to create, manage and run online courses. But simply having this feature isn’t enough. The actual user interface should be easy to learn and simple to use to streamline the course-building process for admins and help learners focus on the information being presented. 

The learning content management system should also be flexible enough to allow different media types, learner activities and learning materials to be used in a learning module, and be easily swapped out if the course needs to be updated.

Assessment tools

All learning management systems should be able to help you test the user’s knowledge retention against learning goals. There should be a healthy variety of test types, including multiple-choice, true/false, essays and more and provide the means to review results and incorporate them into a report. 

Gamification

Lecture-based training courses are usually passive and often boring, making it hard to engage with this kind of content. That’s why the best learning software leverages gamification; it’s a way to augment the learner experience and encourage frequent participation so users play a more active role in the learning process. Implementing scoreboards can also introduce a competitive element, while badges and reward points can help motivate the right behavior.

Hybrid learning

Not all training curriculums are suited to online courses and some lend themselves better to in-person sessions. That’s why an LMS that allows a hybrid approach to learning can be the best of both worlds and support both virtual classroom sessions and face-to-face job training. 

For example, an in-person training session could have supplementary videos or manuals available for download on the LMS. Likewise, elearning courses could require an in-person exercise as part of the assessment. The key is crafting a training course that makes the most of what’s available and is aligned with your organizational objectives.

Mobile-friendly

A mobile-friendly LMS can be an incredible advantage for businesses training employees, especially if they have a large frontline workforce. These employees rarely have time in the day to sit down in front of a computer, so mobile learning could better fit into the realities of their day-to-day

How to choose an LMS

Learning platforms have to be selected with care because the choice of software has wide-ranging impacts beyond the users.  For frontline organizations looking to specifically evaluate microlearning LMS solutions to enable their workforces, this in-depth list of questions is a great resource. But here’s a simple list of steps to get you started:

Defining basic requirements

Start with a clear outline of your needs and what your LMS software is meant to accomplish. Will it be an academic LMS or a corporate LMS? Will you be using it to teach sales training? Customer training? Social learning? What kind of training content will you be using? In what media formats?

The more you can drill down on the must-have requirements, the easier it will be to assess potential learning systems and their features.

Build a list of primary features

Most typical learning platforms advertise dozens of features in an effort to attract as many clients as possible. Don’t get distracted. Focus instead on a small number of key features that will address your training program’s basic requirements. Ask yourself:

  • Does it have the core feature I want?
  • Does the feature behave the way I expect?
  • What do I like about this feature? What don’t I like?
  • What does it do better than its competitors? What does it do worse?

The more objective your analysis is, the better. Document your opinions so that you can more easily compare them to other LMS platforms later.

Check their reputation

Your LMS vendor is going to be a close partner, so you should first check if they’re worthy of that trust. Read reviews on sites like G2, GetApp and TrustRadius. Try to find and speak to any organizations that have already used the LMS platform for their training process. Lists from leading analysts can be a great source of information, too.

Determine value

While cost is an important consideration, there are many other influential factors beyond price. Is the cost of the software equal to the value it will bring to your training program? If the feature you want is locked behind a higher tier, is the potential benefit worth it? Repeat this process as many times as you need to in order to find a suitable learning management system. 

How to implement an LMS

Now that you’ve chosen your learning management system, let’s set it up. The specifics of each implementation can differ between organizations and software applications but these are the general steps to follow.

Step 1: Pick your implementation team

Appoint one person to lead the implementation who  fundamentally understands both your strategic goals for the LMS and the technology being used. 

Some organizations may choose to build out a bigger team,  others may not. Whatever the case, your implementation lead should have the permission and authority to enlist the help of other departments if necessary—especially people with technical expertise.

You can also work with external partners like contractors or consultants. Your LMS vendor may also provide an implementation team for a fee, but the work should always be overseen by an internal employee. 

Step 2: Build an implementation plan

An implementation plan keeps your project on track and helps ensure that all objectives and requirements are met. The amount of detail included is subjective, but a practical plan should have the following:

  • List of primary and secondary goals
  • Implementation timeline with expected milestones
  • Task assignments with deadlines

Don’t make the plan too ambitious if you don’t have the resources. Keep things as realistic as possible and remember to factor in extra time in case there are delays—there likely will be. 

Step 3: Set up and execution

Now it’s about putting  the plan into action. Depending on the type of LMS you have,  either installation or configuration will be required, the course assets will be imported, users and role permissions set up and more. 

It helps to list all the tasks in a project management system so that each team member can see their assignments in relation to the entire plan and receive reminders for open items. Be flexible when it comes to adjustments if your team needs more time.

Step 4: Trial run

Put your new LMS platform through multiple trial runs. Start with small tests as you set up the system (e.g. testing if role permissions work properly or if courses display correctly) and expand the scope of the tests as you complete more sections.

Then conduct a larger trial run composed of a small group of testers. These testers represent the end users and would attempt to use the LMS software as if it were an actual training process. actionable or practical. Address feedback that’s actionable and practical within the given timeline.

Step 5: Launch

Launching your learning management system isn’t the end—it’s just the beginning! Something unexpectedly will happen when you go live so keep your team ready to provide ongoing support. 

Once the dust settles and users are more comfortable with the software, collect feedback from different users. There will likely be additional things you can tweak or adjust to further improve the experience. Just like learning, running an LMS is an ongoing process. 

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In the end, choosing the right LMS for your organization depends on a few key factors: audience, business goals, budget, available resources and how the tool will deliver learning to the end users in a way that makes sense for their day-to-day workplace realities. With a thorough understanding of what to look for in an LMS, what you need to implement and launch, you’re ready to set your employees up for a successful learning experience.

Patrick Icasas

Patrick Icasas is a freelance writer covering the topics that matter most to L&D and HR professionals, with occasional forays into CPG and fiction writing.

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