What is an LMS? Types of LMS, features and alternatives

Repositioning the LMS in a changing learning landscape

By Kasper Spiro

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When you introduced e-learning in your organization, a learning management system – or LMS – was likely the first tool that came to mind. And why wouldn’t you think that? LMSs have been a staple in the learning and development (L&D) sector for the last three decades. But is this still the case?

In modern workplaces where your employees are more likely to Google or use a performance support tool to find the answer in their moment of learning need, what role does the LMS have to play?

This article not only explains what an LMS is but also outlines various types of LMSs as well as the differences between an LMS and an Learning eXperience Platform (LXP). We will also explore where the LMS sits in the modern “learning ecosystem” of tools, software, and platforms. If you’re reconsidering your learning tools, this article will help you understand the position and role of the LMS better.

If you’re brand new to e-learning and aren’t too sure what an LMS does or doesn’t do, we recommend you jump over to this blog post before continuing.

What is an LMS? A quick refresher

Learning Management Systems LMS

The meaning of the LMS can be explained as follows:

The LMS is an online system that enables organizations to store, manage, and distribute their e-learning content internally. It also offers results tracking features for you to monitor your learners’ progress.

Benefits of an LMS

Given the definition of an LMS, it is used mostly for top-down, formal learning organized by the company. In fact, many organizations are still using the LMS for corporate training. Some common examples include compliance and security training. LMSs are a good fit here because they offer certification and results tracking features, allowing the company to prove its compliance.

Types of Learning Management Systems

There are many different types of Learning Management System software out there. Here are the most common examples:

Open-source (free) vs. Commercial

Open-source LMS software is created by a group of people or community using a shared code, allowing for collaboration on the system. The largest LMS (based on users) is Moodle, an open-source LMS from Australia. But most LMSs are closed source, owned by commercial companies.

An open-source LMS means you won’t have to pay a license fee to a vendor, but that doesn’t mean it’s free. There are still hosting, usage, and maintenance costs.

Target audience

Some LMSs cater to larger companies with over 1.000 employees (enterprise LMS), while others focus more on smaller companies. Some of them target specific markets like training companies or specific verticals. The main difference lies in the management and reporting features; learners’ interface and features are very often comparable.

Cloud-based or On-premise (behind your firewall)

Originally, LMSs were software you had to buy a license for and install on a server, usually behind the company firewall. The current trend points toward cloud-based software (software hosted by the provider on the vendors’ servers) — also called SaaS (Software as a Service). It’s now the leading model for software, and although LMS vendors lag behind, SaaS is also trending for LMSs.

Licensed or subscription-based

The license model is associated with cloud-based or on-premise LMS software (on-premise often uses the old-school license model). Under this model, you buy a software license and pay a maintenance fee each year.

With cloud-based or SaaS solutions, it’s always a subscription model based on a specific time frame and usage. The license only covers the cost of the software, while the SaaS subscription fee also covers hosting and support.

Integrated vs. standalone

Some extensive HR-and ERP systems have started building an LMS as a module within their software. Others have bought an existing LMS vendor and integrated the software with their current solution. This way, they offer a one-stop-shop — for example, providing all HR functions, including learning.

When an LMS is part of a bigger system, it’s referred to as integrated LMS — unlike a standalone LMS.

Full-blown LMS vs. LMS-light

An LMS-light is a learning platform with only the main functions of an LMS: course hosting and result tracking. Some authoring tools like Easygenerator offer LMS-light features for companies that either don’t have an LMS or have learners who can’t access the company LMS, like contractors.

With so many types of LMS software available, it’s important to understand the differences and opt for the one that best suits your organization’s needs.

Authoring tool + LMS vs. Authoring tool + LMS-Lite

LMS Features

As the name “Learning Management System” indicates, the meaning of the LMS can be divided into two groups: learning features and management features.

Management features

Management features allow L&D teams to manage and organize the learning process. They include:

  • Course management: This feature allows you to push the right learning materials to the right learner at the right moment. Learning materials can be e-learning courses and PDFs, videos, or even live training sessions.
  • Assessment and tracking facilities: This allows an organization to record learners’ activities while keeping track of their results and progress.
  • Reporting: Learner reports offer insight on both a learner’s participation and results, often with options to integrate with an external HR system.
  • Supporting standards: In the learning world, there are standards like SCORM, AICC, LTI, and xAPI. These standards allow a course to run and make it possible to track results.

LMS features

Learning features

  • Course interface: This is where the learning happens. Learners interact with this interface to engage with the available e-learning content.
  • Forum: Learners in the same course can engage in discussion using a forum.
  • Learning path: Learning paths are a string of learning activities for the learner to complete in order to achieve a specific goal.
  • Gamification: Game-like elements can challenge learners to become more active. Leaderboards, for example, foster a competitive, game-like experience.
  • Course library: Apart from pushing specific programs to learners, most LMSs also offer a library with a search function for learners to find courses on their own.

LMS features

The LMS as a part of the learning ecosystem

Learning needs are changing. So is learning, itself. There used to be a focus on formal, top-down learning organized by the L&D department, using face-to-face meetings or formal e-learning courses. Now, that focus has shifted to empowering knowledge sharing within an organization and supporting employees on the job — also known as performance support.

This offers another perspective on the LMS. Instead of being the single solution for corporate learning, it’s now just part of a bigger picture: the learning ecosystem.

L&D teams are increasingly switching to a bottom-up approach, giving employees more control over their learning solutions instead of having it dictated from the top. Rather than outsourcing course creation to expensive instructional designers, for example, subject matter experts (SMEs) within the organization – usually employees – can create the learning content themselves. This approach is known as Employee-generated Learning (EGL).

This change significantly impacts the tools needed to create and maintain the content. At the same time, it also has a huge impact on learning. In addition to the LMS, we need tools to enable knowledge sharing and provide performance support — both of which require a much more modern approach.

4 quadrants of training and development shifts

The diagram above shows the four learning and development areas in a corporate environment: talent development, formal learning, knowledge sharing, and performance support.

Over the last few years — because of the growing trend of moving from top-down learning to knowledge sharing among peers — the e-learning world saw a shift to the knowledge sharing quadrant. It also saw the rise of the Learning eXperience Platform (LXP) that facilitated it. We are now seeing increased attention at supporting employees on the job, moving us toward the performance support quadrant.

These shifts lead to a need for all kinds of learning-related tools for creating, maintaining, and publishing learning content. These tools combined form a learning environment that is sometimes also referred to as a Learning Ecosystem.

In the following paragraphs, we’ll dive a little deeper into three elements of this learning ecosystem: the LXP, authoring tools, and Electronic Performance Support Systems (EPSS).

LXP vs LMS

You can compare an LMS to television. A TV station creates a program for the viewer to follow. With an LMS, it’s the L&D department creating a program for the learner to follow, which fits well in top-down, organized learning. As mentioned earlier, a good example of that is mandated security and compliance training for employees.

Since the days of TV, we now have on-demand streaming services like Netflix. It offers the same shows, but the interface built entirely around the idea that the viewer takes initiative and determines what, when and how they’ll watch.

In learning, we’re seeing a similar change with the rise of the LXP — otherwise seen as the Netflix of learning. It’s an environment that houses learning content like courses, videos, and other materials like an LMS. The major difference is that it’s built around the conception that the learner will take the initiative and learn and learn it.

These developments are the reason more and more LMSs are now adding course libraries with search functions — to give learners greater control. But the problem is that LMSs are inherently built for a top-down approach, which doesn’t make them ideal for encouraging learner initiatives.

The nature of an LXP not only makes it easier for the learner to take control but also makes it much better suited to facilitate Employee-generated Learning, by enabling employees to publish their own content. Just as Netflix has challenged the need for TV, LXPs have challenged the LMS’s top-down approach by offering knowledge sharing.

LMS and authoring tools

LMSs often come with an authoring capability. Sometimes it’s limited to assembling learning materials from other sources; sometimes it allows you to create your own content and questions. But even if your LMS comes with a free integrated authoring solution, we advise you not to use it.

These integrated authoring solutions have only one advantage: it allows you to easily publish learning content into the LMS it’s built in. From a functional perspective, they will always lack what a specialized authoring tool like Easygenerator can provide.

An integrated tool is also harder to use because it’s catered to instructional designers. It’s lack of question variety and author collaboration make it more suitable for top-down learning.

Most importantly, it creates vendor lock-in. Once you’ve created content within an LMS, it can only be used in that specific LMS and can’t be moved it to another. This not only restricts you from moving from your LMS to another solution but also means you’ll lose your content if you do.

The best approach is to always use a separate authoring tool that lets you export your courses to generic standards, like xAPI, SCORM, and LTI.

LMS and performance support

Performance support enables you to get information while you’re working, like:

  1. When you have a problem
  2. When you don’t know how to apply something
  3. When something has changed

When you run into an issue on the job, you’re unlikely to stop performing your duties and take a full-fledged course offered by an LMS. A more appealing solution is to be able to quickly search for the answer or guidance you need and then continue with your work. Performance support caters to these quick on-the-job learning needs. It’s an approach that’s very different from what the LMS offers, but is also getting more and more recognition.

What requirements should an LMS meet

If you decide you do need an LMS, there are thousands of LMSs available to choose from. There are also LMS-friendly authoring tools like Easygenerator that support SCORM, xAPI or LTI, allowing you to publish your course to an LMS and track results there. Still, there are three criteria to help you make a first-time selection:

1. Web-based

All software is moving online and toward a SaaS model. The LMS industry lags behind on this trend, but there are web-based LMSs out there. Selecting a web-based LMS jumpstarts a modern approach to L&D by ruling out any outdated features found in desktop software.

2. xAPI compliant

Most LMSs use SCORM to track and trace results, a standard dating back to the 90s, with its last major release in 2004. There’s a new and modern standard called xAPI, which serves as the far more superior successor. xAPI allows you to track and trace results outside your LMS through a separate result database called a Learning Record Store (LRS).

SCORM limits you to storing results in an LMS, creating vendor lock-in and preventing exposure to innovative functions. Ensure you select an LMS that supports xAPI and consider storing results in your own LRS to avoid vendor lock-in.

3. Allows the use of a separate authoring tool

Besides better authoring quality, a separate authoring tool also prevents vendor lock-in. As mentioned earlier, creating content within an LMS makes it impossible to move it to another learning tool, creating the risk of losing your content. This is why it’s worth choosing an LMS that allows you to import content created with a separate authoring tool.

Does your organization still need an LMS?

As we’ve touched on already, L&D is experiencing a tectonic shift in how it approaches employees’ learning needs. As employees increasingly need just-in-time resources, the top-down approach that has defined the industry no longer makes sense for all training.

Yet, this top-down approach is what the LMS is designed for. Often, LMSs are cited as a requirement for compliance training and regulations because of the organization’s need to track results and issue certifications. Still, authoring tools like Easygenerator offer these features too. You can learn more about how Easygenerator supports compliance training here.

But to answer the question of whether you need an LMS, it’s important to consider the bigger picture — the learning ecosystem. Ask yourself what tools are needed to empower your learners and course creators while helping to streamline and modernize L&D services. The LMS may have a role to play but it’s only a fraction of the ecosystem.

To help you decide, we’ve created a quick tool. Answer a few questions, and we’ll recommend whether an LMS is right for you. Take a look here.

The future of L&D

L&D is changing, and with it, the tools we use. Once the core of e-learning, the LMS is slowly being reduced to a smaller role within the learning ecosystem.

For many organizations — and possibly yours — the LMS still plays a central role in sharing and distributing learning content. But it’s no longer the only option. And to meet your learners’ changing needs, you should looking beyond this staple, whether by expanding the tools you use or by looking for an LMS alternative, like an LXP or LMS-Light.

Whether or not an LMS is right for you will depend on your organization’s unique goals. But we’ll do our best to help you decide.

If you’d like to know more about how LMSs and authoring tools differ or work together, read our blog post: What’s the difference between an authoring tool and an LMS?

For a quicker way to determine your needs, check out our other post: Do you need an LMS?

About the author

Kasper Spiro is the CEO of Easygenerator and a recognized thought leader in the world of e-learning. With over 30 years of experience, he is a frequently requested speaker at conferences all over the world and a well-renowned blogger and writer within the e-learning community.

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