Learning Management System Comparison: Create a Framework for Selecting an LMS
As more organizations automate administration for education and training, an increasing number learning management system (LMS) options are competing for their attention. Identifying the most effective system isn’t always intuitive. If you’re comparing systems for your own organization, you might be asking questions like:
- Do these applications include tools for administrators and learners?
- Which applications are best suited for professional education versus post-secondary education?
- Is there an LMS built specifically for my niche market?
- Which features would help us meet our goals for efficiency, time savings, and ease-of-use?
To create a useful framework for your learning management system comparison, it’s imperative that you address all of these questions. With an emphasis on the features and benefits most relevant to professional education and professional learners, let’s consider all of the major factors involved in making an LMS selection.
Specifically, we’ll provide an overview of the following considerations, all of which must come into play as you evaluate your options:
- Identifying the right type of LMS: Every organization has unique objectives that impact the type of LMS they ultimately select. The first step in comparing options is figuring out which type of LMS will help you meet institutional needs.
- Meeting your learners’ needs: With few exceptions, administrators and learners will interact with the LMS. For this reason, you must choose a system that meets learners’ needs for usability and functionality.
- Comparing features: After determining the type of system you need on both the administrator and learner side, you should determine which features that system needs to include.
Identifying the right type of LMS
The LMS market is extremely diverse. On one hand, market diversity means that most organizations will be able to identify a system that meets their needs. On the other hand, the sheer variety of options can make for a long selection process.
First things first, let’s sort through some terminology so we can focus on what we really want:
- LMS: This is a catch-all acronym for a wide array of learning management systems as well as applications with functionality that is similar to what one normally associates with learning management. At a fundamental level, an LMS is a platform for managing people. You use it to register learners, track and measure their performance, and report outcomes.
- LCMS: Some organizations looking for an LMS may also be looking for a learning content management system, or LCMS. Whereas the LMS manages people, an LCMS manages content creation. You use it to develop course or activity content that is used in online learning environments. “LMS” is sometimes used to describe what is actually an LCMS, but they are actually different types of systems.
- Crossover LMS/LCMS: On some level, every organization that manages learners also manages educational content and vice versa. That’s why some applications incorporate various aspects of an LMS and LCMS. An industry-specific solution might serve as a crossover LMS/LCMS if its target market requires aspects of both systems. Such a system might not include all of the features one expects from a full-fledged LMS or LCMS. Rather, it would include the specific functionality its users demand
The biggest question you need to answer is whether your primary objective is to manage learners or create content. If the answer is both, then you need to determine which fundamental aspects of an LMS or LCMS are most important to you. Frequently, industry or niche-specific applications will offer the right combination of people and content management functionality for your organization.
Case in point: the Rievent Platform. Our LMS is built for the continuing professional education (CE) market, and its basic functionality addresses the unique requirements of CE administrators and learners. Reporting, registration, eCommerce, activity delivery, and the lifecycle of CME activity management are fundamental aspects of Rievent, putting us squarely in the “LMS” category. That being said, Rievent also enables administrators to add all common content types, including video. Having that functionality does not make Rievent an LCMS. It just means we’ve incorporated some aspects of content management into our LMS as dictated by the needs of our users.
On some level or another, many industry-specific LMSs cross over into the content management and creation realm. The point is that whatever system you select should help you achieve your organizational objectives, regardless of the acronym used to describe it.
Speaking of organizational objectives, aligning your administrative needs and goals with LMS functionality is critical. If you lack the internal resources or infrastructure to manage your own servers or build a proprietary system, a cloud-based or software-as-a-service (SaaS) application is almost always the way to go. Generally speaking, a SaaS LMS offers faster time-to-launch, near-infinite scalability, and, due to its being in the cloud, greater flexibility for learners.
Assuming you can identify an LMS that meets your industry’s standards for compliance and security (as most organizations will), opt for SaaS. In most cases, it’s more cost-effective and easier to use than its “on-prem” counterparts. Both of those traits should align nicely with most organizations’ institutional objectives.
Meeting your learners’ needs
As someone who administers education or professional training, you want an LMS that:
- Minimizes learner requests for assistance
- Shifts administration to learners via self-service tools
- Automates learner-side course or activity management as much as possible
Any system that ticks all of those boxes will meet learners’ needs for usability and speed. Because it enables learners to solve many of their own problems and self-manage most aspects their education experience, it will also help you maximize efficiency and free up more time to complete valuable tasks.
However, a system’s availability and flexibility are just as important to learners as the ability to view and manage records or request course credit. An increasingly mobile workforce is challenging education providers to make course content available whenever and wherever learners happen to be. For this reason, optimizing the learner experience isn’t just about features. It’s about a system’s fundamental design, too.
That’s why any system you select should include a mobile-responsive interface. In addition to meeting learner demand for on-the-go access to courses or activities, you need to identify systems that deliver a mobile-friendly experience for all learner actions. Event registration, access to records, activity evaluations – all of this functionality must be packaged in an interface that’s just as easy to use on mobile devices as on a desktop computer.
The bottom line: An LMS should be intuitive for learners. The more intuitive your application, the better your learners’ experience.
You’ve identified the type of LMS you need. You’ve verified that it includes the self-service tools and flexible interface that you and your learners demand. Now what?
This is where features come into play. Any answer to the question, “What features should I look for in an LMS?” is highly dependent on an organization’s needs. Features vary according to an LMS’s target market, whether it’s a generic or niche-specific solution, and the system’s underlying fundamentals (SaaS or on-premises). That said, education providers – particularly those providers with professional learners – frequently benefit from the following features:
- eCommerce: Many organizations require self-service registration for learners. Allowing them to register for events, online activities or courses, or webinars is possible in an LMS with integrated eCommerce. Look for an LMS with a shopping cart interface and simple payment processing functionality.
- Content Import: Can the LMS import your content in common learning formats like PDF, mp4 (for video content), or SCORM packages? Transitioning to an LMS, regardless of what you’re currently using should be as straightforward a process as possible. Assuming you’re maintaining existing courses or activities, look for a system that lets you add that content without any hassle.
- Single Sign-On: Logging in to various sections of your website or online services using different credentials can be a discouraging, tedious experience. Single Sign-On (SSO) fixes that by letting learners log in one time to access all of those services. While SSO benefits all kinds of learners, it’s a particularly useful feature for busy professionals. An LMS with SSO lets these learners seamlessly log in, access course content or complete registration, and log out.
- Assessments: Do you need an LMS that supports assessments, and to what extent should you be able to create them? Adding tests or quizzes to the ends of courses or activities isn’t the exclusive domain of the LCMS. If you’re planning to somehow score learner performance, the ability to create assessments is a must-have feature.
- Reporting: Whether for accreditation or for using data to improve education programs, an LMS should generate reports that are valuable to your operation. At Rievent, we let CE administrators generate extremely detailed, granular reports on literally every imaginable metric related to learner activity. As a CE-specific solution with domain expertise in the health professions, we also offer reports for accredited continuing medical education (CME) providers, like ACCME PARS reports. We mention these specialized reports for this reason: your LMS should be able to generate the data that you need to meet your institutional goals and obligations. Be sure to account for reporting when performing your learning management system comparison.
- Design and Branding: Will you be able to deliver a visually seamless experience to learners, or will they know they’re using a third-party LMS? If it’s important to maintain consistent design and branding across all of your online services, you’ll need to select an LMS that integrates your logos, color palette, typeface choices, and overall visual experience into the learner interface.
Takeaway: Set expectations high, and don’t compromise.
The LMS market is full of options. Go for SaaS. Go for mobile-responsive. Go for an industry-specific solution, if possible. There’s little reason to compromise on features either. Look hard enough and you’ll find that system with SSO, eCommerce, reporting, and whatever functionality fits your stringent requirements.
Assuming you opt for a SaaS solution, another positive is scalability. With a cloud-based LMS, you’ll have an application that grows with your organization. Need to add users, increase course volume, or pull additional reports? SaaS makes it possible without manual upgrades or large implementation projects. You’ll also benefit from continuous enhancements, which cloud companies generally roll out automatically as soon as they become available.
So set your expectations high, and go find the LMS that meets your needs and delivers a streamlined, intuitive experience for learners. Using the framework we just discussed, you should be well-prepared to identify and select the most effective application for your organization.