What is an LMS?

initially published in 11/2017 eLearning-Journal in German language
by Annette Bouzo, Elearning Manager (CELM)

LMS Definition - easy, clear and exact?

Times of digitalization are accompanied by increasing competitive pressure, products in need of explanation, high expectations from customers and own staff and binding legal requirements. Complexity and multitude of various stakeholders issues can hardly be dealt with without suitable software support. Learning Management Systems provide the central infrastructure for the organizations corporate learning issues and processes.

But selecting an appropriate Learning Management System often proofs difficult, also because there is not a binding and reliable nomenclature for software solutions.

This leads up to the question: What actually makes a Learning Management System?

 

1. Purpose and Scope of an LMS

The term learning platform has often (wrongly) used as a synonym to Learning Management System. Historically there was no perceived difference between an LMS and a learning platform. However, times have moved on.

Learning Management System is a software mediating as an interface between instructors / organization and learners and to support and organize learning processes. The typical Learning Management Solution manages the targeted distribution and coordination of learning content.

 

2. What does a Learning Management System entail?

Naturally this results in the question, what functionalities a learning management system entails.

Question
  • Is invoicing really a main property of a LMS?
  • Does a learning management system include a learning platform?
  • What about event management, social media and virtual classrooms?

Even though many LMSs today include the management of seminars, especially in connection with blended learning, but the feature is by far not to be found in all available LMS application.

Same applies to communication tools such as chats or fora. Even though many applications sport the buzzword "social learning" and come with features such as fora, chats, blogs, wikis or similar, there must be doubt if these belong to the core features of an LMS, especially considering their management (curation, moderation ...).

Want to learn about user generated content ?

3. Core Question: What is the LMS for?

A professional LMS must fulfill the following requirements:

  • make learning content available for precisely defined target groups
  • support individual corporate processes such as enrollment routines, approvals, workflows, invoicing etc.
  • provide special target groups with individuals functions (learner, manager, instructor, external partner
  • relief training administration from routine tasks
  • grant proof of training for regulated sectors
  • automate processes where it is sensible and economic
  • provide authorized staff with accurate, complete and timely information

Often software - also Learning Management Systems - is seen as a lever to save cost. A LMS is far more than that, as the versatile and complex processes in corporate learning are closely connected to the enterprise's competitive strategy. A professional LMS supports their transparency, evaluation and controlling.

 

4. Inaccurate terminology

It has often been stated that a learning platform is the same as an LMS. Possibly the term "learning platform" is the most imprecise and arbitrarily used expression. It may be, that in everyday usage Learning Management System and Learning Platform are used synonymously.

However, a learning platform is basically a tool for presenting and publishing a learning offer, whilst a LMS includes a wide portfolio of management functionalities.

5. Does a Learning Platform equal an LMS?

Often any website presenting learning content or training catalogs is declared to be a learning platform. Same applies to social media applications, collaboration tools and virtual classrooms.

A term so overstretched is an invite to question it, in order to avoid misunderstandings.

Remember

6. Not a Learning Management System

  • Most product offered as Learning Management Systems feature online-courses only and are therefore mere Learning Platforms.
  • A variety of learning platforms are on the market. Among those you will find many commercial portals offering access to standardized learning content of all areas of expertise. Also, some learning portals address specific groups of interest. This miscellaneous market offers a wide selection of content e. g. safety procedures, first aid, preparation for driving licenses etc. Quality and timeliness vary. The business model resembles a public library.

These are not to be confused with a Learning Management System, as there is no integration in a system environment or process landscape.

7. But what is a LMS then?

A professional LMS consists of several connected parts. These parts reflect different perspectives. Not all features are equally relevant for all target groups (training administrators, instructors, management, learners ...).

The LMS is the central unit controlling the access to features, processes and content according to the defined requirement.

Management(!) is the LMS Key-Component

Every company and every target group is different, and every training program is individual. Management in the LMS is the key to coordinate core processes, learning content, and resources in a targeted manner, and to set up accompanying processes such as correspondence, billing, and tracking of learning progress with precision.

In this regard, the administration component, which determines roles and rights, international or location-specific orientation, and target group management, is the core component of the LMS.

The following applications address the overarching training processes and the needs of the learners:

Learning Platform

Presenting the total training offer including elearning (WBTs), tutorials, blended learning paths as well as time-bound training offer such as seminars and more...

LXP functionalities enhance training offers with personal learning recommendations.

Training Portals

Secure access to personal content, data and special functionalities for learners, managers, instructors and partners; Training Portals (=Learning portals) can have integrated non-public learning content. Learn more...

Qualification-Management

Structured qualification paths, matching current qualifications to job profiles, education campaigns and audit-proof (compliance) training; Learn more...

Training Administration

Course and resource planning, automated correspondence and workflow support, invoicing and reporting features; learn more ...

 

Learning Portal or Training Portal?

Both learning portal and training portal are terms in the field of corporate education but have different focuses:

  • Learning portals emphasize a comprehensive approach to corporate education. They cover a wide spectrum of learning, not just eLearning or seminars but various media and formats. Organizations often use "learning portal" analogously to the term learning platform when they want to provide a central platform for offering employees comprehensive learning and development initiatives.
  • Training portals are typically used to offer structured learning paths, courses, and training programs. For compliance training, qualification management, and documenting learning progress are emphasized.

How organizations use these terms depends on their specific educational needs.

More than a Learning System

The main spotlight of a Learning Management System must necessarily focus on Management, meaning the targeted, coordinating functionalities. Otherwise the term Learning System would be sufficient.

Important

Communication methods and tools which are seen by Schulmeister as a necessary part of a LMS do not refer to collaboration tools and other learning media as those are integral parts of the mentioned. They necessarily refer to the training organization, especially on correspondence and information transfer between academy, participants, instructors and managers. Routine documents such as invites, approvals, certificates etc. can anytime be automated.

To meet the demands of our increasingly agile corporate environment, the most important issues in the age of digitalization are

  • a flexible assignment of detailed rights
  • finely granulated role definition
  • continuous adjustment of processes.

8. Lasting trend: Blended Learning

Why is Blended Learning relevant for the characterization of LMS? Let us go back to the origins. At the start of the millennium there was a real hype about Web 2.0. Elearning (web-based training or WBT) was seen as a cheap panacea for training challenges of all kind. However classroom formats remained and has not been replaced by other popular learning trends such as informal (and later agile) learning. However the impulses of new formats have come to stay and enhance classic education.

  • There will be a higher demand of individual learning paths including target group oriented and object optimized learning media and formats. Sum total is an increase in multi-dimensional, complex learning scenarios
  • These can only be managed by appropriate, flexible learning management systems.

Learn more about New Blended Learning Management

 

9. Integrated Authoring Tools a necessity?

Naturally there is a group for which integrated authoring tools are of high importance. If a LMS comes with an authoring tool and or test tool you will want to ensure that learning content is relevant for various purposes and target groups.

An integrated solution should be thoroughly checked considering the fitness for anticipated use in future. No LMS vendor can guarantee, that his authoring tool will be flexible enough to meet future media formats and demands.

Even it the authoring tool is a relevant issue, it might make sense to choose a separate, external tool and to select an LMS, which can publish the elearning content independent from the format.

Modern Learning Management Systems can deal with the products of various authoring tools, typically WBTs and provide them to the learners. Possibly the learner will need additional applications, such as a media player, VR-googles or tablets to start elearnings on the learning platform. For the learner it is irrelevant, where in the system landscape the product of an authoring tool is physically routed.

The Learning Management Systems will know the correct path in the system landscape and distribute the access according to it's configuration. The criteria may be presupposed qualifications or test results, a particular timeframe or the learner's jobprofile within the corporation.

  • Thus an integrated authoring tool will usually not be a deciding element in a buying decision.
  • Flexibility and adjustability to future demands are far more relevant.

This is also the outcome of a comparative study of Brandon Hall:

It usually does not include its own authoring capabilities; instead it focuses on managing courses created from a variety of sources“ (Hall, 2001, S. 533).

 

10. Collaboration Platforms

Same applies to collaboration platforms, virtual classrooms and social media. Of course the digital learning landscape may offer access to such applications, as they are of a great value.

These tools might be an integrated feature of the LMS. However, for added flexibilty and potential for future developments you might decide to integrate the collaboration tool of your choice via interfaces and webbased connectivity.

collaboration and communication

Also a virtual classroom, webinar or conference tool can be used as a stand-alone solution, especially when it is employed as a general communication tool within the enterprise anyway.

However bear in mind that media disruption should be avoided and therefore focus on thorough integration.

11. Added Value: Integration for future-proof Developments

The integration of the Learning Management System into the company's system landscape is of particular importance, so that a comprehensive, up-to-date information system is created. In doing so, the software should be maintainable economically in accordance with the IT guidelines and the respective security regulations by the company's IT or the service provider.

It makes sense to refer to digital learning landscapes, when talking about IT-supported learning processes.

Interfaces for more Flexibility

Also consider that some webinar tools vary in cost and feature portfolio (or concerning data protection) and are thus not suitable for any enterprise. Make sure that tools are flexible and the vendor adjusts them to occurring requirements and new developments. Your IT department should discuss with the software vendor if e. g. a conference tool can be replaced, another configuration set-up or a workaround would suffice.

In general single parts are easier to replaces than a complete system. Interfaces for the exchange of various data format are a flexible and future proof solution.

Learning content, method and didactic design are no LMS issues. Learning requirements are highly individual. Depending on target group, use case and goal various media and formats or their combination is required. This is not a technical question, but the domain of instructors.

Also read: How much does a Learning Management System cost?

12. Who is a LMS user?

The basis of a licensing agreement is often the number of users in a database. But who are those users?

  • Often the term users is the number of learners. If their number is unknown or the use varies over a time period, the number of enrollments or WBT-starts is used.
  • The core value of a Learning Management System lays in the administrative features, which is why the number of training administrators can be the relevant licensing factor.
  • For reasons of efficiency managers or instructors can be assigned to particular sets of features, usually accessed via training portals. These features may include to enroll team-members to training schemes, confirm achieved qualifications or check on in the team's overall qualification status. The number of these secondary users may also be used as an additional licensing basis.

 

13. What is relevant to learners?

Learners are usually only dealing indirectly with the learning management system, e. g. when searching the learning platform for appropriate content, enrolling to courses, starting test or check own data such as education history or submit feedback questionnaires. The usability of learners' surface is of great importance.

Online-Course

The layout however is not the task of a learning management system, but depends on the corporate design, the content management system (CMS), didactic media employed and the respective design possibilities.

The learner might not even realize that he/she is moving on various surfaces. Single-sign-on interfaces allow learners to move seamlessly through different applications, such as the personal learning portal and learning platform. Consistent designs will not raise the question on which platform you are and if you access internal or external applications.

For the learner it is rather irrelevant, whether learning content is accessibla on the corporation's own learning platform, an external learning repository or on a connected external learning platform.

14. Webbased or onPremise?

A web-based LMS entails, that the Learning Management System is accessed via an internet browser such as Mozilla Firefox, Safari, MS Edge etc. The program is not installed locally on the own laptop or PC, but on the server of the own company, an external data center or a external (third) partner.

The decision if an LMS is hosted within the own server landscape, maintained by own IT staff or an external data center is a political and strategic decision. This includes considerations of IT regulations and security policy but has no influence whatsoever on the individual learning process. Same applies to the question if software licenses are bought or rented.

Learn more about pros and cons of different implementation options and learn how to select a suitable external data center.

 

15. Data Protection and Security

Obviously enterprises want to know their learning content secure in password protected portals. Product knowledge and internal processes are seen as competitive relevant information.

Limited Access

In theory most WBT formats could be accessed without any registration via a link, without the use of an elearning platform.

However, if proof of training is an issue e. g. in regulated industries, an e(!)learning platform (not a mere learning platform) with tracking features (e. g. SCORM, xAPI) is mandatory. Prerequisite is, that the content formats include tracking information.

16. Conclusio: Management in the Spotlight

Our corporate environment grows more complex. Increasing requirements concerning service, digitalization and skills shortage are some of the factors stressing the scope of corporate learning. Due to digitalization this is even more the case concerning software.

Within digital enterprises complete business models rely on information technology. IT is an essential and integral part of business (Werth, 2016, S. 191). To transfer this approach to any sector and any part of a company might go a bit to far. Still many aspects can validly be transferred to corporate learning and performance processes and thus offer potentia for optimization.

The variety of individual elements, their characteristics and interactions are so complex, that software support is essential, to manage development and accompany learning processes.

 

Corporate Learning Management System (LMS)

Different organization types such as universities and enterprises have defined different goals for their learning efforts. This results in different LMS requirements. The number and individuality of learners, the varying degrees of complexity and liability matter.

Management is Administration

Some functions are generally required functionalities of an LMS, such as:

  • Learner- / User management with appropriate rights & role concepts
  • administration of course data
  • definition of processes for different target groups
  • assignment of learning units
  • coordination of resources
  • evaluation and reporting...

This central administration unit defines, whether an LMS can adjust to evolving requirements.

Definition: Enterprise LMS

Within an enterprise a Learning Management System is the leading software tool to administer, organize and support structured learning processes.

Thus the LMS must be able to support resulting different requirements of the administration of qualification programs and education campaigns. In the simplest case single elements such as classroom trainings must be enhanced with meta data such as title, time, location and names (e. g. instructor) to support a smooth organization, document achieved qualification and possibly put into context with a qualification profile.

The value of a LMS is particularly visible if many thousand participants must coordinate with various learning paths. For a qualification program within complex organizational structures the LMS must be able to evaluate different levels and provide reports accordingly.

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Literature

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Hall B.: Learning Management Systems: How to choose the Right System for your Organization, Sunnyvale (CA) 2001.

Forrester, J.W.: Industrial Dynamics, Cambridge 1971.

Hummel, T.R. / Zander, E.: Unternehmensführung, 2. Aufl., Stuttgart, 2008.

Scheer, A. / Wachter, C.: Digitale Bildungslandschaften, Saarbrücken, 2016.

Schulmeister, R.: Lernplattformen für das virtuelle Lernen: Evaluation und Didaktik, München, Wien, Oldenburg, 2003.

Staehle, W. H.: Eine verhaltenswissenschaftliche Perspektive, 8. Aufl., München 1999.

Steinmann, H. / Schreyögg, G.; Management; Grundlagen der Unternehmensführung: Konzepte, Funktionen, Fallstudien, 6. Aufl., Wiesbaden 2005.

Ulrich, H.: Die Unternehmung als produktives, soziales System: Grundlagen der allgemeinen Unternehmenslehre, Bern 2001.

Ulrich, H. / Probst, G.J.B.: Anleitung zum ganzheitlichen Denken und Handeln: Ein Brevier für Führungskräfte, Bern 2001.

Werth, D: Educating digital leadership: Zur Frage der Weiterbildung von digitalen Führungskräften, in Scheer, A. / Wachter, C.: Digitale Bildungslandschaften, Saarbrücken, 2016.


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