Comparing Learning Management Systems

Essay by Annette Bouzo (CELM)

Why LMS Comparisms may be useless

If you are looking for a new LMS you will surely have come across one of the many ‘Best LMS’-Surveys and lists which are widely available on the websites of magazines and vendors. These are supposed to introduce you to the systems which will support you best. Doyou find them particularly helpful? We don’t –and we will tell you why:

More than an element of doubt

'Top Ten LMS' - lists are not helpful

Lists featuring the '10 best LMS' are helpful in one respect: they offer first clues, what systems are out there and sport some criteria which might be interesting for you when it comes to determine where the differences lie.

Typically you will be introduced to systems of vendors, which are in close contact with the respective publishing house and might have actively been involved in the design of the 'study'. Very often the LMS listed can not be compared. To compare and open source product employed by universities with an out-of-the-box tool or SaaS, which is merely a way of licencing a software can not produce a scientific result.

However, you can be sure of one thing: publishing houses or software vendors can not guess, what you actual demands and priorities are.

So how can they tell which is the best LMS for you?

LMS - a problem of definition

Many definitions are out there; even more systems supplying a wide range of different functionalities. Fact is that the term ‘LMS’ is widely used for a range of software products which do not sport the same features. But what exactly is the difference between a qualification management and a talent management suite? Do you know? And do the LMS-vendors terms coincide with your interpretation? Saying Learning Management Software (or System) is like saying fruit –but specifically hoping for an apple. What will you get?

Questioning the test setting

How many LMS were evaluated in total to find the ‘Top-10-Systems’? 20? Or 30? And in what way were these systems tested? One way would be to implement all systems runningin a real life scenario configuringthem all to a comparable setting, and traininga team of administrators to operate the various LMSs. Have you ever implemented an LMS system or any other complex software such as this? This would involve a large amount of money, man power and time, not talking about the hardware involved. Please ask yourself how likely a publishing house could actually carry out such a mamouth task. What is the alternative? The researcher will not actually collect data himself but resort to product information provided by vendors. Realistically a sales demo will be the most the well-meaning publisher will have seen from some of the ‘best LMSs’. This impression will be enhanced with statistics or user numbers. So,which data can be verified? And can this mean seriously 'compared'?

Broad Functionalities

Does the Best LMS always come with a talent management suite or an authoring tool? Is a learning platform the same like an elearning platform? And dothe functions of an integrated authoring tool actually match your demands? Having a tool to produce screen casts is great –unfortunately hopeless if you would like to work with virtual class rooms or animations. Fortunately technology today allows for designing interfaces to integrate exactly the right tools at any given time later. This particularly applies to contents connecting to learners’ platforms. To have one ‘holistic’ system from only one vendor to cover everything at once is outdated as a demand, as nowadays you can connect the tools suiting you best seamlessly.

Best LMS to whom?

Is the best LMS one which is used in college, one used by an academy completely or one serving the specialized training centre of a multinational corporation? As you can imagine the demands of those institutions vary widely. Not to speak of the differences between the training demands of a bank or a manufacturer in the automotive industry or some firm providing managed training services.

Best LMS for everyone

There are LMS which come with a broad variety of functionalities to administrate a multinational enterprises’ HR training demands. If you are a midsize corporation which is, for example, specializing in CAD-courses addressing mainly local enterprises the same type of ‘best LMS’ might not be exactly right for you –even if it is leading one of the many ‘Best LMS’-lists.

Best Price LMS

Are LMS comparable across the whole price range? Apart from the fact that vendors usually do not provide their pricelists at  any of these surveys, an LMS which is marked as the ‘Best’ on the list might not be the one you can afford either in terms of licences or in terms of development cost you have to cough up.

Apart from all this prices of software are hardly comparable. When choosing a ‘free’ open source product it might take youa long timeto set it all up. The costs of an open source LMS can exceed the cost of a commercial vendor’s product by far. Also the time and manpower which you have to invest until an open source LMS is productive can be significantly higher than expected or planned. Do you actually have sufficient IT know-how to set it up and running? Many open source LMS are perfectly suitable for college and university use. But bear in mind that the demands of enterprises irrespective of the size are completely different.

SaaS, webbased or Client Server?

The pros and cons of these are widely discussed. ‘Web based’ is nowadays often seen as state of the art. But if you can actually profit from this depends widely on the circumstances and demands of your training institution. Just because the system is provided as SaaS, it does not necessarily imply that is better suitable for your particular project.

Best LMS by number of learners?

Is the best LMS the one where the platform has been accessed by most learners? Certainly in an open university surrounding this might be an indication. Less so, when it comes to training requests of a corporation specializing e.g. in oil drilling schemes or management training programmes. Seeing learners’ numbers as a sufficient criterion you may call YouTube or Twitter the best LMS you can have. But will that really do the job?

Other lists feature surveys which supposedly are based on customer satisfaction. If the underlying population, which is the customers actually taking part of the survey, are representative across the Learning Management Landscape is doubtable. If learners of one big company vote for their system and whilst others do not even take part, this certainly cannot be a scientific proof of quality. Plus you might want to question, if the people asked where actual learners or rather training staff or system administrators - the result might vary amongst the different perspectives.

What now is the best LMS?

Unfortunately you will have to find this out yourself. One system which is perfectly suitable for one training purpose might prove to be a complete failure in another requirement. The process involves a significant amount of time and effort from yourside. The focus of your research is about the demands of your corporation. That is your type of enterprise, the functionalities which are mandatory or seen as a nice-to-have, IT-guidelines, the organization of your training portfolio and many more. The best LMS you can possibly get is not on a list – the best LMS you can get is the one to serve your needs best and allows for future adjustment to the future development of your enterprise.

Conclusion

A vendor doing straight business will not be interested in just selling you a product which is not suitable for your use. Unsatisfied consumers spread the word and can damage the vendor’s reputation. Furthermorethe vendor invests time and manpower to implement the system. Not only from a financial point of view but this situation will be regarded as an unsuccessful project. In any case it ist highly recommended to check the vendors references and make a personal contact to an actual client to get first hand information about LMS and vendor's conduct of business.

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