initially published in 11/2017 eLearning-Journal in German language
by Annette Bouzo, Elearning Managerin (CELM)
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. Software vendors do not seem to take an interest in clarification. Therefore the term LMS (Learning Management System) is often used in misleading context.
This leads up to the question: What actually makes a Learning Management System?
Wikipedia is not to be cited as a scientific source states in 2017:
A learning platform AKA Learning Management System (LMS) is a complex Content Management System providing learning content and organizing learning processes. It is the task of a web-based learning environment to enable communication between learners and instructors. The LMS serves as an interface between education provider and learning person. This does not include educational content, which is offered on the internet, such as the usual websites or -portals. Advantage of a learning platform is the relief of the academy, controlling of information, simplification of learning and the management of various administrative tasks.
The term learning platform is often (wrongly) used as a synonym to Learning Management System:
"The term Learning Platform or Learning Management System (LMS) suggests a software solution, to support various task specific applications for various learning scenarios. Based on the original e-learning approach most learners can be supported best by employing blended learning scenarios. All learning environment have in common, that they contain tools to create, communicate and administrate learning content as well as coordinating web-based learning programs and evaluation of the learners."
(You might also want to read: What Blended Learning is in 2020)
According to Wikipedia's historical definition you may draw the following conclusions:
- Historically there was no perceived difference between an LMS and a learning platform
- A Learning Management System is a software mediating as an interface between instructors / organization and learners and to support and organize learning processes. As typical features tools to create and administrate content are mentioned as well as administration, distribution and coordination of content.
(Read here why a LMS ist not the same like a learning platform and what the difference is)
These examples show how difficult it is to find a general definition for Learning Management Systems.
Even listing included functionalities shows clear differences. Is invoicing really a main property of a LMS? What about event management. 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 application 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 ...)
One must question the historic Wikipedia definition stating 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 can include a wide portfolio of functionalities.
Any type of user interface presenting learning content or training catalogs can be 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 in order to avoid misunderstandings. It is clear, that a social media application or a virtual classroom have no overarching, coordinating role within the learning eco system, but may at times proof to be valuable learning formats. They can be integrated as subsystems via interfaces.
- Most product offered as Learning Management Systems only refer to online-courses 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 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 varies. The business model resembles a public library.
- They are not to be confused with a Learning Management System, as there is no integration in a system environment or process landscape.
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.
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.
Wikipedia suggests (in 2017) that Learning Management Systems include a tool to generate learning content. Is that so and does it make sense? The necessity of included authoring tools (or collaboration tools or communication tools) is debatable. Even though corporations design and generate their own valuable and highly individual content, the number of LMS with integrated authoring tools is decreasing.
Companies feature very different training requirements. There are some enterprises which get along perfectly with standardized elearning content and therefore save a lot of cost. To others eLearning does not matter as their training issues entail personal contact, is very hands-on, their training volume does not justify the implementation of an LMS or generate own content or they can not reach their target group electronically.
Other, also international corporations might well employ elearning-formats. They might be subjected to a particular corporate identity or work with professional elearning agencies. An integrated authoring tool might also not deliver all the desired formats.
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).
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.
Via interfaces they will be integrated in the learning landscape and connected to the LMS. 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.
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.
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 learning 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.
Learners are usually only dealing indirectly with the learning management system, e. g. when cruising the learning platform for content, enrolling to courses, starting test or check own data such as education history or submit feedback questionnaires. The usability of the surface is of great importance.
The layout however is not the task of a learning management system, but depends on the corporate design, the content management system, didactic media employed and the respective design possibilities.
The learner might not even realize that he/she is moving on various surfaces. As single-sign-on interfaces allow learners to move seamlessly through the intranet, the personal learning portal and learning platform. Such 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 therefore irrelevant if content is routed on the own learning platform or on a connected external learning platform.
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.
Obviously enterprises want to know their learning content secure in password protected portals. Product knowledge and internal processes are seen as competitive relevant information.
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.
Different organization types such as universities and enterprises have defined different goals for their learning efforts. This results in different software requirements, may it be administrative or concerning media and content. The number and individuality of learners, the varying degrees of complexity and liability matter.
Some functions are generally required functionalities of an LMS, such as:
- Learner- / User management with appropriate rights & role concepts
- administration of course data
- assignment of learning units to defined target groups
- coordination of resources
- evaluation and reporting.
These functionalities are independent from a prerequisite definition or product and are seen to be mandatory when it comes to classification as a LMS.
But is there a general definition of an LMS and what would it entail?
A modern LMS must be flexible to adjustments, to support evolving processes and document developments. This applies especially to the individual assignment of finely granulated rights and the resulting use of functionalities for particular targe groups.
- course administration
- qualification management (also education campaigns and qualification projects)
- individual access for various target group (employees, distribution partners, instructors, managers, training administrators …)
- quality management and reporting: feedback, statistics reports, gap analysis …)
- possibly collaboration platforms and other media (webinars, social media…)
- possibly elearning platform
These integral parts might be of differing importance for different corporations. An appropriate configuration and usage must match the company's requirements and adjust to future developments.
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.
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 coordinated 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.
A LMS is not necessarily one product, to be bought in one piece and implemented. To ensure future flexibility it is recommendable to opt for flexible software components, which can be enhanced by modular components or integrated via interfaces.
Next to functionalities focussing on structured qualification, continuous process support and a high potential of integration are characteristics stressing the value of a modern learning management system.
Considering the view helpful and unprofessionally applied terms it is even more necessary to define the own requirements and evaluate the various options.
The main spotlight of a Learning Management System must necessarily be on Management, meaning the targeted, coordinating functionalities. Otherwise the term Learning System would be sufficient.
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.
Especially the integration of the learning management system within the application landscape of an enterprise is highly relevant, when it comes to designing a holistic and up-to-date information system. It makes sense to refer to digital learning landscapes, when talking about IT-supported learning processes.
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.
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