The Styles and States of Learning Management Systems 2021

Learning Management Systems have become an integral part of how a modern organization operates; in 2020, almost every business surveyed by the Association of Talent Development (ATD) reported using an electronic system to help manage training; up from 75% five years prior (Association for Talent Development, 2020). The trend of applying technology in training is not slowing down as global events such as the Covid-19 pandemic have accelerated the need for flexibility and adaptation to keep organizations moving.

The reasons to implement an LMS have become overwhelming and it is a standard requirement for a modern business to operate.

  • Scale: electronic systems allow training to scale with growth of employees, clients, and geographic locations.
  • Saving time and money: the ongoing need for training means that streamlining content online reduces time and resources spent. 75% of organizations say the cost of their LMS is justified by its results.
  • Standardization: training content and record keeping can be standardized across large organizations to prevent fracturing information and records.
  • Performance: improved training means improved employee performance. 59% of organizations report that they can tie learning outcomes to business objectives and 40% saw an immediate return on investment when implementing an LMS.
  • Data collection: gain immediate insight into the skills and knowledge of your organization that results in better informed decision making.
  • Leadership: managerial and supervisor training is where businesses have been publishing the most content and seeing the most return.
  • Retention: training means more engaged employees who see long-term benefits for their career. These employees are more likely to stay with an organization longer.
  • Safety and Compliance: training reduces workplace incidents and helps to ensure legally required procedures are followed. Digital records allow faster inputs and reports of compliance data when you need it.
  • Culture: foster your unique culture from onboarding through to career mapping for every individual; the LMS has become the major touch point for learners and the greater company culture.

These and other reasons are why modern businesses have integrated LMSs into their day-to-day operations. It has become a necessity in the competition to pull ahead or simply keep up in many industries.

This paper explores the current general trends in the LMS space and styles of systems that have emerged through adaptation in different fields. The resulting insights will provide a set of factors to consider when assessing an LMS and its fitness for a particular organization’s vision.

Basic Features

Several LMS features have arisen as the main drivers of LMS technologies being adopted by almost all businesses. We consider these basic features of an LMS because they define the current minimum role the LMS performs in an organization.

  • ELearning Delivery: an LMS provides a platform to deliver eLearning. Publishing content online remains the primary sought after feature of an LMS.
  • Progress tracking: an LMS tracks and records individual learner completion for the eLearning content.
  • Reporting: an LMS provides reporting functionality to view collected training data. Reporting is a key function of an LMS that allows you to connect your learning activity with business outcomes.

The eLearning Guild found the following 10 features were the most sought after features of an LMS (The eLearning Guild and Adobe Systems, 2016). This list of features confirms the 3 basic features we have outlined above.

  • ELearning delivery
  • Reports
  • Email notifications
  • Search
  • Version Control
  • Manager view of direct reports
  • Assign training
  • Testing and quizzes
  • Catalog gradebook

We can summarize that businesses concentrate their LMSs on delivering Elearning and tracking and reporting on learner completions. These features remain the primary focus even as new capabilities (such as micro-learning, experience API, crowd sourced content, and more) have emerged. Ultimately, businesses are looking for a product that does the basics really well without a lot of extras.

LMS Considerations and Trends

As existing standards are being established, the LMS industry is already looking towards innovation and evolution. Surveying trends in the industry, organizations continue to focus on enhancing the core features of learning management, not bringing in unexpected or peripheral functions. These new improvements are directed at how to do the basic LMS tasks better.

The ATD and eLearning guild have predicted that LMSs will evolve in the following ways based on their research (Association for Talent Development, 2018; The eLearning Guild and Adobe Systems, 2016).

  • Personalized: personalized learning provides instruction tailored to an individual based on their interests, experience, preferred learning methods, learning pace, job role, or other factors
  • Adaptive: adaptive learning is personalized learning that uses computer-based technology to modify content to a learner’s needs. Applying algorithms or artificial intelligence, the technology modifies content in real time based on learner behaviors and interactions.
  • Micro-learning: storing content in bite sized chunks along with the ability to deliver just-in-time training that is searchable and reusable.
  • Integrated authoring tools: administrators are finding that integrated authoring tools that allow content creation right within the LMS site provides further simplification of workflows to publish and maintain eLearning content.
  • Ease of use: ease of use for all users of the LMS remains one of the most sought after features for all LMSs. Businesses have identified that easy to use systems are quicker to be adopted and less time consuming to maintain resulting in better return on investment.

These changes come in response to common training solutions that are starting to show their limitations and where there is considerable room for optimization. Personalization and micro-learning are changing the way we deliver training content; content that is specifically targeted to the learner and available when they need it is more effective than generic content full of distractions. However, maintaining content to support these styles of content is work intensive and requires significant human effort if done manually. Adaptivity, integrated authoring tools, and ease of use are features that compliment the new styles of eLearning delivery by making the LMS administrator’s job easier or automating the process altogether with programmed algorithms.

While these trends appear to benefit LMSs across many different industries, specific styles of LMSs are evolving for distinct use cases.

Styles of LMSs

Categorizing LMS styles can be tricky because there isn’t a flat set of categories that capture the various types of LMSs; instead there seem to be certain areas of functionality that differentiate them. A style of LMS describes an overall evaluation of an LMS based on these suggested areas of functionality. There isn’t a single “best” solution for every situation. Instead, each LMS tends to perform better in some areas than others based on the use cases that they are adapted to.

In each area of functionality, it is best to consider a scale of how well the LMS executes each piece instead of a simple yes or no answer. The rating should assess how well that function is handled by the system: usability of the end product, effectiveness in achieving learning outcomes, ease of administration, fitness to your organization, and more.

Content Style

  • External content (SCORM, xAPI): content is created and edited externally and embedded or linked by the LMS.
  • Internal content (HTML): content is created as HTML and saved in an LMS database and is editable from within the LMS.

Content Assignment

  • Dynamic Assignment: content is assigned to the learner based on programmed rules.
  • Manager Assignment: content is manually assigned to learners by an manager or administrator.
  • Learner Assignment: learners select the content they want to access.

Content Structure

  • Monolithic: content is arranged into large courses that take a significant amount of time to complete.
  • Modular Learning Objects: content is stored as individual modules that can be arranged into a hierarchy.

Management Structure

  • Single Organization: users are either learners or administrators within a single, hierarchical structure.
  • Distributed Responsibility: access levels can be broken into a combination of roles (learners, managers, authors, admins, etc) and responsibilities can be distributed within “bubbles” of users.

Custom Features

  • Scheduling: the ability to schedule events with a time and place.
  • Ecommerce: the ability to perform payment transactions online to access content or services.
  • Announcements:the ability to share announcements or news on the system.
  • Discussion Forums:the ability to start discussion threads and post questions, comments, or replies.

Styles of eLearning

eLearning styles cover how the content is presented, the interface used to navigate through the content, and the process of completing the content. These patterns arise from common practices in online training; some focus more on video content while others on readings and documentation. The styles applied are the ones best suited to the content of the program.

As with styles of LMSs, it’s better to consider how well each eLearning style is executed instead of a yes or no answer. The rating of each style of content should consider: the effectiveness on learning outcomes, the usability of the end result, the ease of authoring and maintenance of the content, and more.

  • Slides: content is broken up into slides that are roughly the aspect ratio of a computer screen. Each slide contains enough content to maintain relatively consistent sizes of slides. Content is presented in the form of text, images, videos, audio clips, questions, etc. Users click a next/previous button to navigate through the content. Slides were made popular by classroom training often stored as slideshow presentations.
  • Video series: a series of videos are presented one at a time. On each page, the video is presented as the main piece of content but sometimes metadata is included in the area surrounding the video player. Users watch each video and click the next/previous button to navigate through the content. Interactive content like quizzes can be interspersed through a course but the content is primarily video based. Paginated videos were made popular by applying interface features of video players to online training formatted as videos.
  • Long page: content is made up of different kinds of elements combined to form a long page. Elements can include videos, images, interactive pieces, questions, and more. Users scroll through the content from top to bottom. There can be multiple long pages in a course but each long page covers a particular topic and isn’t restricted by page length. Long pages gained popularity for mixing interactive elements with multimedia elements and the adoption of tablets and phones as learning devices.
  • Documents: content is provided through downloadable documents such as videos or PDF files. Sharing documents was an important way to deliver eLearning before browsers and devices could support more multimedia rich content.
  • Full interactive: all navigation of the content is handled through a single consistent interface that also handles delivery of multimedia and interactive activities (such as in a game or simulation). Fully interactive training has been applied in educational video games and interactive documentaries.

Evaluating LMS Styles

The LMS industry has gained traction in many industries and has continued evolve in each environment. We believe there are universal trends that are emerging and becoming the new must-have features to run a modern training system. In addition, we also see styles of LMSs and eLearning that are adapting to fit their use cases.

Selecting an LMS has never been about finding the best overall system, but now more than ever with the extreme variety of LMS styles, the most important thing to consider is fitness in your specific operations and culture. Below, we suggest a criterion that can be used in addition to your business requirements that evaluate an LMS from an instructional design perspective.

Basic features: these features are the core learning management features that allow you to deploy an online training program. It’s important to ensure these features line up with the training program you plan on implementing and its interactions with other business operations.

Trending features: these are the state-of-the-art features that every organization can utilize and are beginning to see significant traction in the industry but have not yet become ubiquitous. Trending features allow you to benefit from the latest innovations and stay relevant into the future.

LMS Styles: each LMS may excel in certain areas but struggle in others. Having a detailed vision and knowing what you want to build early on means being able to ensure your LMS strengths line up with your needs.

LMS Custom Features: these features are specific requirements that you may or may not need but are not universally required. Sometimes, these features may be important enough for your project that they override other factors.

eLearning styles: these styles determine how a learner will experience the eLearning content. It helps to plan out the types of courses and learning objects you are going to publish in the early stages of your design and assess an LMS based on how it can accommodate your vision.

Suggested LMS Criterion

Basic Features  
Elearning deliveryHow well eLearning delivery is handled. 
Progress trackingThe depth and detail of records being stored. 
ReportingHow well reporting is handled. 
Trending Features  
PersonalizationThe ability to personalize content for an individual. 
AdaptivityThe ability to personalize content automatically and intelligently based on user inputs. 
Micro-learningThe ability to organize content into small, searchable, reusable chunks. 
Integrated authoring toolsThe ability to edit content directly in the online system. 
Ease of useHow easy the system is to use for all users. 
LMS Styles  
Content style  
InternalContent is edited and stored within the system. 
ExternalContent is edited with external tools. 
Content Assignment  
Dynamic assignmentContent is assigned automatically based on programmed rules 
Manager assignmentContent is assigned by a manager or admin 
Learner assignmentContent is selected by the learner 
Content Structure  
MonolithicContent is structured into large blocks 
ModularContent is divided into small blocks that can be organized into a hierarchy 
Management Structure  
Single organizationAccess is organized around one set of learners and admins. 
DistributedAccess can be distributed to groups of users with specific permissions within each group. 
Custom Features  
SchedulingThe ability to schedule class or events. 
EcommerceThe ability to perform payments online to grant access. 
GamificationSystems to reward and show progress. 
NotificationsThe ability to send communications through the LMS. 
eLearning Styles  
SlidesContent is broken up into slides of a standard size that contain text and multimedia. 
Video seriesContent is primarily delivered as videos with activities interspersed. 
Long pageContent is made up on multimedia on a scrollable page. 
DocumentsContent is made up of downloadable documents. 
Full interactiveContent is delivered through a single interface as a game or simulation. 


The “basic” LMS, a tool that helps organizations deliver, track, and report on eLearning, is now a mission critical part of almost all businesses. In general, businesses look for tools that perform the core functionality well and not for peripheral features. Common trends in the space are improving the way LMSs perform their roles by focusing on personalization, adaptivity, micro-learning, integrated authoring tools, and ease-of-use. Additionally, the styles of LMSs have evolved to meet different needs in different use cases.

A criterion that takes into account these factors can be used to help categorize and identify fitness of an LMS for a specific audience and ultimately select the most suitable product. The criterion provided in this paper helps consolidate these considerations and evaluate the current slate of LMSs for fitness in both and short and long term. While these considerations are certain to change in the future, we hope they provide a useful tool when exploring the current market.

Declunkifying Your LMS

It’s common for an LMS to take on a bit of clunkiness through development, right at launch or as more courses and programs launch on the system. Clunkiness is a general feeling that something on the system is not right and it is not as smooth as it could be. It can sometimes be hard

I’ve run across clunky LMSs that technically achieved it’s stated goals and where the content isn’t really that bad but you would still describe the experience as “clunky”. This can be frustrating when you feel like you completed all the original goals but the project still feels unfinished. Doesn’t everyone want their LMS to be quick, slick, and intuitive? The tricky thing is that training programs rare complex systems with many pieces and possibilities for diagnosing a problem.

Here are a few ideas on where to look when trying to declunkify your LMS.

Too many functions, are you focused on learning?

It can be tempting to add too many features at once into a training site. Although the focus should be on training, it’s easy to start throwing in distracting features once the project gets going. Contests, portals, special events, even vacation days are things we have seen added to learning management systems. Be careful because these features, although useful, can add clunk to your system!


Keep functions to a minimum and try to focus on learning. It might not be the most exciting but when users log in to an LMS and all they can do is access learning content, it’s hard for them to get lost.

Launch new features over time, after previous features have been accepted by the general population. Try not to overwhelm learners who likely have many other things to worry about.

Navigation, categories, and searchability

Content can fill up quickly in an LMS and no matter how carefully the metadata and categories have been organized, it gets to be a bit of a mass. For learners, struggling to find the work that they are forced to do is an extra layer of frustration they could live without.


Use consistent title, name, and category formats. Categorize and tag all your content. Organize content in the order that users are expected to completed it (left to right, top to bottom).

Ideally, provide search functionality so that users have multiple ways to get to their destination.

Get rid of “checklists of checklists”, usually these are documents that list “everything you have to do” but end up referencing other lists of “everything you have to do”. Instead, try to organize content in a natural way that learners should access them.

Avoid training on how to do the training. If the steps to do training is so complicated that it requires a training course, it might require simplification instead of more training.

Look and Feel.

Company cultures can differ wildly and each company has their own way of working. This means different expectations, visuals, lingo, processes, relationships, and more. Do these things match your company’s culture and processes? If not, users might experience these discrepancies as “clunkiness”.


Plan design styles (graphics, writing, etc) that fit your company. Build your content to match real programs that are part of your company culture.

Collect information from your stakeholders.

Use guiding text and images, communication to steer your learners in the right direction.

User Testing

User testing is a key step in implementing your LMS. Even if the LMS has been deployed in many companies already, you need to know that it fits YOUR company with YOUR training programs loaded.


Test with members of your target audience. There are many different methods for user interface testing but in general the point is to have members of your target audience to perform basic operations on the system and record their experience.

Are they accessing content the way you planned or are they finding another route? Are there key misunderstandings? Is there enough communication to help them find their way around?


An LMS can end up feeling clunky even if you did everything right in the design and building stages. Don’t let that get you down, it happens to lots of people. The important next step is to start looking for why users find the system clunky. These might not be obvious right away (otherwise it probably would have been caught during planning and development) and it’s important to keep an open mind (because the issue might not be something you expect). It can take time to identify the things that make your system feel “clunky” but it is worth it!

Opinion: 3 Common Attitudes of Instructional Designers

Instructional designers, like everyone else, have tendencies and habits and I can’t help but notice commonalities between them. Ultimately the goal of elearning is to teach something but there are just so many ways to do it and everyone brings their own background and experiences with them.

In this regard, I often see these three attitudes of instructional designers out in the field and thought it would be interesting to compare notes with the community!

Continue reading Opinion: 3 Common Attitudes of Instructional Designers

Technical Knowledge Instructional Designers Didn’t Know They Needed: Servers and Clients

One of the things I enjoy about working as both an instructional designer and as a programmer is using technical knowledge to come up with new instructional design solutions and showing them to other instructional designers. While technical knowledge is not a must-have in an instructional design role, it definitely helps when planning an organization-wide training program or trying to use the right terms at an I.T. meeting.

In this post we’ll cover the idea of web servers and clients, one of the key concepts of the world wide web, and how it impacts the development of Elearning.

Continue reading Technical Knowledge Instructional Designers Didn’t Know They Needed: Servers and Clients

What’s the Deal with Tin Can and xAPI?

The first thing to get out of the way when we discuss Tin Can or Experience API (xAPI) is that they are the same thing. “Project Tin Can” was just the name of the original research project that resulted in xAPI. So that’s one less term you need to look up. xAPI is a standard format for communicating and storing learning data. It tells everyone what data to store and how to write it down whenever a learner completes a learning experience. Storing individual experiences, not just quiz scores, is the driving factor of xAPI and Tin Can. But where does xAPI fit with the rest of the educational technologies out there including SCORM? Is it a replacement for SCORM? We’ll find out more as we dig into this topic!

Continue reading What’s the Deal with Tin Can and xAPI?

Build vs Buy: Learning Management Systems

It’s a question I’ve been asked many times as an elearning consultant and as a developer: is it better to build your own LMS or buy one off the shelf? Having worked in organizations that bought, built, and eventually sold LMSs, I’ve been lucky to see some of the good and bad outcomes from each case. Let’s take a look at each option and see when they might be appropriate.

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5 Tips for Instructional Designers Without Formal Training

It is becoming more and more common for businesses to dedicate specialized resources to organizational learning. As such, more workers are getting degrees in fields such as educational technology, educational psychology, instructional design and more to fill this need. A degree, diploma, or certificate in an education related field, while very useful, is not necessary to work in instructional design. In fact, some of the best educators I have had a chance to work with did not have formal training but were experts in their own field that adapted to an educational role through experience and self-study.

Here are some tips if you are working in an instructional design role without formal training. These are attitudes and approaches that often come as a result of formal training that might not be explicitly stated.

Continue reading 5 Tips for Instructional Designers Without Formal Training

ELearning and Scaffolding

Making your eLearning materials interactive always sounds great at the beginning of a project. Interactivity has become synonymous with engaging and fun. But there’s a catch—interactivity can be very tricky to execute, especially if you don’t have a deliberate and realistic design to implement right at the start. How should we design eLearning materials that are also interactive?

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CMS vs LMS: What’s the Difference?

Ever since the internet came and took over our lives and our work, programmers have been creating online management systems. Customer relationship management, content management, learning management, and so on. Each management system did something unique that made it specialized for its purpose. But the number of systems that became available diluted the meaning and made it hard for users and organizations to determine what’s best for them. Let’s take a quick look at Learning Management Systems (LMS) and what makes them specialized for learning apart from other management systems such as Content Management Systems (CMS).

Continue reading CMS vs LMS: What’s the Difference?

What’s the Deal with SCORM?

Everyone working in Elearning should be aware of SCORM and xAPI even if you don’t work directly with elearning tools or code. That’s because SCORM (and xAPI) is not a specific tool or technology but a big-picture set of standards that ensure elearning content is shareable and reusable.

Continue reading What’s the Deal with SCORM?