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.
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
- Email notifications
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
|Elearning delivery||How well eLearning delivery is handled.|
|Progress tracking||The depth and detail of records being stored.|
|Reporting||How well reporting is handled.|
|Personalization||The ability to personalize content for an individual.|
|Adaptivity||The ability to personalize content automatically and intelligently based on user inputs.|
|Micro-learning||The ability to organize content into small, searchable, reusable chunks.|
|Integrated authoring tools||The ability to edit content directly in the online system.|
|Ease of use||How easy the system is to use for all users.|
|Internal||Content is edited and stored within the system.|
|External||Content is edited with external tools.|
|Dynamic assignment||Content is assigned automatically based on programmed rules|
|Manager assignment||Content is assigned by a manager or admin|
|Learner assignment||Content is selected by the learner|
|Monolithic||Content is structured into large blocks|
|Modular||Content is divided into small blocks that can be organized into a hierarchy|
|Single organization||Access is organized around one set of learners and admins.|
|Distributed||Access can be distributed to groups of users with specific permissions within each group.|
|Scheduling||The ability to schedule class or events.|
|Ecommerce||The ability to perform payments online to grant access.|
|Gamification||Systems to reward and show progress.|
|Notifications||The ability to send communications through the LMS.|
|Slides||Content is broken up into slides of a standard size that contain text and multimedia.|
|Video series||Content is primarily delivered as videos with activities interspersed.|
|Long page||Content is made up on multimedia on a scrollable page.|
|Documents||Content is made up of downloadable documents.|
|Full interactive||Content 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.