What Is a Learning Management System (LMS)?

What Is a Learning Management System (LMS)?
Resources

What Is a Learning Management System (LMS)?

If you’re just beginning to investigate online training, you may have run across the term learning management system, which is often shortened to LMS. A learning management system, along with eLearning courses, is central to online training.

In this article, we’ll introduce you to the learning management system, explain what it is, discuss key features and benefits, and give you some tips for learning even more.

The LMS: A Web-Based Software Application to Manage Your Training Program

A learning management system is a web-based software application that’s used to manage and administer training programs for companies, educational institutions, professional organizations, and more.

In the past, organizations would have an LMS solution installed on their own network server, but these days it’s much more common to use cloud-based learning management systems. Cloud-based LMS solutions are much simpler and quicker to set up and update and are also generally easier for users (admins and learners) to access. Customers typically license the use of the LMS on a software-as-a-service (SaaS) model, paying for a certain number of user licenses on a recurrent basis, such as monthly or yearly.

Two Primary Types of Learning Management Systems

There are many—hundreds, in fact—of learning management systems on the market.

In general, those hundreds of learning management systems can be grouped into either of two categories:

  • Academic LMS
  • Corporate LMS

An academic LMS is just what it sounds like—a learning management system used to teach students at academic institutions such as schools and universities. A few well-known academic learning management systems include Blackboard and Canvas.

Corporate learning management systems are what corporations and other businesses use to train employees. This includes common training needs such as onboarding, career pathing, upskilling and reskilling, and compliance training as well as social learning, curation, and self-directed learning. Additionally, some corporate learning management systems include features to help manage ongoing continuing education needs for professional certifications and licenses.

The Vector Solutions LMS is an example of a corporate or job-training LMS.

Additionally, learning management systems can and are sometimes used by professional organizations, by companies providing training to their channel partners, by companies providing training or orientations to visitors, vendors, or contractors, and by companies providing training to customers.

“Generalist” Learning Management Systems & Niche Learning Management Systems

Some corporate learning management systems are designed to try to fit the needs of as many different employers as possible. They may have many features (including features an organization may never use), and they may actually be just one component or module in a much-larger software system. For example, some of these learning management systems might be just one module in a HR software system meant to manage all aspects of the employee lifecycle, from hire to retire.

On the other hand, other learning management systems are purpose-built to match the specific learning needs of a particular type of company or organization. These learning management systems may not have all the features of a larger, generalist LMS, but they may have specific, unique features that are useful to employers in one industry. In addition, user experience and ease-of-use are critical for LMS success with an organization.

For example, Vector Solutions offers purpose-built learning management systems for particular industries, including:

Even with these niche learning management systems, the providers often offer additional software systems that can be integrated with the LMS to create a complete performance ecosystem, including:

It’s not the case that a generalist LMS is better or worse than a niche LMS, or vice versa. This is a determination that organizations make while they’re conducting a search for a learning management system, and the decision should be based on unique organizational factors including the organization’s learning and development needs, performance needs, and other software systems the organization already has in place. But it pays to know about these two options and to consider them carefully.

Primary Features of a Learning Management System

Since there are hundreds of learning management systems, and they all include different features, it’s impossible to create a comprehensive list of all the features an LMS provides. However, nearly all learning management systems (and in particular corporate learning management systems) have the following features:

  • User creation—“batch” import users using an Excel spreadsheet or similar, manually create users, or integrate the LMS with your workplace human resources information system (HRIS) system through an API and automate user creation.
  • Single sign-on support—single sign-on allows a worker to sign in to workplace software systems one time, at the beginning of a shift, and thereby by signed into all other workplace software systems covered by that same single sign-on. Having an LMS that supports single sign-on makes it much easier for a worker to access the LMS and the learning activities inside it, and therefore much more likely they to access and utilize the LMS. It also reduces headaches and lost time at work associated with forgetting usernames and passwords, resetting passwords, and asking LMS administrators for passwords.
  • Organizational hierarchy creation—although this may differ a little from LMS to LMS, most learning management systems provide a manner for you to duplicate your workplace’s organizational hierarchy inside the LMS. This makes it easy for you to later assign training or report on training based on if the worker is part of your organization, or works at a given site, or is in a particular department, or has a specific job role. Or even assign to and report on an individual or a selection or individuals. Additionally, an LMS most likely has a feature that allows you to create custom groups in addition to the units of your organizational hierarchy (for example: forklift operators) and then assign training to that group or run a report about the training progress of that group.
  • User profile information—an LMS should allow you to add additional information about the users inside your LMS. This might include things like their photo, department, and more.
  • Importing training materials/content—most workplaces already have a large number of training activities, and in many cases these are in formats such as .PDF, PowerPoint presentations, videos (in formats such as .MP4), web pages, resources hosted in SharePoint, self-created elearning courses (more on this below), eLearning courses created by training providers, and more. Most any LMS has tools to allow you to import these training materials and activities so you can turn around and (1) assign them to employees or otherwise make them available and then (2) grant credit to employees who have completed them.
  • Create training materials—learning management systems also almost always include features to help you create training materials and activities that your employees can complete—usually online, although read the point about instructor-led classroom training below as well. This often includes things like online quizzes for workplace training assessments, online “standard operating procedures” that can be used as a training activity or for assessment of the performance of a work task, surveys, online discussion boards, and more.
  • Manage classroom-style instructor-led training—although you might think of online training when you first think of learning management systems, the stand-out LMS solutions also helps your organization manage face-to-face training, including but not limited to instructor-led classroom training. You should be able to create classroom sessions, schedule them for particular dates and times and in particular rooms, select and notify instructors, create self-registration processes for learners as well as assign the class to users, and more.
  • Manage virtual instructor-led training—likewise, a learning management system should provide support for virtual instructor-led training (which you might think of as live online instructor-led training through a “webinar-like” tool). This might mean the virtual instructor-led platform is part of the LMS, or that it’s integrated into the LMS through an API, or that it’s easy to create the virtual class in a separate video conferencing system and then import the link into the LMS (and then assign it). But it’s important not to overlook this workhorse of workplace training, which became only more popular during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Check out our article on virtual instructor-led training for more tips on this).
  • Assign training to workers—any LMS provides tools you can use to assign training to workers. This may mean assigning training to an individual, to a hand-selected set of individuals, or to people who work in specific “nodes” of your organization (for example: the whole organization, a site, a department, a team, a job role, etc). It should also mean assigning training to custom groups. But training assignments aren’t always just about getting training to workers—in some cases, and in particular when it comes to compliance training, things like due dates, training expiration dates, training recurrence dates, and similar issues are essential. If these issues are important in your organization, and in particular if you have compliance training requirements to manage, look for features to address these issues.
  • Granting training completion records to learners for completing training—the LMS should automatically grant completion credit to learners when they complete some forms of training—such as passing an online quiz, reading a .PDF, watching a video, or completing an eLearning course (which often includes some form of assessment at the end). In other cases, the LMS should allow you to manually create these completion records, like when a learner attends and completes an instructor-led training session. One tip is to look out for ways the LMS might make it easier to automate that manual completion credit creation process.
  • Storing completion records—your LMS should store those completion records and make it easy to retrieve them when you need to.
  • Running reports—an LMS should also enable you to run reports on training. This includes running a report when you need it, sending a report to a coworker, or even having the LMS automatically generate fresh/current reporting data and emailing it to you or other coworkers every recurrently (daily/weekly/monthly).

Learning Management Systems, eLearning Courses, and SCORM

As we’ve discussed above, organizations can use a learning management system to assign all sorts of training activities to their workers. However, it’s very common for organizations to include eLearning courses as part of the training library within their LMS, and in fact those eLearning courses may be a significant portion of the training activities in the LMS.

To make a simple analogy, if you’re familiar with Netflix and its many movies, a learning management system can and often does have many eLearning courses.

Even if you’re not sure what an eLearning course is (by name), you’ve probably seen and even completed one. An eLearning course is the most common form of online workplace training and often includes content, practice questions, and a quiz. It also should have the ability to communicate back-and-forth with the LMS on things like how the learner answered specific questions and whether or not the learner passed the test.

One thing to know about the communication that happens between eLearning courses and an LMS is that it happens through specific eLearning standards or specifications. Basically, this is a fancy way to talk about a pre-arranged way for the eLearning course and the LMS to communicate together, and (to date myself) it’s kind of like the way Beta and VHS tapes could play with specific videotape players or these days the ways that specific video files only work with specific video players.

So, to bring this back to learning management systems and eLearning courses, here’s a run-down of at-least-most of the common eLearning standards that allow an eLearning course and an LMS:

  • AICC: this is an older standard, it’s makers no longer support it, but AICC courses are still utilized.
  • SCORM: this is the industry standard, and most courses are in this format. There are actually several types of SCORM, but SCORM 1.2 is by far the most common.
  • xAPI: this was once known as “next-generation SCORM” and also “Tin Can.” Nonetheless, it’s a meaningful standard with some nice features, but it’s not currently as common as SCORM is.
  • cmi5: combines many of the nice features of xAPI and SCORM; however, it is not as common.

Learning Management Systems, Learning Experience Programs, and Learning Record Stores

It’s been quite some time since learning management systems debuted on the scene, and these days there are some similar products, spin-offs, etc. But to the uninitiated, it can be a little hard to keep track of them all.

This article focuses on learning management systems, so we won’t spend too much time on learning experience Programs (LXP) or Learning Record Stores (LRS). And some say there’s not much difference between some of these and it’s mostly a marketing tactic. But here’s are a few points about LXPs and LRSs:

  • Learning Experience Programs (LXP): These are somewhat like an LMS, but they focus more on training content curation, social learning, and (most recently, it seems) skill tracking and development.
  • Learning Record Stores (LRS): This is a software application specifically built to handle the data from xAPI learning objects. An LRS can be separate from an LMS, can be integrated into an LMS, or can be “built into” an LMS.

How to Begin Your Search for an LMS

The best way to start searching for an LMS is to begin by asking yourself what you or your organization needs from an LMS. Sound simple and basic, sure, but a lot of people forget this and just start the search without first thinking about how that future LMS can help support their organization’s learning and development and performance needs.

We suggest that you involved a diverse team of people from your organization and get input from all of them. This includes people from HR, L&D, production and/or operations, IT, and the workers asked to use the LMS to complete training. Keep in mind that studies show over and over again that diversity tends to lead to better organizational decision-making.

Once you’ve assembled an LMS search team, then begin asking what it is your organization hoping this LMS will do, how it fits into your L&D program, and how it can support your performance needs. Consider you current and future needs and begin your research.

Key Features to Look for in an LMS

There are many features your organization might value, and you’ll best discover those by working together with the team members you assembled as we just discussed.

But there are a few very common things that often have an outsized-influence on whether an LMS adoption succeeds or fails at an organization. We’ve listed these below for special consideration:

  • User experience—this is probably the biggest, most important issue of all. If your LMS is easy to use and understand for both learners, instructors, and administrators, it’s likely to work well for you. If it’s difficult to understand, it’s likely to not work well. A learning management system is all about helping people learn how to acquire knowledge, develop skills, and work more productively—nobody wants the additional burden of having to learn how to use a complicated, non-intuitive software program on top of that.
  • Reporting—tracking training completion and reporting are foundational, essential aspects of an LMS. If the reporting capabilities are simple and robust, your organization, LMS administrators, managers, and supervisors are more likely to benefit from it. Weaker reporting capabilities are a definite problem.
  • Integration with other workplace software systems—this may not seem as obvious, but it’s a huge advantage if an LMS can be integrated with and pass data back-and-forth with other workplace software system. This is most-especially true of your LMS and HR software (HRIS). An LMS-HRIS integration, for example, can help automate training assignments to newly hired workers based on job roles, automatically change training assignments when workers enter new job roles within your organization, and more.

Training Platforms

In addition to hearing about things like LMS, LRS, and LXP, you’ll sometimes hear people talking about training platforms.

A training platform is a combination of a learning management system, eLearning courses, and mobile learning applications, all focused for specific industries.

For example, Vector Solutions offers training platforms for the AEC industry, for the Facilities Management and Maintenance industry, for the Industrial and Manufacturing industry, and for the Mining industry.

Where You Can Learn More about Learning Management Systems (LMS)

We’ve listed three great books about learning management systems, finding the right one for your organization, and using the LMS below:

The LMS Guidebook: Learning Management Systems Demystified by Steve Foreman
LMS Success:  A Step-by-Step Guide to Learning Management Systems by Katrina Maria Baker
The LMS Selection Checklist by Katrina Maria Baker

Additionally, we think you’ll find the two following resources from Vector Solutions helpful:

How Vector Solutions Can Help

If your organization needs training help, especially in putting your training online, in getting up-and-running with an LMS, and in creating measurable learning and performance improvements with your workforce, we’re always ready to talk. Contact us to begin the conversation.

 

Jeff Dalto, Senior Learning & Performance Improvement Manager
Jeff is a learning designer and performance improvement specialist with more than 20 years in learning and development, 15+ of which have been spent working in manufacturing, industrial, and architecture, engineering & construction training. Jeff has worked side-by-side with more than 50 companies as they implemented online training. Jeff is an advocate for using evidence-based training practices and is currently completing a Masters degree in Organizational Performance and Workplace Learning from Boise State University. He writes the Vector Solutions | Convergence Training blog and invites you to connect with him on LinkedIn.

Contact us for more information