Whether you’re new to elearning or just looking to build content to be delivered online, you may be wondering if you actually need a learning management system (LMS). Or maybe you’re creating training for your employees and are being encouraged to invest in an LMS.
If you’re a training veteran running a full catalog of online courses, you’ve probably long ago settled this debate for yourself. But if you’re weighing the pros and cons of signing up for an LMS, here's a crash course to help you understand if it’s necessary for your needs.
What an LMS does
So that we’re on the same page, an LMS is a software application that does two things:
First, it lets the learner view online learning with the functionality as intended by the course designer. Courses can incorporate interactive elements, simulation, video, quizzes and so on. The LMS displays these items properly while managing the interactivity (such as marking a quiz question correct or incorrect, knowing what to do next if a learner clicks an interactive element, etc.).
Second, the LMS creates a record of the learner’s experience with the course(s) they take. So it grades quizzes and final exams, records them in a database and keeps a virtual transcript. It can track the learner’s progress in a course, which courses they’ve completed, when they’ve completed them, how they scored and so on.
Today's LMS platforms can support many other features, such as generating certificates of completion, offering e-commerce and shopping cart functions, being accessible from mobile devices, integrating social media, and enabling gamification elements.
What’s the alternative to an LMS? If you don’t have one, how can you offer online training? Essentially, you'd need to treat your e-learning modules as website videos. For example, you could upload MP4 files to your website and anybody accessing it could “watch" a training video. Or you could put the videos in your site’s shopping cart, which would make them available after a learner purchases access or enters a code to gain free access.
The downside of this solution is that interactivity will be reduced to nothing except play and pause, and you won’t have a system to keep track of your learners’ progress and completion. So you won't be able to access data to cross-reference which employees completed their required training.
You might need an LMS if...
1. You need to track individual learners. One of the functions of an LMS is being able to see who is signing up for which courses, how each learner is progressing, and how they’re performing on quizzes and exams. This function is a great help, especially if you’re in an industry that requires training for employees to perform certain parts of their job (think OSHA training, continuing medical education, employee certification or continuing teacher training). If there’s ever a workplace mishap or code violation that requires a governing body to audit the training of your employees or your client’s employees, you'll have easy access to detailed records of everyone who signed up for or completed training.
Training records can also be a legal defense. If an employee files a grievance or lawsuit claiming they were hurt on the job because were never trained the correct way of doing something, you’ll have valuable evidence for your defense.
2. Learners need to sign in to specific courses. An LMS also gives learners access to specific courses and not others. For example, if you have entry-level employees who need to complete all their Tier 1 courses, but all managers need to complete their Tier 1 and 2 courses, you can partition this through your LMS. Or if you're offering courses outside the company, your customers can buy them a la carte or in packages of pre-bundled courses. Although you could create a work-around with password-protected web pages, an LMS makes it easier to set up, monitor and modify access as you go.
Most LMS platforms also let you “push” training to specific learners. So, if you need all employees to complete a new compliance course, your LMS can automatically enroll them in the course and let them know that they need to complete it by a certain date.
3. You have a budget and technical expertise. Investing in an LMS is expensive, and depending on whether you choose to license one for your server, build your own, or license a hosted LMS, there might be significant ongoing costs as well. If you license one and run it on your server, or build and maintain your own, significant technical expertise is required. And no matter how you acquire the LMS, someone still has to administer it, which is an expense and training issue, too. But if you have a budget to support the associated costs, an LMS is well worth it.
You might not need an LMS if...
1. You don’t need to track student progress or completion. Let's say you’re providing education on early detection of cancer. You don’t care who takes it; you just want as many people as possible to learn and benefit from it. And these people will be learning for their own benefit and won’t need to prove to anyone that they completed it.
2. Learning and testing are separate functions or locations: If the learner comes to your site for training and then goes somewhere else for testing (like at an in-person testing center or at their office), you may be able to manage this without an LMS. Sometimes, learners just need to sign up for training before being allowed to sit for the test. For example, you might be providing training to prepare people to sit for a government licensing exam, which they take directly from the agency.
3. You have specific packages of courses that you can group through your shopping cart. If you can provide access to single courses and common bundles of courses that are consistent for a long time, you might be able to set this up through your site's shopping cart and forgo the LMS.
4. Your training is non-interactive. Let’s say all your training requires the learner to review content on their own without interactivity. If your training can be completed just by watching videos hosted on YouTube, Vimeo or other platform, plus reading PDFs, you probably don’t need an LMS. In this case, you’d be better off with a restricted-access system through your shopping cart that lets only these videos and files be viewed by those who have purchased the course.
5. You don’t have a budget. LMS platforms are powerful tools, but they can be expensive. If you don’t have a budget, you’d be better off building your training around not having an LMS. Also, if you’re just getting into building online courses or putting together training for a small group of employees, launching without an LMS may be a wise idea. If your training takes off and you get more demand, you can always migrate to an LMS later. But for now, consider spending your money in the course development process.
And when you decide that you need an LMS, the biggest pitfall to avoid is spending all your budget on the LMS and not having anything left to develop or license courses to put on it. Without courses, the LMS is just an expensive application that serves no purpose.