You've conquered the fax machine. The mobile phone has no secrets from you. You rock a PDA with the best. And you've mastered surfing on this new-fangled word wide web.
Still there are some concepts that elude you, like this LMS thing people keep bringing up in business discussions and dinner parties. You know it's hot stuff, but what it is? Well, today's your lucky day, because that's exactly what we're here to shine light on.
LMS stands short for Learning Management System.
Learning, because you use it to deliver education courses or training programs.
Management, because it helps you organize these courses (create them, change them, assign them to students, grade them, etc).
System, last but not least, is just a fancy word that translates to "software". An LMS is a computer program.
Just like Word helps you write documents and Gmail helps you manage your emails, an LMS is a software program that helps you create, manage and deliver eLearning courses.
An LMS is the "engine" that powers eLearning, and in the most common form it consists of two separate parts:
- A server component that performs the core functionality (creating, managing and delivering courses, authenticating users, serving data and notifications, etc.)
- A user interface that runs inside your browser as a web (like Gmail or Facebook), that is used by administrators, instructors and students.
Anybody who's doing eLearning is using an LMS ― and that includes a whole lot more than just educational institutions.
To give a non-exhaustive list:
- Businesses of all sizes, from large multinational enterprises to small and medium businesses.
- Organizations, from the United Nations to your local co-op, including Non-Government Organizations and non-profits.
- Government agencies and local governments.
- Traditional educational institutions (schools, universities, colleges).
- Online and eLearning based educational institutions (online schools from Khan Academy to Lynda.com).
An LMS can be used for all kinds of learning activities (that's why they put the "L" in the acronym after all). But it's also an invaluable business tool, one that has been embraced by enteprises and organizations big and small.
Here are some of the most common use cases for an LMS platform:
The need to train new employees or teach existing employees new skills is a constant, whether you are an insurance company, a scooter factory, a hospital or a government organization.
With an LMS you can cut down on costs and eliminate business disruptions associated with traditional learning, by letting your employees study the material online and at their own pace.
With eLearning, businesses not only spend less money and effort compared to bringing in specialized instructors to give conventional seminars, but also gain better insights on their employees' progress with integrated monitoring and reporting tools.
The all-important task of onboarding a new hire can be automated and handled easily by an LMS.
You still get to greet them and give them a tour around the office, but all the rest they can study at their own pace (and refer back to it, whenever they need).
An onboarding course can include all the stuff nobody pays much attention to (the message from the CEO, the company's history, etc.), as well as the all-important detailing of their role and responsibilities, information about career advancement opportunities and benefits.
It's also a good place to educate your new hires of your company's employee conduct code, privacy guidelines, and race/sexual harassment policies.
Training your employees is one thing, but learning from them is also important. A knowledge retention program ensures that valuable skills, techniques and information stays with your company when your employees leave or retire.
It's also a good fit for an LMS platform, as you don't want this valuable information to just sit in some document management system that nobody ever checks, but to have it available at all times to train new employees or people coming from other departments.
Last, but not least, an LMS is a good fit for general educational offerings (duh!).
It could be a school selling online lessons, a traditional educational institution supplementing its classroom based courses, a business educating its clients, or even a government agency or NGO helping educate the general population.
In all these forms, and many more, eLearning is here to stay, to the degree that it might be the very future of learning.
An LMS handles the management and delivery of eLearning courses.
Too abstract for you?
Well, an LMS lets you create eLearning content (lessons), organize it into courses, deliver the content (either internally to your business or to a wider internet audience), enroll students to said courses, and, finally, monitor and assess their performance (attendance, grades, etc.).
That, of course, is a high level description of the features that a modern LMS should offer ― useful as a general description, or if you're ever asked that at a quiz show.
If you're interested in a more in-depth description, read on, as we'll go through all these capabilities in more detail.
In order to deliver your eLearning content you first need to add it in your LMS.
You can do this by either creating your course material from scratch (by writing your lessons' content inside the LMS), or by importing existing material (a Word document, a PowerPoint presentation, Wikipedia articles, etc.).
Advanced LMS platforms, such as TalentLMS, let you add course material from various sources and in different formats, and even allow you to incorporate multimedia files (video, audio, graphics, etc.) to your lessons.
Another essential feature related to course creation is the easy inclusion of online assets (from YouTube videos and Wikipedia articles to online presentations and tweets), which lets you leverage the wealth of material available online.
The next step after having created your eLearning material is to organize it.
This can be as simple as offering a single course or as complicated as having multiple courses, departments and student groups operating across several branches.
It all depends on the needs and structure of your business or organization.
An LMS should allow you the freedom to structure your eLearning offering in any way you want.
TalentLMS, for example, gives you a set of organizational tools (courses, groups, categories, skills, branches, etc.) that you can combine in multiple ways and have the ultimate flexibility in how you deliver your lessons, whether you are a multi-national with branches in 20 countries or a small business in a single city.
After you have created and organized your courses, you're ready to deliver them to your learners.
How you go about it depends, again, on the needs and structure of your business or organization.
For example, your courses might be made for a restricted audience ― e.g. for employee training inside your company. Or they might be meant for a wider population, either as a free offering (like in the case of an NGO teaching specific skills to people in developing countries), or as paid courses (e.g. an online school offering web programming courses).
A modern LMS should handle all these cases, allowing you to serve and manage both small and large numbers of students, to have restricted or open enrollment and to be easy to integrate with payment processors for paid courses.
Modern LMS platforms should also be able to cater to mobile devices, with responsive user interfaces, touch friendly interaction and offline accessible modes.
The ability to manage courses and users is what put the "M" in LMS.
As we already covered course management, let's see how an LMS can help you manage your users.
There will be three kind of users to begin with: administrators (the people setting up and configuring your LMS), instructors (the people preparing the lessons and accessing the learners' progress) and students (the people doing the learning!).
In a smaller business or organization the administrator or instructor could be the same person - after all setting up a user friendly LMS like TalentLMS is no more difficult than using Facebook.
As for the learners, those could be your employees (if you are an enterprise, large organization, government agency or private business), or students enrolled to your courses (if you are an educational institution offering lessons to the general public).
Managing those users involves registering them in the LMS, assigning them to courses, interacting with them as instructors, determining what kind of content they are allowed to see, organizing tests and conference sessions, grading them and handling their payments (if you're selling courses).
A good LMS takes the tedium out of these tasks, automating all the repeated actions, and allowing you to perform changes and updates to multiple items (students, courses, etc.) at once.
One of the most important features an LMS offers (and a huge time-saver), is the ability to track and monitor the students' progress in real time.
Whether you're dealing with 10 or 10,000 students, an LMS gives you automated and quick access to course enrollment statistics, attendance records, student grades, and many other performance metrics.
A modern LMS should also include real-time alerts and notifications, for example to let instructors know that a student has submitted his homework, or that an e-conference session is about to begin.
Another must for advanced LMS platforms is reporting, that is, the ability to query and display their data in graphs and charts, allowing you to easily spot trends or issues (and to have something nice to show in your next board meeting).
TalentLMS, for example, allows you to filter your student and course information in multiple ways (e.g. "show me only students from department X enrolled in class A", or "show me the test scores for this particular student"), and get aggregated statistics on them, which you can even export in Excel-compatible format.
We covered the basics of what LMS platforms are and what they do.
There is also some more advanced features that your LMS might or might not do (and if it doesn't, you can always toss it and get TalentLMS). Those are:
- The ability to organize and hold e-conference sessions, with multiple students participating through audio and video
- Online whiteboard functionality, so instructors and students can create and share writings and drawings in real time
- The ability to sell courses and integrate with payment processors such as PayPal and Stripe
- The ability to use the LMS with mobile devices (smartphones and tablets), including being able to study when offline
- The ability to integrate with third party systems and exchange data through eLearning standards such as SCORM and Tin-Can
- The ability to use your own branding and/or create custom themes for the LMS user interface
- The ability to extend the platform's features with your own custom scripts and plugins, based on a publicly available and well documented API
Deploying a modern LMS could not be easier, especially compared to most other kinds of enterprise software, which can take a whole IT department to figure out.
In fact in the LMS space there are public cloud as well as privately hosted options, that require no installation whatsoever.
In general there are three deployment options:
Locally deployed (self-hosted) LMS
A self-hosted LMS platform is basically a web application, usually sold as a licensed product, that you get to install and maintain on your own server.
This option requires familiarity with installation procedures, and makes you responsible for things like backing up your data, updating the server software and scaling to more machines. You'll also need to contact the vendor and renew your license after version upgrades.
On the plus side, this setup provides extra flexibility for integrating with your local infrastructure as well as the option to alter its code to fit any special needs your might have.
Private Cloud (hosted LMS)
Halfway between the locally deployed and public cloud options (which we'll see next), you get a secure and private LMS environment that doesn't share resources or code with other businesses, giving you the best possible performance and security.
Installation, monitoring and updates are taken care of for you, while you retain direct access to your LMS to further integrate it with your other infrastructure or customize it.
Cloud based LMS
A Cloud based LMS is one that's made available for you by a third party usually under a subscription model. That's the model of our own TalentLMS.
A Cloud is perhaps the preferred solution for most LMS needs, except if you want total flexibility and the ability to make changes to the eLearning environment.
Installation, updates and server monitoring is taken care of for you by the very team that created your LMS, and your cloud provider might also offer free or paid backups, as well as various upgrade options.
Cloud based options usually come in many different tiers, so you can pick the pricing, performance and feature combination that matches your needs.