Image with text spelling out LMS and learning management system + more

What is an LMS? (Definition and Examples)

What is LMS Software?

An LMS or learning management system is software that helps deliver your training material in a way that makes it easily accessible to your students. An LMS structures the content, offers a central login area for students, and provides an admin area for user management as well as course management.

The shortest definition of an LMS is … it’s software to help create, deliver, and manage online training.

An LMS is also often called an online course platform, online course builder, or course creation solution.

There’s both a front-end and a back-end component to an LMS.

The front-end component is what the user sees.

This includes the pages that describe what the course is about as well as a way to enroll. If the course requires a fee, then the LMS should at the very least integrate with a means for taking the payment. If the course is free, then the LMS must should provide a way for users to enter in their information (name, email address) to sign up.

Another aspect of the front-end is the login page for existing users. Once logged in, users will be able to access all the course content that they signed up for.

The back-end is the admin area for the administrator(s) and instructor(s) of the course.

The admin area allows for easy uploading and organization of the course content. It also allows for management and often progress tracking of the users.

Table of Contents

Benefits of an LMS

Organization of Learning Materials

You can put together a great suite of learning materials, but they must be organized and presented in a meaningful way to make the most impact. Learning management systems will force you to put your materials together in a ‘start here, then go here’ way.

With an LMS, you’ll typically organize materials into a module/lesson format. A module is like a chapter and a lesson is the content within it. To fit your content into the structure of an LMS, you’ll need to have your materials broken down into modules and then have lessons within each module. Often, an online course built on the LMS structure will offer quizzes after each module. This helps ensure learners are progressing and retaining the material.

Monitor Progress

Making sure learners understand and retain the material in the course is one of the key benefits of an LMS. You can give learners quizzes and assessments with built-in tools. You can also present their score in addition to allowing administrators to track scores from the admin. Learners should be able to go back and see how they did on the different assessments.

In addition to quizzes and assessments, an LMS should allow learners to mark a lesson off as complete.  As the lessons are marked off as complete, a progress bar will start moving closer to 100%. Some learning management systems will set minimum time limits where the user cannot mark a lesson as complete until he or she spends a certain amount of time on the lesson.

Personalization

Each user has their own account which displays their progress as well as records scores on any quizzes or assessments.

Some learning management systems allow users choices as to how they progress throughout the course(s). That means learners can have individualized training depending on where they’re at with the material and where they’d like to be.

Accessibility

Your learners can access the training from anywhere in the world as long as they have an Internet connection and a login. There are no limitations due to geography. As long as your training is cross-device friendly, your learners can access it from device including desktops, laptops, tablets, and Smartphones. An LMS helps make all this possible.

Who Needs an LMS?

Anyone who’s offering online training may need an LMS. Examples include the solo entrepreneur with the knowledge to impact others along with large corporations training their employees.

The following is a non-exhaustive list along with examples of how different entities might use an LMS.

Human Resources

A corporation can automate most on-boarding of a new hire through an LMS. Obviously actual staff should help a new hire feel at home by giving them a nice welcome tour and some human interaction. However, human resources rules and regulations can be presented through an online course instead of always having a member of staff present it.

To check that new employees are gaining an understanding of what’s being covered, quizzes can be given. In addition to presenting human resources information, the company history as well as the company mission can be presented in an online training course.

Employee Training

Corporations and even small businesses can use an LMS for employee training and education. Employees can study the material online and at their own pace. Often this works out better and definitely lowers costs versus spending a number of full days in a conference room learning the material.

This type of training can include learning new skills, cover important legal materials, or whatever else is needed. Even a small business like my own can take advantage of putting content online and training an employee or even a freelancer as opposed to sitting down with them and walking through a process. Sometimes one-on-one interaction is not even possible with new hires or freelancers who may not live near-by.

These online training sessions can include a live component (which many online learning platforms can integrate with) or be 100% online.

Often a large corporation will contract out online courses to get their employees up-to-speed on a new skill. They may turn to a business specializing in providing that specific material to corporations. As an example, agile training is the latest trend with software companies. Many companies outsource training of their employees to outside vendors who already have the training online and ready to go.

Employees can also help put courses together if it’s appropriate. That way when they leave and/or new members come on board they can get up-to-speed faster than they would if they had to review a confusing collection of documents all strung together.

Traditional Schools

Who hasn’t heard of the college student or professional taking online classes through a college or university?

Students don’t have to attend an actual classroom anymore. Instead, they can take virtually any course topic through an online course. People can even get law degrees and degrees in health-care online. These are all offered through you guessed it … learning management systems.

Professional Certifications

Want to start on the road to a new career?

You may need to take an exam or gain a professional certification. Instead of going through a school (which may not even provide what you need), you can find an online course to help you. A couple of examples include NCLEX review courses and Six Sigma Certifications.

There are thousands of professional certifications you can gain through online training to boost your career.

General Knowledge

Do you want to lose 10 lbs, get in shape, or learn to read faster? Many knowledgeable business owners have put together online courses on these and virtually every other topic imaginable.  Simply tap into the expertise available at your fingertips and transform yourself into the best version of you. All this is often accomplished through online learning management systems.

On the flip side, while you can enjoy (I use that loosely if you’ve ever sat through HR training) any of these from a user point of view and may have already done so, you can be the creator too.

You simply need the knowledge (or the desire to gain that knowledge), the time to put your course together, and an LMS. Turn the tables, and you can be the instructor.

Types of LMS Users

Within the breakdown above, there are 3 main types of LMS users. These are enterprise, small to medium businesses, and freelancers. Each may have different requirements when looking for an LMS. The ability to scale, collaborate with others, diversity in training, and other feature sets will be more of a priority for each type of LMS user.

In addition, the exact needs also vary depending on the type of training each is offering.

This is all part of the reason why there are hundreds if not thousands of learning management systems on the market today.

What Exactly Does an LMS Do?

An LMS allows you to deliver your learning material online and organize it so your students or users can access it in a way that makes the most sense.

It also allows you as the administrator to manage your students including enrollments, progress tracking, and other aspects of management.

Delivery of Course Material

This is where the “L” or “Learning” comes into LMS. As mentioned, online courses typically consist of modules broken down into lessons.

The lessons in an online course can be video (which is frequently the preferred method to deliver information). The content can also be text, audio, PDF files, slideshows, or anything else.

The main thing is the LMS allows you a central location to deliver those files and helps you deliver them in a structured, organized way.

Since you don’t want everyone to have access to your course, the LMS only allows access to those who have registered (and often paid). That means the content is gated and cannot be seen by everyone.

An LMS automates the sign-up process and manages usernames and passwords. It integrates with a payment processor and allows emails to be sent to students and/or integrates with email marketing automation tools.

User Management

This is where the “M” for “Management” comes into LMS.

Once your course content is created and you have a way to enroll new students, the LMS must also help you assess student progress.

This is often accomplished by offering quizzes or assessments. Often a quiz or assessment will be required after your students complete a module.

An LMS should provide quizzes as well as score tracking capabilities. Both students and the instructors should be able to monitor student progress. In addition, progress tracking can help the instructors improve their course (for instance if they know no one is watching all of a particular video, they may consider improving it).

An LMS can also provide a means for students to interact with each other as well as the instructor. So that may mean holding webinars or online conferences. To keep it simple, an online discussion forum or comment capabilities can be enabled. Some courses will need more advanced features, others will prefer simple commenting capabilities.

An LMS should also scale and handle all this for as few as 10 students up to 10,000 students (or more if your course is really popular). That includes taking payments and online registrations as well as allowing a large range of students to stream videos and take part in discussions.

Deployment of the Software

This is where the “S” for “System” comes into LMS. It’s the web software package that pulls all these features together.

How are LMS Platforms Deployed?

There are two main ways LMS platforms are deployed. You can use a self-hosted LMS or a hosted (or cloud based) LMS. I’ll go through each here …

Self-Hosted LMS

Self-hosted solutions are web applications you install and maintain on your own server. You’ll need to be responsible for backing up your data which includes the content side as well as the user side and any progress tracking.

Often you purchase either a one-time license or an annual license for a self-hosted software solution. An annual (or sometimes monthly) license usually entitles you to updates as well as ongoing support.

A self-hosted LMS is often a script you install on your server or a plugin added onto a content management system like WordPress.

Moodle is a popular, free open source LMS.  You can download the Moodle software onto your own server. You can also change the look and feel of your Moodle site with themes. In case you were wondering how it got its name, Moodle stands for modular object-oriented dynamic learning environment.

WordPress is not an LMS specifically. Instead, it’s a very popular content management system (or CMS). WordPress is such a popular CMS that plugins exist to convert it into virtually anything including an online course platform. There are a number of WordPress LMS plugins for you to choose from.

Moodle vs WordPress

You can have an entire debate about whether Moodle or WordPress is better as an LMS. I’ve tried Moodle (this was at least 12 years ago so my experience may not count at this point). All I know is it was a disaster for me. There is no way I could have got that running (believe me, I tried as back then, there was nothing else).

Maybe Moodle is easier to use now, but it seems to be the general consensus that it does require some programming. Therefore, you may need to hire a developer skilled in Moodle or be prepared to spend a fair amount of time learning how to get it up and running. It’s definitely not as easy to use as WordPress.

On the flip side, since WordPress is a content management system, it’s primary function is to manage posts and pages (which can form the basis of an online course). For WordPress to function as a an online course platform, you’ll need at least an LMS plugin and maybe even a few other add-ons. Plugins and add-ons only drag the site speed down. With every integration and new plugin added you increase the chance for incompatibility which can ultimately break the system.

Moodle is an LMS first and foremost so it offers more features. The plugins were created to work together so there shouldn’t be incompatibility issues. In addition, Moodle will scale better than WordPress.

Another negative though is that Moodle doesn’t look sleek and professional. There are tons of WordPress themes that look great. With WordPress you can definitely create a beautiful front-end for your courses as well as for the course area.

Moodle is free. So you’ll only need to pay for your hosting. WordPress is free, but the LMS plugins and any extensions or add-ons you may need will cost you. Often they come with an annual (or sometimes even monthly) fee for updates and supports.

Cloud or Hosted LMS

With a cloud LMS, the software is already hosted for you. You simply sign up and start using it. A cloud LMS is often billed as a subscription since it is software as a service (also known as the SaaS model). You pay your monthly subscription for the software to host your content, automatically enroll students, and all the other typical features you expect to see in an LMS.

Specification Support Types

For many small to medium businesses as well as freelancers, content support types are irrelevant.  You do not have to abide by these specifications and many learning management systems will allow you to upload any type of content that makes sense for you.

However, for some corporate training programs, government agencies, and learning institutions, the training content must be SCORM-compliant.

SCORM-2004

SCORM-2004 is a collection of learning standards and specifications for e-learning.  SCORM is a set of requirements for constructing learning management systems and training content so that the content works well with other SCORM-compliant systems.  This way if a corporation, government agency, or institution needs to switch learning management systems, they can do so without much hassle.

In addition, SCORM sets standards for how the learner will go through the course. These standards include features like allowing the user to bookmark where they’re at in the course, test score acceptability standards, and more.

Tin Can API

Also known as Experience API, Tin Can API is the latest evolution to SCORM 2004. More learner features are added into Tin Can like external learning activities. Tin Can also takes mobile learning into consideration.

Top LMS Features

User Experience

First and foremost, your learners should understand how to move through your online course. Where do they start? How do they progress? How can they check their progress? Make sure the system you choose is set-up in a user friendly manner. It should be intuitive and not require lengthy videos just to explain the layout. Most learning management systems offer free demos and trials that you should definitely take advantage of before you buy.

Mobile Friendly Design

It’s important that the LMS you choose works well on any device. This should be a standard feature, but check to make sure you can run through a course created with the LMS you’re testing out on your desktop or laptop just as easily as your Smartphone.

Your learners will appreciate being able to switch devices part of the way through the course and still understand the course layout.

Analytics

Users need to see their progress through the course quickly and easily. Progress bars within the course should convey how much of the course the users have left. If you’re using quizzes or assessments then users need to be able to see their previous scores on all their quiz attempts.

On the flip side, administrators should be able to login and see reports on where specific learners are at in the course. If the course is a paid course, then sales analytics are also helpful.

Certifications

In many cases a certification once the course is completed is expected. If you’re offer corporate training, then the corporation paying for the training will need to see that their employees finished the course. It may be a requirement that employees keep the certificate on-hand.

If you’re offering professional training, then certifications may also be required for learners who complete the course. Make sure these are offered if you need them.

Gamification

Gamification is kind of an extension of certificates. For some courses, gaining an actual certification once the course is completed isn’t necessary, but gaining badges and achievements while they work through the course keeps learners motivated.

Some learning management systems even offer leaderboards where learners can measure their progress and achievements against others. These gamification features are a great way to encourage your learners to keep moving through the course.

Social Learning

Since so many people are on social platforms and have become accustomed to this way of communicating, learning management systems are starting to add in social learning to their platforms. Whether the online course integrates with Facebook, etc … or the LMS offers a social learning experience right within their platform, giving users the ability to connect with each other in a social way is a popular trend.

Social learning can include the ability to follow specific users, friend and unfriend them, add content to the course (beyond just threaded comments), like and share content in the course, and more.

LMS Support

You want to make sure you can get the support you need to create a fantastic learning experience for your users. It’s smart to check-on the modes of customer support offered by the LMS before you commit.

Do they offer live chat or phone support or is it just limited to email support? How long does it take them to get back to you once you submit a support ticket or email? Are the staff knowledgeable?

Better to know before-hand than once you’ve got students enrolled and problems crop up whether the team provides good support.

If you’re shopping for an LMS, I’d suggest figuring out if you want to go with a cloud or self-hosted solution first and then review the choices from there. We offer lots of other articles on this site to help you decide.

If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments below.

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