There are hundreds of learning management system (LMS) options out there and it can be hard to know which is right for you. Perhaps you’re worried that you’ll spend more than you need to. Or maybe you’ve already tried an LMS and it hasn’t worked out. It’s frustrating.
You have to weigh up the costs, the time commitment necessary and the needs and goals of your organisation. There’s lots to think about for decision-makers.
Our clients regularly ask us for help with choosing the right LMS. So, I’ve set out some of the top things for you to consider when selecting an LMS for your organisation.
Use these questions as a guide and you’ll soon be on the road to finding an LMS that you love.
But why should you listen to me or to any of our advice? Well, we’ve been providing LMS support and training since 2004 and have hosted hundreds of successful installations.
And instead of boring you with jargon about features, we’re all about the benefits and the value for your business.
Before we get into the details, let’s quickly sort out the basics.
What is an LMS?
A Learning Management System (LMS) is an application that enables you to present online learning content to a group of users. An LMS is usually the foundation for all e-learning programmes.
A variety of LMS vendors and providers offer two broad categories of LMS: open-source and proprietary.
An open-source LMS is free of licence costs and may be free for everyone. Those with the right skills can extend the source code and, if they wish, share this for the benefit of everyone in the LMS community.
A proprietary LMS is usually a commercial product specific to an LMS provider, and can be developed and changed only by that provider. The source code is private to them.
LMS features are based on the roles of various types of user, such as learners and administrators. The LMS displays appropriate content to each user and tracks learners’ progress through sections of educational content.
An LMS can also be used to test a learner’s knowledge through quizzes and other interactive content, enabling educators to view reports on performance and assess engagement and progress.
An LMS is often run alongside a website or intranet and can usually be customised to look similar (although the extent of this may be differ).
You should always start by understanding the needs of your organisation. This may seem obvious but it can be all too easy to be swept away by what others are doing. Before you know it, you’re assuming that you need to do the same. But don’t be swayed – focus on doing what’s right for you.
Here are some questions to consider:
- Do I really need an LMS?
- I already have an LMS do I really need to change to another one?
- What do my learners need to do online?
- Which LMS features are essential to me?
- Which LMS features are optional nice-to-haves?
- How quickly do I need to implement the LMS?
The more detail you put into building your list of functional and technical requirements, the easier it will be to understand which LMS meets your needs.
One of the most common questions any business or organisation will ask is about the upfront and ongoing expenditure necessary to install and maintain an LMS.
Naturally, you’re looking for the best LMS software and the best LMS provider to fit your needs. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you need a large budget.
Consider these questions:
- How much will an LMS cost to install and run?
- Is there a cost per user or any other licensing costs?
- What are the ongoing costs from my LMS provider?
- Are there any other hidden costs?
- What are the time costs involved for all the people who need to contribute to implementation and ongoing maintenance?
- Will it be more cost effective for me to self-host or outsource my LMS hosting?
An open-source LMS is usually free. With the right hosting platform and technical skills in place, it’s possible to install and operate an LMS without any additional financial outlay. However, the same could be said of running a website – but that doesn’t mean a good website can be run for free.
If an open source LMS is free, make sure there’s money from somewhere to sustain it. Typical models involve royalties from support partners or subscriptions.
In practice, setting aside a budget for running the right LMS is a sensible investment in serving your users and the needs of your business.
3. Training and Support
If you have good technical skills in your organisation, you may be able to install and maintain your own LMS. If you have any background knowledge of the system inhouse, you might even be able to get up to speed in how to use your LMS. If that’s the case, great.
But what if the technical side isn’t your strength or you have no prior knowledge of the LMS? Can you still run an LMS? Yes!
You don’t need to do everything by yourself, and sometimes it’s easier and cheaper to call on external help to get some or all of the tasks done.
Think about how much training and support you’re likely to need. This is important because it will have an effect on most of the other areas covered in this article.
- How difficult is my chosen LMS to learn and use?
- How complex is the LMS implementation process?
- Are there common onboarding or access issues that will take up a lot of my time?
- How much technical knowledge do I have in my organisation?
- Can I learn what I need alone or would formal training help me?
- What happens if my internal support team isn’t available or can’t do the job?
- Are there specific tasks that I could hand over to an LMS expert?
- Which LMS providers offer the level of support I need?
If you approach an LMS provider to help you, remember to ask for a demo or some other means that confirms that the system suits your needs.
4. Dig deeper
It’s easy to read glossy promotional material and be convinced that an LMS is the perfect choice for your organisation. And while many such marketing claims are perfectly true, it’s less common to see an honest assessment of the limitations of a system.
Before committing to an LMS for your organisation, dig deep and look for any potential problems.
- What are the weak points of the LMS?
- What do users say about the LMS?
- Are there any unbiased reviews of the LMS?
User forums and other sites that include comments and exchanges by users are often the best place to look when you’re trying to assess the real issues people face with using an LMS.
Remember that no LMS is perfect and that some people will raise issues about software that doesn’t work in exactly the way they want it to.
Always refer back to your needs when considering the views of others. What may be a downside for them might be a benefit for you.
No single off-the-shelf product will be entirely right for you, especially if you have lots of requirements. Make sure to keep focused on what’s important by prioritising your feature list as:
- Must have
- Should have
- Could have
Do your homework to make sure you’re aware of any drawbacks that may cause problems for you or your users.
5. Branding and theming
You might have a wonderfully designed website with well-branded content in all your marketing materials and on your social media profiles. (Congratulations if that’s the case.) It’s natural that this sort of coherent approach to visuals will help your organisation stand out.
But what happens if you introduce an LMS that doesn’t give you much control over its design and visuals? You could end up with a system that doesn’t match your brand, giving your audience the wrong impression.
Ideally, you should choose an LMS that can be themed so that it looks like your website. This means users familiar with your site will be better engaged with your learning content. They’ll be more likely to use it, remember it and recommend it to others.
Ask yourself these questions:
- Can the LMS support branded content?
- Which visuals can’t be changed?
- What changes can I make myself?
- Do users have any control over their view of the system?
We like to have freedom over the look and feel of our content, so we recommend an LMS that can be customised and branded to suit our clients.
6. Technical specifications and development
Think about the hosting platform and how much it might need in the way of server resources to handle your LMS implementation. Perhaps you can handle hosting yourself. Or perhaps you’d prefer a more robust option (we offer hosting in ISO 27001 and ISO 9001 certified secure UK data centres, for example).
As well as the here and now of installing and running your LMS, you need to plan for the future. Technology changes quickly and so you need to be sure of making a choice that can support your plans for growth. Think about where your organisation might be in 5 or 10 years.
- What server specifications are needed to run my LMS?
- Can my LMS scale if my organisation grows quickly?
- How often are new updates to the LMS released?
- How secure is the data that passes through the system and where is it stored?
- Can data be easily extracted and deleted, to comply with GDPR rules?
- Can we handle backups and disaster recovery ourselves?
If you’re confident that you can handle hosting yourself, take a look at our slightly more technical post about in-house hosting.
The last thing you want is to realise that you’ve made the wrong choice of LMS and then have to switch to a different system or provider.
Still, if your situation changes, you might find yourself needing to move to a different learning platform.
Some eLearning content (SCORM) is designed to be portable and used on any LMS that support SCORM content. If you’re using functionality that’s native to the LMS you’ll probably have to do some manual transfers. You need to know whether your LMS is portable. If it’s built on a proprietary platform, probably not. With an open source LMS you should be able to move your LMS to another support provider.
Some questions to consider:
- Do we have control of all the data?
- How difficult is it to move to a different LMS?
- Are there any contractual or security issues preventing moving the data to another location?
Remember that using an open-source LMS such as Moodle and Totara Learn means there’s no hidden or proprietary code that can’t be moved or reused elsewhere. Perhaps that partly explains why there are approximately 100,000 registered sites using Moodle around the world and over 1,400 Totara Learn sites. Now used by companies such as Sky, Tesco and Sony, Totara Learn was built with enterprise in mind.
There’s no getting away from the fact that implementing an LMS takes time and has a cost. As with any other important decision for your business or organisation, you should be sure of what you’re doing before you invest resources in any new system. That means placing a strong focus on understanding your needs before you loosen the purse strings.
This article has given you some key questions to ask yourself when choosing an LMS. Once you’ve made your choice, you might want to read our article on how to ensure the success of your LMS project.
Fancy improving your LMS knowledge even further? Subscribe now to receive regular advice by email along with updates to our blog.