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Learning Content Management System

A Learning Content Management System (LCMS) provides the flexibility to have your online content organized in ways other than a traditional online course. While not all online learning programs utilize a LCMS, the added functionality is very powerful.

In order to understand the reasons why your program may want to use a LCMS, we have to introduce a few additional terms which are defined in the glossary. The first term is a learning object which is basically a piece of digital content. It might be an entire content item from an online course or it might be a smaller piece of content such as a picture, video clip, or audio clip. The second term is digital content repository which is an online place to store objects (in this case learning objects) so that they may be shared (between different courses, with other people, other organizations, etc.) The final term is Learning Object Repository or LOR. While it may sound like LOR is just a specific type of digital content repository, a LOR also has various administrative and management features related to a Learning Management System. Sometimes the terms LOR and LCMS are used interchangeably. For simplicity we will use the term LCMS but be aware that some vendors will use the term LOR instead.

The basic idea behind a LCMS is that your online content is no longer managed directly by your LMS, but instead by the LCMS. So what is the significance of this change? When content is managed by a LMS, the content is associated with a specific course and a specific unit and content item within that course. If another course wants to use this same content, it can be copied into the other course (with appropriate privileges) but if an update is made in one course, that change isn’t automatically made in the other course. Similarly if you have multiple instances of a course (e.g. you have more than one teacher teaching the course to separate groups of students), each course also has its own copy of the content all of which would need to be updated independently.

When content is managed by a LCMS, the content is not associated with any specific course, but instead is located in the digital content repository of the LCMS which can be thought of as a database of learning objects. With this setup, the content in an online course is made up of individual learning objects from the LCMS. If more than one course is using the same learning object or if multiple course instances exist, they are all accessing the same learning object from the LCMS. If the content needs to be updated, the change can occur automatically for all courses3. Thus the management of content with a LCMS provides an important benefit of being able to share and re-use content. Administrative features of a LCMS control exactly how learning objects are shared. Depending on the LCMS selected, there may be the capability to keep specific learning objects private (not shared at all), shared with a specific group of people (perhaps a department), shared within your school, shared within your district, or perhaps even shared with other organizations.

Another important component of a LCMS is the ability to use meta-data to describe each learning object. For example, a LCMS might have meta-data fields for description (i.e. brief description of the learning object), language (e.g. English, Spanish, Mandarin, etc.), grade level, and subject area (e.g. math, science, language arts, etc.). Once the learning objects are tagged with the meta-data the LCMS will allow users to search for learning objects that meet certain criteria. For example, with the meta-data fields just described, a query could be constructed to find all the high school language arts learning objects that are in English and have Shakespeare in the description. Typically a LCMS will have support for required meta-data fields (fields that have to be completed in order to place a learning object into the repository) and optional meta-data fields.

As stated earlier, the terms LCMS and LOR are often used interchangeably. However, there are some differences in how the terms are often used. More often the term LOR is used to describe a part of a LMS product. Frequently it is an optional part of a vendor’s LMS product and there are additional costs to include the LOR functionality. Since the LOR is part of the LMS, it has already been integrated into the LMS. On the other hand, the term LCMS is more frequently used to describe a stand-alone product that in some cases is used without a LMS. However, most online learning programs would require the LMS functionality and thus the two systems would need to be integrated. Many commercial LCMS vendors have already integrated their products with various LMS solutions. Because a LCMS can operate independently of a LMS, they tend to contain content authoring features while a LOR will more typically rely on the content authoring features built-in to the LMS.

Having a LCMS as part of your administrative systems clearly provides a lot of additional functionality. However, it also introduces additional complexity and management responsibilities. The LCMS functionality tends to have more value to larger organizations or larger programs. It isn’t unusual for an online learning program to not include a LCMS initially and then add LCMS functionality at a later time.

References for footnotes can be found on the resources page or click on the footnote number for a direct link.