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Learning Management System

The Learning Management System (LMS) is the core technology piece for operating an online learning program. The LMS is the set of tools that houses course content and provides the framework for communication between students, teachers, and parents.1

Other terms are sometimes used instead of Learning Management System such as Course Management System (CMS) and Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). Course Management System is an older term and its usage is less common today as it implies basic management of course content, while Learning Management System indicates the system supports the learning process. The term Virtual Learning Environment also implies the support of the learning process but according to Wikipedia2, the term VLE is more frequently used to describe systems that support the blended learning environment.

LMS Features

The specific features available will depend on the LMS you choose but the following is a partial list of features found in many learning management systems:

  • Ability to organize course content into units or chapters and lessons or individual content items within a unit or chapter. Individual content items might consist of text, graphics, multi-media, animations, and interactive tools
  • Ability to create accounts with different roles and privileges (e.g. student, teacher, mentor, parent, administrator, etc.)
  • Ability for teachers to post announcements
  • Threaded discussion boards or forums for asynchronous discussions
  • Assessment system to allow for online quizzes and exams
  • Drop box capability for turning in assignments
  • Online grade book
  • Integrated email system and/or interface to an external email system
  • Wikis, blogs, and other web 2.0 tools
  • Functionality to support group and project work
  • Functionality to individualize learning by providing customized learning paths (often based on the demonstration of mastery of specific learning objectives) for individuals or groups of students

A LMS also contains a number of administrative features:

  • Ability to create user accounts of different roles and enroll these accounts into the proper classes. Many online learning programs will integrate their LMS with a Student Information System (SIS) to manage all or portions of these administrative processes.
  • Ability to run a variety of reports such as how frequently students are logging in, how long they are spending on specific tasks, course rosters, and student progress information. If you choose to integrate your LMS with a SIS sometimes the reporting functions will be split between the LMS and SIS.
  • Ability to create course shells and manage the content for the course shells. Some online learning programs utilize a Learning Content Management System (LCMS) to manage the course content. The LCMS may be part of the LMS product or it may be a separate product that has been integrated with your LMS.

Selecting a LMS

There are two basic options when selecting a LMS for your program:

  • License a LMS from a commercial vendor. When selecting this option, in addition to licensing the software, the company will have options for training and support and often will provide hosting options.
  • Utilize an open source LMS product such as Moodle or Sakai. The following page describes some of the trade-offs between choosing Vendor vs. Open Source solution.

Selecting your LMS is an important decision. While programs may change from one LMS to another over time, there is significant transition effort, so typically this change is not made very frequently. In addition, to the above choice of vendor solution, open source solution, or develop your own LMS, the following are some questions to consider as you make your LMS selection:

  • Do you want to have someone else host your LMS or will you use your own servers? While the answer to this question may not narrow down your choice since most LMS products support both options, it is an important decision for your overall program operation. While it is more expensive to choose a hosted option, there are many costs associated with operating your own servers, especially if it is necessary to provide 24/7 availability. In the end, the answer comes down to, does it makes more sense for your organization to spend the extra money for hosting services or to use this money towards Information Technology (IT) infrastructure?
  • What LMS features are mandatory? Which ones are highly desirable and which ones are simply nice to have? Each LMS product has its strengths and weaknesses when it comes to features, so understanding which features are most important to you will assist in evaluating specific products.
  • What are your plans for managing your content? If you plan to utilize LCMS functionality, do you want your LMS to provide these features or do you plan to utilize a separate system that must be integrated with your LMS?
  • Will you be developing your own content? If so, what features will you require in your LMS (or LCMS) for content development?
  • Will you be licensing third-party content? If so, will this content work with your LMS (or LCMS)? The platform vs. content selection can sometimes be a “chicken or the egg” question. Some programs choose the platform first and then only select content that will run on that platform, while other programs choose the content first and then limit their selection of platforms that will host the selected content. Yet other programs attempt to make these decisions simultaneously.
  • What are your plans for a SIS? Do you have an existing SIS that you must integrate with your LMS? Even if you don’t have an existing SIS, the LMS and SIS will require integration which should be kept in mind as you choose each of these systems.
  • If choosing a vendor solution, what other services does the vendor provide? Depending on the importance of these other services, this may have a big impact on your decision.

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