The learning management system (LMS) is nothing new in terms of education. For decades, companies have used both analog and digital methods to deliver, track, and measure training and development. Whether it was your elementary school teacher’s gradebook or your company’s approach to mandatory safety training, you might have interacted with an LMS without even realizing it. Today’s learning management systems, of course, are usually much more advanced. Organizations all over the world use them to track everything from employee training to assessment—with mixed results. 

The LMS was once the gold standard by which organizations could deliver and measure their training efforts. Is it still, however, your best bet for learning strategy? What is an LMS and should it be your default training delivery system? Get to know the basics of all things LMS and see why we are pushing for an even more robust way to educate and organize. 

What Is a Learning Management System?

A learning management system (LMS) is a sophisticated software platform that simplifies and enhances the process of managing, delivering, and tracking educational content and training programs. It serves as a digital hub for educators, trainers, and learners, facilitating the creation of online courses, quizzes, and assignments, while also providing tools for progress monitoring, assessment, and interactive communication. Essentially, an LMS empowers organizations and educational institutions to deliver effective and accessible learning experiences in a centralized online environment.

An LMS, or learning management system, is like a smart tool for managing and delivering online learning. It helps trainers and organizations create courses, track progress, and communicate with learners all in one place.

Today, most learning management systems exist as platforms upon which companies can host, deliver, assess, and measure employee learning and development. Typically, the system has two distinct access points. The first is as an administrator who can create, view, and update content. The second is experienced as the user, who views and completes learning tasks that are assigned to them in the LMS. An LMS can be web- or software-based and typically allows users to access materials at any time, which is especially helpful for remote workforces. 

Related: LMS for remote workforces

When users interact with materials, the administrator can then see test results, completion rates, and other metrics in their LMS dashboard. It’s not uncommon for larger organizations to opt for an LMS as a way to track learning and its effectiveness. More nimble orgs, however, are starting to see some of the limitations of an LMS and considering alternatives. Before you invest in platforming your training with an LMS, carefully consider the pros and cons for your specific organization. 

Breaking down each type of LMS

When it comes to choosing a learning management system (LMS), there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. They come in various types, each catering to specific needs. Here are some common types to consider:

  • Cloud-based LMS: These are hosted online, making them accessible from anywhere that has an internet connection. They’re great for scalability and ease of use.
  • Self-hosted LMS: If you want more control, a self-hosted LMS allows you to manage the software on your own server. It’s a bit more technical but offers customization options.
  • Open-source LMS: These are free and often customizable, making them popular among educators and developers. Moodle and Open edX are popular examples.
  • Corporate LMS: Tailored for businesses, a corporate LMS focuses on employee training and compliance and often includes features like performance tracking and analytics.
  • Education-focused LMS: These are designed for schools and universities, emphasizing features like grading, attendance tracking, and integration with other educational tools.

Understanding the different types helps you pick the one that aligns best with your specific requirements.

LMS TypeReal-World Examples
Cloud-based LMSCanvas LMS (by Instructure)
Blackboard Learn
Self-hosted LMSMoodle
Open-source LMS Open edX
Claroline Connect
Corporate LMSTalentLMS
Cornerstone OnDemand
Education-focused LMSGoogle Classroom
Brightspace (by D2L)

The key components of a learning management system (LMS)

To demystify how an LMS works, let’s break down its essential components:

  1. User management: An LMS should allow you to easily add and manage users, including students, teachers, and administrators.
  1. Content creation and management: You should be able to create and organize course content, including lectures, quizzes, assignments, and multimedia resources.
  1. Course delivery: This component facilitates the actual teaching and learning process, providing a user-friendly interface for both educators and learners.
  1. Assessment and grading: It should include tools for creating quizzes, assignments, and tests, as well as automated grading and feedback mechanisms.
  1. Progress tracking: An LMS should enable monitoring of student progress through analytics, giving insights into their engagement and performance.
  1. Communication tools: This includes discussion forums, messaging systems, and announcements to foster collaboration and interaction.
  1. Integration capabilities: The ability to integrate with other software and tools like video conferencing platforms, authentication systems, and content libraries is crucial for a seamless learning experience.

By understanding these key components, you’ll be better equipped to make the most of your chosen LMS and provide a top-notch learning experience for your audience.

Benefits of implementing an LMS for enhanced employee training & knowledge utilization

There’s a reason LMSs have been around in some form or another for decades. They definitely have their strong suits and for some companies, they keep learners and learning organized. When you take the time to choose an LMS, you can expect a clean, streamlined experience from start to finish. Here’s where using an LMS really works. 

Related: Enterprise learning management

They’re scalable. 

One of the best things about using an LMS to deliver your training materials is that they’re usually infinitely scalable. Need to add more information? It’s simple, and you can build out your training materials as much as you need. This is appealing for organizations that know their employee training will only grow over time. An LMS is also scalable in terms of who can experience the training. When an LMS is web-based, anyone with the right credentials can access training, which means anyone who needs it, gets it. 

They have built-in metrics.

We’ll admit that training is notoriously difficult to track when it comes to nailing down a specific number for ROI. And, while an LMS can’t tell you if sales training had a direct impact on last month’s numbers, it can give you other metrics that help you piece together a picture of how, when, where, and if users are participating in training. The admin dashboard can tell you who’s completed their training and give you assessment scores. With built-in metrics, it’s easier to adjust training, pinpoint potential issues, and make sure training is being completed. 

They’re consistent.

If one of your training concerns is that every learner has the same experience, an LMS makes sense. While learners can toggle some parts of their learning environment (think going back and experiencing modules more than once or adjusting sound), a learning management system typically delivers the exact same learning to every user. This makes total sense for mandatory or compliance training that doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room. 

They get the job done.

We get it—sometimes, learning is about checking items off of a list. Not every topic lends itself to “aha” moments or social experiences. If your directive is simply to get it done, learning management systems work great for “check it off and move on” training topics, especially since the admin has full control over when training happens and who experiences it. 

LMS limitations

Before you choose a learning management system software or service, you should know that they have their limitations. We are seeing a distinct migration away from typical LMS services in favor of LXPs (learning experience platforms). Some of these shortfalls could be why.

They lack point-of-need learning.

In eLearning, we know that most training happens informally and in the moment. It’s pretty rare that a learner has access to the exact information they need, delivered in a vacuum, via LMS. Instead, they’re more likely to ask a colleague how to do something, crowdsource an opinion, or simply search a topic on their own. This point-of-need learning is personal and usually directed by the learner. Because of this, an LMS doesn’t mirror the way humans actually experience information and retain knowledge. 

They require complex management.

Any LMS administrator can tell you it’s not a role for the faint of heart (or the technically unsavvy). If you’re lucky enough to have someone as a dedicated administrator, you may have better luck, but in our experience, the admin is typically someone on the HR or L&D team pulling double duty with their existing roles. Learning how to run and update the LMS can have a steep learning curve and isn’t conducive to quick changes or simple updates. The LMS admin is often required to become the LMS expert, and it requires time and effort to get anyone else involved. 

They lack social engagement.

If we know that some of the most meaningful learning experiences come from working with colleagues, we can immediately spot a weakness in the typical LMS. A lack of social engagement means that learners go through the material on their own. While this may work for independent learners, it might not be the best for collaboration and retention. Some learning management systems might have message or leaderboards, but they usually lack connection on a meaningful level. 

They’re a legacy option.

We often find that some organizations use an LMS simply because it’s the way training has always been done. It might be an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality or a lack of interest in disrupting protocol—either way, it’s possible to outgrow a learning management system without realizing it. It’s worth taking a second look at your organization’s goals to decide if your traditional LMS is really going to get you there.

Is an LMS right for you? 5 questions to ask

An LMS, like most learning tools, has a time and place. Whether you’re thinking about starting with a new LMS or considering updating your LMS for a more intuitive and personalized experience, it’s important to compare your needs with the available platforms. Remember that an LMS focuses on administration as the catalyst for learning, while an LXP focuses more on the learner driving their training journey. In short, LMSs are driven by an admin, while LXPs are more user-driven. Both have their place in training strategy, but before you make your final decision, use these questions to help stakeholders decide what to look for:

  • What kind of learning is our goal? An LMS isn’t right for every type of learner or every type of learning. Define your goals to see if you can match your objectives with a delivery method. When your goals are clearly outlined, it’ll be much easier to decide if an LMS is right for you (and which LMS can help you reach your goals).
  • How and when will our learners access training? A learning management system typically allows users to access training anytime and anywhere, but it’s not as in-the-moment as an LXP. Learning “lives” on the LMS and users might not be able to pull up information while in their natural workflow or while troubleshooting on the job. An LMS works best when you know you’ll have your learners’ attention for a longer period of time.
  • How often does the content change? An LMS is a match made in heaven for evergreen content. While you can definitely use an LMS to make changes to the content, an administrator needs to be well-versed in utilizing the LMS for additions and edits. For content that changes often, consider a platform that is more social or user-friendly so the burden doesn’t fall on one person. 
  • What level of personalization do we want to offer? Most learning management systems offer the ability to customize the way that the content looks and feels for a consistent experience. You can also allow for some personalized changes to the learning environment, but think of an LMS as a way to offer the most consistent training to the largest number of users.
  • How will we measure success? An LMS has a major advantage when compared to other strategies, and that’s in the area of metrics. An LMS has built-in measurements that can help you gain vital insights into mastery, completion rates, and quiz scores. If, however, you plan to measure success in other ways (think soft skills improvement or user satisfaction) you may have to look outside traditional LMS metrics to map out your objectives. 

The future of the LMS

It’s true that we’re seeing a difference in the way organizations are utilizing traditional LMSs as a foundation for training. Large companies that need to train thousands of people have really come to rely on learning management systems to deliver a consistent experience for check-the-box content for all. We can’t deny that, in some ways, the LMS does reign supreme as a way to streamline learning content creation and delivery. 

For other types of training or smaller organizations, however, it might be worth exploring outside of the usual LMS suspects. In some cases, creating an LXP with social and personalized learning options might be the better bet. If you have the space to think about your learners as individuals and learning as anything that meaningfully changes their behavior, it might be time to take learning out of the management system and into 2024. 

Not sure which type of training delivery works best for your learners? Drop us a line and let’s strategize!

Subject matter expertise for this article provided by Allisun O’Connell, Learning Experience Design Lead for ELM Learning