Think of the last time you learned something online. Whether you took a required course for a degree or professional development, or you explored topics such as creative arts or finance for fun, you were taking part in our now-ubiquitous option to study almost anything from the comfort of home.
You were also interacting with a learning experience platform, which can either be off-the-shelf or custom-built to teach content. (Off-the-shelf systems can be customized to some extent, while systems built from scratch are created to an organization’s exact specifications.)
What a Learning Experience Platform (aka Learning Management System) Does
A learning experience platform also often goes by the term learning management system (LMS). An LMS is a software application or platform that’s specialized for learning. It encompasses multiple types of programs, from educational to training, learning, and development. A good LMS should allow an organization to create the learning experience it wants to provide, from the administrative aspects to the actual content delivery. It should furnish data and user feedback on key information about how its learners are doing. Finally, through the LMS, learners should have the ability to engage with content, other users, and learning activities in a way that benefits and truly teaches them the skills or knowledge the organization offers.
As the learner, you probably aren’t thinking about the LMS at all. But it has a crucial impact on your progress and success each time you sit down for an online class. If the process is going smoothly, you won’t notice your LMS. You’ll understand and remember the information you’re working through, and the experience of taking the class will feel easy. But that ease and ability to learn the material isn’t an accident. It’s the result of multiple decisions both large and small made by the learning experience designers as they created the LMS to help you master your new content or skill.
Why the Choice of LMS Matters to a Learner's Success
It may seem obvious, but each LMS is not the same. For various reasons, they have differences that affect how they function and present information. When choosing an LMS, you should consider your organization’s specific needs and budget. Never pick an LMS without fully reviewing your needs, because your learner’s experience is only as good as your LMS. If your system feels clunky or old-fashioned, or your great new system is focused on the wrong things, your information won’t get through effectively. Your learner will suffer, which will decrease the impact you wanted to have on them.
However, if you’re clear-eyed about the nature of your goals, your learners, and your administrative needs, you can choose the best LMS for your situation. It’s worth putting in the time and effort up front — before you make this decision.
How to Choose an LMS
Four steps can help you decide what kind of LMS is right for you and your organization:
- Understand your learner’s needs so that you can design the learner experience and program experience you want.
- Compile the list of LMS contenders.
- Explore the details of each contender, weighing their features against your requirements.
- Do a mock-up, if you need it, before making your final decision.
Let’s get into a little more detail about what each step entails; the first one, in particular, can be complex.
Understand Your Learner's Needs
First, research the needs of your learners. Seek to understand your learners’ backgrounds and learning contexts, and identify what they need to succeed.
Some sample questions from a recent Extension Engine project will help you see what kinds of things to ask. Remember, you’re answering these from the perspective of your learner.
What are your top must-have features for an online learning experience? Select up to three.
- I can access the content at any time (on-demand).
- I have direct contact with the instructor.
- I can learn from experts in the field.
- I can network with other people in the course.
- I have access to case studies and real-world examples.
- I can go through the learning at the same time with a cohort of my peers.
- It’s fun and looks cool. I don’t want another corporate thing.
- I’ll earn a credentialed certificate.
What level of production value does video content need so that you’ll want to engage with an online learning experience?
- High. It’s got to look sleek and cool — I want to feel like I’m watching a movie.
- Medium. Someone talking over a slideshow and screen sharing is simple but effective.
- Low. I’m good with a vlog, as long as the information is useful and interesting to me.
When do you prefer to engage with online learning or training?
- I’d do it on my commute to work.
- At work; whenever I am free is best.
- Outside of working hours is best, because I have to be in the right mindset.
- I prefer trainings that have been scheduled in advance.
Check out 10 Best Practices for Online Learning Program Development for more sample questions, both for your learner and for your organization.
Next, figure out what you need on the administrative back end of your design so that you can make sure that aspect of the LMS meets your organization’s needs. Imagine your ideal learning experience and program design, and choose priorities to guide that setup.
Compile Your Contenders
When you create your list of contenders, be sure to lay out and review your budget. In an ideal world, you’d be able to spend any amount to get exactly what you want, but budget constraints usually play a big role in your final choice. Be realistic about what you can get for the amount of money you have.
Consider the following three factors for every LMS you’re exploring:
- The ability to change the user experience, if needed
- The ability to change the look and feel of the LMS and customize the branding
- The degree of flexibility in the content structure
You’ll need to prioritize these criteria and then work within your budget to find an LMS that satisfies as many of them as possible.
Explore the Details
Do a deeper dive into the details on every LMS that’s still in contention after you complete the above steps. Determine the learning and administrative features available with each option, and list them if necessary, so you can do a comparison. Then you can make a fully informed decision about which LMS to pursue.
You’ll want to look at things like:
- From the learner’s perspective: What learning components are available? How is the user experience overall? How do learners find and enroll in courses?
- From the administrator’s perspective: How easy is it to author content in this platform? How does this platform handle accessibility? What functionality is available for things like branding, analytics, and reporting? Does this platform support multiple screen sizes, such as mobile access?
This is not an exhaustive list, but it gives you an idea of what you need to consider. Getting into the weeds of each LMS is key to finding your best fit.
Do a Mock-Up
After completing steps 1 through 3, you may have settled on the perfect LMS and don’t need to test anything. But if you’ve reached the end of step 3 and are still undecided between a few different systems, it’s worth doing a trial run. In most cases, off-the-shelf systems offer this option.
To do your mock-up, try creating one or two sample lessons within each of your top contenders. Enroll some test learners and navigate the experience from their perspective, or recruit real test users for feedback. From the administrative side, see if you are satisfied with the available functionality. After testing, return to your list of requirements and see if your test experience changes the rankings.
The main advantage of doing this is that you can test-drive your LMS. Nothing can better show you what it will be like for your learner than actually experiencing part of the lesson or course yourself. The disadvantage is that, obviously, this step takes extra time. But why not spend that time up front, before you’ve invested in an LMS, to make sure it’s really the one you want, the one that will best serve your needs — and your learners’?
The LMS you choose will shape your learners’ experiences within your course as well as their understanding of not only the material you share but also your organization. If you take a thoughtful, measured approach to picking or building the LMS, you’ll be happier with the outcome — and they will, too.
To get an idea of what you can create with a custom LMS, Extension Engine has compiled case studies for several of our projects, which you can access here:
- University of Notre Dame case study (higher education)
- Association of International Certified Professional Accountants case study (nonprofit)
- Fitch Learning case study (learning business)