Four Things to Consider When Choosing a Learning Management System

Historically, e-learning technology has primarily been designed to support universities, k-12 schools, and corporate training departments. With the rise in popularity of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) such as Udacity, Coursera, and Khan Academy, online learning technologies and practices have moved into the mainstream; nonprofits are building e-learning sites to expand service reach, improve service quality, and reduce training costs.

Building an e-learning site entails pulling several systems and tools together to deliver a smooth online experience for learners. At the heart of an e-learning site is a learning management system, or LMS.

According to Wikipedia:

“A learning management system (LMS) is a software application for the administration, documentation, tracking, reporting, and delivery of e-learning education courses or training programs.”

Essentially, an LMS is a system for creating an e-learning web application.

Learners log into the system and can view the catalog of courses and launch courses, complete learning tasks and assessments, and see a personalized view of their progress in the course.

People administering the system can upload training content, such as videos; group small chunks of content into larger blocks (for example modules can be grouped to become a course); indicate the sequence of content and prerequisites; and track and report on the progress of the learners.

All of these tasks are performed via a web browser. Typically, an LMS is not used to create content, but some systems are capable of simple content creation.

For example, when I worked at Upwardly Global, the organization converted its in-person employment training program into an online course so job seekers across the country could access the content via an e-learning site. In our case, we decided to implement Cornerstone for Salesforce as the LMS, but there are other systems worth evaluating based on your nonprofit’s needs.

The following are four key questions to ask when evaluating potential learning management systems for your organization.

How will the training content be delivered?

In general, there are three ways for learners to receive training content:

  • In-person events, often referred to as instructor-led training (IL T) — learners meet in-person to participate in a live training as a group. Does the LMS support attendance tracking, or can it be easily integrated with an event management solution?
  • Online meetings, often referred to as virtual instructor-led training (VIL T) — learners meet online using web or video conferencing software to participate in a live group discussion or training. Does the LMS integrate with web conferencing software?
  • Online self-paced training — learners watch videos, take quizzes, and submit work online at their own pace. This is the traditional model, and it is important to choose an LMS that can play e-learning content created by your preferred content authoring tool (see the note about e-learning technical standards below).

Is the system compliant with e-learning technical standards?

Make sure the learning management system supports content packages in both SCORM (Sharable Content Object Reference Model) and AICC (Aviation Industry Computer-based Training Committee) formats. These standards ensure that content created in content authoring tools can be viewed from any learning management system, similar to how you can play a DVD in any brand of DVD player.

An LMS that is compliant with these standards allows you to include content from numerous authoring programs, makes it possible for you to move to a different LMS in the future, and gives you the option to import content created by other providers.

Does the LMS need to play well with a CRM and/or CMS?

Depending on the learning management system you choose, you may want to add functionality to the e-learning site, such as social features that allow learners to interact with each other, web pages or articles, or other features to support your program operations. A website content management system (CMS) can be used to bring this additional functionality to the site. Popular website content management systems include WordPress, Drupal, and SharePoint. If you are planning to deliver the user experience with both an LMS and a CMS, how difficult is it to combine the user interfaces into one cohesive site?

Many nonprofits use a constituent relationship management (CRM) system to track program outcomes; you may want to bring the data about learner activity stored in the LMS back to the CRM in order to maintain one comprehensive view of your constituents. How difficult is it to integrate the data in these two systems?

Where do you want to pitch your technology tent?

There are hundreds of learning management systems, and the task of finding the right system for your organization can be a little daunting. Organizations often gravitate towards one camp of technology. In this final section, I want to highlight some of the learning management systems that I’ve been most impressed with on the most popular technology platforms in the nonprofit sector to help you get started.

Open source: Moodle is the most widely used open source LMS and has a very large and active developer community. There are a number of other great options too, including Claroline and Sakai.

Microsoft: SharePoint is an awesome content management system with a nice integration with Dynamics CRM and there is an LMS called SharePoint LMS that can be integrated with SharePoint on premise, as well as SharePoint online. NetExam has an integration with Microsoft’s Dynamics CRM.

Salesforce: There are several learning management systems that are either built on the platform or are designed to integrate well with the platform, including Cornerstone for Salesforce, Litmos, and NetExam.

Other: If your organization is platform agnostic or is comfortable with a separate system, there are many great commercial options available, including Upside Learning, Xyleme, efront, Blackboard and Saba.

What’s your favorite LMS?

I hope you’ll share your thoughts in the comments!

If you’re interested in seeing an example of an e-learning site, check out the recorded NTEN webinar featuring Upwardly Global’s online program.

Aaron Winters
Director of Technology and Operations
Peer Health Exchange