Learning management systems (LMSs) began simply as registration and record-keeping software to manage instructor-led instruction. In the late 1990s, the ability to launch and track e-learning was added. Since then, related tools such as improved reporting capability, e-commerce, and performance and competency management have been added.
A recent survey by Government Elearning! Magazine (access to the survey requires subscribing to the e-zine) indicates that approximately 50 percent of all training provided in major corporations is done through e-learning. It has become a way of life. TELUS Communications (the second largest telecom company in Canada with 25,000 employees) recorded 100,000 online learning course completions in 2004. An LMS is a requirement to manage and track this kind of volume.
There are at least 250 LMSs on the market—not including education and open-source LMSs. Many companies and educational institutions have developed their own but do not market them. There are also at least 100 learning management content systems (LCMSs), 250 course authoring tools, and 50 virtual classrooms. There are 10 to 20 major players in each category. For a comprehensive list, visit Vendors of Learning Management and E-learning Products.
Prices of LMSs vary widely from as low as $5,000 to several hundred thousand dollars (USD) depending on the features they offer and the number of people using them. Some of the simplest LMSs just provide a platform for launching and tracking e-learning.
Most major corporations now have LMSs but some are looking to change because they are not satisfied with the ones they have. More and more medium and smaller enterprises are adopting LMSs.
Like all software, LMSs evolve as the market matures. Throughout the rest of this article, I'll detail some recent trends in the LMS marketplace.
There is an ongoing trend toward consolidation among the major vendors which began a few years ago. Several major mergers took place in 2004 and 2005. In 2004, Click2Learn and Docent merged to become SumTotal Systems. In 2005, Adobe purchased Macromedia, Saba purchased THINQ Learning Solutions and Centra, and Blackboard purchased WebCT. Blackboard's purchase of WebCT made it the single largest vendor of LMSs for the education market. In 2009, Blackboard also purchased ANGEL Learning.
In 2009, OutStart merged with Eedo and Hot Lava. OutStart's merger with Eedo strengthens its position in the LCMS market and is essentially a merger between two of the biggest players in the LCMS market. The acquisition of Hot Lava increases its mobile learning capability.
In 2008 and 2009, Mzinga expanded by purchasing KnowledgePlanet, Shared Insights, and Prospero, and began offering a virtual classroom. KnowledgePlanet allowed it to add an LMS and authoring tools, while Shared Insights and Prospero allowed it to add Web 2.0 tools. Mzinga now offers a suite of social media solutions that includes learning management, learning, marketing, and customer support.
While there are still many minor players in the market, look for more mergers and acquisitions among the major vendors.
With the popularity of Web 2.0 and social networking tools like MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, there has been great demand to include similar tools to help people make connections internally in companies. In spite of some unresolved issues concerning security and incorrect information, they have been widely accepted. In the Government Elearning! Magazine survey, 40 percent of surveyed enterprises are already using blogs and forums. LMS vendors have been quick to add these kinds of tools to their features by providing connections with experts, mentors, and communities of practice. This improves the efficiency of informal learning as well as creating a record which can be put into a searchable database. It is seen as a way of facilitating informal learning or, in some cases, giving it structure or controlling it. Informal learning is unstructured and often occurs between individuals in conversations. It has been estimated that the great majority (upwards of 70 percent) of learning in the workplace is informal (see Participation in Adult Education and Lifelong Learning: 2000-01). Mzinga bases its whole offering on social networking while Saba offers Saba Social; and OutStart, as a result of its purchase of Participate in 2004, now offers social business software.
The major LMS vendors have long offered performance management and competency management tools. Performance management is the process of setting goals, self-assessment, manager assessment, peer-assessment (also called 360 degree assessments), coaching, development planning, and evaluation. Competencies are the collections of skills, knowledge, and attitudes necessary to do a specific job. Once a company has developed the descriptions of the competencies desired for each position in the company, they are better able to identify who the right people are for each position, provide training, and enable employees to achieve their development and occupational goals. Competency management tools enable both the employer and the employee to track progress.
Recently, the larger LMS providers have expanded into talent management, including career development and succession planning, performance appraisals, recruitment, compensation management, and workforce planning. These are used as planning tools related to training and learning and do not typically provide the day to day transaction processing of human resource (HR) systems.
SumTotal Systems describes talent development as follows:
Talent development is the strengthening of employee productivity through automated and integrated learning, performance, and compensation solutions to drive business results on a daily basis. It helps align your workforce to business goals to create a high-performance culture. Effective talent development can reduce turnover at critical positions, manage succession plans, minimize business disruptions, and reduce the risk of non-compliance, litigation, and lost business reputation (see SumTotal).
Examples of talent management providers include SumTotal Systems, Plateau, TEDS, and Learn.com. It is interesting to note that OutStart has specifically chosen not to enter the talent management space but rather to focus on its strengths in learning content management—where it feels it can offer better value to its customers.
With more and more employees on the road and working at a distance, there has been a strong demand to make applications accessible via mobile devices—laptops, personal digital assistants (PDAs), and cell phones. In the LMS world, this is known as mobile learning or m-learning. LMS vendors have been rushing to add this capability:
OutStart's recent acquisition of Hot Lava is designed to improve its capability for mobile learning.
Meridian Anywhere, CertpointVLS Mobile Learning, and SyberWorks Mobile Learning are all modules, which these vendors have added to their systems, for mobile learning.
SumTotalSystems provides for the creation of mobile learning content in its classic ToolBook authoring software.
The small screens of many mobile devices present new challenges for e-learning
designers, but tools are available and the development is evolving quickly (see Advantages and Disadvantages of Mobile Learning). Mobile devices provide learners with
- tests and surveys;
- job aids and just-in-time learning (performance support);
- location-based and contextual learning;
- social-networking tools—access to experts, mentors, and communities of practice;
- educational gaming; and
- language learning.
There is an increasing trend for companies to outsource the hosting of their LMSs, either to outside companies who provide this service or to the providers of the systems themselves. This is known as software as a service (SaaS). This has given an edge to companies like GeoLearning and Learn.com, which provide these services, but more and more LMS vendors and partners are offering this alternative. OutStart, for example, offers TrainingEdge.com.
SaaS is a particularly attractive option for small to medium sized businesses (SMBs) with little internal IT support. The main issues include the following:
The total cost per year will be greater than simply leasing the software.
The total cost of ownership (TCO) of a period of years can be significantly lower because there is no need to maintain an internal IT support service.
Service may be slower because the vendor is dealing with numerous clients.
Software upgrades are automatic.
SaaS may be less customizable.
Open Source Software
There are at least 50 open-source LMSs available on the market, including Moodle, ATutor, Sakai, and many others. Most of these are designed for educational institutions, but many corporations are adopting them as well. Blackboard and WebCT have dominated the education market for some time, but as costs increase, more and more organizations are looking for alternatives and open-source solutions are often attractive.
Some prefer open-source systems because of fewer constraints, a greater sense of control, and generally better communication tools. Others won't like them because they prefer more rule-based systems with full administrative features.
Although the software is free, open-source solutions are not without their costs. They need continuous support and maintenance, which requires either a strong and supportive internal IT group, very dedicated instructors, or a contract with outside vendors who will do it for you. Open-source software is maintained by an active community of users who are constantly upgrading the code. These code changes can affect the interoperability of
courses unexpectedly and therefore require more local maintenance. The “hidden” time costs of the IT personnel and the instructors may or may not outweigh the cost of a licence for a commercial system. There are useful discussions of open-source systems at Funny Monkey.
As with other enterprise software, LMSs will continue to evolve to meet market demands. Watch for continuing consolidation and the incorporation of many new features in the coming years.
Don McIntosh has been involved with the development and management of learning for more than thirty years, with e-learning for more than twenty years, and with the evaluation of learning technologies for more than ten years. Mr. McIntosh is TEC's analyst responsible for learning management applications and is President of consulting firm, Trimeritus eLearning Solutions Inc.
At the University of Guelph from 1972 to 1995, he was engaged in course development in various media including film, audio, video and computer based instruction. He served as Director of Teaching Support Services from 1990 to 1994, leading a team of 30 people who provided audio-visual services, teaching improvement programs, and instructional media design services. From 1995 to 1997, Don served as a director and consultant to the Delta Centre for Learning Technologies. His role was to evaluate current learning technologies. In 1997 he joined BC TEL (which subsequently became TELUS) as Manager of the Design Team for Learning Services. A primary mandate was implementation of online training. Don is currently a member of the International Society for Performance Improvement, New Media BC, and is a founding member of eLearning BC, a marketing alliance of more than forty e-learning companies in British Columbia.
Don obtained a B.Sc. in Mathematics and Physics from the University of Toronto, an M.S. in Television/Radio, and a Ph.D. in Instructional Technology from Syracuse University.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Mobile Learning
Book chapter by Don McIntosh
Bryan Chapman blog
Government Elearning! Magazine
Participation in Adult Education and Lifelong Learning: 2000-01
Sherry Fox's blog
Stephen Downes Website
SumTotal Systems Website
Tony Karrer's blog
Vendors of Learning Management and E-learning Products.