You already know how to make a shopping list. Open the fridge and the cupboard, root around for what you don’t have, and jot down a list. Yet making a list for your “perfect” learning management system (LMS) is a little harder, simply because you have no fridge full of neat little components. Deciding what you want in an LMS, determining what you absolutely need to have, and using that to inform your list is the best way to approach the problem.
So what do you need? And how do you know it’s needed? Follow this guide to find out.
There are some staples that everybody needs. These are the features that any learning management system would be remiss in not having.
Getting tripped up on these features is easy, especially for first-time LMS buyers. The fact is that a lot of software companies will try to sell buyers on basic features that every LMS should have. I’m not saying that highlighting a typical feature done particularly well or in an innovative way is bad, or that a basic system that prides itself on stripping away unneeded bells and whistles isn’t being honest. But at the very least, you should know that these features are what you should expect from almost every LMS, so you don’t fall into the trap of thinking a software is special just because of these things.
- SCORM / xAPI – SCORM and xAPI are software specifications that allow cross-software communication. In many industries, these features are mandatory for any LMS used. As such, almost every serious LMS will at least be SCORM compliant. Keep an eye on xAPI going forward, as it’s poised to replace SCORM for the same job.
- Student portal – Students should have a unique portal or version of the LMS that they see that is different from the instructor or admin portal or view.
- Admin options – You shouldn’t need to contact your software’s help desk every time you need to make a minor change. As such, administrative users should have the ability to access reporting and results, change and update course content, and make changes to student user status, at minimum.
- Tracking or reporting – The details you’ll see with results reporting varies widely between software. Sometimes you’ll find a detailed data-based system, other times you’ll find a more general, graphical reporting style. Find a style that you think will work for you, but know that all software should have this in some form.
- Multimedia hosting – Every single LMS should be able to host images, video, and audio files. Every single one. If the LMS you’re looking at cannot do these things, it’s outdated. Even the most basic of systems can embed a Youtube link.
- In-app messaging – Some systems go for forums, others go for instant messaging, and others go for intra-mail. Many combine two or more of the above. Figure out what style you’d prefer. If you’re not sure, check with your learners with a quick survey.
- In-app testing and assessment – Just as your LMS hosts lesson content, it should also support testing functions. If these tests are multiple choice, the software should also offer automatic grading. It will take a lot of pressure off of needing to evaluate your students manually for every quiz.
Once you’ve ensured that your LMS has all of these boxes checked, you’re free to move on to the less-essential (but no less valuable) aspects of a good system.
Alright, so you’ve got your basics locked down. You know what you should be looking for from most learning management software. Now what about the little details that are helpful to have, but won’t break your system if they’re missing?
I’ve also thrown a few on this list that are more industry-specific. While it’s not possible to go over every single feature, some are designed for a school LMS while others are for onboarding or corporate training. Don’t feel like you need every feature on this list.
- Mobile accessibility – What is mobile access? Some users don’t mind if there’s a mobile-optimized web view of their online system, while others won’t settle for anything less than a dedicated app. I’ve found that apps aren’t really necessary unless you expect your learners to be relying heavily on their smartphones. Mobile learning doesn’t always mean an LMS, either.
- White labelling – If you have a corporate (or sometimes school) use for your LMS, you may want your company’s aesthetics to prevail throughout the learning management software. White labelling is more often found on big-ticket software, but a little tech savvy can make any open source system white labelled, too.
- Gamification – Ah yes, the big buzzword. Gamification elements can be as pervasive as game-based learning (where the entire lesson takes the form of a game), or as simple as a leader board for your students. Gamification is glitzy, but best done with a gentle touch to make sure you’re giving your learners what they really want.
- Integration – Integration is all about how nicely your LMS plays with the other programs you use. Why isn’t integration on the main list? Because it’s so mutable. Some buyers don’t want to need any form of integration, whereas others need heavy compatibility with multiple systems. The most common software integration you’ll find in most LMSs is with Microsoft and Google—Office 360, Google Drive and Gmail, etc. Check what integrations you’ll need before going LMS shopping so you can avoid getting distracted.
- Content library – You may not have time or resources to design 100% of your own content, and you may not have the money to hire a bespoke content designer. That’s ok, because content libraries are an awesome choice! Many learning management systems offer content or course libraries built-in, or as an optional add-on. These libraries are full of ready-made content on a wide range of subjects, some academic, some corporate. There’s no shame in going for pre-made content, just make sure to review it thoroughly before implementation to make sure the offering suits your needs.
- Course authoring – Or maybe you want to design your own content! Also an awesome choice. Some content designers like to use their own software and then upload and retrofit it to the LMS they’ll be using. But some designers prefer to make their content in-app to ensure a proper stylistic fit and minimal formatting hassle. An LMS with course authoring tools makes life much easier for these designers.
- Open-source code – For the more tech-savvy among us, open-source code offers free customization that is only limited by your skills (or your staff’s skills) as a programmer (we have a shortlist of top free and open-source LMSs). Don’t let the word “programmer” scare you off if you’re no Steve Wozniak. Many open source LMS options are ready right out of the box, and others are easily customized with a wide array of add-ons.
What’s on your LMS checklist?
What are your must-haves, and what features would you rather skip altogether? Tell me about it (and feel free to ask questions) in the comments below. Subscribe to my email list for more eLearning content, every week.
And here’s the above checklist in a handy, printable format for your own search:
Looking for Learning Management System software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Learning Management System software solutions.