Your LMS Works, but is it Working for You? – Part I

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It’s really easy to live with something on a daily basis and never look at it closely: our homes, food, neighborhoods, and our software. How often do we really examine these things? We think we know them, but often what we know about them is surprisingly shallow.

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For example, there was once a man who did not realize he was sharing his house with a brown bear and her three cubs for nearly half a year. Also, did you know that there’s a small hole in the wall right above your kitchen table? How long has that been there?

Sometimes it really pays to take a closer look at the software you’re using to see if it’s really working for you as well as it should. I think this is especially true for learning management systems (LMSs).

By examining how you use your LMS and how it meets your needs, you can find out a lot about what works and what doesn’t. You might find out that your existing LMS has some features you never knew about, or maybe it’s time to see what else is out there.

As an added bonus, you might finally figure out what’s been leaving all of those fish skeletons around the house.

About once a year is a great time to take a really good look at your LMS. A year is long enough for new features to have emerged (if your LMS is hosted or managed or SaaS) or for a new version of your LMS to be available from your vendor. It’s also possible that existing features have been changed or depreciated or reorganized in your LMS. Or perhaps your organization’s LMS needs have changed. Maybe now is a good time to see if your LMS still fits your requirements.

This article will help guide you through the process of listing your absolute LMS requirements, brainstorming features you’d like to have and then examining your current LMS to see if it’s providing everything you require. We’ll also broach the possibility that your LMS is providing much more (and if you’re paying for much more) functionality than you actually need.

So put on a pair goggles, pull up those acid-resistant boots and let’s prepare to go wading deep into LMS territory. If this will be a solo trek, please leave a note next to your keyboard with information about where you are planning to go so that a rescue team can easily locate you.

Step One: Figure out your requirements

Our first step sounds ludicrously simple on its face: write down what your organization needs your LMS to do. Some single-sentence answers come readily to mind. But what we’re looking for here is to really think deeply about the specific tasks you and your organization perform with your LMS. To help you do this, I’ll be asking a variety of questions from two different points of view: an LMS administrator and a typical LMS learner.

Before we get to those, I have another, more basic question to ask: Are you actually using your LMS to train people with courses and report on the results of their training? Again, this may sound like a silly thing to ask, but seriously, are you using your LMS as an actual Learning Management System or as a glorified document repository?

An LMS is a complex piece of software (sometimes ridiculously complex) built to serve a specific purpose (often many different but related specific purposes). If you’re not taking advantage of the ability to track the results of training with your LMS, you might very well be paying for something you don’t really need. There are other systems much better suited to managing documents over a network.

Assuming you answered ‘yes’ to the question and tracking the results of training is one of your requirements, let’s use a simple technique to compile your list: living “a day in the life of” an administrator (a classification which presumably includes yourself) and a learner (a person who uses the LMS strictly as an end-user and doesn’t deal with the LMS in any sort of administrative capacity).

LMS Administrator Point of View

Let’s start with an LMS admin’s point of view by imagining a day in which you have been commanded to perform every possible LMS task you have ever needed to do. Write down any requirements you might think of while you’re reading through these questions:

  • Have you ever had to add a person to your LMS? How was the process?
  • Does your LMS sync with some sort of human resource system? This is often an extremely important requirement and this feature may need to be at the top of your list.
  • How do you import courses and content into your LMS? And perhaps more importantly, what kinds of courses and content are you importing? Are they SCORM modules or AICC compliant? Do you have anything which communicates via the Tin Can standard?  Though SCORM support is probably about as ubiquitous as it gets, legacy AICC support might be a big requirement if you have a lot of training which uses this standard.

If you’re not sure, or the answer is ‘none of the above,’ take a closer look at the types of results your LMS is currently tracking for your courses. If you’re just recording a bunch of “Viewed/Not Viewed” results, maybe there is no actual communication between your course content and the LMS. But if you’re recording scores and other specific information, try asking around to see if anyone knows what form of communication is being used. It might be an important requirement!

Reports! There is much to say about reports, but sometimes it is wise to simply see the beauty of the forest rather than inspect the trunk of every tree. Simply put:

  • What kinds of LMS reports do you run on a day like today?
  • Are there other types of reports you have to produce on an infrequent basis such as monthly, quarterly, or even yearly?

It should go without saying that some sort of reporting should already be a requirement. But some organization’s reporting needs are so specific and so vital to their use of an LMS that those reporting capabilities must also be included in the list.

Of course, a humble spreadsheet program can transform exported raw LMS report data into extremely custom results (how many failed courses occurred on a day with a full moon?), so it’s important to think about how the ability to export data from your LMS affects your current reporting needs. By the way, if your LMS doesn’t currently export such data so that you can manipulate it with external tools (naughty!), imagine what you might be able to do if it could. Do I smell a new requirement being added to the list?

Another requirement which is oft overlooked because it is not typically part of the software itself is the support system:

  • Do you know where to go when you need help with your LMS?
  • Have you ever used the support before and did you like it?
  • Do you need to have a specific kind of support system available that is a requirement of your organization?

Lastly, do you have a specific need as an administrator that I’ve not mentioned above?

Do you need your LMS to send email notifications upon certain events such as a course coming due or when new courses have been assigned? Do you use some form of e-commerce capability included with or used in conjunction with your LMS? Do you need to manually enter course records for learners from events such as live in-classroom training?

These and countless other specialized needs may be very important to the way you currently use your LMS. Try to list every other feature you or any other administrator needs to use, no matter how infrequently that need may arise.

Learner Point of View

Now let’s switch to the point of view of that most noble creature, the everyday learner. These are the people who log in every once in a while to take some training, see how they did, and log off. Let’s see what they encounter and perhaps add a few more requirements to your list.

First, have you ever logged in as a learner, or does your LMS allow you to see a learner’s point of view while logged in as an administrator? If not, you might want to take the opportunity to try it. It may reveal insights about the way the LMS is used in your organization.

  • What does your login process look like if you’re a learner?
  • What do learners first see when they log into the LMS?
  • Is any of this specific to your organization and is there anything important enough about this process that it is an actual requirement for your LMS?

And as we did when looking at your administrative point of view, let’s also look at the support system for your learners. Does your organization provide this to them, or is your LMS vendor or some other entity responsible for helping them out? If it’s the LMS vendor, this is also an important part of your LMS requirements list.

Bringing it Together

Between the administrator and learner points of view, you should have a nice list of requirements in front of you. A longer list means you’re probably going to be a little more limited in the number of LMSs which can accommodate your needs and could simply mean that you’re stuck with the one you’ve got unless you’ve got the funds to pay for feature development with a different vendor. A shorter list could mean lots of freedom in choosing a different LMS if you should like to look at the choices available.

In Parts II and III of this article, we’ll take a look at Steps 2-5 wherein we’ll compile a list of nice-to-haves, document the features in your LMS you’re not using, see if your LMS is keeping up with the times, and consider the heady mix of pain and pleasure that comes with switching LMSs.

Looking for Learning Management System software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Learning Management System software solutions.

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About the Author

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Dave Gauer

Dave Gauer is a Senior Software Developer at Michaels & Associates, a full-service custom training content development company. Dave specializes in web-based applications, but occasionally enjoying forays into other areas of software engineering for the training industry. His most recent and heroic venture has been as lead developer of the company's Percolate Learning Management System (LMS). On occasion, he is generous enough to allow others to taste just a tiny fraction of his almost unbearably insightful take on the human experience.

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