When evaluating course management systems (CMS) or learning management systems (LMS), there are three key conversation topics that should be explored before creating a short list: Features & Scalability, Training & Support, and Adoption Rates. While other factors, such as costs, will assist in making the final decision, we assert these secondary considerations should be subject to these three key conversations. Case in point: Does it really matter if you are paying pennies for a software system if no one or not enough users are actually using it?
Finding the CMS/LMS vendor that best fits your institution or organization should be based on your program needs, your existing (or non-existent) support structure, and your users – all three of which will be affected by the three key conversations.
Key Conversation #1: Features & Scalability
To determine which features you need, we recommend creating a matrix of actions your users will need to take to demonstrate their competency or meet an objective. This objective-based matrix will enable you to focus on features that actually enable the user to accomplish the objective and remove the temptation to focus on features that are wholly unnecessary.
Key: Avoid buying into features that sound great, but do not help users learn a skill, demonstrate a skill, or otherwise meet an objective. Look for multiple features that help users learn by delivering content, providing collaborative areas, demonstrating and testing skills acquired, as well as tracking competencies delivered.
The second part of this conversation is regarding scalability – not in size, but in features. Today, servers and cloud storage have rendered scalability in numbers almost completely superfluous. Scalability in this conversation is wholly concerned with how a company approaches technology as it pertains to learning, which affects your future success as your program needs inevitably evolve. To determine whether or not a company is scalable in it’s approach to technology, talk with their customers about how quickly the vendor added customizations, new tools requested, and adapted to continued changes in technology such as browser upgrades, etc. Ask the vendor for specific examples of where they have gone above and beyond in providing customizations to meet their clients’ needs.
Key: Select vendors who are fully on board with customizations as, in our experience, all clients bring unique needs to the table and a certain amount of customization is to be expected. There is no need for a “one size fits all” approach when it comes to technology.
Key Conversation #2: Training & Support
The second conversation is important to all learning programs, whether a university with a large IT team or a small, internal training program with zero IT support. In order to reach a successful implementation, training programs must first define success in terms of usage levels. For smaller, commercial training programs this initially seems easier than the task of bringing on, say, a university’s staff and faculty, but is no less important. Interfaces must be intuitive not only for your users but also course designers and course facilitators. One-click should take users from login to where they need to be to do what they need to do…the more clicks it takes, the steeper the learning curve (directly corresponding to the downward trend of usage). “Easier to use” does equal higher usage rate in all cases.
In addition to ease of use, the software should make the value of features obvious. The training should answer the main question on every user’s mind: How does this make my life easier/better? For the course designer, the tools should make it easier for them to create and adjust courses. For the course facilitator or instructor, the software should make maintaining the course and communicating with students easy and obvious. For the administrator, the software should make tracking and reporting as automated as possible. For the student, the software should bring the benefits of the course curriculum (the skills to be acquired) in the best possible way, with the shortest amount of time taken to acquire familiarity with the tools.
Key: Look for hands-on training that walks course designers and course facilitators through the steps of setting up a course and ending with a course actually being set up. Make sure video tutorials and other self-help devices are available for all user types.
The second part of this conversation is regarding support, which is difficult to determine without talking with current clients. Try searching for the vendor on the Internet and ferreting out comments on social media to see if client users have issues with support. (If you do find comments, notice how fast they are dealt with or responded to.) Some clients can have entrenched staff members who are happy with the support they receive, but their users are not.
Key: Ask the vendor for references and don’t forget to check them! Keep in mind that references from different types of clients will help you get a full perspective of the support available, rather than focusing on one type of client. (Some clients may provide excellent support and be a natural fit for your program needs, but not be quite so successful with other programs.)
Key Conversation #3: Adoption Rate
The last conversation, adoption rate, is often overlooked, but remains as important as the other two. As asked in the first paragraph, regardless of the affordable cost of a system, the whiz-bang features it offers, or the training and support provided, the real question is, “Will users use the system?”
Many training programs and academic institutions list abysmal usage rates, often reporting less than 40% of their instructors actually use their previous CMS/LMS and far less use all the tools provided.
Key: Look for a vendor who commits to working with their clients to do what it takes to ensure a usage rate, including additional training based on analysis of tools used and instructors using/not using, customization of tools with specific needed functionality, constant contact until commitment is reached, and quarterly follow-up thereafter.
The path to a successful adoption of a course management system or learning management system is to select a vendor combining features that fit your program’s needs, a vendor who understands those needs and with the expertise to peer into the future to add features that benefit learning in ways you might not have expected, hands-on training for initial implementation, support after initial training, and a commitment to ensure your program is successful.