I was recently talking with the Learning and Development Manager for a growing international company. They had identified an opportunity to provide their employees with an alternative form of training, in addition to their current offering of classroom training, which was falling on the shoulders of an already overworked, understaffed training team.
The conversation quickly turned to elearning, and one of the first questions to pop up was: “Once you've built an elearning course, how do you deliver that to your employees?”
It dawned on me that the two key components required for delivering elearning (the elearning course itself and the platform upon which the elearning courses are hosted) maybe aren’t as widely understood as I had assumed.
In fact, understanding that they are separate components, isn’t really obvious to those of us who are not living and breathing elearning - the word ‘elearning’ is used as a catchall phrase to describe online training courses, and in no way indicates that two different components are required.
So this blog is aimed at anyone who is new to elearning and needs a basic introduction into understanding these concepts. And after a brief introduction to elearning as a whole, we will focus primarily on the ‘LMS’ – the abbreviation given to a platform used to host elearning and deliver courses to learners.
So let’s start at the beginning
There are essentially 3 ways to create elearning:
- Do it yourself - Some of you will have heard of ‘rapid-authoring’ tools such as Articulate and Captivate, which allow you to build your own elearning courses. These are essentially DIY tools that let you install the software locally and with a little knowhow, start building a course yourself. There are also cloud-based tools that are also gaining traction in the market – Elucidat and Gomo are great examples.
- Off-the-shelf - Any topics that are not company specific, i.e. course types such as Compliance, Soft Skills, Software training etc. will already have a plethora of pre-built elearning courses which you can download ‘off-the-shelf’. Websites such as Coursera or Learnpass offer libraries of these types of elearning packages which are ready to go.
- Custom built – Finally, if you don’t have the time or resources to build the courses yourself, or the topics aren’t available in an off-the-shelf format, you can recruit an elearning consultancy to custom build a course for you. These types of providers will work with the subject-matter experts within your organisation to design and deliver a course that achieves the desired objectives.
Right, so let’s assume we already have our first elearning course ready to go. (It’s usually comes as a simple ZIP folder, which is exported in a format called SCORM. But that’s not important right now, we’ll talk about that another time).
But what next?
Well the simple answer is that you need upload these courses to a website, in order for learners to access the courses via their online device. In fact, you can even do this for free these days – you could upload an elearning course to a public Dropbox folder and send the link out to someone, who could then click on the link and begin the course.
The Value of Elearning
But the real value in providing elearning is two dimensional, and I think that isn’t always obvious.
What do I mean by two dimensional? The first aspect is delivering the course as explained above. The learner sits in front of their laptop/tablet etc. for 20 minutes and learns something. Easy.
But the second aspect (and most interesting aspect for learning professionals) is in the information that can be captured from the elearning course:
- How long did the learner take to complete each module?
- Which sections did they avoid?
- Were there any parts of the course that they didn’t understand or skipped completely?
- Did they leave any interesting feedback?
Capturing and using this data is vital in ensuring the elearning is achieving the objectives of the course i.e. Why did we deliver this elearning course in the first place? (You can see my thoughts on the importance of identifying why you are implementing a course here).
The data captured from each course can then be fed back to management within the business to make strategic decisions in a variety of areas. Here are some examples of data/feedback that could be gathered from each course: (just imagine what you could do with the following info!)
- 70% of our customer service team answered a question about a key feature of a new product incorrectly (if our staff don’t understand our products, how will our customers understand our products?)
- 25% of staff based in the USA haven’t undertaken mandatory compliance training (if we were to undergo an audit, would we get fined for not having all our staff compliant?)
- 40% of managers don’t know how to input their staff appraisals into the new HR system (we’ve spent tens of thousands on a new system and they aren’t using it?)
These are just some simple examples (a couple of which that I have actually seen!) I’m sure you can think of lots more.
So the conversation I was having moved onto the topic of this post - the ‘LMS’.
So what is an LMS?
LMS stands for learning management system. To explain an LMS in its most simple form, it is simply a secure website upon which a business can host their elearning courses and from which their employees can undertake online training.
In this context, we are using the phrase ‘elearning courses’ in its broadest sense - although it doesn't necessarily have to be a full-blown elearning course to be hosted on an LMS. It can simply be a combination of videos, PowerPoint presentations, PDF documents etc. But we’ll get onto the nitty-gritty of the content another time. (It seems I am setting myself up for several more blog posts at this rate!)
But as well as delivering courses, an LMS has a lot more functionality. So what else can it do?
Typical LMS functionality
There are literally thousands of LMS on the market, and each have their own unique selling points and various features. It can be an intimidating prospect to choose an LMS, so I would always recommend writing a list of your requirements before starting your search.
But you don’t know what you don’t know right?! So it is useful to know some of the more common features that are available. Maybe you can use the following as a checklist if you are currently looking for an LMS:
The single most powerful aspect of an LMS is that the administrator (the person who manages the LMS) has access to a wide range of different reports, generated from the data fed back from each learner’s behaviour within each course.
Some of the most useful reports are as follows:
- Learner activity – the most common type of report is data based on each individual learner and their behaviour within a course or across all courses. Some of the key measurements that can be found within this type of report are the amount of time spent taking the course, the learner's progress within the course and the answers given to specific questions within the course.
- Course reports - these types of reports are based on each individual course, rather than focusing on each learner. Let's say for example you have 200 employees that all have access to the same course, you can run a course report that tells you what percentage of your employees have taken the course. Or if there is a quiz within that elearning course, what percentage of employees have successfully passed the course.
- Resource downloads – you can use the LMS as a central location to store any resources that you need to make available to staff. Some LMS give you information on how many times a particular resource has been downloaded, and by whom.
I would also recommend looking closely at how this data is presented. Is it in a simple CSV spreadsheet format? Or does the LMS offer beautifully laid out dashboards with pie charts, widgets and filtering etc.? Definitely something to spend some time investigating before you look any closer at a potential LMS.
Most LMS will have one person within the organisation who is responsible for managing the LMS. But the real beauty of using an LMS is that you can provide administrator access to other key people throughout the business, including managers and team leaders.
This has a number of positive benefits, namely that the information gathered by the LMS is much more useful to the manager, because they can use this data to directly impact the progress and behaviour of his team.
This also reduces the amount of administration placed on the shoulders of the L&D manager. (Or whoever is responsible for managing the LMS).
NB: In the previous paragraph, we talked about reporting. I have seen prehistoric, clunky reporting interfaces being a barrier to managers within the business using the system. If they don’t use the LMS regularly, and find the reporting functionality difficult to use which may deter them from using it at all.
Learners can be added to different groups within the LMS, which means different learners will have access to different content. This is where an LMS really steps up in comparison to an Intranet, for example, where there is often a wealth of information, however finding what you need can be a challenge. With an LMS, when you add a new learner, you can assign them to different groups which means they only see content that is relevant to them.
One of the most challenging things about implementing LMS into a corporate environment, is that there are already a host of systems available. A decent LMS will integrate seamlessly with other systems, such as a company intranet and other HR systems, ensuring that it doesn’t feel like yet another website to remember to use.
The administration of training is usually responsible for taking up the majority of the training teams’ resources. However with an LMS, once the system is set up efficiently, most of the administration can be automated. For example, automated emails can be sent out to learners reminding them to take a course, letting them know whether they have passed or failed. Similarly, emails can be sent to managers informing them of their teams’ progress in the form of automated reports.
Instructional Led Training (ILT)
It doesn’t stop at automating online learning. Most organisations will continue to deliver classroom training alongside elearning - a blended solution is the perfect way to be able to deliver instant training on a global basis, while still delivering a hands-on, classroom or coaching based program. You will find that the majority of LMS support the administration of instructor led training (ILT) which can include virtual or classroom training scheduling, automating enrolment and registration emails and attendance tracking.
The most exciting features to be found in a modern day LMS incorporate some of the social features that we use on a day-to-day basis on many of the social platforms:
- Communities/discussion forum - depending on the size and spread of the organisation, discussion forums and communities can be built around each individual course. This can be extremely useful if employees, who aren’t necessarily sitting at the adjacent desks, are looking to discuss content of the course with other colleagues who are also at the same point in the course. This conversation is also saved within the course resources, for learners undertaking the course at a future date to access.
- Leaderboards - one way that organisations are encouraging more staff to engage with their online learning is to provide elements of competition amongst their teams. A visual leaderboard can be displayed on the learners’ dashboard which shows the amount of courses or the pass completion rate in comparison to that of their peers and colleagues. This can be a great way to create a buzz around online training, and these types of statistics can feed very nicely into performance reviews and appraisals. What better way to justify awarding a bonus to someone than by making it public that they have taken and passed more course than their colleagues?
- Reviews - we are seeing it more and more frequently as we shop online, before buying we can read reviews of products and services. We can easily see what score has been given at the description or comment about the consumer's experience in buying the product service. LMS are starting to incorporate a similar kind of review system, whereby learners who have taken an elearning course can leave a review or feedback about the course. This will allow other learners to read the review before deciding whether they want to spend their time on the course.
- Polls, surveys and competitions - to increase engagement and conversation around the content, polls, surveys and competitions can be implemented which can generate enthusiasm.
The majority of LMS will be accessible via a web browser on a mobile device or tablet. Some LMS will have a mobile version that automatically recognise when the learner is using a mobile device and optimise the LMS to fit the screen. However many LMS have an app that can be downloaded from the App Store. This would serve two purposes:
- 1. From a learners perspective, having an app would allow the learner to access their own personal LMS dashboard and undertake training or view progress 24/7.
- 2. From the perspective of the manager, reports could be viewed from the app to see how many people have taken the course, assessment results, course feedback etc. giving managers the ability to work on the fly.
Most elearning content development tools (such as Captivate and Articulate that we mentioned earlier in the post) provide the tools to build assessment and quizzing within the course itself. (It is more and more common to see quiz questions appearing throughout the course rather than just at the end).
However, it is also possible in many LMS that you can build a quiz or assessment in the LMS itself.
This would be useful in a situation where you don't have a traditional elearning course, but you maybe have a series of videos or a combination of different resources. An example of this that I used in a previous company, was where we didn’t have the budget for an elearning course, so we filmed a trainer delivering classroom-based training, and then built the assessment in the LMS for the learner to undertake after they had watched the classroom training videos.
This gave us a ‘quick-win’ in regard to delivering a course to a wide audience without having to build complex elearning course from the ground up.
One fantastic aspect to using LMS is the ability for a certificate to be generated once a course has been successfully completed. In my last company, we created a certificate template that was populated at the end of each course and emailed to the learner once they had successfully passed the assessment at the end. We set up the system to carbon copy the email to the employees’ manager, which gave the manager the opportunity able to provide some positive recognition on successful completion of the course within their team.
Many of the more advanced LMS incorporate some type of e-commerce facility. If you had invested time developing an elearning course and that course would be useful to learners outside the organisation or maybe even your customers, you could always look at a model whereby you sell your courses on a per user basis. This would mean that learners could login to your LMS and purchase a single course or group of courses using a credit card or PayPal account – a great way to create an additional revenue stream and demonstrate an immediate return on investment on your LMS?
The subject of language within elearning can be confusing, but it’s important to think back to earlier in this blog when we discussed the two sides of elearning: the course itself and the platform. Many LMS will provide the functionality to change the language used on a learner’s dashboard at the click of a button. Whilst this is extremely useful, especially for global organisations, it is really important to remember that while the platform will change into a different language, the content will not!
As learning professionals, we are all conditioned to understand that learning is not a single event, but an ongoing process of learning experiences. So to support this theory, you can also create learning paths or curricula within the LMS. These are multiple courses organised into logical groupings, which create a path for learners to follow.
Well... That escalated quickly!
What started out as a quick overview of a conversation, turned into a 3,000 word behemoth of a blog post - I hope that didn’t wear you out?! Hopefully that gave you a really good insight into an LMS, and how the LMS platform fits into the broader spectrum of elearning.
I pride myself on being able to talk plain English, so if any of that was confusing or left you scratching your head, I would be really grateful if you could let me know where I could have improved the article.
If you have any questions please post them below, or please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me directly by clicking here to ask any questions.