What is an LMS?

What is an LMS?

Photo of notepad with learning management system lms on office wooden table

If you are searching for the best online course platform to sell online courses, you will eventually come across the term “LMS.” So, what is LMS? And, how does it compare to an “online course platform?”

While there are various ways to define what an LMS is, my aim is to offer a definition that will be most useful to edupreneurs. So, first let’s deal with what the letters stand for.

“LMS” is an acronym for “learning management system.” Which, of course, begs the question “What is a learning management system?”

At its core, a learning management system, or, LMS is a software application or Web-based technology used to administer and deliver learning activities. But what’s meant by “administer and deliver”? And what’s meant by “learning activities”?

Answering those questions isn’t as straightforward as you might hope. Traditionally, LMSes have excelled at a fairly basic, but essential set of tasks for managing learners and providing them with access to learning content. Historically, pretty much any LMS would:

  • enable you to enroll learners in courses
  • enable your learners to launch and access those courses
  • enable you to track learners’ activity, scores, and completion of courses
  • support basic testing and assessment
  • enable you to generate reports on learner activity

These items cover “administer and deliver” pretty well, but notice that I did not say anything about creating courses or other types of learning experiences. And I also haven’t said anything about selling courses. So, let’s take a closer those areas.

Authoring in an LMS

In the past, it’s usually been true that LMSes are for delivering and tracking courses, not authoring courses or other learning experiences.

In fact, that are very good reasons why you would not want to author your courses in an LMS. The main one is that your course may end up being held prisoner. You see, if you use tools in an LMS to create your courses, you will most likely have a difficult time getting your course out of that platform and into another one if you switch platforms down the road.

That’s where e-learning standards come into play.

For decades there have been standards that govern how e-learning content communicates with a database to send data about learner activity back and forth. For years, SCORM – which stands for the Shareable Content Object Reference Model – has been the main set of standards to which LMSes and e-learning authoring tools have complied.

More recently, a new set of standards called – depending on who you talk to – TinCan, xAPI, or the Experience API (yes, these are all the same thing!) have tried to take into account the fact that learners get their content from many sources – not just from a single Web site or database. While xAPI addresses a set of needs SCORM did not address very well, it isn’t really a replacement for SCORM. Rather, CMI5, a new standard that improves upon the core capabilities of SCORM while also incorporating xAPI, seems likely to emerge as the key standard for LMSes and course authoring in the coming years.

Now, if all of that was a bit too geeky for you, don’t worry: you don’t have to have a deep understanding of these standards, you mainly just need to understand the benefits they can give you. For your average online course producer, the main advantage you get from standards is portability. By authoring course content outside of the LMS in a standards compliant tool – like one of these – and then importing, you give yourself the flexibility to import that same content into a different standards-compliant LMS.

(See also Does SCORM Matter for Selling Online Courses.)

Selling Online Courses with an LMS

So, that covers the authoring question. As you can see, there’s a lot to be said for authoring separately from the LMS. But that leads us to the selling question.

You see, many of the online course platforms that are really good for selling and are also affordable enough for your average edupreneur are not standards compliant. This is because historically LMSes were not intended for selling courses. They were intended for delivering courses to corporate employees who usually do not pay anything to participate in a course. And, even in the case of academic LMSes, payment usually happens well before a student reaches the LMS (i.e., through payment of a tuition bill).

In the past several years, though, a whole new breed of platforms has emerged that is specifically geared toward selling online courses. Some of the most popular of these are Thinkific, Teachable, LearnWorlds, and Kajabi. Each of these platforms offers a variety of tools for authoring courses in the platform and they offer tools for helping you market and sell your courses.

Now, more traditional LMSes have started to catch on to this idea, so we are starting to see standards-compliant platforms that have added e-commerce capabilities – like those listed here. My experience is that these tend to be good for somewhat larger learning businesses that have more sophisticated needs around areas like assessment or offering continuing education credit.

Are an LMS and an Online Course Platform the Same Thing?

More or less, depending on your perspective. If you are a real LMS purist, then you may insist that an LMS needs to follow standards is not the place where authoring should happen.

From the perspective of an edupreneur, though, any platform that can support you in offering courses to your audience probably qualifies as an LMS. What’s critical when you set out to select a platform is that you are clear about what type of course business you are. Your answer to that question will determine whether the platform you need is closer to a traditional LMS or is part of the new breed of course platforms that have emerged.

So, Again, What Is an LMS?

So, back to where we started – that is, how to define LMS.

The way I define LMS at this point – for the purposes of Learning Revolution – is that an LMS is a Web-based, database-driven software application that empowers edupreneurs to attract, convert, serve, and track useful information about learning experiences for their learner/customers. A full-featured LMS may include any or all of the following capabilities:

  • enable you to enroll learners in courses
  • enable your learners to launch and access those courses
  • enable you to track learners’ activity, scores, and completion of courses
  • support basic testing and assessment
  • enable you to generate reports on learner activity
  • content authoring tools to enable you to create courses and other learning content
  • integrated capabilities for managing Webinars
  • capabilities for scheduling and managing classroom-based learning
  • collaboration and social tools like discussion boards
  • sophisticated assessment tools that include things like randomization and questions banks,
  • capabilities for managing and tracking continuing education credit, certification requirements, and the issuance of certificates and badges
  • e-commerce functionality for selling enrollments
  • established integrations with other platforms that need to send data to or receive data from the LMS

Now, if you are out to choose the right LMS for selling your online courses, I strongly encourage you to grab my free online course platform selection guide. And, I highly recommend that you check out the following posts:

And, be sure to also check out ReviewMyLMS for LMS reviews from actual users.

JTC

P.S. – Here’s additional perspective on “What is LMS

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