What are the key features of a modern LMS? Expert opinions differ. Assignments, grading, quizzes, SCORM, Tin Can, HTML5, mobile support, scalability… Task-oriented or tool-oriented? Open source or paid? Read the article and pick what matters to you.

Starting the series of our discussion club, I’d like to bring up the question of an LMS’s goals and key functionality. A learning management system these days is a suite of modules that go way beyond assignments and tests. What is the philosophy behind a modern LMS?

In this article, I’m raising the key points you may find across the professional e-Learning community.

1. An LMS should be task-oriented rather than tool-oriented

Sounds commonplace and applicable to any software tool at first glance. However, this thesis seems particularly relevant in e-Learning.

Instead of providing an array of tools to the user, the modern LMS tends to empower students with a holistic solution – a course. Architecture-wise, it’s activity rather than functionality that forms the cornerstone of a modern LMS.

Advocates of this approach stick with the following characteristics:

  • Task-oriented modular architecture
  • Open and highly compatible
  • Scalable: serving numerous participants and stakeholders across different environments
  • Informative: with easy-to-access details of student progress, deadlines, opportunities, events, etc.
  • Iterative: tracking and visualization of all intermediate states of the learning process.

Good point, in my opinion. You should pick an LMS based on your needs, not a bunch of features that would hardly be of any value to your content or corporate goals. Cost-savvy consumers have a choice, and the choice is often not the most feature-packed but the most granular and task-oriented solution.

2. An LMS should be personal

Vendors and experts in the educational space argue that their products should be personal. This applies to both ends of the educational spectrum. According to them, a modern LMS encompasses solid formative assessment, individual planning tools and advanced analytics. Other features this approach entails include:

  • Standard compliance. The standards-based approach ensures integrity and visibility of planning and assessment for all stakeholders
  • Compatibility. Rich APIs are key. Teachers and learners exchange content in multiple third-party systems, and it’s important to all vendors they don’t find themselves isolated.
  • Responsive web design and scalability. It’s not only crucial to enroll active mobile users on both sides, but also make sure the flagship web-based product sticks to the best practices of responsive web design.

Although it’s hard to disagree, I’d argue that being overly personal in terms of technology might also be a drawback. A focus on personal goals should not be confused with micromanagement and feature creep. Performance and usability issues may arise when e-Learning systems try to target every single use scenario, hence the system gets bloated.

3. Modern LMS with a modern licensing policy

Some vendors maintain that learning management systems should adapt to the fast-changing market with a flexible pricing policy. “Try before you buy” also comes as an important factor. Indeed, since many offerings are reaching out to private educators, it’s crucial to keep license plans scalable and the system easy to deploy (with no extra hosting or configuration fees associated).

Such a solution would be:

  • SAAS with flexible pricing plans
  • Easily integrated with others (well-documented API/modular structure)
  • Packed with an ample course library
  • Scalable across tablets and smartphones
  • HTML5 rather than Flash-based
  • A cloud solution with a web-based storage system
  • Connected with a high performance content distribution network to ship multimedia content worldwide without delay.

The perks of a free-to-try system are obvious. The same applies to flexible pricing – goes without saying. Whereas SAAS-systems are generally cheaper to use, set up and maintain, customers should keep in mind the security risks associated with the cloud, and check with their provider for appropriate incident prevention.

4. Open source LMS as the modern LMS

Open source fans have quite a few solutions to love in the e-Learning field. The underlying principle here is that you can expand your LMS with new ready-made or custom modules that fit your current needs at a low cost or no cost at all.

As regards functionality, open source and closed source vendors run neck and neck in their “arms race.”

Core academic tools would include, among other features:

  • Restore/backup
  • Assessment engine
  • Learning tools interoperability (LTI)
  • Assignment submission

In terms of user management, it’s important to keep users, roles and groups well administered. User override is also considered a nifty feature.

Both models have their benefits. The dispute between them should be resolved separately in any particular case. Aspects to factor in may include without limitation: educational or corporate use, number of seats, accessibility of in-house infrastructure, budgetary considerations, etc.

5. There is no such thing as fundamental features

This “agnostic” approach is, in fact, becoming trendy among industry experts. Indeed, some “modern” features may end up scarcely being used by the customers. There is no one-size-fits-all here.

According to the “agnostic” experts, the essentials would include:

  • Flexible pricing plans
  • Unlimited number of courses
  • Using SCORM/Tin Can files
  • Creating tests and surveys
  • Creating learning paths
  • Responsiveness
  • Free support
  • Integration with other services through an API, etc.

In this regard, I’d rather revert to my commentary in point 1 (task-oriented approach). Core features do exist: you can’t go without solid course delivery, task assignment and interoperability, just to name a few. Frills or no frills? It’s always up to you to decide.

In conclusion

None of the points above has the monopoly on the truth; however, all of them may constitute guidelines for picking a good LMS solution. I encourage you to share your experience and vision of essential LMS features. Agree or disagree – all opinions are welcome!

Please take a few moments to complete the survey below. Thanks for your feedback!

What is the most important feature of a modern LMS?

2 Comments

  • Thanks for the article! Good point about the “agnostics”, I feel like I belong in that zoo 🙂 Otherwise, it’s all about stakeholders and various viewpoints. Let’s take system administrators and learners.

    What is really important to admins? Flexibility and no pain in the posterior. If you run a big institution and have to deal with student enrollment, segmentation, access groups and all that stuff, think twice before choosing an overly complex solution.

    What matters to students? Communication and socialization. You just need to keep your folks from yawning. It’s not a fundamental feature, but it’s kind of important for a modern LMS.

    • Thanks, Sam! I know this is a huge topic, and I can hardly withstand the temptation of mixing apples and oranges here. If essential means practical in this context, then yes, scalability and interactivity would probably be my top choices as well. If we are talking about the backbone of an LMS, it gets trickier. Is it just authoring and assessment, or is it also grading, attendance tracking, detailed stats and so forth? I still don’t have a ready answer.

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