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Published on:
January 8, 2021

Learning Management Systems Explained

With today’s online connectivity, you might have come across the term ‘learning management system.’ Especially, when you are reading beginner’s guides, tip sheets, and eLearning articles, the term frequently pops up. It is a subset of online learning platforms developed with advanced features.

Exactly, what is a learning management system, or what is an LMS? It is defined as a software application developed for the creation, administration, tracking, reporting, documentation, and delivery of educational content, training programs, and learning and development courses.

An LMS consists of two components; a server that performs the base functionality of storing courseware and managing learning content, and a user interface that is the user’s platform for accessing the LMS for learning purposes.

The concept of learning management systems was developed from eLearning. Initially, LMS platforms were used in higher education. However, over time, they have been adopted by other sectors notably, the corporate market for employee training purposes. LMSs make up the largest segment of the learning ecosystem.

LMS is one of the most common elearning topics. For information on other popular elearning topics, visit this page.

Learning management systems were developed to identify gaps in learning and training with the help of analytical data and reporting. Their primary focus is not only to deliver online learning but also to support a range of other functions such as playing the role of being a platform for online learning content, including courseware. Courses can be synchronous or asynchronous based.

Synchronous learning takes place when both the learners and their instructor(s) are all logged in and present at the same time. Asynchronous learning, on the other hand, is when the learners can log in at their preferred times for learning purposes; neither they nor their instructor(s) should necessarily be present at the same time.

Today, we have advanced LMS platforms that come with intelligent algorithms. These give learners automated recommendations for different courses based on their skills and abilities. They can also extract meta-data from courseware to make these recommendations accurate.

Primary Function of an LMS

The purposes for which institutions and organizations use LMS platforms vary depending on their desired objectives, organizational policies, and online training strategy. Nonetheless, the main reason an organization may acquire an LMS website is to develop and track online learning.

Ideally, content is uploaded to the LMS and can be accessed remotely by a number of users. The basic requirements are a username and password, for you to get access to the LMS and get courseware anywhere at any time.

Most LMS platforms are hosted on a cloud, however, some are self-hosted and the administrators must install the relevant software on their computers. Whichever the option, LMS users are categorized into two; the administrators and content creators who participate in LMS training, and online learners who have registered to take various courses via these systems.

Organizational leaders and leaders in educational institutions have realized that in order to sustain a more knowledgeable workforce and better-performing students respectively, learning should be an ongoing focus.

Hence, choosing the right LMS for your company or educational institution can make or break your goals. Certainly, there are various benefits and features that an LMS will offer that will make learning, both for employees and students, more effective.

LMS versus ELearning

The two are usually confused as one and the same thing. However, there are key differences. The focus of an LMS is content delivery and tracking of learners’ progress.

In comparison, for eLearning, there is no much focus on assessment, collaboration and grading as is the case with LMS. In fact, eLearning depends on LMSs to give the sequence and scope for training.

Elearning is mostly housed within an LMS ecosystem. Also, most eLearning vendors sell products that can be integrated with most LMS platforms.

Types of Learning Management Systems (LMS)

There are different types of LMS platforms that organizations can choose from. They include:

  • Cloud-based versus Self-hosted
  • Free versus Commercial
  • Individual versus Enterprise
  • SaaS versus Licensed
  • Inbuilt Authoring Tools versus Pre-Written CMS (content management system)
  • Integrated

Cloud-based versus Self-hosted

A cloud-based LMS is housed in a secure off-site server that allows users to remotely access LMS content on computers and various mobile devices. They can also be accessed offline by some devices using some apps.

Most of these LMSs include most of the features that learners expect. The advantage of a cloud-based LMS is that it is more scalable compared to an installed one.

A self-hosted LMS is developed as a stand-alone product that can be installed on a user’s computer. Despite the advantage of having greater control and customization over the system, the users must do maintenance for themselves and pay for updates.

Free versus Commercial

There are many free open-source online learning platforms that can be used to create courses. Anyone with technical knowledge can take advantage of such and create online learning content that can be accessed anywhere at any time in an eLearning environment.

Technical know-how is needed to operate and manage such an LMS hence if you are not capable you need a specialist for that role. Updates will require time and expertise and are not always guaranteed to be smooth. Moodle is an example of a free LMS.

Commercial LMSs are developed to be used by educational institutions and any other organizations. The advantage is that they are easy to deploy and come with 24/7 technical and customer support.

Most commercial LMS platforms need to be updated frequently but, since most of them are cloud-based, updates are automatic.

They come with loads of features meaning you will always have a high-tech online learning solution.

Individual versus Enterprise

An individual LMS is designed for small organizations and may come with a few great features. However, they limit content creators in terms of what they can create, deliver, and manage. 

Nonetheless, individual LMSs serve the needs of small organizations and help them produce learning material for their users.

LMSs are priced differently depending on the type and features they offer. Individual LMSs are reasonably priced owing to their limitations and design.

Enterprise LMS solutions, at the highest level, are generally developed to serve many employees; say 500 or more.

They are highly-scalable and can be expanded even as the organization grows and as new courses and content are added. Mostly, enterprise solutions come with many advanced features that fulfill the needs of many organizations.

SaaS versus Licensed

The most popular model for an LMS is SaaS (software as a service). It is a ready-made solution that is easy to deploy and administer. Mostly, it is cloud-based and comes with frequent free upgrades.

Despite the fact that it can limit the organization in terms of customization, SaaS is a good solution for an organization that is growing (such as an educational institution), since it is scalable over time. Better still, free technical support is generally included.

For licensed LMS platforms, there is either an annual fee or a one-time payment that an organization must pay to gain access to the product. Licensed LMSs offer administrators customization options, customer support, and are reliable for users.

Though it may take time, this model can be built to a customer’s specifications. Also, it can be cloud-based or self-hosted. Importantly, the organization can implement this model at any time. The only downside is that updates may take time.

The largest expense is the user license. However, if hosted on a cloud, licensed LMS solutions are cost-effective. The cost per user becomes significantly low compared to other LMS types. Customer and technical support can be limited but can be added when needed at an additional fee.

Inbuilt Authoring Tools versus Pre-Written CMS

Most modern LMS platforms come with authoring tools. These are meant to help content creators create courseware with ease. However, almost all LMS platforms support Experience API/xAPI or SCORM standards which allow content creators to upload ready-made content from authoring tools. 

Nonetheless, content creators prefer to have the authoring tools inbuilt for purposes of creating courses and revisions. In some cases, some LMSs come with pre-authored content. Learning documents, assessments, and exercises can be also incorporated.

Notably, it is important to differentiate between an LMS and a CMS. An LMS is a platform where learning takes place. On the contrary, a CMS is a system that supports the creation, editing, and management of online content, mostly for publishing. Compared to an LMS, a CMS cannot track and report a user’s progress.

However, a CMS can also be used to store some documentation and learning materials. It is also an ideal place for learning and development (L&D) teams to pre-design courses before they are delivered to learners.

Despite that, a CMS is not a substitute for an LMS. As soon as content is completed, it should be uploaded to the LMS. WordPress is a common CMS used for blogging purposes. 

Interestingly, there are some WordPress systems that allow content creation and delivery within the WordPress environment. They are called WordPress LMS systems. These use WordPress plugins such as LearnPress to add LMS features to a normal WordPress CMS.


Most LMS systems can seamlessly integrate with other software that an organization is using such as a CRM (customer relationship management) system. The result is an enhanced user experience.

Integration involves connecting the LMS with other related but compatible software products. Yes, the organization may choose to keep each system separate from the other. However, this robs the users of the opportunities that come with integration.

LMS Features

Different LMS platforms have different features meant to appeal to different segments of users. For instance, a K-12 LMS will be different from that meant for corporate training.

A good LMS should come with great features suited for the user as well as save costs. It is vital that an organization chooses the right LMS that can help it meet its objectives. Some key LMS features include the following:

  • A central system where all administrators and learners can securely log in.
  • Event management and scheduling functionalities that direct learners through different learning paths.
  • Experience API/xAPI LMS learning standard incorporated into the system to facilitate the authoring and addition of content.
  • Automated assessment, test scoring, and performance evaluation based on the learner’s behavior.
  • Profiles, certificates, learning badges that can be shared by peers to prove their performance.
  • Gamification to engage the users and make the learning experience fun.
  • Webinar and live classroom functions for instructor-led learning scenarios.
  • Technical support that also includes course development support. This is achieved by lesson plans and inbuilt tutorials.
  • It should allow for accessibility; all users including people with disabilities should use the system with ease.
  • It should have a responsive design with a great user experience.
  • It should have advanced tracking and reporting features.
  • Social capability where users can create profiles and connect with other peers.
  • It should seamlessly integrate with other software systems in use in your organization.

The list is not exhaustive. For a comprehensive list of features, please check out our blog post ‘What is an LMS? A Guide to Learning Management Systems.’

Key Benefits of an LMS

  • Centralization of content - LMSs will allow you to put all your content in one place.
  • Blended Learning approach - Combines one-on-one and online learning strategies.
  • Unlimited access to course material.
  • Saves learning costs - It eliminates expenses such as instructor fees, travel fees, and other costs.
  • Time-saving - Learners only pick courses relevant to them. In turn, they can complete courses faster.
  • Easy tracking of performance - Advanced tracking and reporting features of LMSs give detailed reports.
  • Compliance - LMSs make adjusting content easy to adhere to learning regulations.
  • Easy updates - To update courses, the instructor just needs to add to the already existing content. There is no need to create new content every time.
  • Enhanced collaboration - Learners can connect and cooperate on various projects and activities.
  • Integration with social networks - Most LMSs allow users to connect their profiles with their social networks. In turn, learners benefit by connecting with peers on platforms such as Facebook groups and forums.


An LMS automates the process of learning and gives a blended learning approach. It is important to know which LMS platform is suitable for your organization. Evaluating the features of a good LMS is vital to reap all the benefits. Indeed, it can be a difficult decision since it is a long-term commitment.

When looking for an LMS, list down all the features you want. Also, consider the type of LMS you need and the budget you can comfortably allocate. To add, it is important to evaluate if the LMS will meet your organization’s objectives and save costs. 

Lastly, read more about learning standards, licensing models, and other relevant information. All these details will help you choose an LMS that helps your organization realize its objectives. It also assists your learners to achieve their desired learning outcomes.

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