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How to choose the best LMS from academic perspective

Educational institutions worldwide require efficient education and instruction methods to remain competitive. As eLearning technology is able to provide this competitive edge,  more and more universities and colleges decide to abandon face-to-face model and make a transition to blended learning or fully online learning using some Learning Management System (LMS).

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Content and Marketing Manager, Raccoon Gang

Dmitry is passioned about gamification and immersive learning techniques. He has been the content writer and editor at RG blog since 2018.

How to choose the best LMS from academic perspective

For example, at least 28% of students receive their education partially or fully online nowadays, according to Babson group report. However, to ensure success of this venture, the faculty staff should understand how to choose the best LMS from academic perspective — or how to find a better alternative to an already used software. As there are more than 700 learning management solutions available nowadays, every educational institution can choose the LMS that fits their strategy and vision best. However, the first question to answer is what is an LMS from academic perspective? 

A learning management system (LMS) is a software or cloud service used for online course creation, management, delivery and tracking, as well as student enrollment and management. 

Some learning management systems provide mobile apps integration, some don’t do it. Some solutions allow content creation and import, others concentrate on ready content management and delivery. Payment options and localization possibilities can also vary hugely depending on the eLearning platform type. 

LMS types

LMS’s can be divided into three large categories:

  • Proprietary 
  • Partly open-source 
  • Open-source

Proprietary LMS software requires a significant purchase and implementation expenses, as well as monthly/annual subscription fees. These products (Blackboard and others) are well-documented, have reputable companies supporting them and boast a rich number of features. The downside to this is that the proprietors have their own product development strategies and vision in place, which can differ from the community expectations. There is a certain lag between an idea request and implementation, some features never get implemented and customizations are quite costly in terms of time and effort. However, platform stability and robust arsenal of features make this option a worthy choice for many educational institutions with sufficient budgets.

Partly open-source eLearning solutions like Canvas by Instructure offer a middle ground between two worlds. They are developed by a proprietor company yet are distributed under several types of licences allowing various degrees of customization. Most of the features are free of charge, yet some advanced features can be distributed in paid packages. Such LMSs can still require significant effort on customization or integrating with third-party software or custom/legacy modules, as well as costly usage training and personnel education.

Open-source LMSs like Open edX, Moodle or Sakai are developed by huge and passionate communities of developers spread across the globe. Due to being open-source such solutions boast wide brandability and customization options, multitude of features (like social integration, gamification, robust analytics, etc.) and ease of integration into existing software ecosystems. After initial setup and configuration investments, such solutions are essentially free of charge for their owners, with minor episodic investments to update the release. The downside of choosing such platform might be that it can be written in some programming language your current IT staff does not possess, which means additional staff must be hired or retraining of existing personnel is needed. In addition, the staff must understand the platform architecture and operating principles to make LMS work at its best.

Once the purchase model is chosen, it’s time to organize the selection committee. 

Committee selection

The committee ought to be elected amongst the top-managers of the educational institution and other influential personnel, IT staff and student representatives. The committee should develop a schedule of meetings, determine the timeframes for making decisions, choose the way of voting to minimize friction and establish the way to overcome the stalemate situation, should one arise. Once all of this is dealt with, the committee must determine the features and functionality the faculty, IT staff and students expect to receive from the LMS (and analyze what are the core functions and what are the nice-to-haves). Here is quite a detailed list of questions to ask when considering the next LMS choice

Expected LMS features selection

IT staff would most likely prefer the system to be easily maintainable and configurable, along with providing simple integration with existing software to minimize the adoption curve. They would also request data security, ease of customization and simplicity of access levels management. 

Accounting would like the LMS to be as affordable as possible and deploy built-in eCommerce system for processing payments abroad. Faculty would like the LMS to provide powerful content import, creation and management tools along with student engagement features to ensure better learning outcomes. Human Resources (HR) and Learning & Development (LD) teams would most likely appreciate ease of student management, along with learning efficiency analytics and tracking. 

The students would expect the LMS to be able to provide easy access to education through a variety of desktop or mobile devices, social networks integration and other means of communication and collaboration.

Once this wishlist is created, the committee should choose the LMS that fits most of the requests or can be relatively easily customized to achieve this.

Choosing the best LMS

While most of the features mentioned above are standard and can be covered by most of the eLearning platforms available, the ease of LMS customization, along with great user experience are often the cornerstones of success — or failure of the learning management system adoption. 

Moodle is a widespread choice for institutions that do not require intense customization or advanced functionalities. Its simple and minimalistic design allows jumping straight to learning with minimal hassle. However, the UI is quite generic, dashboard is not too informative and basic tracking functions provide quite limited functionality. In addition, Moodle uses its own data architecture and requires significant time for platform setup and configuration, not to mention the need for hiring an experienced Moodle developer for ongoing support and customization.

Sakai eLearning solution is backed by a passionate community of developers and boasts low installation and maintenance costs, wide arsenal of LTI plugins, tools and custom skins. However community members stated encountering certain difficulties with setup of some platform features like events calendar, forums, wikis and absence of native WYSIWYG wiki editor.

Open edX platform is an affordable, widely brandable and highly customizable eLearning platform. It is used by the leading companies and universities worldwide and developed by huge international community of developers. It consists of Studio CMS for easy online course content import, creation and management, along with Open edX LMS for convenient student enrollment and management, course delivery and tracking, certification and analytics. The downsides include high IT staff technical skill requirements for correct platform installation and setup (Vagrant, Ansible and VirtualBox experience is required) and the absence of CRM components out of the box (though any CRM solutions can be integrated using API extensions).

As you can see, all the systems listed above have their flaws and benefits. However, we firmly believe that the ease of customization and great UX are the essential LMS characteristics that ensure the venture success. Should you have any ideas or concerns - please write them in the comments below! We are always glad to answer questions and help each educational institution choose the best LMS from academic perspective. 

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