Finding the most optimal Learning Management System (LMS) for your online courses

A quick overview of the most popular LMS’es, and what to think about when choosing the platform for your online courses.

Finding the most optimal LMS for your users/students will make a huge impact on their learning progress. Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

First, what is a Learning Management System?

In short, a Learning Management System or LMS, is a pack of software that gives you everything you need to run everything from one single online course to up to thousands of courses, addressing millions of students.

An LMS normally includes everything you need to:

  • Set up anywhere from one single to thousands of online courses
  • Add and maintain any type of content, from pure text to video to images to interactive and complex tasks to be completed, all within a pre-defined structure of chapters and sections
  • Set up- and maintain students, including on-boarding
  • Track detailed progress of each student
  • Interact with each student, giving feedback, discussing topics and more
  • Set up rules for how the students can proceed through the course, with quiz and tasks to be completed prior to continuing to the next step
  • Issuing course certificate
  • Follow-up after course completion

If you plan to only run offline/physical/real-world courses, an LMS might still be a good choice, although simply producing the course material in your favorite text editor like Google Docs can also do the trick.

Note that this article is purely focusing on LMS platforms handling online courses.

What are your ambitions for the LMS?

Like with pretty much all decisions we make; it depends.

  • It depends on the features required. Do you need to be able to manually control the timeline for each course attendee? Do you need to upload videos? Do you need to set different points independently on each section? Quiz? Auto-generated diploma? Need to charge for the courses?
  • It also depends on your goal. Is it to simply run one single online course that you are making yourself? Or, in the opposite end of the scale, are you put in charge of finding and selecting the LMS for a large school or corporation?
  • And finally, it depends on the budget. Is the budget zero? Or are someone throwing millions at you to find and set up the best LMS there is?

So before continuing, be sure to have defined your ambitions, and a short-list of the features wanted, both nice-to-have and strictly required.

Learning Management Systems contain tons of important features. Make sure the one you select includes everything you need now, and in the near future.

So, finding the most optimal LMS

Although there are tons of systems to choose from, we can very quickly narrowing it down to a handful of systems;

  • Open edX and Moodle, both open source and basically free (Moodle can also be run with a subscription)
  • TalentLMS, eLeap, Blackboard, all SaaS (software as a service) products which are priced on a monthly basis

Open edX and Moodle are so-called open source software, meaning they doesn't cost anything, and can also potentially be modified in any way you would want to (that doesn't mean you actually want to modify it, but you have the possibility, which is great).

The major difference between Open edX and Moodle is that Open edX is primarily built for larger sets of students enrolling into the same courses (MOOC's), while Moodle is more designet to handle “classroom”-sized groups, with an educator following them up directly.

Uh, what is MOOC? The cow language?

MOOC is a relatively new term, which stands for Massive Open Online Courses, and is simply a collection of hundreds and in some cases thousands of online courses freely available for anyone to take.

The most popular MOOC is edX, which has freely available online courses covering practically any topic.

Open edX is the most optimal LMS for most corporations and organizations needing a robust, price-efficient, flexible, feature-rich Learning Management System which is being actively developed every single day.

The main reasons for recommending Open edX as the most optimal LMS for most enterprise-grade companies and organizations over basically all the others, are simply that it is being continuously developed and optimized by hundreds of developers every single day, it contains all features you will most likely ever need (and more), it looks pretty decent, and it works great and is efficient to use both for the trainers/teachers and the users/students.

Two of the largest and best universities in the world, Harvard and MIT, founded edX back in 2012, and are the core maintainers of the LMS. And, corporations such as Microsoft and IBM are using Open edX as their LMS, which in itself says the most.

Open edX simply covers every feature needed by most companies and organizations.

The only potential drawback with Open edX is that it is not a pure SaaS click-and-get-started platform, although several companies out there offers professional hosting and maintenance of it at an affordable price. It could be wise to include it as part of your existing tech stack, and have your IT-department host it on your servers. That way you have full control of it.

Moodle is also one of the largest LMS in specially Europe and Asia, with a market share in Europe of an estimated 50%.

If you are considering Open edX, then you should simply spend a couple of hours investigating whether Moodle might be a better option for you. Also, Moodle has partners supporting and maintaining the platform in most countries around the world.

TalentLMS, eLeap and Blackboard on the other hand are pure SaaS (Software as a Service) systems, with a monthly subscription price mainly depending on the number of users/students.

All will be a relatively good choice for you if you have a few dozen and up to a few hundred courses going on, with some hundreds of users/students and potentially up to thousands. They will also be good alternatives if you just want to get started with something, and don't care too much on the more specific features, and also are not scared of the cost involved with going down the SaaS path (which basically means the more students you get onboard, the more expensive will it be).

Online Learning Management Systems (LMS) are used by millions of students every single day. Photo by Helloquence on Unsplash

Other alternatives, mainly for hobbyists and SMB companies

  • Thinkific. Has tons of features and works very well for most types of organizations, and is also worth checking out if none of the initial recommendations are a good fit
  • Podia. Easy to get started. Tons of features, including membership-solution and selling digital stuff. Covers more than LMS, which isn't always a good thing.
  • Canvas. Great system, though the hassle of trying to test the system, finding the price and so on and so forth, makes it a less obvious choice compared to the others.
  • Teachable. Easy to use for most scenarios. Quick setup.

And hey, don’t set up a Wordpress installation and install an “LMS plugin” and hope for the best. Just don't.

Alright, so which system should we proceed with?

Going all in and want the best from day one?

Students: 1000+ and up to millions
Courses: 100+ and up to thousands
LMS: Open edX, alternatively Moodle

Wanna start slowly?

Students: 5–1000
Courses: 1–100
LMS: Moodle, alternatively Thinkific

Who shall be the Head of LMS?

Be sure to use one or a few dedicated persons to;

  1. Decide which LMS to use.
  2. Implement the LMS.
  3. Becoming the super-user, which further supports the ones which are actually producing- and having the courses for its students.

Some final words

Deciding on a Learning Management System is actually not that difficult.

If you are not doing this on an extremely large-scale basis, then all the LMS'es mentioned will be good alternatives, and it will not be crisis to eventually change to another LMS at a later time.

For enterprise-grade companies and organizations, simply deciding on Open edX sooner than later will at least not get you fired.

Happy learning!

Father, nerd, entrepreneur, writer, investor and what not.

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