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An LMS, or learning management system, is software that allows schools or organizations to deliver educational or training materials via the internet. An LMS can consist of many different features, be set up in various ways, and target specific audiences. All learning management systems have two main things in common:
Online teaching/learning/training – The cornerstone of an LMS is that it is for teaching, learning, and/or training. Other online software choices exist for many specialized use cases but having and using an LMS is centered on the idea of learning.
Easily accessible for remote learners – LMS were born from the need for learners to be able to access materials and submit assessments remotely. Whether it is an employee working from home, a student accessing online resources from home to help catch up in class, or a college student who is travelling while taking courses, LMS users need access from decentralized locations and at flexible times.
Learning management systems, in some form or fashion, can be traced back to the 1970s. It wasn’t until higher education had an interest in eLearning in the 1990s and 2000s that complete, full-feature LMS came to be.
Origins in higher education/distance learning – In the mid 20th century, universities began experimenting with delivery of video lectures and correspondence courses, with student work being submitted by mail. The very first adaptive teaching system, SAKI, was created in 1956. In the 1960s, the first computer for instruction was installed on a college campus, and computer-based classes began for the first time. From there, educational technology took off, with colleges and universities adopting their own learning platforms in the 1990s and offering anything from single courses, to entire degrees online.
Origins in corporate training – Corporate training using learning management systems picked up in the 1980s with computers and corporate networks more easily accessible. In the 1990s, it truly took off, with internet access becoming more available. In present day, over 75% of companies use some kind of online training to employees to improve job performance.
Evolution to support K-12 schools -- K-12 schools have recently begun to adopt learning management systems as a way to provide blended learning opportunities, and better communicate with students and parents, among other things. With the increase in technology available to these schools, some higher education LMS providers have adapted their software to work on the K-12 level, while others, like Twine, were developed specifically with K-12 schools in mind.
One of the great things about having a learning management system is that it can truly be a benefit to a wide variety of organizations. The way the system is used by each type of organization varies, but with a robust enough platform, there is something for everyone.
Higher Educational institutions – Colleges and universities take advantage of LMS to support more students with less faculty through improved efficiency. Online programs allow faculty to reach more students than could fit in a traditional classroom but give them the time and attention they need through videos, personal communication, and assignment feedback.
Public K-12 Institutions – Having an LMS helps public school districts standardize and consolidate platforms for record keeping and communication, so each school and each teacher are sending consistent messages and tracking student progress in the same way. Additionally, public schools are also taking advantage of having parent and student portals with all their academic and achievement data in one place.
Private K-12 Institutions – For private schools, family satisfaction is one of the most important factors because students and parents are choosing the school. Having an LMS helps keep families happy by improving student engagement, community building, and providing frequent personalized communication about student progress.
Corporations -- Corporations and businesses of all sizes can benefit from an LMS, particularly in the areas of collaboration and online training. Teams can communicate project progress and deadlines, share drafts of documents and more using an LMS as a collaboration tool, while human resources can deliver training and track employee progress using the same system.
Professional Associations—In industries where continuing education, certifications, and re-certifications are necessary, such as nursing, education, and real estate, an LMS can be a useful way for accrediting agencies to provide courses and track progress toward the necessary milestones.
Learning management systems can be used for different purposes within the organizations mentioned in the previous section. Although as a school or business, the ultimate strategy you use for incorporating an LMS is up to you, there are a few that are relatively commonplace:
Certifications / professional development – Although a lot of LMS use is by educational institutions, corporations are more frequently using LMS to present and track professional development, training, and certifications within their company. An LMS offers an efficient and convenient place for employees to go to meet all of their training needs and allows HR departments to view what has been completed by each of the company’s employees.
Distance learning - Schools offering distance learning courses – otherwise known as online courses – typically do so using some kind of LMS. Robust LMS allow schools to enroll students in multiple courses, upload learning materials and assignments to the courses, and students can access them from anywhere, opening up education to military families, students in rural areas, those who work full time, or students who like the flexibility distance learning provides.
Blended learning - Blended learning is a popular teaching strategy where students access some of their learning materials, coursework or both online, while still attending traditional class, either for a reduced period of time, or as a way to differentiate learning. Blended learning is becoming increasingly common in traditional schools, where even routine homework can include online resources and students can collaborate online through group projects and support each other as an academic community. There are dozens of different ways blended learning is approached, but most of them use a LMS for the online component of the course.
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Cloud-based – Learning management systems hosted on the cloud ensures that your data and information is accessible no matter where you or other users are located. Cloud-based systems are typically backed up in several ways, ensure data is not lost due to power failure, natural disaster, or other catastrophe. Hosting your LMS in the cloud also means you are not responsible for setting up or maintaining expensive equipment on-site.
Self-hosted - Self-hosted or “on premise” LMS are typically used by businesses and schools who have their own server space, dedicated IT staff, and want their data and information stored on-site in their own servers. For those who don’t already have their own servers set up, this option can be costly, as purchasing and setting up the required hardware and developing internal expertise is a major commitment.
Web app - Traditionally, LMS are accessed like any other website – through an internet browser. This allows anyone to log in from any computer without needing special programs installed.
Desktop client – In some situations a specialized piece of software is installed for access to an LMS. Most often this is required in specialized situations such as professional recertification, where content providers might lock down proprietary materials to prevent them from being shared, or where special security may be required to ensure users aren’t browsing the web while completing a recertification exam.
Mobile app - As smartphones and tablets become more and more popular, many students and families access the internet solely on their mobile devices. As a result, LMS providers often have mobile apps which allow students, parents, and teachers to access their course resources from any smartphone or tablet.
Along with different types of Learning Management System hosting, there are also a variety of approaches to pricing. It is important to understand what type of pricing model your LMS vendor offers and which options might work best for your school or company.
Licensing fee – For schools or businesses that have the infrastructure to host their own data, some LMS providers issue a license to install and use their software with the understanding that the school or company is responsible for the server space to store the LMS data. Licensing fees can be perpetual, usually with a supplemental maintenance and support contract that is renewed annually, or based on a fixed time frame.
Subscription fee – LMS providers that offer a subscription fee typically base costs on the number of users of the system, so costs scale in proportion to organization size. The LMS provider handles the server space, security, backups, and other infrastructure for the LMS, allowing subscribers to plan for a single, comprehensive cost for their LMS rather than accounting separately for server hardware, networking, administrative staff, or other ancillary costs.
Open source – Open source LMS allows schools with more technical expertise to deploy the code for their LMS, run the system on their own servers, and troubleshoot their own problems. Typically, there’s no formal support for open-source systems, although resources can be found online to guide schools toward their solutions. This type of system typically only works successfully in schools that have established IT departments with programming expertise and the resources necessary to set up and maintain their own LMS.
Freemium – Some LMS providers offer limited access to their systems for “free” to end users. These free LMS typically charge extra for features that would be standard on a fee-based service, and often exclude customer service and accountability for system availability to non-paying users. Like the old adage says: you get what you pay for, so be sure to research what a freemium service includes, what hidden costs there are, and what kind of assistance (if any) you’ll receive from the vendor.
Keep in mind that corporations that offer free services are still corporations, and they need revenue to stay in business. Usually, these companies take one of two approaches to generating revenue: 1) they work to convert free users to paid users by limiting the features available on the free version, or 2) their paying customers are third-party businesses, who will purchase access to their user base (often in the form of advertising), or to whom they sell data mined from the accounts and activity generated on their platform.
There are many benefits of an LMS that aren’t directly tied to features of the system but can be a huge help for the schools that decide to invest in an LMS.
Re-use of materials – There’s no need to reinvent the wheel and recreate materials each year. An LMS allows documents, videos, photos, and more, to be stored so they can be used in a week, month, or even a subsequent school year, allowing teachers to place their focus elsewhere.
Alternative methods to present materials – A classroom is a little limiting when it comes to presenting materials in a variety of ways – you only have a certain amount of time in each class period, after all. An LMS allows teachers to upload videos, photos, interactive assignments and allows students to access the formats that best suit their learning style.
Time savings for staff – Grading papers, inputting grades, submitting attendance, communicating with parents and many other tasks are made more efficient, with fewer printed documents to keep track of and more transparency with the administration. This saves time at every level of the school and allows teachers and staff to focus on what is most important – working with students.
Convenience for students – Being able to access their course materials, assignments, and grades from home via the computer or a phone app, in some cases, makes it easier for students to get the information they need when it is most convenient for them.
Parent access/insight – Giving parents access to students’ grades, attendance information, and class announcements keeps them more informed and in the loop, while saving teachers and staff time by not having to send home printed newsletters and updates.
Reinforcement of student skills – Building reading and writing skills doesn’t have to end when students walk out of the classroom. Through using an LMS, they can continue to build skills and practice, even when they’re not at school.
Building student confidence/motivation – By better allowing for peer review and mentoring, an LMS can help boost student confidence in their work and increase their motivation to do well, since classmates can see work too, rather than just turning it into the teacher.
There are many functions that schools require that are traditionally associated with a Student Information System, rather than an LMS. A common approach from LMS providers is to offer an integration service that connects their LMS to a separately-managed SIS. This, of course, requires that you will have your an SIS already in place. Other providers bundle together LMS and SIS functions in a single package. It is important to determine which is best for you, particularly if you have a need for school management software that can do the following tasks:
Storing student info – Student demographic information, such as addresses, phone numbers, immunization records, parent contact information, etc., needs to be stored somewhere at your school. A traditional LMS typically does not serve these functions. Rather, it pulls data from where you have it stored, usually an SIS.
Creating and retaining transcripts and graduation requirement tracking – Although many LMS have gradebook and report card functionality (see more below), it is usually a function of an SIS to store longer term grade data, such as a transcript. An SIS can track graduation requirements and create and store student transcripts based on your school’s individual requirements.
Teacher/class schedules – Most schools rely on an SIS to plan and manage teacher and student class schedules so they can make sure all students have the classes they need on their schedule and there are teachers assigned to the courses that are offered each term. Depending on the system, an LMS can access this data and create classrooms on the LMS but creating the courses and assigning teachers and students to it is primarily an SIS function.
Student historic educational/behavioral notes – Ever wonder how a student performed in a previous school year or if there are ongoing behavioral problems another teacher or staff member has already been working on? A SIS can store this information so future teachers or staff members can see what has been done so far and what the recommended approaches are for that student.
Of course, when researching learning management systems, one of the most important things is ensuring you have access to the features that are most important to you. Some of the most common features of LMS are:
Attendance tracking -- Student absences are one of those things that affects all aspects of a school, from the classroom to the cafeteria. One thing you want your learning management system to do is to simplify this process for all staff members. A great LMS will have an attendance reporting feature that allows teachers to input and submit student absences and will forward that information on to administrators, cafeteria managers, parents, and anyone else who needs to know.
Class discussion – Even the shyest of students can comfortably get involved in online discussions, where they have time to think through their contributions and participate without the pressure of classmates waiting for them to answer. A LMS provides a place for students and teachers to come together to reflect on what they’ve learned without those pressures. Teachers can even assign grades to online discussions and have them available in the online gradebook.
Online testing – With many schools, counties, and states implementing online testing requirements, getting students used to taking assessments on the computer is an invaluable opportunity. LMS allow you to set up tests, quizzes, and more, giving students practice with online testing and giving teachers faster, more efficient ways of grading tests.
Resource libraries – Teachers assemble a ton of resources. It is a fact of life. A LMS gives you a safe, digital location to store worksheets, study guides, newsletters, or anything else you might compile throughout the year. This way, teachers can spend more time teaching and less time digging through filing cabinets for that perfect handout for the class. These resources can also be easily shared among faculty and staff, eliminating those trips to the copier.
Private Communications – Calls home and generic newsletters aren’t the only way to communicate with parents if you’ve got an LMS. Teachers and staff can send email-like messages to parents and vice versa, allowing communication to occur simply and when it is most convenient for everyone.
Lesson planning – Every veteran teacher has those one or two (or twenty!) tried and true lesson plans that work every year, with maybe a few tweaks here or there. With an LMS, keeping those lesson plans around, and developing new ones, becomes easier. An LMS will save your plans and you can easily import them into your course next year or semester, as needed. As you build more and more lessons, you can pick and choose from your library, without having to reinvent the wheel each year. Some LMS will even allow you to share lesson plans with other faculty, so you can work collaboratively on big projects or test development.
Gradebooks and Report cards – With an LMS, teachers can input grades as the term progresses and term grades are automatically calculated and put into a standardized form that just needs to be checked over before being submitted. Teachers have automatic gradebook entries for any assignments they create within their courses, making it quick and easy to manage student grades. Assignments submitted can even be graded right there within the course, eliminating the need to lug around bundles of printed student work. Parents and students are able to access their grades in real time from anywhere – even from a mobile device – to get a clear understanding of what work might be missing or coming up, what their current grade is, and which areas are student strengths and weaknesses.
Report cards – LMS can also make compiling and distributing report cards a much easier process. Administrators can see at a glance which grades are missing and remind teachers with a click of a button. Once finalized, physical report cards are produced by the system based on the school’s preferences and are easy to print out and send home. They are also available digitally for those students who “lose” them. A truly great LMS will also include customization to allow your school to use the grading scale or rubrics you’d like to use to provide the educational experience you and your school believe in.
Homework and class calendars – It is a common occurrence for students to forget their homework assignments, test dates, or other important information. A learning management system allows this information to be accessible by students and parents, even from home. Parents can ensure their students’ homework is completed, that they have their field trip permission slip, or that they dress up for picture day, just by checking the class calendar for the important events of the day, week, or even month. Beyond that, students can even turn in homework assignments through their LMS, so it doesn’t have to make it back to school the next day.
School and class announcements -- Communication, both parent-teacher communication and school-family communication, is one of the best ways to have a positive experience. Having a place where families know they can go to view important announcements from teachers, clubs, and the school as a whole, instills confidence and creates peace of mind for parents. An LMS gives teachers and administrators a place to make announcements directly to parents, without relying on paper handouts to make it home.
Parent portal -- In the K-12 world, communication with parents is crucially important. As a teacher or administrator, this feature might just be the thing that will make your learning management system an invaluable tool. A great LMS will allow parents to track the progress of all of their students across different grade levels, teachers, and courses and make it easy for them to see grades, attendance, and upcoming calendar events at a glance. You can even share summer reading lists or other important announcements when school isn’t in session. The goal is to keep parents involved and engaged with the school community and a learning management system can make it easy for them to keep track of it all.
Student portal – With a learning management system, students have access to course materials, email communication with their teacher and classmates, a place to submit work, and much more. Having one log-in where students can access all of their important school information means less confusion and a more efficient process for everyone involved.
Student portfolios -- Most teachers have probably experienced the struggle of helping keep students organized while assembling student portfolios. Papers go missing, binders pinch tiny fingers, and the stack of final portfolios threatens to reach the classroom ceiling. With a learning management system, these problems become a thing of the past. Students are able to add their work to a digital portfolio, control who in the class can see it, and turn it in to teachers as a consolidated piece. With the increase in popularity for project-based learning, having a simple and easy to use portfolio system is a game-changing feature for students and teachers alike.
Groups for extracurricular activities, parent committees, and staff collaboration -- One of the great things that all schools have in common is the various clubs, teams, or activities that get students active in their school community. A feature that makes a huge difference in this area is the ability to create and post to small groups. These groups make it easy to ensure that members of the debate team and their parents get all the information about the next competition without having to distribute it to everyone in the school. Administrators can also create groups for staff member announcements, professional learning communities, or just about anything that warrants its own area.