I would love to do a comparison of several different LMS by features, just like you might do when considering a new refrigerator at Sears. The problem I’m having – and the problem I’ve had for years – is that it is just about impossible to get an unguided, leave-me-alone and let-me-think demonstration of many of these LMS.
Some of them have “demos” which are really sales pitch videos. I want to click on things myself. How will I ever know how “easy” or “powerful” it is if I can’t put fingers to keyboard? Others have free trial downloads that work for a short time. All of them (except Moodle) require me to enter so much information about myself that even my mother would blush. And as soon as I do that, I am “on the list”. I get phone calls and endless emails, none of which I want.
Yesterday I canceled the download of a “free trial” of one LMS authoring tool (because it was 22 GIGAbytes!) and still received three unsolicited emails within two hours.
So, while I had envisioned an organized comparison chart of features, I’ve settled on something else. How about a comprehensive list of what you should know about this product before you sink your fortune and reputation into it, and ways to go about gaining that knowledge?
What to look for:
- Number of options that are built in to the application. These should be easily turned on and off, and not require hours of code modification. Compile a list that is specific about what features and functions are built in to this LMS and how many require customization. Then, rate those features according to how important they are to your business.
- Scalability. This means that while you have only a dozen students right now, you should be able to easily upgrade to hundreds. It can also indicate your ability to go from two courses to fifty without having to rewrite the LMS itself. Ask about upgrades in hosting bandwidth and LMS capacity.
- Ability to upgrade. Let’s face it. In the technology world, “old” is five years. Could you even imagine the functionality of an iPad 10 years ago? A decade ago we thought hand-held PDAs were “the future”. It is folly to assume that a state of the art LMS today will be anything other than a beta-max a few years from now. Your LMS needs to be robust. Find out how easy it is to upgrade this LMS, how long it will take, and what it will cost.
- Integrations with social media. Every day I see reputable articles on the important role of social media in learning; e-Learning is way more than old training material converted to run on the Internet. These integrations should be built in to the LMS and be turned on or off with a few clicks.
- Integrations with common applications such as PayPal, DimDim, and single sign on authentication. You could add YouTube and many other sites to this list. These integrations should be built in to the LMS and be turned on or off with a few clicks.
- Ease of use. This isn’t just how easy it is for you to get reports. It’s how easy it is for teachers or trainers to add content, monitor courses, interact with students, and do what teachers do. It’s also about how easily the students – adults in business settings – are able to gain access to the content, navigate about, share their experiences, and still do their “regular jobs”. Will you and your employees be able to add or edit content, change features, and generate reports – or will you be forever in the clutches of the software developer?
Ways to find the above information and to avoid the sales pitches:
- Real demos, where you can see actual examples of content and features that work. Search “[lms name] demo”.
- Sandboxes and/or trial versions where you can create (and break) things as a student, a teacher, and an administrator. Search “[lms name] sandbox”.
- Real user reviews, preferably from a community forum for that LMS application where issues, fixes, bugs, and wish lists are posted. You can learn a lot by reading these forums. If you can’t find a direct link to the community forums from the LMS commercial website, try typing a question into your search engine such as “Does Moodle accept credit cards”.
- Visible Pricing, either bottom line or ballpark (for the more creative stuff). Obtain quick quotes for the base application, hosting, development, and user support. Then compare your options based on your total price. Remember to get pricing for scalability, upgrades, and integrations with other applications. Ask about SDKs and free plug-ins. What does it cost to install those free applications?
While custom homes and custom-made suits are usually nice things, in the software world “custom” can be a euphemism for “we don’t actually have anything written; you’re going to pay for all of our trial and error”. Custom software is not the same thing as software that has many options. Custom software is rarely scalable, rarely upgradeable. What you want is an LMS with many options that will offer you flexibility and autonomy for a long time to come.