As readers here are no doubt aware, we track a range of association LMS system vendors. There are multiple steps to doing this, but the one I find particularly valuable is participating in demonstrations with all of the vendors. We get to see what is new in systems we already know, and we get to learn about systems with which we may not have been very familiar. Most importantly, we get the chance to refine our sense of how the market is evolving.
While we have not yet finished up all of the demonstrations, I can already see that there are at least four areas in which some very significant progress has been achieved over the past couple of years. I’m labeling these broadly as integration, convergence, mobility, and analytics.
Back in the days when I was actually running an e-learning company that had its own learning management system product, one of our key areas of strategic focus was integrating with major association management systems (AMS). At the time, that was new terrain. Better approaches to integration were just starting to emerge, and there was a lot to be learned about the “devil in the details.”
Roll forward several years and I won’t claim that integration is exactly a cake walk, but it is dramatically easier. Most companies that have any experience at all in the association market now have established approaches to the three major areas of integration with AMSes: single sign-on (SSO), e-commerce/shopping cart, and learning data transfer (e.g., sending completion and credit data back to the AMS from the LMS). Some even have relatively sophisticated what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSIWYG) interfaces for managing key aspects of the integration.
Another key area in which associations typically need integration is with Webinar platforms. Most of the companies we cover now have at least some level of support for this as well. (Conversely, a number of traditional Webinar companies have made significant strides in building out stronger learning management capabilities to support their Webinar delivery platforms.) The key here is to enable learners to register for, launch, and earn credit for Webinars and Webcasts within the same environment where they access other types of online education. In many cases, companies now have pre-established integrations with major platforms like WebEx and GotToMeeting. In nearly all cases, vendors have made it possible to at least configure a Webinar as a catalog/menu item and provide a launch link out to the association’s Webinar platform of choice.
Finally, while we are seeing integration with public social networking platforms (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) and private social networks (Higher Logic, Small World Labs), there is still a long ways to go in supporting truly meaningful, integrated social learning experiences that take full advantage of all of the technologies involved. I suspect vendors will not start really pushing the envelope in this area until they are seeing clear evidence that more associations are prepared to embrace social learning technologies in meaningful, strategic ways. In the meantime, the ones that are doing the most with social are concentrating on social tools within their own systems.
With the term “convergence” I have in mind a move towards presenting and blending all of the learning formats an organization delivers within a single end user environment. I’ve already mentioned Webinars above – we’re now seeing these more consistently presented alongside on-demand/self-paced e-learning courses. More importantly, we are seeing more vendors support management of place-based learning within their software platforms. This means traditional classroom seminars, on-demand e-learning, captured conference content, and live Webinars can all be managed and presented to the learner within a single, cohesive registration process, menu, and transcript. Some companies are also going a step further and providing for relatively sophisticated event management capabilities.
“Convergence” also includes making it possible to pull together content from YouTube and other external content delivery platforms and make them a cohesive part of the learner’s experience within the learning management environment. A number of the platforms we have reviewed so far feature very elegance approaches for leveraging video, in particular, to create, supplement, or even market learning experiences. In general, we expect to see continued movement towards systems that fully leverage the wide range of content that associations tend to produce but may not be taking full advantage of currently as part of the learning value they provide to members.
Given the rapid surge in smartphone and tablet ownership, it was inevitable that mobile delivery of learning experiences would get at least some attention from vendors. How much attention it has gotten, and how well that has translated into platform capabilities varies pretty widely across the systems we have reviewed so far, but clearly mobile access to learning will be a driver of development going forward. Indeed, some companies are starting to say they are thinking mobile first, desktop second when it comes to future design and development of their software.
We have yet to encounter many organizations that have sophisticated mobile strategies for learning, but in some sectors – particularly in professions with significant continuing education requirements, or in professions and trades where just-in-time / point-of-practice learning has high value – it is inevitable that strategies will emerge (if not from the associations then from commercial competitors). I suspect, too, that the small screen / short attention world of mobile will drive many organizations toward the “going short” approach I wrote about in a recent post.
I’ll end with what I think will be by far the most important area over the coming years: the ability to gather, report on, and analyze the cornucopia of data produced by technology-supported learning. When your members are online accessing your catalog, their learner menu, and the wealth of interactive tools and content that you can make available in a good learning management system, they are generating a wealth of data. Many of the systems we have reviewed so far have offered significantly better reporting capabilities than we have seen in the past. They have more built-in reports on the things you would expect – number of enrollments, completions, assessment scores, etc. – and more of them are providing options for configuring your own reports. In many cases, these are based on being able to tag content – including assessment items – in the system so that you are able to get really specific, granular views into learner activity.
Additionally, more systems are recognizing that learning analytics extend beyond what the LMS directly tracks. They extend out to what learners are doing on the Web – how they got to your site, where they go from your site, how they are interacting with your content out on the social Web. We have yet to see companies tackling analytics at this level of sophistication, but many are laying the groundwork (whether they know it or not) by providing for easy integration of Google Analytics into the LMS environment.
I’ll actually pick up on this last area a bit in our upcoming edition of the Leading Learning newsletter, and also highlight at least one other broad strategic trend I am seeing out in the market. If you are not subscribed to the newsletter, I encourage you to do so – it’s free, you can unsubscribe easily at any time, and we do our best to provide real value through it.
In the meantime, I welcome your thoughts on any of the items above.