As the learning landscape and market have evolved, the technology platforms most closely associated with learning—including learning management systems—have evolved too, and new platforms have emerged. In our executive briefing Conquering the Confusion: The Role of the LMS in the Evolving Learntech Landscape, we examine why and how learntech has evolved, consider how different types of technologies fit into the learning product lifecycle, and help you choose the right mix of technologies.
The Four Learntech Ls: LMS, LCMS, LRS, and LXP
This post provides an excerpt from the briefing in which we focus on the “core four” learning platform technologies: learning management systems, learning experience platforms, learning record stores, and learning content management systems.
Understanding the fundamental purpose and capabilities of each is essential to understanding how the most established of them—the learning management system—fits in your overall learntech ecosystem.
Learning Management Systems (LMS)
Most learning businesses are familiar with learning management systems, even if they are one of the few not using one. The most common piece of learntech, an LMS is software for delivering educational experiences to learners, with an emphasis on pushing out content designed by the organization that owns the LMS—e.g., your catalog of online courses.
Traditionally, learning management systems have excelled at a basic but essential set of tasks for managing learners, providing them with access to learning content, and tracking completion status— often for the purpose of maintaining compliance or awarding credit. Learners interact directly with an LMS via a user interface (UI).
An LMS enables you to enroll learners in courses; it enables your learners to launch and access those courses; and it enables you to track learners’ activity, scores, and completion of courses. An LMS provides basic testing and generates reports.
In today’s context, most learning businesses are not satisfied with that basic LMS functionality alone—and that demand for more has led to significant expansion of the features and functionalities most modern learning management systems offer. What else an LMS does varies from platform to platform, but learning management systems catering to learning businesses (versus corporate L&D) tend to also emphasize discoverability (empowering learners to find the content they want by searching the catalog, for example) and e-commerce.
Learning Content Management Systems (LCMS)
A learning content management system (LCMS) allows an organization to author and import learning content objects into the platform, edit them, assemble them into learning experiences, and repurpose them into other, different learning experiences. Not as common as LMSes, learning content management systems supplement LMS functionality in the Design & Development phase of the learning product lifecycle. They can be of particular value when collaborative authoring, extensive re-use of individual learning objects, or the ability to manage different versions of learning content are critical to your operations.
Learners do not directly interact with an LCMS—the LCMS UI is for administrators and course authors. Learners interact with the products that come from an LCMS through the UI of another platform, like an LMS or LXP.
While LMSes and LCMSes are distinct types of platforms, some vendors blend the two offerings into a single, unified platform. When that is the case, understanding the origin of the platform can be instructive. Content authoring and management tools built into a system intended primarily for content delivery and tracking will typically be less sophisticated than those featured in an LCMS. The functionality to launch and track learning content and manage learners in a system designed for authoring and assembling content will typically be less robust than in an LMS.
Learning Record Stores (LRS)
Learning record stores (LRSes)—servers that receive, store, and provide access to xAPI statements—are newer entrants on the learntech scene. The Experience API (application programming interface), also known as Tin Can and xAPI for short, is a specification that makes it possible to collect data about a wide range of experiences a learner has, both online and offline.
The appeal of xAPI is that it allows learning businesses and learners greater flexibility in what data is tracked and captured when compared to older standards (like SCORM) and their almost exclusive focus on online courses. xAPI statements, structured as “[actor] [verb] [object],” allow offline activities as well as non-traditional online activities to be recorded. xAPI also opens the door to allowing learners to play a larger role in determining which of their actions get counted as learning activities. Their actions need not be limited to the completion of administrator-created courses but can also include a wide range of less formal activities—for example, watching a how-to video on YouTube, participating in a mentoring or coaching session, or writing a blog post.
Learners typically do not interact directly with an LRS—the LRS is a behind- the-scenes repository of learning records (those “[actor] [verb] [object]” xAPI statements) that might be accessed by learning businesses to better understand their learners’ needs, understand their current skills and knowledge, to award credit, and more. Given their behind-the-scenes nature, LRSes are usually used in tandem with other learntech, like an LMS or LXP, and some LMS and LXP providers have built learning record stores into their systems.
Learning Experience Platforms (LXP)
The learning experience platform (LXP) is one of the newest flavors of learntech. Focused on overcoming some of the perceived shortcomings of traditional LMSes, LXPs put the learner at the forefront. The learner interacts directly with an LXP via a user interface (UI), and LXPs emphasize the user experience (UX).
Drawing on personalization, discovery, and playlist models now common in non-learning applications such as Netflix and Spotify, LXPs allow learners to explore and then access educational experiences, with an emphasis on learner- discovered content. Whereas LMSes evolved out of a top-down model where the organization and its administrators know best what a learner needs, LXPs empower learners to follow their interests when deciding what learning experiences to engage in.
To allow for meaningful learner-driven decisions, LXPs typically draw on large repositories of content, which often means drawing on catalogs of content from outside the learning business. Additionally, most major LXPs leverage artificial intelligence to recommend content to learners based on behaviors and interests.
The Evolving Role of the LMS
While it is true there is no single, across-the-board, right answer for which system or systems a learning business needs, it is also true that the LMS will likely remain a part of the core learning business technology stack for years to come.
An LMS on its own serves essential needs that most learning businesses have and are likely to have for the foreseeable future. These include the abilities to manage users, push out education that the learning business can ensure aligns with requirements set by regulatory and credentialing bodies, and validate completion of structured learning experiences in accordance with these requirements or requirements set by the learning business itself.
Given that a rapidly growing number of learning management systems are incorporating options for supporting social learning, gamified learning, and access to external course catalogs, many learning businesses may find that the newer, more modern breed of LMS is sufficient for supporting the essential components of the MI DD LE ME lifecycle. These platforms—particularly to the extent that they incorporate marketing and e-commerce tools—are evolving into what might be described as holistic operating systems for learning businesses.
But even the most comprehensive LMS may not meet all of a learning business’s strategic needs.
For example, if an organization develops its learning content through a distributed, collaborative process, if it needs strong capabilities for re-using learning objects across different learning experiences (so the same interactive exercise could appear in multiple courses), or if it wants greater confidence that the content it creates can be used across multiple platforms, then it may make sense to use an LMS in combination with an LCMS.
If a learning business sees strategic value in being able to support and track learning experiences that take place outside of the LMS, particularly informal experiences, then using an LRS in tandem with the LMS may be valuable. An xAPI-compliant LMS can push learning data to an LRS which, in turn, can capture data generated from learner activities that happen on the Web, on mobile devices, in classroom settings, or other places. The LRS then becomes a valuable source for reporting beyond what the LMS alone can provide.
While there may be instances in which an LXP can replace an LMS, most LXP vendors currently promote use of an LXP in tandem with an LMS. When it comes to providing a Netflix-like, highly personalized learning experience, LXPs have a clear lead at this point. At the same time, they typically do not have the same capabilities for handling structured content and learning activities that LMSes do. In the current market, a number of LXPs and LMSes have announced partnerships to help provide organizations with the best of both worlds. Over time, our expectation is that LMSes will incorporate more LXP capabilities natively, and vice-versa. In the meantime, though, the LMS remains the starting point for most learning businesses.
Get the Full Briefing
As noted, this is an excerpt from our Conquering the Confusion executive briefing in which we discuss the role of the LMS in the current learning technology landscape. We encourage you to get the full briefing.