Learning Management Systems (LMSs) come with a bewildering range of features. How do you know what you truly need for your course?

You need an LMS. Maybe you’re getting ready to launch your first course, or perhaps you’ve already been in the elearning industry for some time and are looking to switch platforms. Over the last decade or so, the range of options available to online educators has expanded significantly, as have the features that come with them. This broadened market means educators now have more options to choose from—but also more products to navigate.

Choosing the right LMS is a significant decision. In some cases, your choice of LMS may mean the success or failure of your course. Usually, the consequences are not so dire. One LMS may be slightly easier to use, but may come with restrictions on what you can do with your course. Another might help you sell courses, but doesn’t offer the learner experience you were hoping for. Pros and cons abound, and only you, the educator, know what tradeoffs you’re willing to accept.

However, the biggest dangers an educator faces when choosing an LMS are either not understanding their on requirements well enough, or else being lured into a poor purchase by features they don’t end up using that much. To help you find your way, here are top considerations you should bear in mind as you navigate the LMS market.

1. What are your hosting requirements?

Generally speaking, the LMS market breaks down into hosted vs. self-hosted options. A hosted LMS will handle all the back-end infrastructure, but will have limited options for customization. You usually pay a recurring fee for these plans, and if you ever stop paying that fee, your content goes away. (The common analogy is renting vs. owning.)

Self-hosted LMSs are a little more DIY, but that investment comes with some important payoffs: you have more control over your website and its content, what you can do with your site isn’t tied to your LMS’s payment tier, and you usually save money as well.

Going the self-hosted route is good for small businesses that hope to grow, but it’s practically a requirement for any large elearning business. For small educators who only plan to launch a course or two as a part-time gig and don’t want any hassle, a hosted option may be a convenient solution.

2. How many courses do you plan to launch?

Are you creating a one-off course as a sideshow to your main area of business, or do you plan to make elearning your primary focus? Are you developing a simple onboarding training course for your small business, or will you be creating a training infrastructure that supports multiple locations, job descriptions, and career paths? Are you focused on one area of expertise, or do you have several?

The more courses you have, the more you will need to consider how your LMS choice will integrate with the rest of your website. If your LMS puts all your courses on the home page and doesn’t give you many options to organize your content on other pages, it may be too restrictive for your needs.

3. How many instructors and learners will be on your site?

Are you the only instructor on your site, or will you have multiple users who need advanced permission controls? Many hosted options restrict the number of admin accounts you can create, which may be a nonstarter if you have a large team. Similarly, some platforms will strict the number of active users you can have, or make you pay by the user past a certain limit.

If you’re running a small course, these may not be concerns. But if you plan to grow your course, make sure your LMS can scale with you.

4. What learner assessment options are available?

For some courses, offering grades or other assessments aren’t a significant concern. But for others, assessment isn’t just a requirement for the course, it’s also something learners themselves want. Assessments are how learners measure their progress and get feedback on their work. The better your assessment tools are, the more you can satisfy this need.

Look at both the assessment tools available (types of quizzes, for instance), and what kind of settings you have for those assessments. If an LMS lets you create multiple choice quizzes, can learners select multiple correct answers? Can they take practice quizzes? Will they receive a grade at the end? Are there other quiz types available? Can learners submit assignments? How easy is it to manage these from the backend of the platform?

Remember: Your course should be more than a series of nice videos. Quality assessment tools are the bare minimum a decent LMS should be offering.

5. What kinds of elearning experience does it offer?

Assessments (quizzes and assignments) form a key part of what we call the “learning experience,” but there’s a lot more to giving learners a positive experience than writing thoughtful quiz questions. How you support your learners also matters, so a platform that gives you insight into learner engagement will help you build a better course.

For obvious reasons, learner experience is tied to user experience, so clunky tools or a frustrating course design will have a negative effect on learner experience as well. On the other hand, anything that makes the course more engaging will make for a positive learner experience.

Gamification elements are also part of the learner experience. Adding points to assignments, awarding badges, and posting a leaderboard can all help keep learners more engaged. There are even more creative ways to provide a better experience, such as through branching scenarios or other course design options.

6. What community building options are there?

Community is a huge part of online learning. For some learners, finding a community of others who share an interest (whether it’s a career path, a hobby, or a self-improvement goal) is the main draw of a course. If they find a community through your course, many of them will become dedicated members for years to come.

However, to build this community, you need a platform that can support it. At the very least, your platform should allow learners to comment on lessons and start a dialog with their classmates. Many LMSs don’t come with built-in forums, but they should offer solid integration options. Most importantly, an LMS shouldn’t limit your ability to find a solution that fits your needs. 

7. How much design flexibility will you have?

Earlier, we touched on the idea that user experience (UX) is related to learner experience. This applies to design as well. How you visually present your course matters.

Many platforms will showcase course templates that seem to offer flexible design options, but which are actually very limiting. Often, it’s hard to realize how limiting these templates are until you start to use them and find out that elements you thought you could change aren’t editable.

Do your due diligence here. Look carefully at how the showcased examples vary from each other—it may help you spot which elements are fixed and which are flexible. Even better, choose an open source platform that gives you a wider range of templates to choose from—or even the option to design your own.

8. What ecommerce/marketing/sales integrations are available?

Finally, while concerns like infrastructure, features, functionality, and learner experience should always come first, once an LMS is checking all those boxes, you should stop to see what kind of marketing and sales support they offer as well.

Trigger-based notifications can help you automate some sales and marketing functions, while also keeping you in better touch with your learners. If you already have marketing tools that you like, check whether your new platform offers integrations with them.

Balance room to grow against pie-in-the-sky thinking.

Only you will know what your online course needs, and we’re not ones to tell anyone to stifle their ambition. However, it’s always bets to take a step back from what any platform is marketing as their killer, must-have feature and ask yourself if that’s really what you came to them for. The worst mistake you could make is choosing a platform based on some exciting features it has, only to realize after the fact that it doesn’t meet your minimum requirements.

At the same time, it’s good to think about where you want your elearning business to go. Your LMS should grow with you, so if you know where you want to be three or four years from now, choose an LMS that will still make sense for your business three or four years down the road.

We have users on our platform who have been with us since we launched. Some of our biggest fans are developers who have chosen our platform for their clients dozens of times. We’ve also had users without any technical background who have succeeded in using our platform, and have fallen in love with online education in the process. We’ve had world-class universities and solo entrepreneurs both user our platform to glowing reviews, and our user base includes educators from countries around the world.

We know we’re not everyone’s solution. But that usually says more about an individual’s tradeoff priorities than the capabilities of our platform. If you want an LMS that gives you flexibility, functionality, and room to grow, you’d be hard pressed to find one better than ours.

Laura Lynch photo

About Laura Lynch

Laura is a marketing specialist with experience presenting at WordPress events in Ann Arbor and Vienna. She speaks Russian and German and holds a double MA (Hons) in History and Russian Studies from the University of Edinburgh.

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