Online Learning Is Huge
E-learning is a big business, one worth many billions of dollars. But although massive open online courses (MOOCs) have attracted outsized media attention, the reality doesn't quite match the hype, yet. Learning management systems (LMS), on the other hand, have already enabled many universities, organizations, and businesses to develop, assign, and track online learning. With hundreds of vendors, however, choosing an LMS isn't a simple task. Here's what you need to know.
First, let me be clear: For each LMS platform I've tested, I can list another that deserves attention. Second, given the diversity of vendors, the term LMS is inexact. When I use the term, I mean it to include software for administering, tracking, delivering, and reporting on online learning content.
Not every educational system fits this definition. Apple iTunes U is an example of an excellent education service that isn't also an LMS. And there are also plenty of other services that can, for example, teach you to code, but that also aren't LMSes.
Furthermore, my reviews can only look at these systems in a high-level way that may not have much to do with how you or your business will use them, so it's hard to name one vendor the absolute best. As you can see from the table above, there is a lot to like with many of these services—so much so that PCMag has given three Editors' Choices awards. Whether you choose one of these services, or one of the other excellent services in this list depends on your needs and your budget. I'll explain some of the difference below, and I encourage you to share your experiences in the comments below so that I can expand and improve this list.
LMS Market Segmentation
As the name suggests, learning management systems are management systems. Most of the vendors tested include some kind of course assembly tools, including the ability to ingest existing courses as SCORM packages, but an LMS differs from what is known as an LCMS (learning content management system) in that its primary function is to manage rather than create course content. That isn't to say there isn't crossover. For example, DigitalChalk offers many LCMS features, including some very clever tools for ensuring that learners actually watch course videos, alongside traditional employee tracking and reporting. As I suggested earlier, I've embraced an inclusive LMS definition because I want to capture the diversity of the market.
The other key distinction is between those vendors that serve education or businesses. Some do both (DigitalChalk); however, most learning management systems pitch a tent in one camp or the other. Blackboard, Canvas, and Moodle top the higher education space, whereas Edmodo—one-part LMS, two-parts social media network—caters to K-12. Meanwhile, Schoology sits comfortably between the higher education and K-12 spaces, pairing a friendly Facebook aesthetic with advanced role creation, custom branding, and detailed analytics. For obvious reasons, education LMS software has secured the largest share of the market, and until recently, Blackboard dominated that space. Canvas and Moodle have cracked that lock, and Blackboard now faces competition from Brightspace and Sakai, both of which we'll review in the future.
Litmos LMS, Absorb LMS, and Grovo have the largest share of the corporate market. You needn't run a Fortune 1000 company to benefit from a learning management system. While most vendors compete for the corporate mid-market (organizations with 10,000 or fewer employees), they usually offer licensing suitable for offices with fewer than 100 employees: I have priced out entry-level plans for SmarterU (100 users), DigitalChalk (75), Litmos (100), and Axis LMS (100). Halogen TalentSpace and Absorb are well-suited to midsize offices, with plans starting at 500 licenses. It's the approach to the licenses that differs: Where Absorb offers 500 licenses for a flat fee, Halogen prices each license based upon the size of your office. (Halogen actually serves some offices with as few as 25 licenses). Grovo also charges customers per license.
Note that while Halogen TalentSpace didn't make the cutoff for the table above, you can click its link in the text above to read the full review. Note also that the table above refers to the service as tested. Optional extras are marked with an X.
LMS Pricing and Fees
Thankfully, most LMS vendors use a scheme called Active User Pricing, meaning that you can free up seats by repurposing unused licenses. For example, if Bob goes on parental leave, I can archive his account, move his license to Jane, and continue to report on Bob's learning while he cares for the kids.
LMS vendors typically charge per month, and customers can reduce monthly bills by paying for a year up front. (In the interest of providing the lowest possible costs, I have priced out entry-level plans billed annually). Plans range widely in cost and features. At one end is Moodle, which is free, open source, and un-hosted; at the other are the all-inclusive, hosted offerings from Absorb and Schoology. All three vendors have secured Editors' Choice awards for vastly different reasons: Absorb is a top-of-the-line turnkey LMS, Schoology is a powerful but user-friendly education LMS, and Moodle is a tinkerer's treasure trove. I encourage curious readers to look beyond our comparison chart and visit the reviews.
It's also important to understand that vendors often charge a one-time setup fee to cover configuration, training, and support. In some cases, that fee is money well spent. For example, DigitalChalk's up-front costs are significant ($1,099), but the company includes a two-month JumpStart program during which customers don't pay monthly fees and they're assigned a dedicated support representative. Other systems—Axis, Edmodo, Grovo, Litmos, and Moodle—have no setup fees. Before you dismiss an LMS because of its fee, price out the first year. You may be surprised at the results.
Other E-Learning Considerations
Focusing on the bottom line may prevent you from identifying the subtler virtues of each LMS. Perhaps you purchase a system thinking you will use it to onboard new employees, but then you decide you want to sell your training. An LMS with integrated e-commerce, such as Absorb, will enable you to distribute internal training externally at a flat fee of $5 per learner. Or maybe you're wary of creating materials, and you prefer pre-packaged resources. In that case, you would do well to consider a system like Grovo, which bundles e-learning content at no additional cost. There's also the possibility that your ambitions grow once you begin using your LMS. Perhaps you start by focusing on training, but later you want to add recruitment to the mix. There, a modular system, such as TalentSpace, would enable you to level-up offerings as you go.
Before choosing an LMS, I would encourage you to consider your business or organization and the kind of institution you hope to be. Do you want to experiment with gamification features such as points, leaderboards, and badges? What conveniences—mobile access, single sign on, or Google Apps—do you want to afford your users? And how much control do you want to exert over the intricacies of your system? Although these are technical choices, your answers will determine your administrative philosophy. Once you've answered those questions, my reviews will help you make an educated decision.
Featured in This Roundup
%displayPrice% at %seller% If you have a medium-to-large-size business with employees to train, Absorb is the most attractive and functional turnkey learning management system we've tested. Read the full review
%displayPrice% at %seller% If you're willing to shoulder some of the administrative burden, Moodle offers an entirely viable learning management service that is free, open source, and rapidly advancing. Read the full review
%displayPrice% at %seller% With the face of a social network and the foundation of an enterprise LMS, Schoology hits the sweet spot for K-12 learning management services. Read the full review
D2L Brightspace LMS
%displayPrice% at %seller% Despite a learning curve, D2L Brightspace offers one of the most comprehensive learning management systems available today. Read the full review
%displayPrice% at %seller% One part education LMS and two parts academic social media network, Edmodo gives K-12 teachers, students, and parents everything they need to transform traditional classes into blended learning initiatives. Read the full review
%displayPrice% at %seller% If you like the idea of continuous instruction through micro-lectures, the Grovo learning management system offers an innovative and effortless corporate training system. Read the full review
Instructure Canvas LMS
%displayPrice% at %seller% With a modern interface and standard hosting, Canvas offers a capable educational LMS and an attractive alternative to Blackboard. Read the full review
%displayPrice% at %seller% No matter the size of your business, Litmos delivers a surprisingly affordable and capable learning management system with integrated e-commerce. Read the full review
%displayPrice% at %seller% With a fresh new interface and unique features such as Event Triggers, Axis LMS offers a useful and affordable learning management system for mid-size offices. Read the full review
%displayPrice% at %seller% What SmarterU lacks in looks, it makes up for in small but welcome innovations that trim administrative time. This affordable learning management service is worth considering if you need a customized way to train your employees. Read the full review