As the fusion of education and technology proliferates, VET organisations these days have access to a growing range of eLearning systems. With such a wide array to choose from, how do you know which one is right for you?
If you are not from the educational technology field, doing the homework on learning management systems (LMS) can leave your head spinning. With so many LMS options out there in the market – both proprietary and open-source – choosing the perfect one for your VET organisation can be a bit of a minefield. Our goal in this post is to help you get past the complex terminology and take you straight to the meat of what really makes an eLearning system outstanding.
The following is a 10 biggest tips from Ridvan Aliu, founder of the cloud-based virtual learning environment EDUonGo, in the form of a point-by-point rundown of what you should pay attention to when selecting an eLearning system for your school or training organisation. Just as your organisation is unique, your online learning platform will have very unique and specific requirements. This guide is purposed to help you in making an informed decision quicker.
What to consider when you are choosing an LMS or e-learning platform:
1) The Learning Experience
We are in the education profession for a reason: to deliver education excellence. Your LMS must be able to provide a good, solid learning experience. While LMS has historically been considered an IT system, it has transitioned, and rightfully so, into the role of learning delivery. You might find that the definition of an LMS can also vary greatly from one solution provider to the next. For example, EDUonGo is better defined as a virtual learning environment, whereas CirculateRTO is built to be an all-in-one LMS that serves the vocational education market specifically.
A quality LMS will also be able to generate diverse learning experiences. In recent years with the rise of personalised learning, this has become more and more of a “must-have” than a “nice-to-have”. Your eLearning platform should have the flexibility to generate an array of different user experiences (or learning pathways) for different groups of students.
Think about it this way: You wouldn’t explain gravity to first graders in the same way you would to high school students. Similarly, the LMS you pick should provide the tools necessary to create a variety of layouts, flows, interactive activities and mobile access that are uniquely beneficial to each student group of your organisation. Are your students primarily adults with full time or part time jobs? Do they require more hands-on training or information delivery? Should they be able to set their own pace or not? Do they require a lot of peer and teacher support?
A suitable LMS will facilitate your instructional designers and teaching staffs to quickly adapt existing courses to the new system and / or develop new courses from scratch, without sacrificing the integrity of the learning experience. Identify your core learning objectives and what you are trying to achieve before exploring your LMS options.
Here’s a tip: when discussing what you are looking for, does the LMS vendor ask about your learner journey and how you want to deliver the courses? Or do they seem more interested in selling as many “one-size-fits-all” technology solutions as possible?
2) System Requirement Changes (Flexibility and Adaptability)
As soon as enrolment begins, feedback from your students, teachers, trainers, and other staff will start heading your way very quickly. There could be immediate feedback on compatibility on different browsers or devices, ability to download or upload teaching and assessment materials, changes to notifications sent, changes to branding, so on and so forth.
When these suggestions for site improvement begin to roll in, making critical adjustments to the system should be as quick and easy for you as possible. If it isn’t and most site improvements are delayed by weeks or months, students are more likely to become dissatisfied and either drop out of the course or stop using the LMS, and your task of attracting future students may become even more challenging.
Wherever and by whatever means you received feedback, whether they are from your students or teachers, make sure your LMS provides the resources you need to implement changes. Can it scale down or up easily to accommodate the changing number of enrolled students? Can features be added or taken out quickly? Can you integrate the LMS with a third party application such as Google Drive, Dropbox, or VETtrak, or with content designed in Articulate, Microsoft Office, etc., without feeling like you are pulling teeth?
Well, that brings us to the next point..
3) Third Party Integration
Until that one software that meets all of our needs has been invented, we still need to integrate third-party applications, which is why the LMS you choose should support third-party integration and make this an effortless process. For Australian educators, while standards like LTI or SCORM are a must, also look for systems that let you integrate Google Drive, Dropbox, and Microsoft Office. This will make it a lot easier for your students and staff to collaborate and work.
Another important integration you may also need to consider is for a payment or ecommerce system. Only a few LMSs actually come equipped with payment systems. If you want to sell courses (charge a certain amount for entry), an integrated payment process can save you a lot of paperwork, time and headache.
Also, don’t forget about communication with your existing IT system. There is a good chance that the LMS you choose will need to communicate with your IT system, in which case they will need to be able to be integrated. Ask your vendors about migration tools and how they handle your existing data. Your admin and teaching staff will have to migrate the current courses and teaching content to the new LMS – and this process should be painless, well documented, and intuitive.
4) Collaboration Features
In today’s world, a majority of our communication is conducted virtually. As more learning takes place online, online communications between students and teachers become increasingly important. What’s more, you may also have students who are juggling both study and a job or family, or students who study remotely. In these cases, the need for quick and easy communication and collaboration between peers is not so much in the “nice-to-have” category, but is more in the “must-have” category.
Be sure to choose an LMS that has a range of collaborative communication features. Ask yourself: Does the system allow students to chat in real time? Do I have the option of conducting live video sessions with my students? Is there a forum or news feed for continued dialogue in the class? Can students take note while they are watching a video or reading a workbook, and share these notes with their teachers and classmates?
These tools and features need to be accessible and can be used by all, in order to foster a vibrant community and encourage students to do more and learn more.
5) Advanced Data Analytics & Reporting
Data plays a key role in running a successful online or blended course. Data reports show how your students are progressing, what their performance are like over time, how your trainers and teachers are doing, and so on. This information will reveal the areas that need more attention and will help you determine what to do to improve the overall learning experience.
You won’t be able to create the best possible e-learning experience without tracking and analysing what’s working for your students and staff. So when doing your research, don’t forget to consider the data tracking and reporting capabilities of the LMS.
In addition to accessing basic data reports, make sure the system you choose can generate custom reports that reveal specific data and has the ability to collect the type of data you are interested in. Many LMSs might have generic dashboard reporting but no customised reports (or cost more to develop these). Again, your needs are unique, so the information you want to obtain will vary from one organisation to the next.
Student privacy is also important to factor in. The LMS you choose should provide sufficient security and privacy for the data that gets collected.
6) Branding & Customisation
Branding your online learning system means taking full command of your site’s interface. To have a powerful brand, you will need an LMS that allows you to blend the same unique presentation of your materials into the look and feel of your courses.
“Free” LMS softwares might mean that commercial advertising will be shown to your students – which is an appropriate distraction in the educational environment you are creating.
Additionally, customisation should be a non-negotiable component of an eLearning system. It equips you to take charge of your site’s functionality and administration. Look for an LMS that can be 100% white labelled and also allows you to customise your URLs.
7) Localisation or Globalisation
If your courses are aimed to reach more than one region, you will need an LMS that lets you localise to different markets. In addition to translating text into various languages, localisation also involves layout of texts, numbers, time formats and even colour in some cases.
Your LMS should make it easy for you to translate any text in the system and support multiple languages within the same course. This will be a great help when you are ready to grow and scale your business to reach thousands more students in other areas.
Remember, choosing an LMS is a significant investment for your organisation, so make sure it suits your learning and business goals a year from now. Can the LMS meet your future needs? How quickly can new ideas or technologies be plugged in?
8) Easy to Scale
These days, massive online courses (MOOC) can serve thousands to millions of students at any one time. Your LMS should have the capability to support large numbers of students. Even if you don’t have thousands of students yet, your system should have the capacity for high enrolment so that you can be ready any time for an increase of students. On the other hand, it also should be able to accommodate in the case of a steep decrease of students, without leaving you in the red.
As mentioned in the previous tip, your LMS should also be easy to scale up and down globally. Wherever they are located, make sure that all of your students can efficiently and reliably access your courses. The best way to achieve this is for your LMS to have a solid cloud infrastructure, as this can be automatically adjusted. Ask the LMS vendor about their capability to accommodate a large number of users accessing the system at the same time.
Make sure the LMS you choose align with your organisational growth and business needs, as this will save you possible painful changes down the track.
9) Ample Training & Technical Support
Ask about training, especially if your current in-house staff is not very tech-savvy. After all, the best LMS is the one that actually gets used by your staff and students. Surprisingly, some LMS vendors might charge a hefty amount to provide training on how to use and utilise their technology, and this can come as a hidden cost. Consider training for the instructional designers, instructors / trainers and assessors, senior management, admin / quality assurance / compliance staff, students, and your own IT team.
Here’s a tip: Look for a system that provides 24/7 hour or around the clock technical support for both you and your students, especially at the start of the implementation period. Support features might take different forms: on-site staff, meetings, phone calls, live chat, video tutorials and email. Your vendor should also be able to provide development support, which will give you the ultimate flexibility for making any changes to the system. Think about how often you will require help and in what capacity. Will the vendors promise you the world during the sales process, but then leave you hanging (or worse, charge you significantly) when it comes to support? Do they have offices in Australia and can they travel to be on-site when you need advanced troubleshooting or staff training?
It’s also worth finding out if the support team stays abreast on the latest technology. You’ve likely found a great vendor if they have technology experts on hand who answer more than just the standard questions about navigating the system. A tip on how to find out this information is to ask the LMS vendors about their technical team’s experience, skill sets, qualifications and working background. Ideally, educational specialists that have worked in your niche or industry before are more likely to leverage in-depth knowledge of the subject matter and how to deliver training or learning content to your specific audience.
10) Pricing That Works For You
Never buy a system that doesn’t first offer a free trial (or free demo). Purchasing an LMS for your organisation is a big commitment – time, money, effort, change management, integration with the existing softwares and systems; you should not have to take on the unnecessary risk of not trying it out beforehand.
Contact the vendors you are considering and ask for a free trial of the LMS, and test-drive it. The better ones will offer you a sandbox as exploratory environments in which you can gauge the ability of the system.
It’s important to pick a pricing that does not inhibit your future flexibility. For growing organisations, a “pay-as-you-go” pricing model might work better than investing a large chunk of money up front. You don’t want to be in a bind if something better comes out on the market or when things change down the road. Especially in a sector that has to quickly evolve and adapt itself as the VET sector in Australia, inflexibility is something you can’t afford.
Remember that open source software often has hidden costs. While you may not have to pay for a license, you will likely have to pay for any support or maintenance, which can end up costing you far more than expected.
Here’s a handy infographic summing up the top 10 criteria when choosing an LMS – also available for download as a guide you can use:
In today’s world, the only constant thing is change. This is particularly true if you and your students work online. Having the right eLearning system will help prepare you to deal with any changes that come your way as you teach online.
– By Ridvan Aliu, founder of EDUonGo. Ridvan has been programming since the age of 13 and has worked as a Senior Software Engineer for companies such as Microsoft, Amazon, Disney, and Real Networks. An educator at heart, Ridvan has also been teaching courses at university for the last 10 years.
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