You never want to have that dawning realization that you should have thought of something earlier—something so important that you’re afraid to admit now what you didn’t know then. Unfortunately, this uncomfortable state can happen after selecting an LMS (learning management system) or any other technology.
How do you know what you need to know? Lots of reading helps, and talking to people who have been down the same road. We talked to some of our clients about the factors they considered when selecting an LMS for their organization so you can learn from their experience. You may also want to leave the heavy lifting to an independent LMS selection consultant.
Factors to Consider When Selecting an LMS for Your Association
We focusing only on ten factors in this post. These aren’t the only factors to consider but they were the ones that came up most often in our conversations.
#1: User experience (UX)
Who are the most important users of your LMS? The learners. Sure, you may spend more time thinking about the LMS than they ever will, that’s how it should be. The LMS can’t get in the way of the learning experience; it should enhance the learning experience. The LMS is the means to the end—what matters most is the experience you want the LMS to create for learners. That’s why user experience (UX) must be a primary consideration when comparing LMS.
Patrick Stiff, Chief Information Officer of Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE), said, “UX largely gets overlooked when you have a system as sophisticated as TopClass but that was a major source of criticism on our old LMS. Now, the LMS works really well and we’re spending a lot less time teaching our members how to use the software versus them learning. The user experience is dramatically enhanced.”
The learning curve for your LMS should be so low that anyone can use it without having to ask for help. The LMS should be responsive so it automatically adapts to the device the learner is using to access their content. The learner shouldn’t encounter any obstacles or delays that could cause frustration or confusion.
One of the key factors in providing an optimal user experience for learners and staff is integration. You can provide a better user experience with Single Sign-On (SSO) so learners can access different applications (website, LMS, and online community, for example) using the same credentials.
You want an LMS that can smoothly integrate with other platforms in your technology ecosystem so data can quickly migrate back and forth. “We found TopClass to be the LMS solution that would integrate the easiest and quickest with our CRM,” said Patrick Stiff from SAE.
Find out whether an LMS can integrate with your AMS or CRM and any other key platforms, for example, eCommerce. Press for details. What does a vendor mean when they say they can integrate with your AMS/CRM? Has the LMS vendor built the integration bridge or will you need to hire a third party to build it for you? Ask your AMS/CRM about their experience integrating with the LMS platforms you’re considering.
The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) had not considered that having an LMS vendor (like WBT Systems) who could complete the integration in-house would make the process of implementing the LMS easier. “This differentiation between TopClass LMS and other vendors was not something that we knew at the time of selection,” said Dewite North, Associate Vice President, Information Technology at MBA. “It was not something that we thought to ask during the selection process, but it is proving very helpful as we integrate the LMS with our other systems.”
#3: Open-source vs. proprietary software
An open-source LMS will be cheaper, but unless you have the in-house expertise and time to configure an open-source LMS, it could be more costly in the end. You’ll either need an in-house expert or be willing to pay a consultant to configure the system for you and integrate it with your AMS or CRM. Many open-source systems don’t have the capabilities that associations need, so you may end up paying for additional software anyhow.
The Australasian Society for Ultrasound in Medicine initially selected an open-source LMS, but their experience prompted them to seek an LMS specifically built for associations. With open-source, they encountered many challenges they hadn’t foreseen:
• Reduced productivity and increased staff costs
• Inability to share data with their member database due to lack of integration
• Increased consultancy costs to make customizations
Make sure the LMS you’re considering is flexible enough to configure to your needs. For example, learners should feel like they’re still on your website even if they’re actually using the LMS. You should be able to configure the display to match your association’s branding and website.
Other areas where you may want to configure an LMS:
• Field names and other terminology to match the language your association uses
• Screen layouts
• User profile data
• User (learner) workflow
#5: Catalog and eCommerce
You can host your online learning catalog and eCommerce functionality on your AMS or your LMS. There’s no right answer for this one, it depends upon your association’s needs and the capabilities of both systems. For example, eCommerce in some LMS platforms is run through an external, third-party system (like Shopify, PayPal, or Stripe) which requires an additional integration to implement and manage. Whereas in TopClass, eCommerce is built in.
We dedicated an entire post to the learning catalog and eCommerce decision that goes through several factors to consider when making this decision.
#6: Audience management
Think ahead to the different types of audiences you may one day want to serve. Do you need an LMS that can separate the catalog and content for these different groups? For example, in addition to individual customers, you may also want to license education to company members and their employees. Or, perhaps you’ll want to separate your regular online education from the education you offer to chapter leaders on your LMS.
Partitions (or a multi-tenant structure) give you the ability to manage multiple audiences in one LMS. Jen Bernhardt, VP of Membership Engagement at Direct Employers Association, said they based their LMS selection on a strategic analysis of the types of content they wanted to deliver. Initially, they considered launching two separate LMS—one for members and one for non-members, but then discovered they could serve both audiences using TopClass LMS partitions.
Here’s where “what you don’t know you don’t know” can hold you back. Talk to association peers and consultants about the many ways to deliver content to your learners. Don’t get fixated on shiny new things just because they’re new, there are plenty of learning formats to explore that have been tested in the field.
Choose an LMS that provides functionality for:
• Credentials, both traditional and digital, and digital badges
• A variety of assessment and testing methods
• Social learning
• Program evaluation
Don’t overlook reports when creating your requirements. Many LMS platforms include a number of standard reports and some give the option to create customized reports. If your LMS includes a powerful reporting engine (like TopClass), you may be able to create ad hoc reports using any data in the system. It’s best to discuss report details with LMS providers before making a selection. For example, give them information about the data included in each report you need and where (which system) that data resides. You may find there’s an additional charge for developing non-standard reports. At the least, if the vendor’s team knows about these reports, they can work on them during implementation and build that time into the project schedule.
Selecting a new LMS is not simply a transaction between two organizations; it’s the beginning of a long-term partnership. The success of this relationship will be determined by the level of support and service you receive from the LMS team. Ask to see their online training resources. Find out how issues are resolved. Ask what they do to continue to understand the needs of their clients and how they can help you to ensure the successful growth of your education programs.
Another overlooked area is the product roadmap. How is their roadmap determined? Do they base it on client feedback and industry research? Do they speak to their clients regularly, making note of change requests and queries about functionality? When we’re thinking about introducing a new feature or making a significant update, we survey our clients to find out how they would use the new feature.
Before diving into the selection decision, do your homework. You’ll find many helpful LMS selection resources on the Talented Learning website and the ReviewMyLMS website, including many resources from Tagoras.
If you are in the process of selecting a new LMS, you might want to register for Live Review, a two-day, entirely online event—October 29 and 30, 2019— that allows you to efficiently, effectively, and affordably get targeted demos of learning platforms (including TopClass LMS) from vendors focused on associations and committed to serving organizations that market and sell lifelong learning, continuing education, and professional development.