What is an LMS (Learning Management System)?

In this guide, you’ll find the answers to any questions you might have regarding learning management systems (LMS).

“If you continue training the same way you’ve always trained, don’t expect to get better results.”

Jim Crapko

If you’ve ever worked in a corporation, studied in college, or taken online courses, chances are you have used a learning management system (LMS). After all, they are becoming increasingly common in our daily lives, with 70% of corporations and 99% of educational institutions already having an LMS in place.

The adoption of LMS has not hit a plateau yet, either. Just have a look at the worldwide search interest for the keyword “LMS”:

Worldwide search interest in LMS

As evidenced by this graph, in 2020 we saw an unprecedented shift towards remote work and distance learning. And, it’s a shift that many experts believe is permanent

As more stakeholders learn the vast benefits of e-learning, the adoption of e-learning software and LMS will continue to grow and influence the entire global workflow. That is why it’s vital to understand what is an LMS, how it works, and what are its’ benefits.

Here’s what we’ll be covering in this guide:

What is a learning management system (LMS)?

Simply put, a learning management system (LMS) is an e-learning software application that handles the delivery, administration, automation, and analytics of learning materials. As such, an LMS is a highly organized set of software that serves the entire online educational ecosystem.

In the broadest sense, an LMS consists of these three terms:

  • Learning: An LMS handles the learning material delivery, administration, automation, and analytics. All of this is done for the purpose of one simple goal: fulfilling learning goals.
  • Management: LMS holds an important role in documentation and database management. Without well-executed management of information, an LMS is doomed to fail.
  • System: This refers to the LMS system as a whole that handles all the incoming and outgoing learning information within a single ecosystem.

These three terms describe LMS in a very rudimentary manner. But, what’s most important to take away is that an LMS is defined by its ability to facilitate learning

This means that an LMS can take many shapes and forms as long as it facilitates learning. The facilitation of the learning process can take place in a variety of locations, and software used as an LMS do not always have to be purpose-built for learning purposes.

Take Twitter or Facebook groups as examples. They can also qualify as LMS despite them not being purpose-built for online education. Another example is Zoom. Despite Zoom having numerous flaws as an online learning tool, the videoconferencing tool was very commonly used as an LMS back in 2020. While purpose-built LMS such as Moodle or Blackboard Learn are the most commonly used, they are not the only types of LMS out there.

What is the history of learning management systems (LMS)?

The history of e-learning has been full of awkward learning devices that never had the potential to be scalable. Robot teachers, gimmicky learning tools, and even by-mail distance learning have all been tried and tested throughout the last few centuries.

Before the widespread use of the Internet, the LMS was always an application installed “on-premises.” Educational institutions would host both the hardware and the software at their physical location, have full control over maintaining the software and servers, install any necessary updates, and keep their data safe and secure on-site.

One of the most popular examples of these types of learning systems was the PLATO:

PLATO Computer System
One of the earliest forms of LMS - the PLATO computer system. Source.

However, hardware-heavy machines such as these were not scalable. At least not in the sense of the word as we know it today. A select few educational institutions were able to reap the benefits of these systems, but they never reached the masses.

However, when the World Wide Web rolled around in 1989, it changed everything.

The first modern learning management system, the EKKO LMS released in Norway in 1991, quickly took advantage of the World Wide Web. It included an e-mail system, conferencing, bulletin board, and it delivered more than 1000 courses with an average completion rate of more than 80%. For the first time in history, the system managed to achieve fully online learning delivery.

Here’s how the EKKO was advertised:

EKKO LMS
A drawing illustrating the functionality of the EKKO LMS. Source.

As internet access became more common and cloud computing more secure, the LMS forgot its’ hardware-centric past and moved towards a cloud-based, software-as-a-service (SaaS) model. Shifting towards the SaaS model meant that the external company providing the software is now responsible for system updates, maintaining the integrity of the product, and upgrading the system regularly.

LMS shifting into the SaaS model also meant that it become a lucrative market for various stakeholders. Companies such as Blackboard, CornerStone, and Instructure are good examples of LMS companies that saw massive growth as a result of their cloud-based LMS solutions. Hundreds of billions of dollars have been made in the LMS industry, and trillions more will be made in the coming years, as the online education industry is still in its’ infancy.

What are the key components of an LMS?

Underneath a user-friendly interface, there are multiple components working together to create the comprehensive online learning environment that is an LMS. As is the case with most modern software solutions, the list of functionalities in a modern LMS can be massive. Yet, there are still a few main components that are integral to any LMS.

These main components include the server database that houses all the core functions of the LMS and the user interface through which instructors and students communicate with the servers. Put simply, they are the front-end and back-end of an LMS.

However, consider that these are just some of the most basic functionalities of an LMS. Any modern LMS includes many, many more functionalities than these, such as ecommerce functionality and machine-learning driven analysis of student performance.

Some functionality varies in availability, but the basic use of a learning management system is always to deliver a learning experience online. This is achieved by granting access to verified users and helping educators distribute knowledge world-wide.

Thus, the essence of a learning management system remains the same across the board. LMS providers will always try to convince you that their solution is entirely unique and miles apart from the competitors, but the truth is that at their core, most learning management systems have very similar key components.

What exactly does an LMS do?

In a nutshell, a well-built LMS can accomplish tasks such as:

  • Delivery and tracking of assignments, quizzes, exams, and more.
  • Managing of social learning forums, discussion boards, and other communication methods.
  • Student progress tracking and learning analytics.
  • Automatized sending of reminders to students.
  • Extensive reporting based on learning goals.
  • Delivery of both asynchronous and synchronous online course content.
  • Automatized learning material recommendations based on student’s profiles and skill levels.

Keep in mind, though, that the the true extent of what an LMS can accomplish goes far beyond these bullet points. A modern LMS is a powerhouse of plugins and applications that can be matched to each and every individual need. This also means that an LMS tends to do exactly as much or as little as you instruct it to.

Key takeaways

Without spending an exorbitant amount of time researching what exactly is a modern LMS, it’s easy to get confused to by the abundance of information out there. In reality, though, the average LMS is not all that complicated. A well-built LMS is feature-rich, yes, but you don’t need to understand each of the 1000+ quirks of an LMS to be considered informed.

In essence, an LMS is very simple. It’s a system that manages all the electronic learning within a single entity. And, it’s used by educational institutions, corporations, MOOC platforms, and various other stakeholders to achieve their learning goals.

As a first step towards understanding what is an LMS, we hope this article gave you some food for thought. There are many topics surrounding learning management systems that we did not cover in this guide, so make sure to follow up with our other LMS articles for more information on effective LMS implementation.