Building an online learning business can be a game changer for your business. Maybe you’re a consulting company who wants to scale beyond in-person training. Or perhaps you’re a software company looking to improve your customer training and reduce churn. Whatever the reason may be, finding the software solution that allows you to scale your online course creation, build beautiful learning experiences, measure performance, and offer certifications -- all in one platform -- is no easy feat.
Many of you likely have an LMS in place, but when was the last time you asked: is it really working for me? What other options can I find that suit my business?
This article is designed to help demystify a complicated industry, and walk you through the initial buying questions you may run into when shopping for a new eLearning solution.
Learning to talk the talk before we walk the walk.
There are a couple of general buckets your system will fall into. Each has its pros and cons, and it’s important to know the difference between each.
Open Source: Open-source software (OSS) is a type of computer software with source code released under a license that grants users the rights to study, change, and distribute the software for any purpose. These LMS’ are often free or low cost -- but you do have to pay the developers who support the system, and they aren’t cheap.
Proprietary Software: A company owns the source code, it’s not free to edit, and usually comes at a higher cost than an open source system.
Now that you’re speaking the lingo, let’s start shopping.
The first thing you may notice when you start your search for an eLearning platform -- you don’t necessarily have to pay for one. You can use a free, open source LMS like Moodle, ATutor, or Eliademy. This is where many first time buyers start. Can you blame ‘em? It’s free, and when you have little to no budget this could be the answer to your eLearning.
But as many experienced LMS users will tell you, you get what you pay for. Remember our crash course in eLearning vocab above? This kind of system allows you to edit the source code to truly make the platform your own. As long as you know how. Being able to edit source code is not in the standard skillset of online training professionals. So ask yourself: how comfortable are you coding the backend of your LMS?
The answer for most of us is not very. While you can maybe operate with a few basic features within a free version of an LMS, for many of us the functionality is too basic. When you’re offering eLearning, either to your SaaS customers, or training customers, your LMS is a direct reflection of your brand. The customization you will find in a “free” version of LMS likey won’t allow you to create the customer experience you’re looking for.
Not to fear, you can hire an instructional designer, or a consultant for your free LMS, but those resources can cost upwards of $100 an hour according to UpWork, making your free LMS, not so free.
So what’s your alternative?
Considering a proprietary software solution means selecting a company that 1) builds and supports their software, 2) has a dedicated team that provides support, 3) is responsible for continually updating features and functionality, and 4) offers professional services that can build custom solutions for your business.
As your eLearning business grows, this will likely be the route your organization has to take. While free systems are amazing tools to get your feet wet with online learning, at the end of the day ‘free’ isn’t always free, and open source systems have trouble scaling to match the growth of your company.
The sticker shock of any proprietary LMS can make you pause, but it is a cost you can plan for. No hidden consultant fees, or having to pay for upgrades. While getting budget for the project can be difficult, it is far better to plan for your LMS cost, rather than having “surprise” costs pop-up while using a supposedly free system.
Let’s talk design.
What do you want your eLearning products to look like? And how easy should it be to navigate? In the past the eLearning industry has often allowed the UX/UI design element to fall by the wayside. And the big question is: why?
Maybe because learning management began in non-profit circumstances, like education, or human resources. Maybe because functionality and ease of use for the admin had to take priority. But now that there are so many organizations growing their businesses with online learning courses, or using eLearning to train their customers, expectations for beautiful, modern UX/UI as part of the platform and learning experience have changed.
So what should you ask to see in your LMS demo? What are the key features and functions you should expect?
This post from .dsnrs evaluates the current market trends in the industry and what you should see in any proprietary LMS demo. The article does a nice job touching on the design elements you would want to see in the platform but it’s an important side note, that not all LMS’ have a course authoring tool. Often times you have to design your content outside of the platform. Usually, this means more than just an extra step. It means purchasing another software solution! That being said there are solutions out there that do allow you to create unique and engaging courses within the platform.
Always ask during the demo what kind of design tools are available to you within the system itself.
What other trends are the market demanding from the learning industry this year? John Leh, an LMS industry expert, recently published his update on 2018 eLearning trends. Reading this article before you see an LMS demo will help you understand exactly what to ask for not only in terms of what is currently available for the system but what you should be able to see on the product road map.
Other than design, what else should you consider when you evaluate systems?
Monitoring the levels of engagement your learners have within course curriculum is the key to optimizing your courses, and to creating repeat customers.
Customer churn is a critical issue for SaaS providers. In SaaS, you don’t just want to sell a solution once, you want to make sure your customers renew. What’s the best way to understand if your customer will be renewing with you for years to come or will re-register for your certification course at the end of the year? Look to product engagement.
For those of you selling content as your business, we suggest you take a page out of the SaaS model for customer retention. If you want to continue selling courses to your clients, you need to be able to see if they are using the content they have already purchased.
Aside from retention, reporting helps you produce better courses. What courses sell at the highest rate? Which ones do people constantly refer back to? And how often are your learners active in the system? All questions that can point your content creation business in the right direction and help you optimize your courses for engagement.
You’re in a demo, the features and functionality look great! What else should I expect if I am moving to a proprietary LMS?
Ask about support. How long are response times? Do I have a dedicated customer success manager to aide in day to day usage? How much are professional services? How long do your typical implementations take?
When selecting a SaaS provider, it isn’t just the product that needs to be evaluated. Most people ask about pricing and functionality and never discuss customer success. This is a key component that many LMS providers will avoid. Implementation of a new eLearning platform is no easy feat. So what’s the key to smooth customer onboarding?
Having a quality customer success department on your side. They understand your organizational and individual goals, can act as an advocate for you, fight for custom development, and ensure you and your team know how to use the product. This is no resource to overlook in the sales process, because for many of you, your revenue is depending on the success of your LMS, and the customer success support you receive should be a competitive differentiator for the vendor. You want to ensure that from sale to implementation, your organization is supported.
I'm ready to re-evaluate my current system -- where should I begin?
You can watch online videos, download infographics, and read all of the case studies in the world about LMS’. But if you want to compare systems, and you want the raw, non-marketing, point blank answers - read reviews.
There are wonderful sites out there that provide customer reviews on all of the major LMS’. Some of them, like Software Advice, even offer a service in which you can call in and speak to an eLearning expert about your needs. I advise though, don’t just look at the 5 star reviews, and don’t just look at the “pro” column. Remember the key pieces of functionality we discussed here and keep a keen eye out for those reviews that mention a bad UI, no reporting, or clunky navigation. Even a 5 star review may have a few very telling cons to be cautious of, and its important to maintain a holistic view of each system.
Some of the main review sites are listed below. Search your current LMS and any new system you may be considering to begin the buying process.
Or you can schedule a demo with Thought Industries, which offers many of the features mentioned above. We’re happy to help!
Now that I’ve begun my LMS evaluation, what is the last thing I should keep in mind?
Evaluating your current LMS, and getting budget for your project, scheduling demos, reviewing offers, all takes time. So when is the right time to start looking? Now. The normal buyers cycle is not the only factor to consider. You have to get set up in the system as well. Be sure you are allowing you and your team the time you need to not only select a provider, but to also implement the system, and be properly onboarded.
Interested in learning more about Thought Industries? We’re happy to help!
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