Learning management system features: key options and criteria

Learning management system features: key options and criteria

December 21, 2021

Andrea Di Stefano

Technology Research Analyst

For a non-professional, it may seem that teaching and learning are all there is to education. But the actual transmission of knowledge in a class or through self-study represents just the surface of an ecosystem that is founded on a painstaking work of course design, lesson scheduling, student enrollment, and many other organizational tasks.

The advent of new technologies in the education industry, further catalyzed by the two years of lockdowns, quarantines, and other more or less strict forms of social distancing, have ended up revolutionizing the purely didactic aspects of this sector. Just think of the massive breakthroughs driven by eLearning and edtech as a whole.

Such changes, as expected, could not fail to be reflected also in the way we take care of the aforementioned "paperwork". And so, while new technological tools spread across the most diverse learning environments and pave the way for innovative didactic approaches, the implementation of software solutions that could meet the ever-evolving administrative and managerial needs of educational service providers has become an absolute priority. And this is where learning management systems come into play.

While there's eLearning, there's LMS

Learning management systems (LMS) are the "Jack of all trades" of eLearning, without necessarily being "master of none". In other words, we're talking of comprehensive software applications based on rather complex architectures and designed to cover every aspect of online education. In fact, LMSs facilitate the design, administration, and delivery of eLearning and corporate training services while offering a fairly extensive set of features dedicated to analytics, reporting, and learning experience.

Example of an LMS architecture

Despite their holistic nature, however, learning management systems tend to be slightly more management-oriented than other eLearning solutions, as the name itself might suggest. This means, for example, that they are generally equipped with numerous advanced administrative features for overseeing online courses delivery, registering students, tracking learner attendance and activity, performing assessment and proctoring tasks, and many more.

On the other hand, learning management systems may not rely on the functionalities of a learning content management system (LCMS) in terms of eLearning resources authoring, offering instead a range of more basic tools for content creation. They might not even incorporate the first-class analytical capabilities of an education analytics solution specifically built for this purpose.

Nevertheless, this does not constitute an issue, as learning management systems are extremely flexible tools and can also be integrated with additional types of software to complement their built-in features. As a result, the range of potential LMS configurations to choose from can be pretty vast.

To help you make an informed decision in this regard, we'll give you a rundown of the recommended features for designing an impactful LMS and some core parameters to consider, including integrations. However, we recommend seeking advice from a team of experts in LMS consulting to properly frame your business requirements and receive further insights.

But before delving into features and integrations, let's briefly talk about the impact of LMS on the edtech market.

The LMS impact by numbers

The actual influence of adopting learning management systems across the education industry can easily be spotted in market statistics. According to MarketsandMarkets' LMS Market by Component Global Forecast to 2025 report, the global LMS market size is set to grow from $15.8 billion in 2021 to $37.9 billion by 2026, at a CAGR of 19.1%.

The global LMS market forecast for 2021-2026

The rising adoption of eLearning among educational institutions and the shift towards remote work and enterprise mobility during the COVID-19 outbreak, along with the advancements of AI in education, have acted as the main drivers for this massive growth.

However, the implementation of learning management systems seems to be heterogeneous in terms of learning scenarios with some operational restraints potentially hindering their deployment. For example, top-tier academic organizations tend to embrace these technologies with greater conviction, while smaller institutions with a more limited technological background and less determination to adapt their didactic approach may opt for other software solutions such as collaboration tools.

Other relevant insights into the impact of learning management systems come from Capterra, which surveyed K-12 and higher-education institutions to shed light on the dynamics underlying the LMS market. According to their 2020 Top Learning Management System Statistics Impacting Education report, 74% of users surveyed said that implementing an LMS resulted in higher student satisfaction and teachers' productivity during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The same study also reported that the top factor in selecting a suitable LMS was functionality (cited by 39% of users), while the main reason for changing current LMS software was poor usability, followed by its excessive cost and a general lack of necessary features.

Main reasons for LMS software switch

Having mentioned features as one of the core elements of a good (or bad) learning management system, it's worth elaborating on this topic. As we've already said, LMSs are typically all-encompassing, which means that the list of potential features implemented in such kind of software can be pretty extensive. As a matter of simplicity, we'll split them into four macro-groups.

eLearning services administration

Let's start our overview with all those features enabling the effective organization and provision of educational services. Here are some of the most common ones.

  • Online scheduling: this includes an ensemble of smart features for setting up a virtual meeting calendar based on the availability of teachers and students, or even planning ad-hoc training sessions with maximum flexibility once specific modules and tasks have been completed.
  • Role-based access: often combined with multi-tenant software architectures, this feature allows configuring different user roles and access permissions according to organizational hierarchy and specialization, providing learners, trainers, and admins with distinct interfaces, functionalities, and didactic materials. For example, content editing and admin panels may be accessed by teachers only.
  • User account management: strictly related to the previous point, this function enables administrators to manage different users, including their registration in the system, their enrollment on courses and conferences, submission of specific assignments, creation of study groups, and more.
  • Notifications: an essential function to ensure proper supervision over the entire learning process and easily coordinate everyone involved. Notification systems can automatically send real-time alerts based on pre-defined triggers, reminding students of upcoming online lessons or training deadlines, reporting course completion, and announcing newly submitted learning resources.
  • Assessment and certification: these encompass several tools for designing, scheduling, supervising, and evaluating tests or exams, along with a certification system to deliver diplomas or certificates following specific achievements. We may mention editors to create true/false and multiple choice quizzes, proctoring functions such as keystroke recognition and video monitoring, and AI-based solutions to automate test grading.
  • eCommerce: to enhance the profitability of your educational services, a learning management system should be equipped with ecommerce tools allowing users to purchase courses directly from your application and providing several monetization options. Think, for example, of content marketplaces, premium subscriptions, email marketing, payment processing, and invoicing.
Administrative features

Learning content management

We’ve already highlighted the general superiority of LCMS over LMS in terms of content management. However, this does not exclude the fact that learning management systems can be equipped with several features designed for this purpose.

  • Content authoring: an LMS may include a content editor providing professionals with an array of intuitive features to create new learning resources for lessons, courses, and exams, such as built-in customizable templates, text formatting, collaborative authoring tools, content reuse and repurposing functionalities, and more.
  • Course assembly: the previous tools can be further enhanced with additional features to actually assemble your didactic materials into learning objects, units, or entire courses while offering extensive control over their delivery and availability. This means, for example, allowing access to new modules at certain learning stages or for specific categories of learners.
  • Multi-format content support: An essential prerequisite for building comprehensive eLearning resources is the possibility to draw from diverse sources and support several distinct formats. Editors within learning management systems should be able to embed multimedia content such as images, audio, videos, slideshows, PDFs, and more.
  • Learning object repository: this feature is basically a centralized database designed for learning content storage, cataloging with metatags, importing and exporting from external sources, and file management. It can also incorporate smart search engines with filters to easily navigate the content library.
  • Content access: This covers a range of features to improve the accessibility of educational content, such as multi-device access to your system, offline access to learning resources, and synchronization between mobile and desktop interfaces, along with intuitive course catalogs providing additional information such as summaries and user reviews.
Content management features

Digital learning experience

The general trend in modern education is to shift the focus more and more to students. Speaking of learning management systems, this learner-centered approach is reflected in the growing implementation of feature sets aimed at enhancing the end-user experience.

  • Gamification: this feature embraces a learning strategy that promotes student motivation and retention through such mechanics as minigames, leaderboards, and reward systems for course completion (which might include badges, bonuses, or even virtual gift cards). According to the aforementioned Capterra report, gamification is the most requested LMS feature (cited by 24% of users surveyed).
  • Social learning: this includes several tools fostering student interaction in a collaborative and highly connected learning environment. An LMS might offer chats and forums for peer-to-peer discussions, wikis and FAQ sections for sharing knowledge and tips, or social media features allowing students to post their own achievements or like and comment on those shared by their peers.
  • Mobile and microlearning: such approaches are technically distinct but generally work in synergy, as they rely on bite-sized didactic modules and training activities to meet the learning needs of a user base on the go. In this regard, it can be useful to implement features such as voice command, optimized interfaces for Android and iOS, touch-friendly interaction, and more.
  • Blended learning: this approach combines eLearning and traditional classroom interaction, something experienced by many students in the last couple of years due to ever-changing social distancing regulations. An LMS can streamline this shift with advanced videoconferencing features to simulate classroom workflows in a virtual environment or by providing a scheduling system to coordinate in-person and online sessions.
  • Adaptive learning: Adaptive learning: learner-centric experience also means customization. Thanks to the advancements in data analytics, an LMS can monitor student performance, learning patterns, and interactions with the system itself to provide users with targeted educational content recommendations and fully personalized training activities based on their expertise and outcomes.
Learning experience features

Analytics and reporting

Since we've just mentioned the potential implications of data analytics for customizing the student experience, let's expand this topic to all those LMS features leveraging data to improve the quality, impact, and profitability of your educational services. The role of these tools consists of gathering data from your LMS or any other integrated sources, processing it to extract meaningful insights, and visualizing such information through intuitive dashboards, charts, and other graphic representations for easier sharing and reporting.

  • Learner data analytics: an LMS can be equipped with analytical features capable of probing students' progress and performance to customize their training paths, identifying learners' preferences (for example by examining their search history) to target them with tailored recommendations, and assessing user experience via feedback and sentiment analysis.
A mockup of an analytical dashboard for student performance
  • Educational services analytics: learning management systems may incorporate analytical dashboards tracking learning outcomes and test results to assess the quality of your educational services. Other features focus on analyzing content usage metrics such as completion rates and access devices to improve learning resources authoring and delivery. Additionally, it’s possible to implement analytical tools that calculate the profitability of services to evaluate their ROI and optimize your investments.
  • Workforce analytics: This set of analytical functionalities mainly refers to corporate LMS, that is, those systems designed to manage corporate training, but their use can be extended to teacher training in traditional educational institutions. Among them, we can find tools assessing the expertise of new recruits and staff members to configure suitable onboarding and upskilling initiatives, along with functionalities monitoring training costs to streamline corporate budget planning.
Analytical features

Three tips before starting

After enumerating this long list of features, you may feel a little bewildered and wonder how to navigate this maze of different tools. Here are some factors you should take into account when selecting and implementing a suitable feature set for your learning management system. 

1. Integrations to consider

Equipping a learning management system with a massive array of embedded features is not necessarily the only way to take advantage of them. As mentioned above, learning management systems can be integrated with other types of software by setting up API layers. These act as a bridge between different applications and allow a synergistic exchange of data while complementing your LMS' built-in capabilities with an additional range of “external” features. Among the most common integrations, it’s worth mentioning:

  • Education analytics software: to count on superior data processing and analytical capabilities.
  • ERP: to leverage additional features focused on the back-office management of your educational services.
  • An ecommerce portal: to access more functionalities dedicated to marketing and sales.
  • Social media: to further enhance the social learning potential of your LMS.
  • mLearning apps: to complement the mobile and microlearning capabilities of your system.
  • A learning CMS: to enrich your toolset with advanced learning content management features.
  • An HR management system and CRM: to fuel your LMS with a continuous flow of staff and customer information, enhancing its adaptive learning capabilities.
LMS integrations

2. Custom or SaaS

An LMS can be created from scratch, fully customized, and hosted locally, but it can also follow a SaaS (software as a service) model, which typically means choosing a ready-made LMS hosted by the vendor and accessed through the web.

Choosing between a custom LMS and a SaaS LMS has a significant impact on the range of features that can be selected to set up your system. If you expect to freely choose from a myriad of different features and configure a fully tailored LMS, the only option available is a custom solution. If, on the other hand, full personalization is not on top of your list of requirements but you'd rather benefit from lower upfront costs, a SaaS system might be the right pick.

3. Defining your feature set

The scope of learning management systems is broad yet you’ll most probably have to select a finite amount of suitable functions to configure your LMS within reasonable development costs.

As you might expect, the choice largely depends on the learning context, the type of users, and the didactic approach you'd like to embrace. Generally talking, we can identify three main scenarios reflecting such parameters: 

  • LMS adoption by eLearning service providers offering online education such as video courses and seminars.
  • LMS adoption by enterprises empowering their workforce with corporate training initiatives.
  • LMS adoption by traditional educational institutions implementing innovative teaching methods.

The scenario in which your organization operates will determine which LMS features suit your educational needs best. For example, online education providers should configure a learning management system with solid ecommerce features to maximize the profitability of their services as well as with good analytical capabilities to understand what their customers need and meet their requirements.

Speaking of corporate training, the focus should be on flexibility. This means adopting multitenancy and role-based access features to provide trainers, staff members, customers, and corporate partners with different tools and learning resources. Companies should also consider integrating their LMS with HR software to deliver personalized training based on employees’ roles and departments.

Educational institutions, on the other hand, might prefer investing in efficient blended learning features to successfully combine in-class and remote education, along with proctoring tools to supervise tests and exams. Another staple in this scenario, especially in the K-12 context, is gamification, as it represents a great tool to motivate and engage young students with a short attention span. 

Tough choices, great rewards

LMSs represent full-spectrum edtech solutions capable of streamlining eLearning services administration and educational content management while enhancing the learning experience and offering valuable business insights thanks to their analytical capabilities.

On the other hand, the wide range of potential feature combinations to configure a learning management system, along with the vast selection of integrations with additional types of software, might end up being quite disorienting. Framing your operational scenario and, consequently, your business requirements is typically the first step to making the right choice and setting up an LMS that will positively impact every aspect of your educational offer.