What to Look for in Learning Management Systems

By: Douglas R. Kelly

Continuing education is an essential part of many associations' missions, and as learning methods have expanded, learning management systems have worked to keep up. Today's LMS tools are more flexible, more powerful, and more social. (Titled "Connected Credentials" in the print edition.)

Raffaele Vitelli, senior director of operations at America's Health Insurance Plans, has a passion for enabling learning.

AHIP is a trade association that represents the health insurance industry, with members drawn from health insurance plans across the United States. Professional development and learning opportunities for its members are key elements of AHIP's mission, and Vitelli's enthusiasm for these services is obvious when he talks about his organization's learning management system (LMS) and how it enables management and tracking of credentialing activities.

"We can manage it for the members, or they can manage it themselves," he says. "We offer about 15 different designations, and our model is that we don't award points for completed specific programs. Instead, each designation has a series of required courses that need to be completed, and a series of elective ones. So [different combinations] of the two will award the designation in the system." Once students achieve a designation, they can see it in their training history and they can print a certificate.

AHIP's LMS enables users to review their history and see at a glance which courses they have completed. The courses are pass-fail, but AHIP keeps track of specific grades so it can readily study trends over time.

The adaptability of the software and the breadth of data AHIP can now access reveal how much has changed in the LMS arena. A few years ago, LMS solutions offered associations only rudimentary capabilities for managing certification and credentialing activities. But that's changing, driven by associations' increasing need to balance flexibility for their members with administrative control of these tools, along with the demand for integrating member use of social media into these systems.

Take the Time to Do It Right

When evaluating LMS applications, it's important to ask every question possible and define your needs thoroughly, Vitelli says.

"The initial gathering of requirements was the hardest part of all of this," he says. "We decided to do it right, so we spent a lot of time—almost a year—gathering all of our requirements and really searching extensively for the system that would best match our needs. I was in charge of that phase of the project—getting our IT, marketing, operations, and membership departments together—and we had to work cross-departmentally. Each department had different issues and requirements."

AHIP eventually selected TopClass, by WBT Systems, as its LMS. "Once we found the right system, and when we felt we had a good grip on what we needed from the system, the actual implementation of our customizations and the go-live phase lasted about 12 months," says Vitelli.

Before AHIP launched the LMS, the organization's learning courses were mostly paper affairs. Students purchased textbooks through the association, studied the materials, took a paper exam, and mailed it to AHIP. The association graded the exam and sent the student the results. The new system radically reduces the paperwork: In addition to enabling users to track their designation activities, the system allows AHIP to fine-tune the control it has over how courses are managed and how credit is awarded.

"Our system has a lot of controls built in, so when CEUs [continuing education units] or certificates are awarded, they can have expiration dates," says Brendan Noud, senior account manager with WBT Systems. "The system doesn't allow users to claim credit for the same course twice, for example. So there's quite a lot of controls."

TopClass also lets AHIP choose whether it will give credit for courses and events outside of its offerings. "We invented a workflow there where someone can apply for CEUs outside of doing the course directly on the LMS," says Noud. "So they can upload a certificate they may have gotten from a third party, the details of the course they covered, any contact information that can be used for verification, and that can feed through to an administrator or instructor on the association side. They can verify it, review the certificate, and give the person the credit, and that will feed through to the user's training history."

Focus on Associations

Like so many technologies, an LMS solution that works well for one industry may be a poor fit for another, and a successful corporate tool may not adapt well to an association's particular credentialing program. "The [LMS provider] that wants to be serious in the association market has to take credit and credentialing seriously," says Jeff Cobb, managing director of the association consultancy firm Tagoras. "They have to be able to manage that in ways that corporate LMSes simply don't and most academic [systems] really don't as well."

Cobb has worked with many associations in selecting and implementing LMS solutions. One of the first questions he asks his clients and potential vendors is about integration of data. "On the flip side of the organizational-fit equation is data sharing," he says. "That credit gets earned and it gets registered in your learning management system. Then you need to know: How is that getting back to my association management system, if it needs to?"

Also important is the ability to share information with the board or other stakeholder groups, Cobb notes: "Are you set up to export that data so you can easily send that file … to whatever body it is that needs to know about it?"

LMS vendors have increasingly developed tools that allow associations to handle those tweaks and other customization efforts by themselves. "Through the administrator interface, users can build complex credentialing paths and maintain them directly through the application," says to John Leh, national sales manager at Meridian Knowledge Solutions, of its Global LMS software. "It puts the power in the owner's hands versus always being reliant on a vendor to tailor it and create customized paths."

A debate circles around how well open-source LMS solutions handle tasks such as credentialing management compared to commercial, or "off the shelf," systems. Over the past 18 to 24 months, Cobb says, the number of companies offering customization and enhanced modules for open-source solutions such as Moodle has increased, and some are aimed at making the core application more suited to the demands of associations.

"I don't know of an open-source solution, out of the box, that's going to handle all of the credit scenarios [that associations tend to use], including Moodle," says Cobb. "There are good modules that go with Moodle which can get you much of the way there, so it's possible. But Moodle was meant really for the academic world. That's where it came from, and that's what it's meant to serve."

But competition from open-source solutions "has changed the market dynamics out there," Cobb says. "It's driving down prices, and it's forcing commercial vendors to be a little more open with what they're doing with their software. But it's also creating opportunity for new companies to come into the market and take that open-source base and build on it and modify it in ways that really fit particular markets."

Mobile and Social

In recent years, the LMS space has expanded into two new areas. One is mobile delivery. According to Leh, the ability to connect to Global LMS via mobile devices has become increasingly important to the company's clients.

"Our mobile app is a core part of our application," he says. "The LMS 'sees' where someone is coming from, and it automatically gives them a rendering of the application that's suitable to the device they're on. It's one LMS, but it'll display differently for an iPad or iPhone than it will if you're sitting at your desktop."

The second development is integration of the LMS with social media. Nearly all member-based associations are doing something with social media, but those efforts are often separate from what's happening with an organization's learning initiatives. Ellen Behrens, a former education director at the National Association of College & University Food Services and author of aLearning: A Trail Guide to Association eLearning, says members will use social media tools the way they want, when they want, and that the better LMS systems will promote social media sharability.

"It's a case of letting the horse know where the water is, and they'll get to it if they want it," says Behrens. "Associations can exploit that opportunity by setting up, or allowing their members to set up, personal learning environments, where the user can create their own online territory. … I think the LMS that has these kinds of tools available is the ideal place for that … where [members] can blog or create their own web page; contact other members through instant chat or through Twitter or however they want to do that; keep track of their calendar, their RSS feeds; and do all of that from one spot. The more an association can do that, the more it will provide tremendous value to its members."

Cobb agrees that an LMS is well suited to providing these opportunities. "A wide range of LMS [solutions] now offer integration with Twitter, Facebook, and other social networks," he says. "In most cases, this simply means pulling them in as RSS feeds, usually using a 'widget' type approach. Among [LMS vendors] active in the association space, both Digital Ignite and Interactyx, which is actually built on Moodle, have been hanging their hats on 'social' for quite some time. And both come from the more traditional LMS space—mostly on-demand or facilitated asynchronous learning."

Cobb sees the merging of education delivery and social media tools as a natural evolution. "Associations are, fundamentally, social organizations, and I think they're going to be forced, to a certain extent, to embrace that whole concept of social learning, maybe more quickly than they were forced to embrace the whole idea of online education."

"It's pretty much been left in the hands of the marketing people or, secondarily, the technology people," he says. "There hasn't been this tight connection between those new social capabilities and what is one of the principal value drivers for most associations, which is the delivery of education. Start linking those two things together, and it has the potential to be very, very powerful."

Merging social media with education delivery requires collaboration between departments and among team members, and meaningful progress often starts simply by talking. Vitelli says his organization can add real value to its members' education experience by working collaboratively. "At AHIP, these departments historically have worked in silos," he says. "They never really talk to each other. We're trying to change that."

Douglas R. Kelly is editor of the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers' Marine Technology magazine. Email: [email protected]

Additional Resources on Learning Management Systems

Tagoras: Technology Resources, a list "of free resources to support organizations in the business of continuing education and professional development."