LMS101: Learning management systems debunked

Skypiom MD Thomas Kritzer explains why traditional LMS models offer little to no value.

Learning Management Systems (LMSs) have become extensively interwoven into the fabric of learning and development and there is no sign of this trend tapering off. Quite the contrary. Organisations increasingly have their sights set on software solutions in the HR space as a means for producing better and more transparent learning results that are sustainable whilst ultimately delivering a benefit for the organisation. This ambition is certainly commendable, let alone sensible. And while the past two decades of development of learning software has certainly supported this commonplace organisational goal, traditional LMSs are narrowing in appeal since they lack granular measurability, which is a key pillar that ultimately delivers this necessitated benefit or value. 

The birth of SCORM

To understand why traditional LMSs are no longer keeping up with commonplace organisational requirements (and thus have commenced trailing in relevance), one has to first understand their legacy. The first generation of commercialised, purpose-built LMSs appeared on the market in the mid-90s during the dawn of modern networking and initially gravitated towards higher education. While primitive by today's’ standards, the primordial LMS featured little more than a file sharing environment coupled with bulletin board functionality, amongst a few basic other features. Soon enough there were a number of LMSs on the market with each one comprising different standards that began finding their way into the corporate space.

At the time, the potential of eLearning did not go unnoticed to governmental agencies in the USA, who latched onto the medium as a way to train workers in different departments. As was to be expected, each agency developed their own content standards and/or proprietary LMSs, which quickly led to a disjointed educational effort. This disarray of content quickly matured into a government-initiated standard that was aimed at making LMSs able to share content with each other and, to this end, “SCORM” was born. SCORM, an acronym for Shareable Content Object Reference Model, is a legacy standard still employed within eLearning today.

"One of the fundamental objectives of SCORM was interoperability between different LMSs, which translated to taking content assets, such as documents, videos, images and assessments and collating these into a specific ZIP file, thereby compressing the said into a uniform, standard and sharable file."

This was and is done by dedicated authoring tools that affect the amalgamation of the assets. Interestingly, even today’s authoring tools do not come without their challenges; they are expensive, cumbersome and almost always lack backwards compatibility. The importance of the ZIP file became even more apparent for “on-site” LMS i.e. LMSs that were installed either on an existing server architecture or deployed on dedicated servers. The irony is that this revered action of compressing assets into a specific ZIP file via the SCORM standard is the exact action that has begun causing SCORM to diminish in relevance because this standard requires an extremely laborious effort to extrapolate data in order to objectively measure the entire learning environment. 

The value of data

This need for measurability has fast become a non-negotiable organisational requirement. That data is the new oil does not need further elaboration but is perhaps best captured by the following quote by Howard Baldwin, which published by Forbes Tech magazine in March 2015: 

"How much is data worth? It seems like a silly question, until you recognise a really intriguing factoid: If you look at the financial valuations of companies that were built on data, like Facebook, Uber or Twitter, there’s a gap between the actual market valuation and their market valuation. That’s their goodwill gap, and that gap is what, as Capgemini vice-president Jeff Hunter puts it, 'screams to the value of data'. Just to illustrate – and I’m certainly not the first one to make this comparison – Facebook is now worth about $200 billion (± $630 billion in June 2018). United Airlines, a company that actually owns assets like airplanes and has licences to lucrative things like airport facilities and transoceanic routes between the US and Asia, among other places, is worth $34 billion."

Most organisations have an understanding of the value of data and a lot of data is already being collected. Unfortunately, this does not cover all areas and hence, there are gaps in data collection efforts. One of the areas that have traditionally been neglected is the training environment and there are different reasons for this. The cost of collecting data has traditionally been higher than what is possible today, primarily due to older generation systems being deployed. Another factor has been a lack of interest in the subject by training departments, placing a low or zero value on potentially available data. This is, however, changing at a rapid rate and training departments have come to understand that their training efforts are a key aspect of the organisation’s overall strategy. As such, top training officials (often with the support of the finance department) are working on sound data strategies, enabling them to not only prove the value of their efforts but monitor trends, help staff members reach their full potential, do career planning and generally plan ahead in all matters HR. This trend is illustrated in Deloitte's’ 2018 Human Capital Trends Report for South Africa, in which it is highlighted that three-quarters of organisational respondents noted that people data is considered the driver of value. In their bottom line, Deloitte recommends the deliberate use of data for value extraction for obvious reasons.

So how are measurability, data and LMS’ combined? As previously outlined, data collection for the purpose of measuring the entire training department including the value that the said delivers for the organisation is near to the impossible. 

While some may argue that their LMS measures in great detail and that their training department is run like a Swiss watch, a simple question to the financial department on what value the training department has delivered in the past financial year almost always solicits the same response: “we do not know” or “it is impossible to measure the value of training”. 

The next-generation LMS

This certainly is the case with SCORM-based LMSs since SCORM (including the later developed “Tin Can API” as well as “xAPI”, both of which are effectively a defibrillation attempt at SCORM) only enables the measurement of Kirkpatrick Levels 1 and 2 in so far as how satisfied the learners were with the lesson and what the learners have studied respectively. But these benchmarks are simply not an indicator of value.

That said, it is not to say that LMSs have been in a complete stasis for the past 20 years. Many LMSs have claimed to be “Next Generation” and, while they certainly incorporate many distinct modules and features, they in essence deliver more of the same only with a different look and feel. For example, five years ago “gamification” was the order of the day, which has since been relegated to the kiddies corner since  most conversant L&D managers have quickly learnt that the key to unlocking learner potential does not lie in moving words into buckets but rather in motivating through rewards or, better yet, engaging content. Next Generation would only be true to the word if the LMS were completely revolutionary from the ground up, by having the shackles of SCORM removed entirely. 

Next Generation would furthermore mean relinquishing of authoring tools and allowing course authors to make use of tools that they are already comfortable with and versed in, such as PowerPoint, Word, Keynote, Pages, MP4 videos, YouTube and so on, thereby also ensuring backward compatibility. These formats would also mean portability of files without the interloping of legacy software or LMS restriction.  In other words, next generation LMSs have to allow for the free movement of content at the behest of the author. 

The Next Generation model would also have to be able to provide measurments well beyond Kirkpatrick levels 1 and 2; specifically, the behavioural change of the learners subsequent to training interventions as well as the return of expectations and/or investment. This form of Next Generation translates to measuring all levels of the Kirkpatrick evaluation of training effectiveness and being able to extrapolate data that comprises not only eLearning but also the classroom environment, including practical as well as formative/summative training environments. 

Creating and demonstrating value is an absolute necessity if one wants to ensure the long-term survival of one’s training department. Better yet, believing that one is adding value through what one does may be in order, knowing that one is adding value and being able to back this up with hard evidence is surely infinitely more satisfying and motivating.