eTrain Center’s e-Learning consulting, e-Learning Training Services
LMS and LCMS: What's the Difference?

By Leonard Greenberg
If you’re confused about the differences between a learning management system (LMS) and a learning content management system (LCMS), you’re not alone. Not only are the names similar, some suppliers are positioning LCMSs as the new wave of LMSs. In fact, an LMS and an LCMS are complementary but very different systems that serve different masters and address unique business challenges.
 
In essence, an LMS is a high-level, strategic solution for planning, delivering, and managing all learning events within an organization, including online, virtual classroom, and instructor-led courses. The primary solution is replacing isolated and fragmented learning programs with a systematic means of assessing and raising competency and performance levels throughout the organization. For example, an LMS simplifies global certification efforts, enables companies to align learning initiatives with strategic goals, and provides a viable means of enterprise-level skills management. The focus of an LMS is to manage learners, keeping track of their progress and performance across all types of training activities. It performs heavy-duty administrative tasks, such as reporting to HR and other ERP systems but isn’t generally used to create course content.

In contrast, the focus of an LCMS is on learning content. It gives authors, instructional designers, and subject matter experts the means to create e-learning content more efficiently. The primary business problem an LCMS solves is to create just enough content just in time to meet the needs of individual learners or groups of learners. Rather than developing entire courses and adapting them to multiple audiences, instructional designers create reusable content chunks and make them available to course developers throughout the organization. This eliminates duplicate development efforts and allows for the rapid assembly of customized content.
 
Differences and Overlap

Both an LMS and an LCMS manage course content and track learner performance. Both tools can manage and track content at a learning object level, too. An LMS, however, can manage and track blended courses and curriculum assembled from online content, classroom events, virtual classroom meetings and a variety of other sources. Although an LCMS doesn’t manage blended learning, it does manage content at a lower level of granularity than a learning object, which allows organizations to more easily restructure and repurpose online content. In addition, advanced LCMSs can dynamically build learning objects based on user profiles and learning styles. When both systems adhere to XML standards, information is passed easily from the object level to the LMS level.

The following chart, based primarily on research conducted by Brandon Hall, summarizes the capabilities and differences between the two systems.
 

 LMS

LCMS

Who benefits?

All learners; organization

Ccontent developers;
learners who need personalized content

Provides primary management of

Learner performance; learning requirements; learning programs and planning

Learning content

Manages e-learning

Yes

Yes

Manages traditional forms of training, such as instructor-led

Yes

No

Tracks results

Yes

Yes

Supports learner collaboration

Yes

Yes

Includes learner profile management

Yes

No

Allows HR and ERP systems to share learner data

Yes

No

Schedules events

Yes

No

Offers competency mapping/skill gap analysis

Yes

No

Includes registration, prerequisite screening, and cancellation notification

Yes

No

Creates test questions and test administration

Yes

Yes

Supports dynamic pretesting and adaptive learning

No

 Yes

Supports content creation

No

Yes

Organizes reusable content

Yes

Yes

Includes workflow tools to manage content creation process

No

Yes

Develops content navigation controls and user interface

No

Yes


LCMS close-up

IDC defines an LCMS as a system that creates, stores, assembles and delivers personalized e-learning content in the form of learning objects. Though an LMS manages and administers all forms of learning within an organization, an LCMS concentrates on online learning content, usually in the form of learning objects.

A learning object is a self-contained chunk of instructional material. It typically includes three components: a performance goal (what the learner will understand or be able to accomplish upon completion of the learning), the necessary learning content to reach that goal (such as text, video, illustration, bulleted slide, demo, task simulation), and some form of evaluation to measure whether or not the goal was achieved.

A learning object also includes metadata, or tags that describe its content and purpose to the LCMS. Metadata may include information such as author, language, version level, and more. In the white paper "Meaning, Metadata and E-Learning," author Dave Feasy of Eyepopping Design predicts,“With its increasing importance, we’re likely to experience a metadata explosion mirroring the information explosion it seeks to expiate. Managing the growing body of metadata will soon become a field unto itself. Hopefully, these new systems will not be named LMMS.”

So how are learning objects used to create content? An LCMS stores learning objects in a central repository for instructional designers to retrieve and assemble into personalized courses. This benefits developers and learners because traditional courses tend to contain more content than any single learner can absorb or needs to absorb about a topic. By breaking course content into learning objects and serving them up on an as needed basis, content developers can deliver just-in-time and just-enough learning. The end result is increased productivity because employees aren’t wasting time wading through irrelevant material.

While LCMS capabilities vary, key components include:

  • Learning object repository. The learning object repository is a central database in which learning content is stored and managed. It’s from this point that individual learning objects are either dispensed to users individually or used as components to assemble larger learning modules or full courses, depending on individual learning needs. The instructional output may be delivered via the Web, CD-ROM, or printed materials. The same object may be used as many times and for as many purposes as is appropriate. The integrity of the content is preserved regardless of the delivery platform. XML serves this function by separating content from programming logic and code. 
  • Automated authoring application. This application is used to create the reusable learning objects that are accessible in the repository. The application automates development by providing authors with templates and storyboarding capabilities that incorporate instructional design principles. Using these templates, authors may develop an entire course by using existing learning objects in the repository, creating new learning objects, or using a combination of old and new objects. Authors may be subject matter experts, instructional designers, media production artists, a community of practice leaders, and so forth. The tool may also be used to rapidly convert libraries of an organization’s existing content, typically by adding media, customized interfaces, and instructional methodologies. An author may reside within an organization or at an outsourced provider.
  • Dynamic delivery interface. To serve up a learning object based on learner profiles, pretests, and/or user queries, a dynamic delivery interface is required. This component also provides user tracking, links to related sources of information, and multiple assessment types with user feedback. This interface may be customized for the organization using the LCMS. For example, content may be presented on Web pages emblazoned with the company logo and a look and feel designed to reflect the desired corporate image. The look and feel may also be localized to the user’s region.
  • Administrative application. This application is used to manage learners’ records, launch e-learning courses from course catalogs, track and report the progress of learners, and provide other basic administrative functions. This information can be fed into an LMS designed with more robust administrative functionality.  

The downside of the LCMS proposition is that it takes a great deal of foresight, planning, and skill to design effective learning objects--even when templates and examples are provided. Designers must think in a non-linear fashion and have a fair understanding of all the contexts in which an object might be needed or used. For example, if a learning object is taken out of context or presented with insufficient supporting information, it can do more harm than good. Some courses, such as those required for safety or certification programs, are required to cover a specific set of topics in a certain order and should not be broken apart.

To be sure, learning objects--and LCMSs--are a fixed part of the future, but they will likely always coexist with other forms of learning, such as mentoring, learning by doing, and instructor-led training.

LMS close Up

An LMS provides a single point of access to disparate learning sources. It automates learning program administration and offers unprecedented opportunities for human resource development. It identifies the people who need a particular course and tells them how it fits into their overall career path, when it’s available, how it’s available (classroom, online, CD-ROM), if there are prerequisites, and when and how they can fulfill those prerequisites. Once learners complete a course, the LMS can administer tests based on proficiency requirements, report test results, and recommend next steps. In that capacity, LMSs are instrumental in assuring that organizations meet rigid certification requirements in such vertical markets as healthcare, finance, and government.

Look for these capabilities in an LMS:

  • Support for blended learning. People learn in different ways. An LMS should offer a curriculum that mixes classroom and virtual courses easily. Combined, those features enable prescriptive and personalized training.
  • Integration with HR. LMSs that aren't synchronized with HR systems miss the boat. When systems are integrated, a human resources employee can enter a new hire's information into the HR system, and the employee is automatically signed up for training tailored to his or her role within the company.
  • Administration tools. The LMS must enable administrators to manage user registrations and profiles, define roles, set curricula, chart certification paths, assign tutors, author courses, manage content, and administer internal budgets, user payments, and chargebacks. Administrators need complete access to the training database, enabling them to create standard and customized reports on individual and group performance. Reports should be scalable to include the entire workforce. The system should also be able to build schedules for learners, instructors, and classrooms. Most important, all features should be manageable using automated user-friendly interfaces.
  • Content integration. It's important for an LMS to provide native support to a wide range of third-party courseware. When shopping for an LMS, keep in mind that some LMSs are compatible only with the supplier's own courseware, and others do little more than pay lip-service to learning content standards. An LMS supplier should be able to certify that third-party content will work within their system, and accessing courses should be as easy as using a drop-down menu.
  • Adherence to standards. An LMS should attempt to support standards, such as SCORM and AICC. Support for standards means that the LMS can import and manage content and courseware that complies with standards regardless of the authoring system that produced it. Beware: Unless the supplier certifies that the content will work, plan on additional expenses.
  • Assessment capabilities. Evaluation, testing, and assessment engines help developers build a program that becomes more valuable over time. It's a good idea to have an assessment feature that enables authoring within the product and includes assessments as part of each course.
  • Skills management.  A skills management component enables organizations to measure training needs and identify improvement areas based on workers’ collective competence in specified areas. Skills assessments can be culled from multiple sources, including peer reviews and 360-feedback tools. Managers determine whether results are weighed, averaged, or compared to determine a skill gap. Businesses also might use this feature to search their employee base for specialized skills.

Integrating LMSs with LCMSs

A good LMS provides an infrastructure that enables a company to plan, deliver, and manage learning programs in any format it chooses. It will support multiple authoring systems and integrate easily with the leading LCMS systems. In its role as a catalyst for the overall learning environment, an LMS can integrate LCMS learning objects via technical specifications and standards and assume responsibility for all content management, including delivery and tracking, storage in a content repository, assembly and reassembly of content objects, incorporation of content objects into blended curriculums, and tracking learner progress through courses.

The key to integration success is an open, interoperable approach. Currently, leading LMS and LCMS suppliers are launching certification programs that proactively address compatibility issues and ensure interoperability between their products. While time-consuming and expensive for the suppliers, certification programs shield customers from integration hassles or having to settle for patchwork solutions from suppliers who try to do it all. The certification approach gives buyers the freedom to choose both the LMS and LCMS that best meets their needs.

Object level management has been around forever and solves a myriad of IT problems, but it’s not a panacea. Indeed, one analyst employs the following metaphor to illustrate the function of an LCMS. Traditional courses are bags of jelly beans, learning objects are the beans inside the bag, and LCMSs are systems that open all the bags, pour the beans into one big jar, and put descriptive tags on each bean so they can be repackaged into new bags on demand.

The question remains: Just because the technology exists to manage your e-learning content at the bean level, will it have a significant impact on productivity? Can you solve the need for just-enough learning other ways? LCMSs aren’t an inexpensive proposition. Before you invest, ask whether the problems they solve are the problems you care about.

Copyright © 2016 eTrainCenter.com, All Rights Reserved.