Creating courses on our new learning management system (LMS) was an exciting (and huge!) project for our Professional Development team, but it did come with some unexpected challenges!
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and, now armed with many new skills, the team sat down to review lessons learned and share them with you.
In this article, we’ll cover the following:
- What is a learning management system?
- What should an LMS do?
- What is the difference between an LMS and eLearning?
- The basics: Key factors to consider before building your own learning management system
- Challenges and lessons learned building an LMS
What is a learning management system?
Before we get to the nitty gritty, let’s break down some of the basics …
A learning management system (LMS) is a trusty software application for organisations, helping them manage and deliver online courses and training programmes with ease. It’s a nifty tool that brings everything together in one place.
An LMS provides a centralised platform where you can create, manage, and track educational content and resources. You can also monitor a learner’s progress and performance. Educational institutions, corporations, and other organisations widely use them for providing training and development programmes.
With an LMS, instructors can create and deliver content, monitor learners’ progress, and provide feedback and assessments. Learners also benefit from an LMS. They can access the learning materials, interact with instructors and fellow learners, and keep tabs on their progress and achievements. It’s like having a personal study companion by their side!
What should an LMS do?
When it comes to an effective learning management system (LMS), it’s all about creating a user-friendly experience that keeps learners engaged from start to finish. Here’s what you should expect:
- An online course catalogue that feels like a treasure trove of knowledge. It should offer a wide range of courses to cater to diverse interests and learning needs.
- An easy registration process.
- Access to a variety of learning materials is key. Whether it’s engaging videos, interactive quizzes, or informative documents, learners should have a buffet of resources at their fingertips.
- Progress tracking and reporting features are essential to keep learners motivated and on the right track. Seeing those milestones and achievements can be a real confidence booster!
- Certification upon completion of a course
What is the difference between an LMS and eLearning?
While eLearning delivers education through electronic devices, an LMS manages, tracks, and delivers those courses. It’s like a behind-the-scenes hero that handles the administration, documentation, and reporting, making eLearning a breeze.
The basics: Key factors to consider before building your own learning management system
Before you dive headfirst into development, we recommend you address the key considerations, listed below. With these as a starting point, you can lay the groundwork for a successful LMS that meets your organisation’s unique needs.
Identify your goals: What are you trying to achieve with your LMS? Are you looking to streamline your organisation’s training programme, create an online course marketplace, or something else entirely? Clarifying your goals upfront can help guide your decision-making throughout the development process.
Consider delivery format: Will your course be entirely online and self-paced? Will your course have a live tutor and in-person events? Does your course run with terms such as the academic year?
Assess your resources: Building online courses for an LMS requires significant time, money, and technical expertise. Before you start, assess whether you have the necessary resources in-house or whether you need to partner with external providers.
Define your target audience: Who will be using your LMS, and what are their needs and preferences? Understanding your target audience can help you design a system that meets their needs and is easy to use.
Consider integrations: Will your LMS need to integrate with other systems or tools, such as a payment gateway or a customer relationship management (CRM) platform? Consider these integrations early on to ensure a smooth user experience.
Plan for scalability: As your user base grows, your LMS will need to accommodate more users and more content. Consider scalability from the outset to avoid rebuilding your system from scratch later on.
Six challenges and lessons learned building an LMS
So now that we’ve been over those background points, let’s get to the essentials – what hurdles did we clip during our run to the LMS finish line?
Our team worked with multiple external contributors to create this platform and we faced some challenges along the way. We’ve divided these into two categories: ‘General’ and ‘Technical’ challenges and provided some considerations for others looking to build an LMS.
- Tight timelines
One of the significant challenges we faced during the development of our LMS was the tight timeline. We had to complete the implementation within eight weeks, which was shorter than the 12 weeks that had originally been recommended. Our supplier later said that it was one of their fastest-ever rollouts of the platform! In addition, two members of our team had just joined TDL, so they really needed to hit the ground running!
The time challenges weren’t just confined to the platform build. We had to migrate our existing courses (People, Power Data and Driving Value from Data) to the new LMS. We added unnecessary pressure on ourselves by not finalising the content before the project started.
Our top tip: It’s crucial to have a well-defined plan in place beforehand and strong project management skills to ensure you meet your deadlines.
- Managing expectations
From the beginning of the project, it was clear that stakeholders had different backgrounds with different levels of familiarity with LMSs. Some individuals came from a traditional classroom setting and were amazed by the LMS, while others wanted to do more advanced tasks but were limited by the technology.
Our top tip: It’s important to agree on what is possible and what isn’t and manage expectations accordingly.
- Payment integration (API)
Perhaps one of the biggest and unexpected challenges of the project. As part of the University, there was a long list of suppliers that we had to approach for quotes, and some took a long time to respond. Stripe was also surprisingly slow setting up our account when we confirmed they had won the procurement.
Following this setup, various financial checks were in place such as VAT certificates and other sensitive information clearances for security. Certain types of BACS and payment methods had to be decided and approved, and, often, getting responses from suppliers was a challenge. Finance checks included requests for unusual info such as DOB (of business card holders), and there were many legalities to review.
Our top tip: These things always take longer than you think! There can be a lot of unexpected red tape. In our case, we couldn’t integrate Zoom with Canvas due to our university’s technical restrictions whereas this would be straightforward for most organisations.
- CNAMEs and domains
CNAME records are typically used to map a subdomain (such as www) to the domain hosting that subdomain’s content. Essentially, it redirects site visitors from the domain name they entered in their browsers to another domain name – and this was exactly what we needed to do to build a space associated with our existing Data Lab website.
Our provider had listed this as a ‘quick task’, yet it took the full implementation period to get this working successfully. While troubleshooting this problem, our team sought help from three internal teams (Marketing, Data Science, and Skills) and two external teams (our web domain host’s support and the provider’s Dev Ops).
Having no background in web development, it took tens of screenshots and screencasts from our side to demonstrate the issue. We were lucky to have a team member determined to expand their knowledge and find a solution internally – our key learning from this process was that different teams/providers used different terms for the same value.
Our top tip: Be clear with tech people that they need to communicate in plain English, as it can often feel like you need a ‘translator’.
- Intuitive design
In addition to implementing a new LMS, we were also creating the content to be uploaded to the platform alongside this. Since we are part of a public sector organisation, accessibility is a legal requirement, and so our videos need captions and transcripts. Creating a transcript button on Canvas was quite challenging and required advanced HTML coding to build.
Fortunately, we had a Product Manager experienced in developing online learning products in Data skills. After some general scoping, she found Canvas intuitive compared to more rigid platforms with little room for creativity.
Her discovery of Canvas Commons was a game-changer. Commons is a free repository within Canvas that enables educators to find, import, and share resources. Designers can share learning resources with other users and import learning resources into a Canvas course. It’s free, and users can build upon existing assets in this repository. It gave us the freedom to html code nice additional features into our courses and explore and learn from shared resources.
Our top tip: If you need a structure or flow to a course you are building, look at Canvas Commons repository. You must go into Canvas Commons with a plan. You need to know what you’re looking for, e.g., Module Flow.
- Crash course on HTML and coding
We used a video editing resource, Media Hopper, which made the typically painstaking task of subtitling and transcription generation a bit easier. Alternatives include (but are not restricted to) YouTube, Zoom, Microsoft Stream, and Jubler. It was a titanic effort (even with a Learning Technologist Consultant).
For example, tweaking images with padding and auto-responsive sizes (to adapt to mobile devices) requires coding. You’ll also need to factor in time to code the feature boxes to your branded colours (if necessary), boxes that display video transcripts, and pop-up boxes with key user information (to name a few).
Our top tip: We recommend that your team create a channel for sharing platform-building tips and resources to benefit from peer learning.
It’s essential to gather your internal requirements early on in the process. Last-minute changes can be very difficult or even impossible to implement in time for launch!
Looking for a live example of a learning management system?
Explore The Data Lab’s Online Learning Platform!