Does your LMS do this?

In 2013, the educational technology space exploded with an abundance of new, recycled, and revisited ideas. And while many of these will come and go (in some cases a second or even third time), one technology concept that seems to have stuck with us is the product category we think of as the Learning Management System (LMS).  While LMSs have evolved over time, they generally have the same capabilities that they had back in the late 1990s. They’re a good place to store content in such a way that only enrolled students have access. They offer convenient ways to deliver quizzes, facilitate assignments, and publish grades. Different ways to facilitate classroom communication are built in. They help meet FERPA, copyright compliance, and archival needs.

But while the basic capabilities of the LMS haven’t changed much, their implementations have evolved significantly over time. Even so, we were surprised by our analysis showing that almost 7% of institutions continue to use legacy LMS technology. How has the LMS changed over the years, and how should schools determine where they stand in relation to each other? And where could the LMS be headed in years to come? These questions prompted us to consider what a model for thinking about LMS maturity could look like. In this post, we share our thinking with you and our thoughts about the future. Tweet or blog a reply with the hashtag #LMSEvolve.

LMS, The First-Generation

The first generation LMS is the one born out of the basic need to  facilitate the creation of class “web presences.” First generation LMSs are characterized by:

  • The ability to create and upload static content
  • Basic assessment tools such as quizzes with limited question types and the ability to upload assignments
  • Limited interactive communication capabilities such as through a discussion forum or messaging tool
  • Basic gradebook capabilities

LMS 1.5

As first-generation LMSs evolved, the need emerged to begin automating the creation of class web sites, enhance the ability to manage content, and augment the basic capabilities of first generation LMSs. First-generation LMSs soon evolved to have these capabilities:

  • The ability to better organize course content and copy/reuse content in subsequent courses
  • Advancements to grading and assessment options
  • Back-end Integration with Student Information Systems that populated the LMS via periodic batch processes with new users, courses, and enrollments
  • The ability to centrally-authenticate with directory passwords (primarily LDAP) used by other systems across campus

This generation of LMSs exhibits the base capabilities of the most popular ones used even today.


Second-generation LMSs emerged out of the need to improve user experiences originally created in the late 1990s and early 2000s. They take advantage of newer “Web 2.0” capabilities such as drag-and-drop, the emergence of interactive and embedded content, and began to incorporate emergent mobile and analytics capabilities. We think of second-generation LMSs as having these capabilities:

  • A Web 2.0-style design and experience including using JavaScript-enabled user interfaces
  • The ability to embed content, including interactive and multimedia content, from other sites and services
  • More advanced content capabilities including metadata, reuse across multiple class sections, and standards/curricular alignment
  • Basic reporting of usage to the instructor level
  • Existence of a mobile app, even if not fully-featured
  • Formal, supported APIs to support integration with other systems

Additionally, second-generation LMSs began to recognize the need for interoperability and as such have native support for open standards for learning tools, learning content, and back-end integrations. Similarly, second-generation LMSs generally possess the capability to integrate in real-time with other systems of record in addition to the batch processes of LMS 1.5.

Almost all major LMSs in use today fall into this category or the next.

LMS 2.5

Second generation LMSs are actively evolving in two ways. The first way is taking advantage of Web 2.0 style approaches to social interaction, notification, analytics, and gamification. The second way is taking advantage of modern approaches to delivering the LMS software itself. This stage of LMS evolution is characterized by:

  • Analytics that evolve the basic reporting capabilities of LMS 2.0 and that can combine multiple data points, potentially from sources outside the LMS
  • Ability to support alternative credential approaches (such as badges) in response to basic configurable learning paths (such as quiz grades or activity completion)
  • Emerging social  profiles and other capabilities built into the LMS rather than relying on Facebook or others
  • Ability to syndicate alerts and notifications via a stream or feed, text messages, and other modes
  • A delivery model that incorporates the ability to update the software in-place with minimal-to-no downtime
  • Scalability that can expand and contract elastically depending on load demand throughout the semester
  • Modern REST and standards-based APIs to interoperate with other systems

LMS 2.5 continues to enhance mobile capabilities including native responsive design for supporting mobile experiences across devices. Another characteristic of LMS 2.5 is a renewed focus on productivity driven by the tablet device form factor and ability to render certain document types in-line instead of relying on PDF readers, Word, or PowerPoint.


We predict the emergence of third generation LMSs in 2014 and into 2015 with broader adoption beginning in the late-middle of the decade. This generation of LMSs will leverage network effects, advanced analytics capabilities, and a seamless user experience across content and devices. LMS 3.0 will support the trend of empowering choices relating to content and tools to the user level in a “Bring Your Own Learning Tools” or “Create Your Own Learning Experience” type of way. Third-generation LMSs will be characterized by:

  • Adaptive paths and content that support not only remediation and reinforcement but continued exploration of concepts of interest
  • Predictive analytics that can proactively rather than reactively support instructors
  • Content subscription and syndication capabilities that could be used to separate learning content from its delivery platform while improving instructor productivity
  • Seamless mobile experiences that traverse content delivered from multiple places, learning tools from various providers, and navigation across multiple devices
  • Integrated store-like content and learning tool experiences
  • Ability to support Personal Learning Networks, life-long social capabilities, and ongoing communities of practice
  • Offline, device-specific capabilities such as syncing content to tablets or e-readers

The most challenging aspect of LMS 3.0 may very well be the presentation of learning content and tools across vendors and devices. This is a challenge that even the largest mobile platforms of today do not currently address in an elegant way. For example, linking between mobile apps continues to be a clunky experience as do the differences in content presentation in-app versus mobile web versus tablet versus full web browser.

Third generation LMSs will likely rely on improvements made to devices and operating systems such as Microsoft’s efforts to provide a consistent user experience across all versions of Windows 8. There are currently many technical limitations across “app” architectures, operating systems, and devices for LMS makers alone to overcome all  compatibility and usability concerns.

Fourth Generation

Fourth generation LMSs will emerge in the later half of the decade with adoption in the first half of the next, if we get there. Fourth generation LMSs will be characterized by the unencumbered ability for users to choose a preferred client or app to access the LMS in a way that is similar to how one can choose a preferred client (or build one’s own) to use Twitter. The LMS will also begin to present itself as a service following standard protocols for common abstract LMS actions such as “submit assignment” or “grade quiz.” Much like e-mail users can choose an e-mail client of preference and access e-mail across desktops and devices, LMS 4.0 will open up more freedom to choose which “client” through which an instructor wishes to build a course or which app a student wishes to submit an assignment.

Fourth generation LMSs will be a significant challenge in and of themselves. Few product categories have developed to support applications built around open communication protocols. E-mail and IRC for chat are the two most popular ones that come to mind.  There are many, many e-mail and IRC clients to choose from. SIP is used for some interoperable VoIP applications. A recent “new” product that attempted to break into this model was Google Wave which was built on top of XMPP (Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol) but has since lost its direct support from Google (perhaps it was just ahead of its time).

Challenges Moving Forward

While LMSs have been with us for a long time (eternity in technology years), and everyone can be certain that online learning will not go away, we believe that we are nearing an inflection point in terms of what LMSs are and can do. It is increasingly clear that the LMS is evolving from providing course materials online to providing or supporting “learning experiences.” These “learning experiences” increasingly rely on the ability to integrate with both content and learning tools in both front-end and back-end manners.

Like corporate intranets as we knew them from 10 years ago are being gradually replaced by workplace productivity software such as Salesforce or Jive (products that deeply integrate across organizational structure in customer and partner-centric ways), the value of the LMS will soon be calculated based on delivering to increasing expectations including in ability to provide meaningful analytics, unified multimodal experiences, meaningful integration capabilities, and other means of self-reinforcing value. Salesforce and Jive support similar purposes as intranets once hoped to, but the experience these products provide is one generation (or more) advanced in capability. LMSs as we know them must evolve to address their challenges or like legacy intranets be replaced in time by a new category of software.

Building a single technology platform to support these requirements is a significant challenge in and of itself. But an even more significant challenge will be building or adapting existing course content that will work within the structure of an evolved LMS platform. As tangible examples, mobile web content often requires building custom CSS themes to adequately support different mobile devices, screen resolutions, and adapted full-browser experiences. Similarly, web analytics packages such as Google Analytics require embedding scripts into content and additional administrative configuration (such as in Google’s case configuring “goals” and “conversions”).  Will overburdened faculty and course development teams put forth the effort to update existing content, or will the LMS makers find some way to retrofit this in? Will LMS users begin to expect “optimal-experience-enabled” learning content to come bundled with their LMS product rather than having to build or buy it themselves? (Thinking more on this specifically, would you buy an iPod without preloaded music? How about a GPS device without preloaded maps? Why?) This could mean that learning content and the LMS delivery platform will become more deeply intertwined than ever. But could this also be an opportune moment to reinvent learning content on a large scale using open licenses,  open standards, and new models of content collaboration? Or will the LMS model flip? Imagine instead of embedding content in an LMS, embedding the LMS into the content using JavaScript widgets like AddThis or Disqus.

There are also significant implications to the analytical and adaptive components of future-generation LMSs. The skillsets required for such specialized application of mathematics and computer science are high, and it will take time for these to be developed in-house by each LMS maker. For LMSs that are not cloud-native or are otherwise burdened by legacy code and design patterns, enabling complex real-time adaptive and analytical capabilities will likely require significant computing power and investment in technology stack. Existing LMS providers may explore partnerships with corporations such as Knewton to outsource these challenges.  This model could play out in a similar fashion to the way certain car manufacturers collaborate or license hybrid electric vehicle technologies from one another. Alternatively, publishers and content providers may choose to incorporate adaptivity and analytics directly into their content instead of relying on the capabilities of the LMS platform itself. The challenge will then become collecting, aggregating, or possibly redistributing analytical data scattered across multiple separate systems to ensure that the LMS itself is still capable of providing value (there are already open standards being envisioned to do just this).

But the most significant challenge will be to define the need for complex future-generation LMSs in a time period of decreasing funding, increasing constraints, and changing perceptions with regards to the real or perceived need for LMSs at all. Philosophical debates about openness and the questionably-closed nature of the LMS abound. With so many external  tools merely plugged into the LMS, so much external content merely linked to from within the LMS, and the complexity of LMS technology increasing with each new version, the value proposition for its existence becomes increasingly linked to providing a refined and seamless, holistic user experience – one that many consider lacking even in the LMSs of today. The stakes are so much higher now than providing the capability to upload a presentation to a course web site. Is an LMS even the best way to achieve the end goals of what an optimal learning experience should be?

We encourage you to think about this and look into the usage reporting for your institution’s LMS. Define what adoption means. Define what basic and deep usage means. Look at the numbers. You may be surprised to learn that even when all instructors are provided access to your institution’s LMS, not all will upload content, and still fewer will utilize quizzing, the gradebook, and discussion forums. Advanced and newer features may be utilized by fewer than 5% of your school’s online classes. With these numbers, you can begin getting towards the root of why this is: clunky software, teaching styles/preferences, lack of time or desire to use the LMS, unfamiliarity with LMS technology (or technology in general), etc. By getting closer to these reasons, you will gain better insight into where teaching and learning technologies need to go at your institution. As for where the LMS is going: likely nowhere fast but maybe somewhere someday.

This post written by George Kroner in collaboration with the Edutechnica team.