How Learning Management Systems have evolved

The story of Learning Management Systems is fascinating for one intriguing fact; their evolution has mirrored that of the web to a quite uncanny degree. There are few applications that have so reflected the ups and downs, hype and rebirth, the excitement and despondency that has characterised the world-wide web during its short history.

Early attempts at learning management were effectively automated training management systems (and not very good ones). In this respect they made the same mistake that early e-commerce sites did in merely transposing a physical process into an online process. Remember Barclay Square? In the mid-Nineties, it was thought that what internet shoppers wanted was a web-based version of the real world, so online shopping malls were launched that adopted the high-street concept of groups of disparate stores clustered together under one brand –the shared physical location of a mall being merely substituted for the shared web address of the online e-commerce site. With hindsight it is easy to see the flaws in this approach. Like early learning management systems, they failed to embrace and exploit those characteristics of the web that makes things possible online that just aren’t possible in the physical world. Today, e-commerce sites exploit their non-physical nature and aggregate suppliers from all corners of the earth and offer richer choice to their customers in their chosen niche. They can offer better value due to their lower overheads and they can engage the customers in ‘communities’ that swap informal reviews of products and offer support and help to their fellow consumers.

Contemporary LMSs similarly take advantage of the social power of the internet; providing, for example, discussion forums supporting a course, or linking into virtual classroom systems. They have also diversified, with various LMSs satisfying a variety of needs. Some addressing not only the learning function but also increasingly more general HR functionality (e.g. skill management, succession management etc). There are those that provide comprehensive support for all types of learning in an organisation, both online and classroom-based (so called blended-learning), and those that focus clearly on e-learning and through this clarity of purpose, offer a simple to use solution that does one thing well.

And of course, there is the price. Early corporate websites, often driven by elaborate content management systems (such as BroadVision, Vignette et al.), frequently cost 7 figure sums to implement (let alone maintain). The same was true for LMSs. Today, the costs of both have plummeted, with learning management systems now often supplied as an online service for only a few pounds per user per year.