The market for an LMS (learning management system) is often confusing and overwhelming for small organizations. If you work in a small organization and have struggled to find the best LMS for your small business or organization, you are not alone.
We run our own small business and we support those who run small businesses with their training needs. This often means that we’re discussing how best to deploy online courses or hybrid courses the technology needed to support them.
Why is it so difficult to choose an LMS for small business?
There are good reasons why small organizations struggle to find a good LMS that they can trust. First, many LMSs and their functionality have been designed for large enterprises and thus include features that are unusable for smaller organizations. And of course this impacts the price. Even if you don’t need those features, you will pay for them.
It doesn’t help that the definition of an LMS is fairly fluid and what one company refers to as an LMS may have completely different functionality from another. While LMS functionality has been relatively stable for many years, the market is changing dramatically with an alphabet soup of options including LXPs, LRSs, and LCMSs. With so many tempting options and features, it can be enticing to want the benefits of all of these different options.
What should a small organization look for in an LMS?
For our purposes, when we’re talking about organizations looking for an LMS, we mean small organizations that have a training product (elearning, microlearning, hybrid training) in the works, but they don’t have the technology infrastructure to host and track it. We are not talking about organizations looking for an advanced employee training platform using algorithms to determine what skills employees need, etc. While those advanced platforms are amazing, it is ok to walk before you run.
When we talk to our customers, we ask some really basic questions. You will see many other lists of questions and factors on the web, but many of these are overboard and go beyond what you should be thinking about, at least initially. We generally ask some form of the following questions:
- Do you need to sell courses or are you training internally? This tells us how important the marketing components are.
- How many people will use the LMS, for how long, and how much turnover will you have? This tells us how you should be looking at plans. If your organization cycles through a high number of users, many plans will quickly become expensive.
- What type of training do you think you could be launching? While most systems support the same types of interactivity, there are some challenges and some preferences that may change what you implement.
- Is this a long-term approach or do you want to test the approach with a cohort? There are options that are better if you aren’t ready to commit.
- Do you have IT support that is used to deploying technology? You’ll see that some low cost solutions require more support.
We find most of them to be irrelevant when selecting an LMS for small businesses. Each of the questions above also lead to other technical questions, but they are a good starting point for understanding what kind of system is best.
Is Moodle the best free LMS?
Open source software can be a blessing for organizations who want to separate themselves from ongoing corporate costs. Moodle is a widely known, widely used open source LMS. It began primarily as a tool for universities and continues to have many attributes that suggest it is supporting a college course. Because it is open source software (meaning it is free to use) and is widely implemented (meaning it has a big community supporting it), and is regularly updated with security patches, it is the main choice for free LMSs.
You shouldn’t be surprised that free never really means free. The software itself is free. Hosting will cost, unless you already have server space that you pay for. You will also need to make sure you have someone who can manage the upgrades and support any user issues. We have hosted multiple Moodle implementations. They need work to keep running smoothly.
Moodle might be your LMS if:
- Selling courses is not your main goal. Moodle was designed around University needs and while it can become consumer facing, it isn’t its strong suit.
- You expect to enroll large numbers of learners and potentially go up and down. As long as your hosting can handle it, Moodle can handle the numbers.
- You are offering a range of courses including facilitated asynchronous. Remember, while it does more than college style classes, that is where it started.
- You are committed to this process. While it doesn’t have to be a long-term commitment, the setup time is not quick. Unless it is something your team already does, trying to set it up for the first time for use in a pilot may not be worth the cost.
- You have an IT team that loves open source. If so, strongly consider Moodle. It will hum with the right support.
Moodle fits best is when you have a solid IT team and infrastructure that already supports multiple sites, especially if they are running on open source software. There is a lot of support but it also requires a lot of trial and error to get everything working.
Can WordPress be an LMS?
Moodle isn’t the only open source software that could be your next LMS. Many companies already use another piece of open source software, WordPress, for one or more websites. While turning one of those into an LMS may not be the answer, setting up a new version of WordPress to use as an LMS may be.
Like Moodle, WordPress has an enormous community of people and plugins supporting it. We were once working with a customer who wanted to set up a menu planning site. Their first instinct was that they would have to build a custom application. I had a hunch that there would already be plugins for WordPress that had menu planning functionality. They were delighted when there proved to be a range of plugins available to choose from! This means that when you think of something you want to do, chances are that there is already someone who has done the same thing and either built a plugin or shared their solution.
The range of plugins and themes also matters because WordPress can really turn into any type of site and any type of layout. While Moodle always kind of looks like Moodle, WordPress can be as attractive and modern as you want and can closely match your organization’s look. Just don’t get confused by the hosted version (wordpress.com) which may limit what you can install and modify.
WordPress might be your LMS if:
- You want to sell courses. WordPress is one of the largest platforms for businesses of all sizes to sell products, so it has plenty of plugins that allow you to quickly and easily add monetization.
- You expect to enroll large numbers of learners and potentially go up and down. Like Moodle, there are probably limits, but if you’re hitting them you probably already have a massively successful training program.
- You are offering a range of courses, primarily asynchronous. While you can set it up like Moodle, it is more of an open container to launch other interactions. You’ll see in the next section that expanding it requires some extra investment and work.
- You are committed to this process. While easier than Moodle (my opinion only) it still takes time to get it configured.
- You have an IT team that has other WordPress sites. It isn’t essential, but it is easier and may be less expensive if you do. WordPress has become simple to apply updates. Where Moodle still requires specific actions, WordPress plugins can now be automatically updated without any interruption to the site.
What plugins are needed to make WordPress into an LMS?
The range of plugins specifically to turn WordPress into an LMS is definitely smaller. As part of an implementation over a year ago, our team reviewed several that were available and implemented one of the most popular plugins.
While there are other options, our team often looks for affordable solutions that are actively updated. For our purposes, LearnDash was a great fit. Because we already have hosting, it was easy to set up a site and then add LearnDash. They also offer a hosted plan that is not a bad deal.
There are also some great tools designed to expand the functionality of LearnDash. One that we have found to be essential is Tin Canny Reporting for LearnDash. Uncanny Owl has a bunch of different plugins to improve LearnDash, but without Tin CAnny, you’ll find that you can’t record progress from a SCORM module. So, if you develop courses in Articulate Rise or Storyline or any other tool that reports data back through XAPI or SCORM, you won’t get much use out of the reports unless you add this plugin.
Is there an affordable LMS for small organizations that I don’t have to install?
Of course there is! I get it. Most small organizations we work with don’t have the bandwidth to take on another task like managing an LMS. There are probably many LMSs out there that we haven’t seen. That said, we’ve worked with multiple customers to implement TalentLMS. It is a subscription service with different levels based on the number of users. Unlike most, it has an affordable option for small groups. As of this moment, a small implementation of TalentLMS costs $89 per month, charged monthly. Setup can be done within an hour or two and a project up and running. TalentLMS has an easy to use learner experience and offers all the basics needed to run a course.
TalentLMS might be your LMS if:
- You want to train employees or partners. While I’m sure you can sell these courses, TalentLMS leans toward employee training.
- You are starting with a pilot or a small group of employees. I’d love to know if there are other capable LMSs in this price range, but I haven’t found them. TalentLMS is great if you have 40 people who need to be enrolled and if you plan on scaling that number over time.
- You want to offer any type of course. TalentLMS has it all. I will say that the feature that is least appealing is the way discussions are added to courses. Unlike Moodle where a threaded discussion is almost a default, with TalentLMS the integration of discussion for a cohort into a course is a bit clunky.
- You need it working before your 3pm meeting! It really is simple to set up, add your logo and create your first course.
- You don’t have someone waiting to manage a website. TalentLMS doesn’t require any specific technical expertise, though figuring out all the setup and navigation may take a little while.
There are choices when selecting an LMS for small business. Hopefully, I’ll get the opportunity to update this in the future when we learn of some other great new tool that supports small businesses!