Learning content management systems promise to change the way people learn online. Will they deliver?
Remember the rules for Concentration, the classic children's game? Pairs of cards are placed face-down in random order, and players must rely on their memory to find the matching pairs. Now take that one step further and imagine having a million cards in front of you, with your job dependent on how fast you can find each card's twin. Sure, you could search through the battleship-sized room and finish by 2008, but if you're like most people, you'd look for a more efficient way to complete the task.
Anyone who develops e-learning may feel like they, too, are playing a game of Concentration. The reason? They've amassed so much content they can no longer keep track of where it's all located. So how do you eliminate the guesswork , and save precious time? Enter the learning content management system (LCMS), a complex piece of software that labels learning objects (PowerPoint slides, video clips, illustrations, quiz questions, even course modules), then organizes and delivers them in infinite combinations.
In a sense, these systems give e-learning designers X-ray vision, allowing them to get their hands on just the video clip they need without having to go through a lengthy process of elimination looking for it. If you think about what that could mean for the efficiency of course development or for the promise of online courses that adapt to people's learning preferences, you can see why some are touting the LCMS as the next big thing in e-learning.
But what if you've already spent thousands of dollars on a learning management system (LMS)? How can you justify purchasing another big piece of software? And isn't course management what LMS vendors have been promising all along?
Even though they are often confused for one another, LMSs and LCMSs have very different functions. LMSs make the process of scheduling classes, creating catalogs and registering learners more efficient. LCMSs, on the other hand, focus only on delivery. "In the broadest terms, the LMS helps get you to the classroom door and the LCMS manages the experience inside the classroom," says Duncan Lennox, chief technology officer and co-founder of WBT Systems, an LCMS vendor in Waltham, Mass.
Companies that sell LCMSs have united to make that distinction clear. In November 2000, Michael Thomas, chief executive officer at WBT Systems, helped found an informal consortium that includes his organization and four others: Avaltus, Knowledge Mechanics, Leading Way and Peer3. (There are a number of other LCMS vendors that are not presently part of the consortium, including MindLever and KnowledgeXtensions.) The consortium came up with the LCMS label in an attempt to describe what they do and legitimize their place in the market. Industry watchers are starting to take notice. Technology research firm IDC in Framingham, Mass., released a report on LCMSs in late April. Brandon-hall.com, a Sunnyvale, Calif., e-learning consultancy, will come out with one later this summer.
Even though most LMSs can do some content management and most LCMSs have some classroom management capabilities, experts warn against working with vendors who say they can do it all. "These systems do one or the other well," says Bryan Chapman, an e-learning analyst who has been following the LCMS market for brandon-hall.com. That may change, but for now, he recommends incorporating both systems into your e-learning strategy or deciding which one is more important to your organization.
Wes O'Brien, president and chief operating officer of Precision Response Corp. (PRC), a 14,000-person call-center training and consulting company in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., had to make that decision late last year. "We've been doing [training] for 20 years, and we're content-rich today," he says. "Where we really need help , and I think a lot of companies are in the same position , is converting our existing content and having it managed for us."
About six months ago, PRC started using an LCMS from Salt Lake City-based Avaltus to deliver training to call-center workers. Before purchasing the system, course developers spent a lot of time recreating the same lesson for different clients, O'Brien says. For instance, several call centers might require training on a generic topic such as how to use speed dial, but each would want the course tailored to the industry they served.
With the LCMS, core online content becomes reusable. Course designers create templates for industries such as telecommunications or food service, and the LCMS automatically reformats the core content to fit into them. They also can use the LCMS to plug reusable objects into versions of a course geared toward visual, auditory or sensory learners.
O'Brien says the cost savings associated with using the LCMS have been significant. More importantly, he has noticed improved results among call-center employees. "People just learn faster and better when the right presentation of training materials is created for them," he says.
The idea of more efficient content delivery might sell you on an LCMS, but that's not this technology's biggest advantage. An LCMS, more than any other tool, allows you to adapt to the unexpected. Chapman says he often hears from people who are worried about having to make their online courses work on wireless devices such as cell phones and PDAs (personal digital assistants) two or three years from now. "That's what content management systems will do for you. They allow you to store your content separately from your logic so you can reuse it later," he says.
WBT Systems? Lennox believes LCMSs are "probably the most fundamental change to how people have learned since the creation of the university." That may sound a bit like marketing hyperbole, but the early adopters of WBT Systems? TopClass, including PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC), say it may not be far from the truth.
PWC began using the LCMS in the summer of 1999 to deliver a required auditing course to all of its U.S. consultants. Training managers estimate the return on their investment in the system will reach $800,000 over the first four years. Those savings, they say, will come from reduced travel costs, fewer audit failures because of inconsistent training, and less work developing courses, as the LCMS allows them to reuse portions of the content.
Now that you understand the difference between an LMS and an LCMS, let's add another acronym to the mix: CMS or content management system. In the mid-1990s, Webmasters at large media sites became frustrated because they couldn't handle the volume of stories, photos, ads and other content. So they borrowed an idea from large daily newspapers , using a single database to manage all content , and created the first Web CMSs.
Web CMSs are now standard issue at most big Web sites. At nytimes.com, for example, multiple editors and writers can contribute stories and photos without requiring a single person to post it all. So when the bureau chief in Beijing finishes editing an article about the Chinese Olympic bid, he places it on the CMS. The CMS then routes the story to the appropriate places so it can be included in the print and Web versions of the newspaper. The Webmaster simply verifies that the story is in its appropriate place before it goes live.
CMSs also allow for the creation of individualized Web pages. Sites such as Yahoo!, for example, use a CMS to fetch and deliver precise pieces of information that correspond to personalized data you enter (where you live, your interests, etc). That way, when you log onto your personalized Yahoo! page, up pops your local news, weather and virtual football picks.
So why choose an LCMS over a CMS to manage your learning content? It depends who you ask. WBT Systems? Lennox says CMSs cannot work as well for learning because they are designed for basic information transfer. They simply identify the user and deliver pieces of content associated with that user. E-learning, on the other hand, requires systems that account for such complexities as a course's level of difficulty, whether a learner has completed the necessary prerequisites and whether that person learns best by reading, listening or doing.
"When you're using a Web CMS, you really don't care very much whether people took the content, whether they understood it, how effective it was and so forth," says Lennox.
"When you're delivering learning, those issues become fundamental."
On the other hand, consultant Chapman has seen companies successfully use CMSs to deliver their learning content. But, he says, getting these systems to do the job requires quite a dramatic engineering effort.
Avaltus? chief technology officer, Corey Catten, believes the best thing that could happen would be a partnership between LCMS vendors and CMS vendors. CMS vendors, he says, know how to access every piece of information across an organization. Not only that, but they've more or less figured out a standard way to tag each bit of data using XML (extensible markup language). By incorporating the CMS tagging standards, LCMS vendors could produce powerful systems that would allow course designers to assign instructional value to content. "All of a sudden you have the ultimate reusable information system. That's really what we're marching towards," Catten says.
Rory Staunton, an industry analyst with Strategy Partners International, a Berkshire, England, consulting firm with expertise in content management, agrees. He cautions buyers about doing business with LCMS vendors that don't have plans to work with CMS players such as Broadvision or Vignette. "If the clever guys start now, they'll be able to exploit this technology by merely becoming a partner with one of these companies," he says. "Within 12 months, [developing content management yourself] is going to be like competing with Microsoft for word processors."
Chapman says if the fledgling LCMS vendors can close the loop on what the established CMS vendors have developed, they will offer the best systems for delivering content to learners in an intelligent way.
Regardless of the way these systems? struggle for market share plays out, the promise of content management means trainers will be able to focus more on course development , and less on divining information using their Concentration skills.
-Chris Jones (email@example.com) is assistant editor of Online Learning Magazine.
In the market for a learning content management system (LCMS)? Bryan Chapman, an analyst with research firm brandon-hall.com, has been studying these systems and suggests getting answers to the following questions before buying:
1. How fast is it? Some systems process massive amounts of content better and faster than others.
2. How does it store and organize data? Keep in mind that not all LCMSs have the same search functions or organizational tools, nor do they define learning objects the same way.
3. Does it have multiple output formats? LCMSs may be able to reorganize content for the Web, but not all can take the information and put it into PowerPoint or Word without additional work. The difference lies in how they use XML (extensible markup language). If you plan to reuse content in other formats, systems that use XML to categorize content work better with courses developed in XML than those created in HTML.
4. Does it play well with your learning management system (LMS)? Even if you don't have an LMS, you may decide you need one later on. So make sure your LCMS can function with these training administration systems.
5. Does it support third-party courses? Some LCMSs cannot combine off-the-shelf and custom-built content as easily as others. Chapman recommends looking for a system that can.
6. Is it compliant with IMS content tagging standards? If not, you won't be able to move content easily from one LCMS to another. A good explanation of IMS tagging standards can be found at www.imsproject.org/metadata/mdbest01.html.
7. How creative are the templates? All LCMSs have templates for creating content, but different systems allow different amounts of interactivity.
8. Does it allow changes to the content? "With LCMSs, the theory is that I can change the content and leave everything live," says Chapman. But the ease of live changes varies from system to system.
9. Does it allow multiple contributors? Some LCMSs let you peek into the system to see which developers are working on what. Some even block people from working on certain parts of the course.
10. How much does it cost? These systems are so new that the vendors themselves are still figuring out pricing, Chapman says. But don't expect to get away cheap, as these systems are likely to cost as much as a learning management system.
- C. Jones
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