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Why do LMSs Fail? An engagement issue explained

London, United KingdomLearning NewsFuse Universal

The e-learning industry has an engagement issue. In a survey, conducted in conjunction with the Human Capital Institute, where 500 learning professionals were asked to rate their learning management system, the outcome was shocking A negative -34% Net Promoter Score was reported, and this was across all vendors. So why do LMSs fail so badly when it comes to learning and performance? We believe there are 3 fundamental reasons why they have, and why they will continue to do so.

Why do LMSs Fail? An Engagement Issue Explained

by Steve Dineen, Chief Storyteller & CEO, Fuse Universal

"I have been in the learning technology industry from its birth in the late 90’s where the first generation of e-learning companies focused on building SCORM courses & selling LMSs. Although, I grew the company to 200 people, won E-learning Awards and served 1/2 of the FTSE 100, neither my team nor I could find the willpower to click the ‘Next’ button from beginning to the end of just one e-learning course. I believe wholeheartedly that the LMS is the biggest barrier to learning that exists within organisations today." 

In a survey, conducted in conjunction with the Human Capital Institute, where 500 learning professionals were asked to rate their learning management system, the outcome was shocking. A negative 34% Net Promoter Score was reported, and this was across all vendors. 

So why do LMSs fail so badly when it comes to learning and performance? I believe that there are 3 fundamental reasons why they have and why they will continue to do so.

Reason 1 - Learners are not the main audience, therefore the learning experience is awkward. 

The first reason is insanely simple. LMSs are not designed for learners; they are designed primarily for learning administrators with the secondary audience being the learner. LMSs are, and always were, designed to track learners’ activity as their raison d’être. So naturally, the key decision criteria in purchasing an LMS is still reporting and integration, often the user experience does not come under consideration. 

It's as if the creators of Facebook or YouTube had designed them to be an analytic tool, then in hindsight considered how they could engage users in social networking and sharing. We use YouTube and Facebook because it was designed for us. As a consequence of our use, the platforms have generated off the chart engagement levels, the analytics have become more relevant, and the tools used for analysis have become more and more sophisticated. The importance of reporting and analytics became more pronounced after it solved the user use problem, not the other way round. 

No analytics company has ever become a social network and no successful consumer facing learning interface like Courser, Udemy or Lynda was built on an LMS. 

If LMSs weren’t designed for learners is it any surprise that learners choose not to use them if they don’t have to? 

To serve reporting requirements, the technical baseline of every LMS is a record keeping system. It’s a system designed to inform learning administrators and keep them up to date with course booking and attendance. If we compare this to a system like YouTube where we choose the content we want to watch, outside of working hours, it's evident that YouTube was designed for the user first, despite YouTube having a far greater amount of analytics and insights than an LMS does about its users. Companies like Facebook, Google and YouTube ensure that every piece of technical architecture and all user interface choices are intended to create a system people just prefer to use and so, naturally, this has led to increased usage over time, generating huge amounts of data that give invaluable insights that they can capitalise on.

These companies understand that without a system people want to use and without high levels of engagement, the data they glean is relatively meaningless. It stands to reason if you build a modern learning system from a learner perspective first, and it gets great engagement levels that you are able to record, track and analyse, you should be able to collect an exponential amount of insightful data. You would get insights about your learners at a level no LMS ever has. 

Trying to retrofit an LMS as an effective learning system is akin to trying to turn the Titanic ship into a Tesla car, they were designed for different purposes, so we need to stop scratching our heads at why learners don't want to go to them or learn within them.

Reason 2 - The core content strategy of LMSs are wrong. 

The second huge reason that LMSs will always fail as learning systems is SCORM. SCORM is a standard that all LMSs conform to and it allows e-learning authors to assemble different media types to create an ‘e-learning course". It's akin to writing a book and then wrapping it in a special bubble wrap. The purpose of the special bubble wrap was that if all content companies wrapped their books in the same bubble wrap then once you decided your LMS didn’t work, you could buy a similar LMS and transport all the bubble wrapped  (SCORM) books from one bookshelf to the next and they would still technically be able to run & be tracked.

So what's wrong with the bubble wrap approach to content and why do I believe that that this has done more harm to learning than the fire that burned the great library of Babylon?

Like the library in Babylon, SCORM was built for a different age. SCORM was invented by the American Department of Defence back in 1999, Facebook only started in 2004 and YouTube in 2005. These companies and others have changed the way we think about technology and about the way we access content i.e. in a fast and easy way. Covering content in a bubble wrap simply makes the learning journey harder, learners are not able to revisit aspects of knowledge within a course easily, and it goes against natural user behaviour that we see consumer technology leverage. 

Analysis on every LMS shows that less than 1% of people who initially access an e-learning course actually go back to the content because the path to resume learning is not friendly at all. E-learning courses and the LMS that they sit in them are akin to going to the dentist chair. Professor Ebbinghaus proved 100 years ago that we forget 50% of what we learn in an hour and 80% within a month (unless applied). If learners aren’t going back to content when they need to only a tiny fraction of learners will remember, and will actually apply, what they’ve learned. From a learning perspective that’s a damning fact for effectiveness and efficiency of the learning process of a SCORM course. 

Today, when we don’t know something we search for it on Google or YouTube, why can’t we expect the same from our corporate platforms? Within an LMS, when a learner wants to go back to something they don’t remember, they can't simply search for the concept or procedure they need from within their LMS. The only way to get back to the SCORM course is to first search or browse the bubble wrapped course and then launch it, then browse within the bubble wrap again to find that particular piece of knowledge. The path is simply too burdensome so learners across the world avoid the path and instead they find alternative paths, which is usually to guess or ask someone nearby. 

A cumbersome path in technology is an unused path in technology.

If learners can’t access knowledge within a course in a few seconds then there is little point creating it.  It is a waste of time and money both business wise and learning wise. If we really care about learning and about increasing employee & business performance rather than just ticking the box of having completed a course then easy access content is critical in the marriage between content and platform learning design.

So in terms of learning efficacy, SCORM, the foundational concept of an LMS is completely and absolutely flawed as a way to learn and to improve performance. It is the heart of our answer to why LMSs fail and why moving from one LMS to another won't change the learning result. But it's not only the search part of SCORM that makes it fail so badly. Every successful technology since SCORM was created (Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube and WhatsApp to name a few), have been so, in part, because social conversations are at the heart of the fully engaging experience. SCORM as a standard does not allow social elements at all. In order for learning to be successful, it needs to be inherently social. If you think of classroom learning, social is still imperative as students often learn as much from each other as they do from the trainer. SCORM courses have made the assumption that learning alone, on a PC or a desktop for 30 minutes or an hour, is something we would want to do but it is far from the truth. We have yet to see any successful consumer platform in tune with the ideals of siloed lengthy learning activity. 

 It’s hard to remember what life was like before we had the access to the ocean of information that is the Internet, in our hands. Since the creation of SCORM mobile usage has grown considerably yet there are no successful consumer learning apps that run SCORM courses available, but there are hundreds of other types - why? Simply, the architecture of a SCORM course, like its social features, were never intended for new technologies like mobile. Trying to squeeze SCORM onto mobiles is like trying to squeeze 3D animation creation software onto a mobile. The question needs to be "how should we best consume learning content and create continuous learning experience with the mobile as part or all of the experience” rather than how do we squeeze a concept and content designed for a different age onto a mobile. 

There are many technical reasons why SCORM is just simply wrong for mobile learning but here are two to start with:

  1. Media like a video is naturally responsive e.g. you create one and the video will automatically adapt to fit the screen and bandwidth, whereas every SCORM designer needs to spend a significant amount of time designing content that would fit on all devices. This is unnecessary overhead in cost and maintenance.
  2. Mobile behaviour is all about quick access. E.g. finding an answer to a question or killing 5 minutes of downtime. Neither behaviour fits with the bubble wrap of SCORM where the learner just to get started must download the whole learning package before they get into the bubble wrap. Learning within moments on your mobile, which is a proven concept outside of LMSs is a non-starter with SCORM.

Worse than this the bubble wrap of SCORM is also a huge barrier to learning and innovation. The world is full of amazing, cool new start-ups with great ideas that can plug into almost any system. Our own system, for example plugs into a dozen amazing cloud-based technologies adding functionally and benefits to turbocharge our clients non-bubble wrapped content but none of these amazing and cool technologies can integrate with SCORM based courses. It's like an organisation's content is frozen in a 90’s time capsule while the rest of the world evolves and innovates around it. Companies that have walked away from this approach are enjoying the benefit of current and emerging technologies that are directly benefiting learners and organisations.

Although SCORM has helped administrators move expensive bubble wrapped content from one LMS to the next one, the engagement enigma continues to stay unresolved. The content suffers from the same problem - it's still a bubble wrapped SCORM course, simply changing the flavour of the interface to get to the next button won't solve the problem.   

Reason 3 – Cost of content maintenance

The third reason why LMSs fail is more focused on creating and maintaining content. It goes back to the initial purpose of an LMS as a record keeping system rather than being user centric or intelligent in its management of content. 

LMSs do not have content management systems within them, which means the management of content happens outside the LMS, causing huge unnecessary overhead costs. In most cases content management of SCORM is seen as a disaster. As an example, a bank could have 80+ versions of its anti-money laundering course just because it has slightly different audiences and one size does not fit all. Any minor change in the legislation means updating 84 versions of bubble wrapped courses, which they would need to download, archive, unwrap, update and re-upload. Compare that to the beautiful simplicity of Spotify or YouTube. They are essentially content management systems where users can create and curate their own playlists from whatever mix of songs/videos are available. The impressive thing about this type of content management system is that, if we recognise that one song or movie has been updated or needs editing, it will automatically update every playlist that the media sits within. In the case of the bank, if they had a modern learning system instead of learning management system then one change means 80+ versions are updated with just one update; no wonder 500 learning professionals gave LMSs a negative 34% NPS.

Betting on an LMS to create a continuous learning culture & learning in an organisation is like wrapping a ball and chain around your ankle just before a 100-meter race against Usain Bolt….. with Usain Bolt being the modern learning system.