LMS Weakness - How do Totara Learn and Glasshouse measure up?

LMS Weakness cover


Elliott Masie recently listed seven worries that senior L&D people have with their current LMS:

  • The LMS is weak on experiences
  • The LMS is weak on video utilisation
  • The LMS is weak on learning personalisation
  • The LMS is weak on recommending content
  • The LMS is weak on API and App Integration
  • The LMS is weak on content curation
  • The LMS is weak on talent system integration

It wasn't that L&D saw LMSs as not being useful. It's just that their current LMSs are not meeting the needs of their organisation or its employees. I thought it could be interesting to explore each of the weaknesses that Masie discovered and examine the strengths and weaknesses of Totara Learn and Glasshouse in each of them. Writing this has also given me an opportunity to explore the state of elearning and learning management systems.

The first thing that struck me about Masie's list was that in most cases corporate LMSs technically can do most of these things. It’s more about how organisations have chosen to use the technologies in the past. What has happened is that certain approaches to elearning have developed that are being being called 'the LMS'. This is both about technologies and learning design. It’s where the LMS is basically used as a SCORM player and a catalog of course materials. This has happened partly because elearning development in the past has been all about the conversion of face-to-face resources. It was about putting presentations online and adding a voiceover. The weaknesses that Masie is talking about are typically with authoring tools and learning design that have been trapped in this approach or variations of it.

The LMS is weak on experiences – change how you design learning

We don't learn from just reading and listening. We learn when we have new experiences and reflecting on those experiences. This first weakness is a perfect example of the problem with LMSs often not being about the technology, but about what you do with technology. Often, LMSs are full of 'content' that are just slides with voiceovers. At some stage this approach involved a decision; it might have been an unconscious decision, but it was a decision nonetheless.

Learning technologies can be used for so much more. The problem is that sometimes those of us who produce elearning don’t have learning design expertise. We’re dumping information, not building experiences where employees can practise new skills. This is partly a limitation of the tools. If your LMS can only show SCORM packages and you don't have basic social tools such as forums/comment and wikis – which both Totara Learn and Glasshouse have – then you're more likely to end up with information, not a blended experience.

The shift that needs to happen is that instead of designing content, we need to design experiences that are based on helping employees practise and builds skills, not just make them read or hear about what they should do.

The LMS is weak on video utilisation – building a database of video

As bandwidth is increasing more of our time is being spent online watching video. During webinars and workshops I often ask people how they have learned a new skill recently. A large percentage say it was through watching a YouTube video. Facebook posts with video get more engagement. In fact, Facebook is preparing for a future as a video sharing platform.

If an LMS is just a SCORM player and the SCORM content loaded is low on video then your learning experiences are not going to reflect what is happening on the rest of the web.

In a perfect world, LMSs would have a Netflix-like interface, where there is a collection of video that is searchable and with recommendations to employees based on their role and past viewing.  

Most LMSs, including Totara Learn, are built around courses, which make building this type of experience difficult – but it's not impossible. In Totara Learn it could be done using database activity in a course, or each video could be its own course.  

This weakness is also part of a growing trend that I'm seeing that employees are expecting learning experiences to be more like interacting with a website, where they are free to navigate around the resource. Glasshouse is more like a standard web content management system and can be configured to look and work more like a website. It can be freely navigated, and you can set up an interface that is more like YouTube than a standard linear SCORM based course.  

Like the weakness around experiences, this weakness is party to do with the content that is being adding to your LMS.   

The LMS is weak on content curation – building collections of resources

Content curation is becoming key to the future of L&D. My first thought about the LMS weakness in content curation was that it's less a platform issue and more a content issue. But if the only way to get content into your LMS is SCORM packages then every time you want to add a link to your collection of curated content you need to export and then upload it to your LMS. Then, in most organisations there is a review and quality assurance system in place, and going through this process every time a link needs to be changed is time consuming.

Totara Learn has a few different ways to build collections of content. Links can be added as activities, and each activity can be tagged with a keyword. There is also a flexible, customisable database activity that can be used to build a database of links.

Glasshouse has a sophisticated content curation system where links or documents can be tagged and then displayed in different ways, e.g. a page might show all the resources that are tagged with the keyword A and B. These collections of resources can also be searched.

The ultimate content curation system would be personalised to each employee’s needs and include recommended links.   

The LMS is weak on learning personalisation – the future of Glasshouse

My first thought was, yes, Totara Learn does learning personalisation. It has a selective release feature where the completion or results of one activity affects whether or not an employee can access another activity. This means you need to use Totara Learn for building more of your learning experience and this has some pros and cons.   

But this type of personalisation is weak compared to the types of personalisation that we see on platforms like Amazon. Personalisation in learning needs to work in a way where, if an employee has a weakness in a certain area, they are given more opportunities to practise and extra resources.

One of the things that holds back the personalisation of learning is the use of SCORM. Most content that goes in an LMS is a SCORM package and a single package can only access what a learner has done in that actual package. It can’t access information about the employee’s past performance in other packages.   

This particular weakness has triggered Sprout Labs to begin development of personalisation and adaptive learning features in Glasshouse. These work in a way where there are activities to measure performance or self assessment and then, depending on the result of these activities, focus topics are added to the employee's profile. Then, other activities or content is shown/hidden or highlighted depending on the learner's current focus topics. This data is all stored as xAPI, which also means topics could be added to the employee’s focus area from outside of Glasshouse.     

The LMS is weak on recommending content – learning needs to be more like the rest of the web

Recommending content is the most basic form of personalisation and it's one of the reasons platforms like Netflix are so powerful and addictive. They recommend content based on what you have viewed in the past. Recommended content is something that we have come to expect online, e.g. you get to the end of a blog post and there are suggestions about other content you might be interested in.

Once again, this weakness in most LMSs is partly to do with content design and less to do with the platform. With a standard SCORM module it's not possible to make suggestions about other modules and resources that might be useful. Automated systems that are actually integrated in the platforms would be wonderful.

How do Totara Learn and Glasshouse measure up?

Both are still weak in recommending content. Totara Learn is built on top of Moodle, which means that any of the thousands of Moodle plugins can be installed. There do exist basic Moodle plugins for recommending popular activities but these are not as sophisticated as the recommendation systems that are common on the web.   

The LMS is weak on API and app integration – open systems provide powerful integrations

APIs and App Integration is one of the strengths of Totara Learn. It has a rich set of APIs that allow many types of integrations and it is part of the 'open nature' of the platform. Totara Learn works with the Moodle mobile App, which includes features like offline access to SCORM files. The code for the Moodle mobile App is open source, which means it's possible to customise and build you own App based on the open version.  

APIs are something we are expanding the use of in Glasshouse at the moment. We are changing the way pages are displayed, which will then lead to a different way of editing content. This means that all the content will be available via the API – Glasshouse could become your learning content management system for a mobile app, and could be integrated into your customised web applications as well.   

The LMS is weak on talent management system integration – learning needs to be linked to performance

There is a growing number of LMSs that integrate talent management and learning. The term 'talent management system' is actually vague. It’s used with systems that are just performance management systems but it's also used to describe a system that integrates recruitment, onboarding, learning and performance management. The linking of learning and performance management together leads to different roles for learning.

There is often talk about the measurement of learning, but what L&D needs to focus on is the measurement of employees' performance and how learning is increasing performance. Totara Learn includes a performance management feature that allows for a powerful integration of performance management and learning. Totara Learn’s rich set of APIs also means it has the flexibility to integrate with other systems.

Overall, how do Totara Learn and Glasshouse measure up?

Writing this blog post has been a chance for me to reflect on the current strengths and weaknesses of Glasshouse and Totara Learn. It's meant that we've brought forward the adaptive and personalisation learning features. Once they are complete we will improve the content curation features in Glasshouse.

Two things that really struck me multiple times when I was drafting this blog post.

  1. The core problem in learning at the moment is not technologies, it's learning design. The problem is not the technology, it's what we are doing with it.  
  2. Keeping on using SCORM is holding back the full potential of digital learning.