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LMS: A Field Guide

  • July 28, 2016|
  • 2 years ago

by Sam Morris

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Global Education Solutions Architect

During the past few years, learning management systems (LMS), already popularized in higher education, have seen increasing adoption among K-12 classrooms. LMS software provides schools with a digital platform for the administration, documentation, tracking, reporting, and delivery of curricula. As new venture capital is rushing into the ed tech space, including capital to develop LMS for K-12 districts and institutions of higher learning, here’s a roundup of the rapidly evolving ecosystem, key players, and features.

An Open Playing Field

E-learning will soon be a $50 billion space, and LMS will be a big part of that, as universities and K-12 systems look to optimize lesson planning, evaluation, and other functions through ed tech. Because of this, the LMS field is now exploding. A number of dynamic new firms and product offerings have entered the fray on the K-12 and higher ed sides. Many have specialized on one or the other side as a target market, though a few LMS products overlap both.

Quality Without Breaking The Bank

You no longer need to commit huge resources to get quality. Some of the best LMS products on the market are “free,” such as Moodle and Sakai, although some limitations and costs of ownership such as hosting, managing, integration, and customization may arise. Most of the others are freemium, so teachers can leverage a modest set of features for free, or if districts wish to implement a more robust set of tools, there are premium solutions. Premium versions typically include such add-ons as hosting of your content spaces, preformatted content, or detailed analytics.

In between free and premium offerings, are “freemium” platforms that offer the option of using a limited feature free version, or upgrading to attain additional functionality. Some examples include Schoology, Canvas and Latitude Learning.

Emerging Leaders In K-12

In K-12, LMS market leaders are emerging, though the dust has far from settled. Leading products like Schoology and Edmodo feature hip, social media-like user interfaces, slick graphics, gamification, and plenty of apps. Schoology’s time management function is a real strength, the best and easiest to use in the market. Edmodo, which deploys one of the more fun course spaces, has smartly hitched its wagon to public content with a new tool.

Most of these products also tap users into nationwide groups and streams of educators discussing topics and sharing content in areas such as blended learning. Other challengers are looming on the K-12 horizon as well. Brightwheel, a pre-K and daycare LMS backed by power players like Mark Cuban, could move into this space next, for example.

Emerging Leaders In Higher Ed

In higher ed, the market-leading LMS for years is seeing strong recent challengers with flashier features and sharper pricing. Blackboard is still No. 1 and employs a good set of analytics, videoconferencing, banner integration, and more to balance its hefty price tag and clunky user interface. A market dominance rarely lasts in any sector, however, and strong alternatives are emerging to challenge Blackboard’s dominance on fronts such as cost and user experience.

For instance, if your users want ease of use, Canvas is among the simplest to operate. If cost is your chief concern, Moodle is free, open source, innovative, and terrific for most purposes. It also provides innovative student-peer review and tiers of user access.

Most of the leading higher ed LMS packages offer good to excellent reporting tools, so administrators and educators can run plenty of nuanced queries to slice and dice student data. Other strengths of many systems, like Canvas Commons, include the ability to plug into national content databases where participating institutions pool educational resources and make them accessible to all users.

And the landscape only continues to evolve. Brightspace, a newer Canadian LMS, may be the next big thing with its clean and modern user interface, easy Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) integration, predictive analytics to identify at-risk students, and adaptive learning technology that promises to personalize instruction.

Takeaway: There’s something for everyone in the LMS marketplace with evolution in both the K-12 and higher ed markets. But it’s important to pick carefully, not only considering costs but institution size and needs. And if you can’t quite choose, just wait a moment, as new ventures are being created all the time.


1. “The Best Learning Management Systems (LMS) for 2016” PC Magazine. March 10, 2016.
2. “The 20 Best Learning Management Systems” eLearning Industry. January 18, 2014.
3. “Moodle for the Masses” Inside Higher Ed. February 13, 2014.
4. “E-Learning Market Trends and Forecast 2014-2016” Docebo. 2015.
5. “The Top 8 Free/Open Source LMSs” Capterra. October 1, 2015.