What is a learning platform — and a template to help you choose the right one

 What is a learning platform

This article follows a series of meetings with potential clients who were all fairly new to the world of e-learning and learning platforms. As newcomers they all had questions that related to basic learning platform concepts and terminology. They needed a basic understanding of what may or may not benefit them based on their individual requirements. This article documents our ‘basics’ discussions for other newcomers to e-learning and learning platforms.

Providing a simple answer to the question, “What is a Learning platform” is seriously challenging. To provide an acceptable answer I'm going to offer some detailed explanations. Here is the article overview:


Learning platform nomenclature

To begin with we should highlight that there is a plethora of acronyms for learning platforms which can confuse matters even further. As far as I am aware there is no definitive list of learning platform nomenclature anywhere that states that a learning platform must have X, Y or Z in order to be called a learning platform of a certain type.

So for clarity, we should mention a few of the more commonplace acronyms that you’re likely to encounter for learning platforms. In essence, these are all different names for learning platforms.

LMS - Learning Management System or Learner Management System
This is probably the forerunner of learning platform names and is still the most widely used in commercial learning platforms (as opposed to education learning platforms). Different LMS’ can offer very different kinds of features. For example the In2itive LMS offers 19 different learning platform feature categories. Other LMS’s might offer more or less.

We call our product and service offering an ‘LMS learning platform’. Traditionally, those who are used to looking for our type of products and service will probably search for the term ‘LMS’. Those that don’t necessarily know exactly what they’re looking for yet are more likely to start by looking for a ‘learning platform’.

LCMS - Learning Content Management System
An LMS with included Content authoring tools.

VLE - Virtual Learning Environment
VLE as terminology tends to be used more by Schools and Academia, whereas LMS tends to be used in an enterprise learning environment or by commercial training providers.

PLE - Personal Learning Environment
A PLE tends to focus more on the user taking control over their own learning pathways, as opposed to being driven down a particular route (for example on-boarding, compliance or compulsory CPD).

MLE - Managed Learning Environment
This is just another name for a learning platform.

MOOC – Massive Online Open Courses
MOOC is a service that’s built on a learning platform. MOOC is what educators, publishers and others are predominantly using to deliver ‘free at the point of delivery’ education and training services. Essentially a MOOC (the service) could be built on any or all of the above learning platforms.


Defining a learning platform as a ‘toolkit’

When describing a learning platform it makes sense to begin with the ‘platform’ part of the question. In a very traditional sense a platform is a raised horizontal surface. In this context think of a platform as a base layer of something that already exists, on which you can build something else.

In technology terms, I like Phil Hill’s definition of a platform, “A platform is any base of technologies on which other technologies or processes are built” (full article here). I’m going to simplify this further. I suggest you simply think of a learning platform as a toolbox full of tools you can use to do a specific job (i.e. to build a unique online service.)

First, think of a traditional toolbox that you might buy from a hardware store. You can buy a pre-packed toolkit in a case. You might use all of the tools or you might just use some of them. Ultimately, what tools you use will be based on the job that you’re doing.

In a similar way a good ‘learning platform’ is a proven ‘toolkit’ which should have an extensive collection of tried, tested and proven tools (features and facilities) that broadly support the pursuit of e-learning and online training.

These tools might facilitate e-learning, blended learning, virtual classrooms, quizzes, assignments and a whole plethora of other opportunities – but ultimately you will only use the tools that you need in order to deliver the service that you want.

If you are looking for a learning platform then broadly speaking, the job you will be doing is providing an e-learning service. Therefore it’s not necessarily important what the learning platform (tool box) is called. What is important is that it contains the right tools for the job you need it to do.


The benefits of a learning platform

Crucially, starting out with a learning platform means that you are not having to start designing everything from scratch. Somebody else has already spent a fortune doing that for you! You are simply going to buy or rent a learning platform and have it customised to suit your needs.

To illustrate the cost saving benefit of a learning platform I’m going to put into context. To make it work, the In2itive LMS learning platform has in excess of 1 million lines of software code. That is pretty typical of these types of learning platforms.

Now consider how many lines of code a typical software engineer can write in a day. It will of course vary from programmer to programmer and be dependent on the programming language, the nature of the project and many other factors. For the purpose of this article I’m going to use 200 lines of code per day. A typical working year for that software engineer will be 233 days (365 days – 104 weekend days – 20 days annual leave – 8 bank holidays).

So that 1 million lines of code, at 200 lines per day would take one software engineer 5,000 days to write (not to mention testing and documentation). This is equivalent to 21.46 working years (5000 days / 233 working days per year).

Of course nobody has just one software engineer working on their learning platform so it hasn’t actually taken 21.46 years to develop! But that is the level of investment you're looking at buying into – as opposed to trying to do things for yourself from scratch.

In summary, hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of pounds will have already been invested in developing that 1,000,000+ lines of learning platform code. My guess is it’s rather likely that you’re not looking to spend quite that much yourself?!

A second benefit is that by adopting a learning platform you can reasonably expect that all the features and functionality (tools) work seamlessly with each other. As a result all of them will fit nicely into a single point of entry (the toolkit case). And this will give you ease of access and use for your user community.

So what’s in the toolkit is important, but before you invest in the toolkit it’s important to know what jobs you’ll be doing with it!


The importance of knowing what you'll be using a learning platform for

What a learning platform can do for your business will depend on what you are trying to achieve and who your target audience for your services are. Here are some examples of what your organisation may be looking to do with a learning platform.

If you’re a provider of training, multimedia or Continuing Professional Development (CPD) solutions then you might be looking to take some or all of you current products online. Perhaps you’re looking to provide blended learning solutions (a mix of classroom and online training) to drive down the overall costs of your current offering. Perhaps you’re looking to run online virtual classroom sessions or maybe you’re looking at growing your business by providing new e-learning programmes or video based productions. Whatever you’re looking to achieve you’ll want a learning platform that is e-commerce enabled and can be customised to match your brand identity and your operational preferences (including things like catalogue layouts, pricing, discounts, coupon codes and more).

If you’re a private organisation with say 100 or even 100,000 employees then perhaps you’re looking to reduce overall training costs for on-boarding and compliance. Or you may be looking to enhance global organisational collaboration using tools such as private wikis, forums and virtual classrooms. Learning platforms can also enhance productivity and minimise waste that results from duplication and replication.

If you’re a charitable or membership organisation then you might have a need for all of the above.

The reality is that whoever you are, you’re requirements will undoubtedly be unique to your organisation, even though they are likely to be broadly similar to lots of other organisations. That is why when you choose a learning platform it is important that you make sure it has the right tools in the toolkit to support the services you want to offer.


How to figure what is in a learning platform “toolkit”

Once you know what you will be using your learning platform for it’s important to be able to analyse what each different learning platform provides in its toolkit. Ultimately, what is in the toolkit will very much depend on which learning platform provider you choose.

There is no definitive list of features and functions (tools) that a learning platform must have in order to be called a learning platform. The features and functions on our learning platform will undoubtedly be different to another vendors list.

A key element when selecting a learning platform is to make absolutely sure you’ve got all the ‘must have’ boxes ticked. Also consider your ‘should haves’ and ‘could haves’ that relate to the features and functions (tools) you need. Remember that just because you don’t want to do something with your learning platform today doesn’t mean you won’t want to do it tomorrow.

Since what is in the toolkit of a learning platform can vary so much you should at the very least ensure you know what you want to achieve within say one year and perhaps three years of adopting a learning platform.

That way you can make sure your vendor has those tools in their toolkit, or at the very least that they can commit to delivering those tools inside the framework of your agreement with them.

You should also ask the learning platform vendor what unique problems they’ve fixed for their customers after they’ve made the initial sale. This will help you understand if the vendor will be committed to giving you the tools you need after the initial sale. It helps to show if they’ll support you in the future when you need to do something different to what everyone else is doing - which of course you will!

Make sure you also delve into what’s included in the toolkit and what you’ll need to pay extra for in the future. For example, when we supply our learning platform, what you get in the toolbox is yours to use and we’ll help you get the most out of it. If there’s a tool in the toolbox that you don’t need right now then you can turn it off until you do need to use it.


How to establish what learning platform is best for you

This relates back to the actual service you want to provide. It’s really a question of defining what you want to achieve and therefore what tools you will need in your learning platform. This can be a very a simple one page Statement Of Requirements (SOR) or it can be a full blown tender which runs into hundreds of pages of specifications.

When you have your Statement Of Requirements, choose a few learning platform vendors and send it to them. Ask them if they can meet it or not and get an indication of ballpark prices.

When you find a couple of providers that offer the right toolkit and are in your budget then go and talk to them. Don’t just look at their websites. It is important to actually go and meet them so they can demonstrate their learning platform, explain how they work and show you what they have done in the past.

Why should you meet them and get under their skins?  Because, as the old saying goes, “A poor workman always blames his tools.” Therefore it’s not just about the toolkit, it’s about you understanding what experience is in place to help you customise and use that toolkit for your unique requirements.


An Excel compliance matrix template to help you choose the right learning platform

We've provided a simple Excel compliance matrix template to help you establish what different learning platforms offer. A compliance matrix table can help you ensure that the learning platform responds to and complies with your specific requirements.

Instructions to get the most out of this compliance matrix template

  1. Before you issue this checklist to different learning platform you can use the items in column three, 'Questions about your LMS platform' to help you establish your 'must have', 'should have' and 'could have' requirements. This can help you form the basis of your Statement of Requirements
  2. Save this file to your local disc drive
  3. Delete any rows that you don't want (or need) in your learning platform
  4. Add in additional questions that you want (or need) in your learning platform
  5. Ask different learning platform providers to complete the questions so you can assess the suitability of the learning platform providers in question. 


Need help getting to grips with your learning platform requirements? We can guide you through. Let's talk about where you want to get to so we can advise if and how we can get you there.