What is an LMS?

The following post is the next step in completing the Product component of chapter 2 of my thesis. An earlier post started off the Product component. This post is the first section in a broader section titled “University e-learning technology”. This post focuses on the learning management system (LMS).

The content of this first post is a rough first draft of a section of the thesis. Increasingly there are going to be insert crossref type measures reminding me to add cross references to other sections.

What is an LMS?

Learning management systems (LMS) are software systems that are specifically designed and marketed to educational institutions to support teaching and learning and that typically provide tools for communication, student assessment, presentation of study material and organisation of student activities (Luck, Jones et al. 2004). These systems are also referred to by a number of different terms including virtual learning environments (VLE), course management systems (CMS), learning support systems (LSS), and learning platforms (Mendoza, Perez et al. 2006). Currently widely use LMS include systems called: Blackboard, Angel, Moodle and Sakai. The speed with which the adoption of an LMS has spread through universities is surprising (West, Waddoups et al. 2006). A 2004 survey of universities found that 73% had adopted an institution-wide LMS, compared to 60% in 2002, with 90% expecting to make such a claim within five years (OECD 2005).

The core components of an LMS include tools for for synchronous and asynchronous communication, content storage and delivery, online quiz and survey tools, gradebooks, whiteboards, digital dropboxes, and email communications (Harrington, Gordon et al. 2004). There are more similarities than differences amongst LMS products, with most distinguishing themselves with micro-detailed features (Black, Beck et al. 2007). As mentioned in the Past Experience section (insert cross reference) and illustrated in Figure ?? (crossref) the commonality of LMS features have led Malikowski, Thompson and Theis (2007) to develop a model that abstracts LMS features into five categories: transmitting content, creating class interactions, evaluating students, evaluating course and instructions and computer-based instruction. Most LMS do not specify a discipline or pedagogy (Katz 2003).

The development of early LMS started primarily with internal development within universities. For example, WebCT one of the early dominant commercial LMS arose out of work at the University of British Columbia (Goldberg, Salari et al. 1996). However, due to the difficulty and costs of in-house development, during the late 1990s and early 2000s the majority of institutions moved to the adoption of commercial, proprietary LMS with Blackboard and WebCT dominating. A move illustrative of the shift of the LMS from being based on the bottoms-up energy of a small cadre of inventive faculty to being the embodiment of a top-down institutional strategy (Katz 2003). This shift marked the start of the industrial e-learning paradigm identified in the Past Experience section (insert cross ref).

The next cycle in LMS adoption was the rise of open source LMS. By 2005 several major universities were releasing their in-house LMS under open source rather than commercial licences (Coates, James et al. 2005). By 2006 there were two key trends in e-learning within the UK: an on-going preference for commercial systems and an emerging trend towards open source systems (Browne, Jekins et al. 2006). The significant number of available LMS may be an illustration of the novelty and relative immaturity of such systems, but it may also correspond to an over-empahsis on the technological infrastructure when the real challenge lies in the innovative and effective use of these systems in learning and teaching (OECD 2005).

Regardless of being commercial or open source, a university’s LMS forms the academic system equivalent of enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems in terms of pedagogical impact and institutional resource consumption (Morgan 2003). Another similarity with that of an ERPis the common idea behind the LMS identified by Dalsgaard (2006) that different tools are integrated into the single system which offers all the necessary tools to run and manage and e-learning course. There is an assumption that all learning activities and materials in a course will be organised and managed by and within the system (Dalsgaard 2006).

This similarity with ERP systems may raise similar concerns. An enterprise system, by its very nature, will impose its own logic on a company’s strategy, structure and culture and will push a company towards generic processes even when customised processes may be a source of competitive advantage (Davenport 1998). LMS are not pedagogical neutral technology, through their design they influence and guide teaching and work to shape and even define teachers’ imaginations, expectations and behaviours (Coates, James et al. 2005). The implementation of enterprise systems often reflects a conscious or unconscious move towards standardization (Morgan 2003).

Universities typically select an LMS through a process of comparison which evaluates each LMS on the basis of its functionality and how well this matches the needs of the institutions (Jones 2004). This is despite suggestions that decisions about university teaching and learning should not be restricted to checklist evaluations of technical and organizational factors (Coates, James et al. 2005). In addition, it has been observed that there are few, if any, distinguishable technical applications of features that allow for product differentation within the LMS market (Black, Beck et al. 2007). One of the sources of technology and pedagogical distinctions identified by Holt and Seagrave (2003) is the pre-occupation of different parties with different aspects of the selection of any one system. Particularly troubling is the observations that the users of these systems are often not the people who select them, the motivations for their acquisition are often unstated or ambiguous, and that the expectations of the investments in these systems are unclear (Katz 2003). In reviewing a number of reviews of LMS, Siemens (2006) identifies the most prominent limitation of the review models as the limited focus on broarder organisational views of learning.

The implementation of a LMS within a university is a small first step in what is likely to become a significant reshaping and renewal of teaching and learning – one of higher education’s most cherished and important activities (Katz 2003). This reshaping means that the selection of an institutional LMS is a high risk decision which involves a great deal of technological and institutional forecasting (Coates, James et al. 2005). It is possible that the difficulty of this forecasting is responsible for the observation that universities are not especially loyal with the majority having changed LMS, planning to change LMS or operating additional LMS (Paulsen 2003). The full-fledged implementation of an LMS is an expensive and support-intensive enterprise (Warger 2003) and brings significant change-management implications (Katz 2003). For this and other reasons it appears sensible to focus efforts away from LMS selection and towards issues related to adoption and implementation (Black, Beck et al. 2007).


Black, E., D. Beck, et al. (2007). "The other side of the LMS: Considering implementation and use in the adoption of an LMS in online and blended learning environments." Tech Trends 51(2): 35-39.

Browne, T., M. Jekins, et al. (2006). "A longitudinal perspective regarding the use of VLEs by higher education institutions in the United Kingdom." Interactive Learning Environments 14(2): 177-192.

Coates, H., R. James, et al. (2005). "A Critical Examination of the Effects of Learning Management Systems on University Teaching and Learning." Tertiary Education and Management 11(1): 19-36.

Dalsgaard, C. (2006) "Social software: E-learning beyond learning management systems." European Journal of Distance Education Volume,  DOI:

Davenport, T. (1998). "Putting the Enterprise into the Enterprise System." Harvard Business Review 76(4): 121-131.

Goldberg, M., S. Salari, et al. (1996). "World-Wide Web – Course Tool: An environment for building WWW-based courses." Computer Networks and ISDN Systems 28: 1219-1231.

Harrington, C., S. Gordon, et al. (2004). "Course Management System Utilization and Implications for Practice: A National Survey of Department Chairpersons." Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration 7(4).

Holt, D. and S. Segrave (2003). Creating and sustaining quality e-learning environments of enduring value for teachers and learners. 20th Annual Conference of the Australasian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education, Adelaide.

Jones, D. (2004). "The conceptualisation of e-learning: Lessons and implications." Best practice in university learning and teaching: Learning from our Challenges.  Theme issue of Studies in Learning, Evaluation, Innovation and Development 1(1): 47-55.

Katz, R. (2003). "Balancing Technology and Tradition: The Example of Course Management Systems." EDUCAUSE Review: 48-59.

Luck, J., D. Jones, et al. (2004). "Challenging Enterprises and Subcultures: Interrogating ‘Best Practice’ in Central Queensland University’s Course Management Systems." Best practice in university learning and teaching: Learning from our Challenges.  Theme issue of Studies in Learning, Evaluation, Innovation and Development 1(2): 19-31.

Malikowski, S., M. Thompson, et al. (2007). "A model for research into course management systems: bridging technology and learning theory." Journal of Educational Computing Research 36(2): 149-173.

Mendoza, L., M. Perez, et al. (2006). "Tailoring RUP for LMS Selection: A Case Study." CLEI Electronic Journal 9(1).

Morgan, G. (2003). Faculty use of course management systems, Educause Centre for Applied Research: 97.

OECD (2005). E-Learning in Tertiary Education: Where do we stand? Paris, France, Centre for Educational Research and Innovation, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Paulsen, M. F. (2003). "Experiences with Learning Management Systems in 113 European Institutions." Educational Technology & Society 6(4): 134-148.

Siemens, G. (2006). "Learning or Management System? A Review of Learning Management System Reviews." from http://ltc.umanitoba.ca/wordpress/wpcontent/uploads/2006/10/learning-ormanagement-system-with-reference-list.doc.

Warger, T. (2003, July 2003). "Calling All Course Management Systems." University Business  Retrieved 30 December, 2006, from http://universitybusiness.ccsct.com/page.cfm?p=315.

West, R., G. Waddoups, et al. (2006). "Understanding the experience of instructors as they adopt a course management system." Educational Technology Research and Development.

One thought on “What is an LMS?

  1. Pingback: LMS characteristics and limitations « The Weblog of (a) David Jones

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