Satisfaction surveys of learning management system administrators invariably identify reporting as the most reviled feature in their platform. Administrators complain about reporting being unintuitive, cumbersome, lacking customizability, not being powerful enough, and just generally being bad at displaying the data administrators want.
So, why aren’t LMS solution providers fixing the problem? The short answer is that it’s really tough to please all system administrators:
- Some administrators want the reporting features to be super easy. They want templates with one button to push.
- For other administrators, one-button-to-push templates with few options are a living hell. They want infinite power and customizability in their LMS reporting capabilities.
For LMS vendors, coming up with reporting features everyone likes is like trying to open a restaurant that serves only one dish. Your cheese lasagna with buffalo mozzarella flown in daily from Italy might be a hit with some customers but the carnivores will complain on Urbanspoon that the recipe should have had meat and the lactose- and gluten-free crowd will tell their friends they were up all night with cramps after eating at your lousy joint.
So, the bottom line is that in designing their platforms, LMS solution providers are constantly walking the fine line between ease-of-use and how powerful and customizable to make their reporting features.
If you’re looking to acquire your first learning management system, or if your needs have changed and you are considering switching systems, here are some things to look for in evaluating the reporting features of LMS.
- Report templates—Your LMS administrator may be a geek with a capital G who likes to create all reports from scratch by typing SQL commands into fields. That’s great! …until that person leaves your organization and someone else needs to step in and take over the work. You want a system that contains basic templates that can be customized to quickly display the information you need.
- Consistent user experience across all report templates—You shouldn’t have to learn to create a report, and then need to learn how to create a different report. You should be able to learn how to use one report and then apply those skills to all other reports. Whether you are creating a report showing the progress of a group of learners in a curriculum, or a report showing a list of learners on a waiting list for a classroom-based course, getting to the data using similar features will significantly reduce the learning curve for administrators.
- The ability to show, hide, and rearrange the order of columns in reports—Sometimes, you want to show more, or less, of the information contained in your system’s databases in a way that’s clear and easily understood.
- The ability to query the fields in a report—Whether you want a listing of learners in a specific city, a list of people who scored less than 70 per cent on a recent exam, people who have completed a course within a given time period, etc., you want to be able to search for—and display—the data you need.
- The ability to automatically e-mail reports—I guarantee you, there will be at some point in your learning initiative, a need for a manager or team leader to monitor the progress of a group of learners. Sure, you can give that individual access to the LMS’s admin features and ask her to get her own darn report and leave you alone, but a simpler and more politically astute approach is simply to have a report automatically e-mailed to the individual. She’ll love the fact that the report is sitting in her inbox when she gets to work on Mondays. She’ll say nice things about you to others. You’ll be a rock star.
- The ability to export data—Sometimes, you just want to play around with data outside of the LMS. Or, perhaps you’ll want to archive some information you feel you no longer need.
- The ability to save and retrieve a report you’ve created—It’s a major waste of time to have to recreate the same report over and over again. If it’s been saved, it will take one second to call up the information you want.
In closing, the best way to assess the reporting features of a learning management system is to decide what reports you might need and ask the vendor to demonstrate the creation of those reports. If the person demonstrating the platform can’t create the reports you require within a few minutes, chances are your satisfaction with the platform will be low once the initial honeymoon phase has passed. Save yourself some heartache and be disciplined about evaluating this critical component of LMS technology.
Somewhere among the hundreds or perhaps thousands of e-mails in your inbox, somewhere in the skyscraper-high piles of paper on the corner of your desk, is something really really important. This might be an urgent policy or procedural change. If you work in emergency response, healthcare, security, transportation, among many other industries, people’s safety may be compromised if you don’t get and act on this information.
E-mail has been and continues to be the primary communication media in the workplace. Consequently, many organizations turn to e-mail for such updates. They’ll send out an e-mail blast with the words `IMPORTANT‘ or `URGENT‘ in the title to the people who need to be informed. Perhaps the sender will click the little checkboxes in their mail client for delivery and read notifications to be returned, but, if you’ve sent the notice to more than just a few recipients, manually tracking who has opened the e-mail is a headache.
A learning management system (LMS) can provide an effective way to monitor who has viewed such important information and who may need a follow-up telephone call. Here’s how:
1. Create a `course’ that contains the critical information embedded as a PDF document. PDF is a nice file format for something like this because it will display on many different devices, including iPads and other tablets, phones, etc.
2. Create the e-mail that will be sent when people are enrolled in the course as well as the reminder e-mail. Make sure these e-mails communicate the urgency of this information. If you can set the frequency of the reminder e-mails, don’t be shy about nagging the individual daily.
3. Enroll the individuals who should get this important update into this `course.’ The system will send out the enrolment e-mail and depending on your LMS, a message to the learner’s LMS dashboard.
Learning management systems typically provide feedback to learners on their progress. For the learner, this is like crossing an item off their TO-DO list, which provides happy feelings of accomplishment.
4. Track who has accessed the document using your LMS’s reporting features. In the example below, British singer/songwriter Laura Marling and ex Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page have accessed the important update. The others have not.
The purpose of tracking who has accessed such important information isn’t to lay blame. There are many extremely valid reasons why people may not have read important updates: spam filters, off the Internet grid due to travel or meetings, illness, etc. The real purpose of tracking access is to identify who may require a secondary attempt through means other than e-mail, perhaps a phone call.
I’m concerned about Stanley. He has developed an unusual growth between his left thumb and index finger. The growth is the size of an average hardcover book, yet thinner. One side is silver and emblazoned with the image of an apple. The other glows with an iridescent light.
Stanley does not appear to be in any pain. Nevertheless, I know he’s concerned since he stares and taps at the growth constantly.
Please rest assured that we in the medical community are keeping close watch of this condition, which is reaching global epidemic proportions. So far, it appears to be benign and may in fact result in heightened curiosity, increased knowledge, and new skills.
—Your caring doctor”
Computer tablet sales are in 2013 predicted to outpace sales of traditional computers. There are currently almost as many mobile phones on the planet as there are people. These devices are becoming extensions of ourselves, rarely leaving our hands.
Futurists say we’re on the cusp of becoming cyborgs. We laugh and think this is crazy… until we misplace our mobile device and have to deal with the resulting separation anxiety.
The fact that people increasingly use mobile devices to communicate, collaborate, and access Web content is having a huge impact on the design of user interfaces for enterprise software applications. Here are some examples.
- Rather than shrinking down a traditional computer user interface to fit the smaller screens of mobile devices, smart designers create interfaces that adapt or `respond’ to different screen sizes as well as vertical and horizontal orientations. In the example below, interface elements are resized and rearranged to best display on an Apple iPhone and iPad.
- Prior to the mobile revolution, many web sites were designed with a navigation menu that runs along the top of the screen. That works fine using conventional computers but is a poor choice for devices such as tablets which you typically cradle in both hands. Having a thumb touch the top middle of the screen is awkward on larger touch screens. Smart mobile interface design places navigation elements within comfortable range of human thumbs.
- Attempting to click tiny hyperlinks on small touch screens using human fingers is frustrating. Below is a screen capture from a popular garden supply company. This site looks really nice on my iPad. Unfortunately, whenever I attempt to add eggplant to my shopping cart, I get cucumber. The links are simply too close together for my fingers to select what I need without zooming in. (I wonder if my family would notice if I substituted cucumber for eggplant in my famous eggplant parmigiana recipe?)
Smart designers create user interfaces where all clickable elements such as hyperlinks and buttons are large enough to be selected with fingertips.
Tablets and phones are now ubiquitous so software designers and content providers need to assume that people will be accessing their content on a mobile device. What might look great on a traditional computer monitor may be completely unusable on a phone or tablet.
Course-of-the-Month Club: Using a Learning Management System to Sell Subscriptions to Learning Content
It seems as if almost every organization I speak to wants to use a learning management system (LMS) in a different way. One company I recently met with uses a magazine subscription-like business model to sell bundles of courses:
- A customer signs up for an annual subscription.
- The person immediately gets access to some courses.
- In the second month of the subscription, they get access to new courses and can continue to access the courses from month one.
- This continues monthly until the subscription expires after 12 months. The customer is then given the option to renew.
Understandably, the company providing this course-of-the-month subscription service doesn’t want the headache of managing all this manually. They want the process automated within the learning management system so that it’s scalable when the business takes off and they have tens of thousands of learners. They also want to spend their time and energy on creating great content rather than managing course access.
Here’s how to support this business model using a learning management system. For the sake of this example, let’s assume that this commercial course provider sells courses related to mandolin playing.
Ok, full disclosure. In the hope of receiving a gift of a mandolin, I’ve been dropping hints around the house: pictures of mandolins on the fridge, Chris Thile mandolin music streaming on Grooveshark, visibly spending time on the LinkedIn Mandolin Players and Enjoyers Group (yes, this really does exist.) Add this Blog post to this shameless hint list.
Your LMS requires the following features to support this business model:
- A shopping cart through which a customer can purchase a subscription
- The ability to bundle courses into groups
- The ability to automatically make content expire
- The ability to automatically provide new courses every month
STEP 1: Bundle together the courses you want to provide in the first month of the subscription. Give this course collection a name. Set as the price of this course bundle whatever you want to charge for the 12-month subscription. For example:
Course bundle name: The Very Exciting World of Mandolins
12-month subscription price: $150
Courses provided in month one:
- Mandolin Care
- Tuning Your Mandolin
- Your First Mandolin Tutorial
STEP 2: Specify that this bundle of courses will automatically expire after 30 days.
STEP 3: Create a second bundle of courses that includes all the courses from bundle 1. For example:
Bundle name: The Very Exciting World of Mandolins (Month 2)
Courses provided in month two:
- Mandolin Care
- Tuning Your Mandolin
- Your First Mandolin Tutorial
- Strumming Exercises (New!)
- Basic Chord Patterns (New!)
- Scales and Arpeggios (New!)
STEP 4: Specify that 30 days after a learner gets access to the first course bundle—the date they placed their subscription order—they’ll automatically be given access to the second course bundle.
Repeat STEPS 3 and 4 above for months three to 11 of the subscription. Each month’s course bundle should contain the courses from all previous months along with new courses. Also, each month’s course bundle should automatically expire after 30 days but simultaneously provide access to the next bundle.
Since this is a 12-month subscription, the last month should automatically send an e-mail to the customer encouraging renewal and pointing them to where they can purchase a second year membership. That membership will contain all the courses from year one and the process above will resume. If the customer does not renew, the content from the final course bundle will expire and be removed from the customer’s portal.
The course-of-the-month club can be a potentially effective business model, especially if the content being provided is timeless and doesn’t become obsolete. The customer is motivated to renew their subscription since the value of the subscription grows each month as more courses are added to their library.
If this course subscription model existed for mandolin-related content, I’d sign up in a minute.
A client recently asked if I could help him prepare a presentation he’ll be delivering to colleagues within his organization. The aim of the presentation is to provide an overview of workplace learning technology in 2012. So far, he has a very impressive slide deck that covers:
- An introduction to e-learning
- Learning modalities and content types (simulations, games, video, etc.)
- Formats (Flash vs HTML 5)
- Social learning
- Tools and technologies (authoring tools, learning management systems, etc.)
He asked if I could lend a hand in clarifying how learning management systems fit into all this. I sent along the following.
Learners today are presented with myriad opportunities to engage with learning content. They can turn to Blogs, Twitter, wikis, social networks, video sites, etc. to find valuable information about any subject.
The problem learners face today is not paucity of content, but rather that so much content exists that it can take significant time and effort to find the many gems in a world awash in funny cat videos, political memes, inspirational quotes, deliberate scams and inadvertent falsehoods, marketing copy pretending to be impartial content, and Justin Bieber (who, depending on your sources, may or may not have just broken up with Selena Gomez) musical covers.
How much stuff is out there? YouTube alone experiences 72 hours of video uploaded every minute. This source estimates that there have been 163 billion tweets since the dawn of Twitter. According to the American Library Association, by 2020, information on the Internet will be doubling every 15 minutes.
The bottom line is that, faced with so much content, learners can benefit from digital content curation. This means that the role of learning professionals such as instructional designers and instructors expands beyond creating and delivering courses to finding useful content and vetting potential authorities and subject matter experts.
A learning management system, then, provides a centralized on-ramp to relevant learning content located within the LMS but also found elsewhere on the Web. Learners can be encouraged to:
- Watch relevant YouTube videos embedded into courses or added to the system as resources
- Follow and participate in discussions with experts on Twitter and in forums
- Read and comment on blog posts written by authorities on specific topics
- Contribute ideas with colleagues using wikis
- Attend live virtual events such as Webinars
- And much much more
Some learning gurus are vehemently opposed to the very idea of curated content. The learner, they say, should be free to roam the Web and discover content he or she finds relevant. These gurus should learn to relax. A learning management system doesn’t restrict learners from discovering content. This is curation, not censorship. A LMS simply provides an on-ramp to content someone has concluded is potentially valuable in learning new skills or information.
The year 2012 will likely be remembered as the “Get Off Your Butt” year. In recent months, major studies have been published indicating that sitting for extended periods dramatically increases our risk of getting a wide range of diseases and significantly shortens our lives.
How dangerous is sitting for long periods? Studies published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that people who sit for the majority of the day are 54 percent more likely to die of a heart attack. The bad news is that exercise has little impact if it does not replace time sitting. If you feel smug about hitting the gym before going to work and sitting all day, you shouldn’t. Getting up and walking around, or working at a standing desk rather than seated, should be a priority for desk-bound knowledge workers.
As if dying weren’t motivation enough, research continues to indicate that physical activity improves brain health and ability to learn. According to a study done by the Department of Exercise Science at the University of Georgia, even exercising for just 20 minutes improves information processing and memory functions.
The bottom line is that our days should be filled with non-seated physical activity.
As learning professionals, we’re part of the problem. Much of the learning content and events we create are traditionally designed to be accessed by sedentary learners seated at a desk. Since it isn’t good for business to kill your customers, we should be using the latest scientific research to create learning content and events that:
- Improve learning
- Contribute to the quality of life of our learners
Here are some ideas on designing learning that encourages activity other than sitting:
- Have you organized a full day, on site workshop? Have people first meet at a remote location such as a coffee shop for initial orientation. Then, have them walk 20 minutes to where the next session will take place. Yes, it will potentially be hot/cold/raining/snowing/windy. That’s what outside looks like. Your learners will arrive for the next session with brains caffeinated and oxygenated, a match made in heaven for learning. Taking a break for lunch? Don’t order in. Walk to a restaurant or remote loaction. Since a large number of your learners will attend this workshop wearing shoes that weren’t designed for walking, it’s best to let them know in advance that they will not be seated all day.
- In instructor-led sessions, create activities where learners need to stand. One common example would be to have learners get up and write on a whiteboard. Or, have them review learning content while standing at a table rather than handing out materials to seated learners.
- Classroom-based, instructor-led sessions are synonymous with coffee and donuts. Rather than having these items in the classroom, place these things far away in another room. Yes, we can have a donut but we’ll need to work for it.
- In traditional online learning, keep lessons short. Many learners will feel they can’t leave a lesson midway. Short lessons allows them to engage with learning content yet take breaks.
- Remember podcasts? No, they aren’t dead. In fact, some of the greatest content on the Web (such as my beloved, mind-blowing RadioLab) is available as a podcast. Audio podcasts on MP3 players free learners from looking at a screen. This allows them to learn while walking. Perfect.
- Add prompts to learning content to let people know they can take a break and move around. Sometimes, people just need a reminder.
Nilofer Merchant wrote a blog post for Harvard Business Review last year titled “Culture Trumps Strategy, Every Time.” It contains a fantastic definition of organizational culture that I would have printed on a t-shirt if I wore an extra large instead of a size small:
“Culture is the set of habits that allows a group of people to cooperate by assumption rather than by negotiation. Based on that definition, culture is not what we say, but what we do without asking. A healthy culture allows us to produce something with each other, not in spite of each other. That is how a group of people generates something much bigger than the sum of the individuals involved.”
Blatant Media is a culture-centric organization that fits Ms. Merchant’s definition above. Blatant culture isn’t dictated in a memo from headquarters—”please respect our culture by being supportive of your colleagues”—rather, the culture is defined by many small things, habits as Mr. Merchant calls them, that together create a positive and effective workplace:
- The Xbox games room
- The late afternoon e-mail threads with colleagues that make you laugh out loud
- The beauty of the work surroundings
- The style of communication
The Virgin Company, for instance, understands the style of communication can have a significant impact on culture. Call a typical telephone company and you’ll get a message saying…
“Your call is important to us. Please hold the line until the next available customer service representative.”
Call Virgin Mobile and you’ll first be asked what type of music you’d like to listen to.
“If you want to chill, press 1.”
This style of communication isn’t limited to Virgin Mobile. I once took a flight on Virgin Airlines where the safety announcement was narrated by someone I assume to be Barry White, over sexy background music. The final line was…
“Please be careful as you open the overhead compartments because, you know, shift happens.”
Your organization’s communication style should be consistent across different media and applications, including your learning management system. Take a look at the labels and system messages learners encounter. Do they project the culture of the company? If not, explore whether these can be changed, either by your system administrator or by your LMS vendor.