Learning Management Systems (LMS), Virtual Learning Environments (VLE), authoring tools, content platforms…. At first glance, these different pieces of eLearning software can put you in a spin. One question we get asked a lot is, what’s the difference between an authoring tool and an LMS? Or, what is an authoring tool exactly? If you are wondering either of those things, then this article might help.
eLearning Authoring Tool – A piece of software which enables educators to create interactive courses designed for students to engage with using a computer.
Learning Management System – Software which helps educators track and manage the eLearning of their students. Students will access this platform in order to complete their online training.
To put it simply, your authoring tool is the program you use to create your course content, and your LMS is where your students interact with that content.
the classroom analogy
You could compare this set up to the classroom-based version. Think of a university lecture as an example. While the lecturer will use PowerPoint to put their content together (in this analogy this is our authoring tool) the learning itself happens in the lecture room (our LMS in this analogy).
While the lesson is presented through a series of PowerPoint slides, there are a number of other features that make up this classroom experience. The teacher will make additional commentary, provide supplementary documents or worksheets, and create discussion between students.
While all useful, none of these would be relevant without that set of slides for reference. Your authoring tool will enable you to create that core content, but your LMS will house all the other components, similar to the components of classroom learning.
why not just use PowerPoint rather than an authoring tool?
The answer is, interactivity. Unlike in a classroom, there is no human to deliver the content in an engaging way and check for understanding. This must come from the content itself. In an authoring tool, you are able to add much more than just static content, you can add games, tasks, questions, flip-cards, pop-up boxes, and even create personalised learning journeys depending on how well you learner is progressing.
how do the two pieces of software work together?
Once you have built your course in your authoring tool, it is usually exported as a SCORM file, which enables the LMS to read the interactive elements of the course and deliver an interactive experience for the learner. Think of a SCORM file as an eLearning zip file. Once you import your SCORM file into the LMS, it knows what to do with all this content in order to allow the learner to interact with it within the LMS.
so, an LMS reads the SCORM file… anything else?
Yes, an LMS does lots more, in fact. An LMS pretty much does what it says on the tin. It allows you to manage the learning taking place. You can organise your courses, add supporting course material, monitor student progress, award certificates and badges, and even communicate directly with students in some cases. As students interact with the content, the LMS will keep track of their progress and store all their relevant data (from student login details to assessment results). Learning Management Systems are constantly evolving to suit both the learners’ and the educators’ needs. In some LMSs (Totara Learn, for example) you can even build some interactions like you can do in an authoring tool.
why would I need tracking and reporting?
In order to keep improving your eLearning, you’ll need to be able to track learner progress carefully so that you can ensure learning outcomes are being met. There is a wide range of analytics available in most good learning management systems, helping you to help learners through course improvements and additional guidance.
Not only are assessment results tracked, but also everything from time spent on a module to participation in extra activities such as discussion groups.
As well as providing you with useful analytics, it is also useful for learners to be able to see their own progress and track their learning journies. This can be very useful when it comes to keeping learners motivated and introducing a competitive element. Learners like to see the progress they have made, how well they have performed, and what direction their learning is going to take next.
do I need both pieces of software?
Usually, yes. But, using two pieces of software is not really a bad thing, it gives you more freedom to swap and change both pieces of software as and when new technologies come out, or depending on personal preferences. A company might be tied into a specific LMS for many years, but content authors might have their own personal preferences when it comes to authoring tools or might enjoy the freedom of being able to swap and change to meet their needs.
Your authoring tool is the critical component when creating eLearning content, while the LMS is where the eLearning happens. Together they’ll help you create a catalogue of quality digital material and additional content to deliver a really engaging course. Don’t forget to utilise all the features of your learning management system and harness that data for continuous improvement. Likewise, make sure to use the interactivity of your authoring tool to capture core content that works well together with your offline materials.