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Learning management systems take to the internet Cloud


The world wide web continues to spread through the training world and is beginning to act as a vehicle for learning management systems (LMSs). John Stokdyk takes a closer look at "learning in the Cloud".

At the recent Learning Technologies event in London, I would have to admit that I didn't actually catch the biggest buzz - it was more a case of the buzz surrounding web-based learning systems reaching out and grabbing me.

Wandering semi-randomly around the exhibition space looking for people to talk to about Moodle, I kept bumping into companies that were hawking a new kind of learning management system (LMS) - one that was based entirely on the web, which made it easier and cheaper to deploy and could handle learning needs more flexibly than traditional in-house systems. Aardpress and Kineo kindly brought the two emerging LMS trends together by providing hosted Moodle implementation. Aardpress is opening up new installations at the rate of one every fortnight, according to Aardpress director Mark Thornton, while Kineo also reported a "lot of demand" for hosted Moodle LMS platforms since the Learning Technologies event.

LMS market share
ForceTen (Eedo/Outstart) 34%
Raptivity 16%
Adobe Connect Pro 15%
Moodle 12%
Kallidus 7%
Other (inc 1 web-based) 14%
Source: Software Satisfaction Awards 2008
According to the people I talked to, what I call "learning in the Cloud" is taking off. But as one developer admitted, solid figures on who's using what system are extremely difficult to lay your hands on. Respondents in the LMS category of last year's Software Satisfaction Awards (see right) were predominantly in the on-premise category, but Kallidus developer e2Train is fully aware of the shifting landscape. As marketing manager Kate McNabb told TrainingZone at Learning Technologies: "Software as a service (SaaS) is going to be a huge development this year."

In the absence of any further evidence, we'll take their claims at face value and put forward what those involved with Cloud learning have to say about it.

The web has already become the preferred mechanism for delivering content, and informal mechanisms such as wikis, Google Docs and Twitter are taking online collaboration and learning into new realms. But the difference now is that the core LMS functions are following the content on to the web.

"It's gone from being an interesting idea a couple of years ago to being something that people are talking about in detail now," said McNabb. "The beauty of software as a service (SaaS) is it makes the sort of solution we offer a lot more accessible to SMEs and to large organisations that have IT issues or don't want a big IT procurement process." With the tide turning, e2Train is planning to maintain a foot in both camps but has yet to complete the transition, she added.

"Software as a service (SaaS) is going to be a huge development this year."
Kate McNabb, e2Train
For Kineo Open Source, Mark Aberdour commented: "We are seeing customers in greenfield sites with no prior LMS procuring hosted Moodle solutions due to their lower cost, improved flexibility and the innovation that comes with open source solutions. But customers with existing commercial LMS platforms are looking to both open source and hosted solutions to reduce costs and take advantage of the benefits it can offer."

The web-hosted model can get people up and running within a week or two and can by-pass the operational frustrations that occasionally slow systems that rely on internal IT resources, added Kineo partner Steve Rayson. And avoiding the need for spending money on IT infrastructure can make it easier for people to start projects when cash is tight.

"A hosted Moodle can be set up from a few thousand pounds, so it can be used as a pilot project or for a specific need to test how well it works," he continued. "I think this fits with the general move towards agile and lean project methodologies, where you start small, move fast and adjust quickly; as opposed to the more traditional big project planning approaches where you think you can plan everything in advance and then start a major project like a proprietary LMS with certainty. In reality things change and it can be hard to adjust when you have invested hundreds of thousands of pounds."

Cornerstone, one of the bigger on-demand suppliers, is already there having moved into learning management from a background in HR and talent management. "The benefits that the software as a service model delivers are shorter time to implement and a quicker return on investment (ROI)," claimed Vincent Belliveau, Cornerstone's European general manager.

"Software as a service brings flexibility. You can start small, monitor the pilot and expand it. We cover all bells and whistles that one would expect from a best-in-class LMS - and we can deliver it much more cost effectively and with a much smaller risk profile."

In the talent management world, web-based "on-demand" software like Cornerstone's is a given. In contrast to this newer, integrated approach to learning and development discipline the LMS market is fairly mature and dominated by companies who emerged during the late 1990s around Windows-based client/server systems. Within HR, there was a parallel movement that saw enterprise resource planning (ERP) software companies move into account management, HR and performance management, Belliveau explained.

"More modern best-of-breed players offer nimble, cost effective alternatives," he said. "Because we came to market more recently, we were able to do it through more modern technology - software as a service."

"Innovation arrives quicker because with the SaaS model you're always up to date"
Vincent Belliveau, Cornerstone On Demand
Cornerstone projects typically fall into two categories - in the most common scenario it will come in to replace a first generation LMS where the system was "so inflexible and costly to tweak that it never achieved its ambitions".

These customers know the ROI they expected with their initial project, but were not able to capture it. "Their risk profile is important because they it to be a successful initiative this time. So they look under the hood and cover every angle to make sure there's no drift from project objectives."

Cornerstone's grounding in performance management and succession planning was no barrier to LMS provision he added, because the data involved is usually more sensitive than learning information. And if all the content is already stored on in-house servers, there's no problem. "We can use the AICC standard to leverage content that’s behind their firewall," Belliveau said.

This flexibility extended the value of on-demand LMSs. "You can now reach external users you couldn't reach before because people sat on different infrastructures," said Belliveau. "Innovation arrives quicker because with the SaaS model you're always up to date, so learners and managers can both benefit from the latest features. SaaS is built around the Web 2.0 philosophy, so ease of use and interaction between learners and managrrs is built into the software."

The second type of Cloud learning customers are those who didn't have the budget to put in a traditional LMS and made do with low-end tools such as the management facilities provided by content authoring programs. "They found solutions that fitted them at the time and kept looking for solutions that could meet their budget and time profiles," said Belliveau. "Now they're seeing SaaS alternatives that provide those options."


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