Selecting a Learning Management System

Sometimes in our haste to get online training up and running, we jump right to the big question—do I need a learning management system (LMS)? The answer is it depends. If online learning is a short-term solution, then the investment in an LMS is not necessary. 

Here are some steps to take to make this decision:

List the Functionality You Need From an LMS

  1. Do you want a range of options for learners to interact with content, including asking and answering questions, knowledge checks, learner-to-learner interactions, and engaging with the interface to explore layers of content?
  2. Do you want to administer online exams/tests or knowledge checks? Do you need to retain, access, and report on learner performance data from these assessments?
  3. Do you want to be able to create reports about learner usage and performance data? 
  4. Do you want to conduct online registration for both in-person and online courses? Do you want the ability to integrate e-commerce to collect registration fees?
  5. Do you want to issue certificates and/or Continuing Education Units (CEUs)? Do you want to track who has received certificates or CEUs?
Before selecting a learning management system (LMS), its a good idea to get clear on the functionality your organization needs.

Describe Your Organizational Needs and Constraints

What type of LMS do you need? If your training center is within an educational institution, it’s likely you already have access to an academia-focused LMS. If not, an LMS designed to serve the professional development community or businesses is likely a better fit for your clean energy training organization in terms of the range of features and cost. 

What is your price point? What is your target range for setup and configuration costs? What is your target range for ongoing operating costs and support costs? Do you plan to generate a revenue stream with paid course registrations or sponsorships that can support maintenance?

What are your in-house capabilities? If you have IT support in-house, great! If not, ensure the product you select can be maintained by your team with minimal vendor intervention. If your staff has the ability and time, it may be possible for you to take on set up activities, including migration of your current online content, to reduce costs. If you have resources but not staff time, many vendors offer ‘white glove’ services. 

Who will be using my system? It’s important to understand or anticipate what your volume of users and course usage will be in the next one to three or so years, to the extent possible. In many cases this will factor into the quotes you receive from vendors. Your goal should be to select and deploy a system that anyone who uses a computer can operate with minimal support.

Customization 101. Many vendors can offer just about anything you can dream up for design, features, and other customizations of their basic programming or templates. You’ll want to decide before all the impressive vendor presentations what look and feel, user interaction and other features are a ‘must’ for your LMS (see below.)

Ugh, there are so many LMS companies! In a world where there are hundreds of LMS options with similar features, you’ll want to select a vendor who has experience with nonprofits, is customer-focused, and is responsive to your specific needs. Look out for vendors pushing you to adopt ‘out-of-the-box’ solutions that aren’t responsive to your specific requirements. Also beware of vendors that do not have tiered pricing based on the volume of users. There may be hidden costs. 

Sample Features of an LMS 

Separate the required features you need from those features that would be nice to have. (This is by no means a comprehensive list!)

Setup and administration

  • Options for customization of user and administrator interface
    • LMS ‘look and feel’ consistent with your brand or other web content
    • Control over how users interact with the interface
    • Flexible and easy to set up user messages and notifications 
  • Your organizational contact and other information for users to access help with the LMS
  • Built-in reports that fit your data and reporting needs OR custom reports that are easy to generate
  • Configuration to link to your merchant account for e-commerce
  • Learning accessible on a range of devices (mobile, tablet, laptop)

User management

  • User-friendly process to set up account/login
  • Customizable options for fields/information collected from users
  • LMS account creation/login/data linked to external CRM or other learner database
  • Automated ‘forgot password’ functionality 
  • Ability to show different content depending on login type
  • Ability to deploy automated and custom messaging and notifications to users
  • Learners can rate or review content

Course creation and management

  • Easy import of SCORM-compliant content from authoring tools (like Captivate, Articulate, Camtasia, Lectora, or iSpring)
  • Easy import of webinar recordings and other videos
  • Ability to deploy instructor-led courses
  • Forum, chatroom or other learner-to-learner interaction capability
  • Ability to manage prerequisites (for instance, registration locked unless certain conditions are met)
  • Ability to create ‘learning paths’ or other ways to classify and display courses
  • Awarding of custom certificates, badges or points
  • Awarding of CEUs
  • Flexibility to define what course ‘completion’ means
  • Ability to generate a course calendar for synchronous online or in-person courses


  • Ability to set up custom evaluation, including custom evaluation by course 
  • Evaluation data that is easy to report on/export
  • Access to learner data for supervisors/other stakeholders
  • Test item analysis

10 Things You Need To Know When Choosing A Learning Management System 
6 Questions to Ask Before Picking an LMS 

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