Courseware LMSs – Good or bad for the industry?

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You may be sitting right now with third party content in your LMS.  Maybe you purchased it via Open Sesame, or Skillsoft. Maybe you scored it via Wiley, but in many possibilities you purchased the content thru your LMS vendor.  It’s much easier than say going directly to the content provider, buying it from them and then having them talk to your LMS vendor to put it in for you (which, honestly you should do, because it will save you money).

I recall going directly to Rosetta Stone, buying some an entire Latin American course unit from them and having them place it into my LMS for me.  They didn’t advertise that they would do this, but hey, ask and see what returns.

The point to all of this is whether you went directly to the course/content source or via your own LMS vendor, if you have third party content, it was a secondary focus, with the LMS being the primary.

But, what if the reverse was doable?

What if instead of focusing primarly on the LMS, you went courses first from a vendor and in return got the LMS for free.

Is it a good strategy or one that sets you up for potential failure?

Lets assess.

The Courseware LMS Approach  – Early days and today

When courseware LMSs first started showing up back in the day, it was just about the courses. 

In fact, you usually did not get any type of access to any data, analytical assessment or reporting. You didn’t get to add users, groups, set up a course catalog and so forth.  It was about the individual buying a course or courses and taking them.

This option still exists today, but a new option is equally appearing – the LMS pitch.

First off, there are vendors out there who pitch they are an LMS when in reality they are a courseware provider that has some type of learning platform.   I see it often in press releases or via a publication who says it is one thing when in reality it is another.

Secondly, there are courseware providers who are all about the courses. They are not an LMS, nor do they say they are.  One of the most popular is 

Lastly, there are courseware vendors who focus on courses, and may give you the LMS for free or charge you for it, without your knowledge that it could be free (a big name courseware provider does this).  

Microlearning providers have gone both ways. Some started out with just the courses, the content being available for purchase. 

Then after awhile, figured out or decided internally that having an LMS component, which may or may not have already existed, was a smart way to say “we are an LMS” or whatever they spun themselves as, and zing you now have a microlearning platform with already existing courses. In other words, a courseware LMS with micro courses as the primary.

I know, I know, many of you are probably confused and trust me, there are swarms of people out there who are confused and without any knowledge on the approach, can easily become entangled in something they really don’t want.

The courses themselves

Before diving into the courseware LMS angle of right now and moving forward (as I see it), learning about the courses (the content) is important.

I’ve seen quite a bit of courses (content).  Some of which are quite slick, others which would make any Woolly Mammoth get stuck in tar pits of crummy content.

The favorites of many

  • – They have a lot of nice content/courses (video based).  They also have plenty of yuck.  Boring video based courses with people presenting or doing V/Os (voice-overs) who should enter the insomnia industry to help you fall asleep faster.   Course rating: B
  • Open Sesame –  They use a course marketplace whereas their courses (which you purchase) come from a variety of course providers, some of which are boutique shops.  Again, just like, some of the courses are slick, some aren’t.  This isn’t the fault of Open S, rather it is just well, a reality of the business.   Course rating: B+
  • Skillsoft – The behemoth of the courses/content space.  Frankly they are massive.  I have always liked their Microsoft Office courses which appear as the software itself with tutorial capabilities of “show me, assist me, let me do it” angle.  That said, they have plenty of dullard courses.  A key factor is that Skillsoft has acquired many course providers in the past and with that have good and bad mixed together.  A hint: You do not have to buy the entire bundle of whatever courses you select.  You can negotiate to have only the course titles you want and not the rest you will never use.  I have done this in the past, and it has always worked.  Skillsoft I find is very flexible in this regard (as a whole).  Course rating: B.
  • DDI – Very nice batch of courses focused on leadership development.  They do have e-learning courses, besides their ILT.  I still believe you can do more with e-learning than ILT.  Online course rating: A.  

A caveat

One of my biggest irritants is how slow some course only providers are when it comes to cleaning up outdated or poorly designed courses.  I once recall a conversation I had with Skillsoft, before they purchased SumTotal. 

I asked Skillsoft directly whether or not they clean up their catalogs on an on-going basis and whether they remove poorly designed or outdated courses.  I was told they do.  However, I have no idea on how many they have yanked or how often they go thru the process.

Open Sesame has told me in the past that they also clean-up (as in remove) outdated courses.  Again, it would be nice to know how often they do this and what is their process for doing so.

With, I have no idea if they do this and how often it takes place.

Nor do I know, what other course only providers do when it comes to cleaning up dated content.

For example, I really don’t see an advantage of keeping courses for Microsoft XP or 2000. 

Nor do I see an advantage of a leadership courses where the people in it are wearing clothes from the late 90’s or early 2000’s.   Yeah, they may have an interesting take on leadership, but who can honestly focus on that, when someone is wearing a tie that you see at retro stores.

What I would do

If you are buying third party courseware as the course provider, how often do they clean up their catalogs, what is their process and what have they removed.  If the vendor provides the first two statements, then you can get a true sense of their commitment to maintaining quality content/courses.

Even if you decide to purchase directly via an LMS vendor, you can ask them, whether or not, they review the courses they are selling and if so, how often do they clean up and remove poorly designed or outdated courseware.

The new angle of courseware LMS providers

This may get a tad difficult to follow and I get it, because even I when I started to track this, had to decide whether or not they were now a subset of the LMS or just an offshoot. My feeling is that they are a subset of the LMS itself.

Here is how it works

a. The primary focus are the courses or course you have decided to purchase.

b. You could be an individual buying the course or a set of courses OR you could be a company/business/school/etc. buying a course or a set of courses.  The latter is becoming a key target for courseware LMS providers (i.e. Enterprise companies and SMB).

c. The LMS is tossed in for free.

How good is the LMS?

It varies. Some of are solid (like Biz Library, who will also sell you the LMS separately, albeit overwhelmingly their customer base are courses first, LMS tossed in second). Some are poor.  I mean, the vendor is first and foremost a courseware provider.

They usually have the basics, add users, create groups, assign courses, base analytical data and base reports. 

Most I would argue go more so on the learning platform side of the house, which are often very slick with the UI – modern and fresh in this regard.  There are microlearning courseware LMSs, just as there are the usual courses (variance in length and type) too.

One recent vendor to go this route is Grovo. 

They started out as a microlearning courseware provider.  Then went microlearning courseware with LMS tossed in, with what I see as a target towards Enterprise (IMO).  Of course they can disagree and that is their prerogative, but that is how I see it.

What you need to be aware of

A couple of key points that are important to remember

  • Is your primary focus on the courses or wanting an LMS?
  • How good are the courses?  Again, how often do they clean up the badly designed or outdated? 
  • How good or wanting are you for the LMS?  Do you want a lot of features or are you happy with the basics?
  • Are they primarily committed to the courses or to the LMS?  My personal vibe is that it will be the courses (and frankly it should be, otherwise they are LMS first)
  • Does the LMS have any course standards? The base should be SCORM.  If you are seeking a vendor who “gets it”, then seek out xAPI.   I know there are courseware providers who have course standards including AICC, but again, as folks know – I think AICC should be removed and placed in the Smithsonian as a relic. 
  • Can you upload third party courses/content created by an authoring tool (regardless if it is desktop or SaaS)?  If this is important to you, ask early and not later.  There are courseware LMS providers that do not offer this. 
  • How often do they add new courses and do you get them for free or at a discount, if you have already purchased a subscription or package of courses ahead of time? 
  • Are the courses and the LMS responsive?  In other words, what do they look like on a mobile device? I’d follow up on whether or not they have a native or web app and whether or not it is on/off synch.  Again, they are focusing on courses with a toss in for the LMS, so they should have be including these options.

I still do not understand why courseware providers love to show and tell you about courses on a smartphone.  Who takes a course on a smartphone?  I want names!

The Difference between a courseware LMS provider and you receiving free courses in your LMS

Simply speaking it is the focus.

If the focus (primary) are the courses and you get the LMS tossed in for free, then the vendor is a courseware LMS.  If your focus (primary) is the LMS and you get a course or courses tossed in as part of the purchase, the vendor is an LMS.

For example, eLogic Learning will toss in 120 courses or so, if you purchase their LMS. 

The courses are an added benefit, but the people who buy the eLogic Learning system are focused on the LMS. SumTotal Learn now includes a bundle of courses as part of your purchase. I have been told by Skillsoft that you can select what courses you want in the LMS, rather than having the “here you have to take this” mantra.

I should add that you are not required to take the 120 courses from eLogic, you can decline and I believe you can select which ones you want (if you so desire) into your LMS.

What do I expect to see

a.  More courseware LMS providers –  Look there is money to be made here.  I think you can only go so far with course content (regardless on type i.e. video or design).  You need an added “hook” if you will.  This is why I can’t understand why Linkedin didn’t do more with  This makes me wonder how Microsoft will use, if their acquisition of Linkedin goes thru. 

b. Courseware providers seeking additional distribution channels. If you want to survive you have to do this.  Again, how far can you really go and sustain if you are focusing just on people coming to your site to buy the courses? 

c. More LMS vendors tossing in courses for free if you buy their LMS.  It is already taking place and I do believe you will see it go upward.  I mean it makes smart business sense and adds that “hook” for folks. 

Bottom Line

Courseware LMS vendors are here to stay.  There will be more.

But you need to be aware that just because you are getting the LMS for free, doesn’t mean it will have the features you need or want.

Nor does it mean that the courseware vendor is committed to keeping up their LMS with the rest of pack.

What it does mean is that the courseware provider has realized the inevitable,

Without an LMS to offer,

Your courses are just like everyone else’s,

Sitting on a shelf (virtual), waiting to be discovered.

Or not.

E-Learning 24/7


  1. Good overview of the off-the-shelf course market, thanks for sharing Craig.

    My gut feel would be that it’s far more important to focus on the right LMS for the long-term learning strategy of an organisation, rather than choosing an LMS based solely on a selection of off-the-shelf content that it comes bundled with.

    Writing a solid, mid to long term strategy for your LMS is vital if you’re looking for a return on investment. It is highly likely that your LMS needs will change over time, and I regularly see organisation choosing their LMS without a longer term strategy – and then get locked into an LMS that doesn’t fit their needs.

    To reply to a few of your points:

    1) “Can you upload third party courses/content created by an authoring tool?”
    I would steer well clear of any LMS that doesn’t do this!

    2) “I still do not understand why courseware providers love to show and tell you about courses on a smartphone. Who takes a course on a smartphone?”
    Whilst I totally agree that no one takes a full course on a phone – the individual components of a course (learning nuggets) should be available on a phone – quick answers are often most needed whilst ‘on the job’.

    3) “This is why I can’t understand why Linkedin didn’t do more with”
    I think it’s too early to see what LinkedIn have planned for their relationship with Lynda – but I would expect this to be supercharged with recent MS acquisition.

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