Top 10 Higher Ed/EDU LMSs for 2017

Posted by

A good tiding to you all. Ahh, the new year. A year of opportunities. Thrills and fun awaits you.

At least while you sleep.  Then you awake and wonder “is my K-12 LMS really meeting our needs?” Or “Why can’t these teachers spend the time to learn the system? When did learning become a minus for educators?” 

On the higher education side, there is nothing worse than relying on your computer tech support unit or computer lab folks to handle everything. 

Actually what is worse are the professors/instructors/lecturers who do not spend the time to be in the system when their students have questions or post.  

It is one of the huge minuses of any system – not the system itself mind you, but the human element. 

Basically, if you are a good/great teacher/educator in the classroom, you will be online.  If not, sorry no form of technology will change that.

As a former university educator, I can attest to that – as in the number of folks I knew who really should not be near any level of technology, especially when they have zero desire to learn it. 

Knowing these traps it is imperative that a higher ed and K-12 education system(s) offer not just a set of relevant features for the faculty side of the house – with ease of use being paramount, but also support, training and lots of it.

On the student side, utilizing and embracing the latest capabilities for your specific audience(s) are the musts these days. Yet, so many systems in these verticals fall flat. 

A higher ed system should have a strong mobile component with on/off synch native apps. They should utilize a social level that goes beyond the basics – sorry folks, but people are bolting in droves from Facebook, and Twitter is not hot with college age kids. 

If you are going to just replicate something rather than innovate and create, at least go with Snapchat, WeChat, WhatsApp and/or Instagram features.  Push emojis, by offering text messaging using emojis.  

Video on smartphones, phablets actually; and be smart about what people can/will do on a smartphone.  The vertical design is important (even with Corporate too, but that is for another day).

Apps are essential, especially within the system, easy to add – for admin, and if they allow it, the admin that is, offer the students the ability to click an add an app for themselves. Push the personal experience and change the way students learn.

Honestly, on the HE side, you should change from synchronous based to asynchronous based. 

It is my belief and has been, that the reason these systems, regardless of who they are, fail for the students, in the long run, is the synchronous approach which is nothing more than sticking the ILT classroom approach online. 

I’m not talking about video conferencing/web conferencing, because synchronous learning isn’t about that, rather it relates to the course/learning design.

Couple of fun notes

  • There is no Coursera, Udemy, and similar fare – they are not learning management systems, learning platforms, etc. in any shape or form. They are course aggregators/course providers.   
  • Khan too – isn’t in here, because it is a courseware solution that is more about content delivery options, than learning IMO.   I mean that is like tossing in TED and saying that is a learning solution. In form of viewing and knowledge insight sure, but I could say the same thing about reading a book. Viewing and knowledge insight.  Heck, let’s toss in your local library – it offers the same bang for the buck (Free).
  • None of these target solutions for say Math only, or learning a language or skills for school.  These are not learning platforms/LMSs in any shape or form.  It drives me bonkers when I see press releases pitching these things as LMSs – they are not.
  • No Google Classrooms – it is not an LMS or learning platform.  And shame on the press release firm that pitches it as such.  I like it, but then again, I like staring at the sky at night too, and I’m not calling myself an astronomer.

And now, The Top 10 for 2017.  Here is the approach, i.e. Rank, Name, ( ) – listing as either “edu” for K-6, K-12 or “HE” for higher education including community colleges, tech colleges too.

One last note, there is this notion that if you are an association or a company that uses the term “education” as in professional education that you must go with a system targeting education.  That is totally untrue.  


#10 Schoology (HE) –  I’m not a fan of their K-12 solution. It does NOT scream fun to me, which is essential in the K-12 space. 

The higher ed version is different in many ways and while students at that level need a fun atmosphere, overwhelmingly in the HE space – those dedicated solely to it, the approach is not there. –  I’m not a fan of their K-12 solution. It does NOT scream fun to me, which is essential in the K-12 space. 

That said, I love the app click and whammo you have it angle.  The apps while the usual affair (the ones I tend to see all the time), still provide a positive experience.

I love that they get the whole “mobile” angle, but again, wish it went beyond the same ol same.  The Kindle app is a novelty. Not sure how many people are using the Kindle Fire tablet(s).   I mean I use the Paperwhite Kindle, but not the Fire.

Feature wise overall, it offers what you need without going extreme (although I wish it did).

Resources exist (surprise – not really) including an engagement with other universities/colleges if you so choose (snooze.. been there, seen that).

Anyway, still a nice offering.  Again, this is for HE version, not the corporate or K-12 ones.

#9 Smart Sparrow (HE)Their pitch is an “Adaptive learning platform”, a new buzz word in the education/HE space.

For me, the better term is “deep learning”, since adaptive learning can be implied as within the course itself, whereas “deep learning” is the system.

In this case, it actually follows more along the lines of the course angle, whereas if a student runs into some type of challenge or as they pitch it “roadblock”, they are pushed (my term) to an area for other resources to help.

Again, is this really a personalized learning experience or more of a hidden branch angle? I’m not buying the PLE, but as noted above, “Adaptive Learning” is going more along those lines, which again, to me, it is not the same. 

Anyway, the product maximizes the importance and usage of the built-in authoring tool as a core component, which is a plus in this case because of the ease of use, drag n drop and capabilities.

I love that you add HTML5 sims, but the whole Flash usage especially when the system offers nice m-learning capabilities (including on/off synch for assignments), is baffling – uh, iOS doesn’t play well with Flash (you can use alternative browsers in the iTunes store).

UI is sharp and the analytical data on the back end will suffice for most folks in the higher education space, okay, the majority. Social is fair – collaboration among its options. 

The system can interface/integrate into an existing LMS if you so choose, but it can also stand alone (which is my preference for the offering). 

If your faculty really wants to know what their students know and/or need to know, then Smart Sparrow delivers.  And nicely so.

#8 Blackboard Learning Insight (HE) – I know, I know. I expect nothing less than Blackboard blasting over a few comments, on the disagreement of where I place their HE version, which heck you could say K-12 too, but I am going with HE since that is really the ideal spot for them.

Nowadays, it seems that if a university has Instructure and decides to switch, they seem to go Blackboard. And vice versa.  Granted not everyone follows this route, but, many do.

Blackboard has improved over the years and this version is no exception. 

The mobile could be way better and some of its look and feel needs a level of improvement – but here is the kicker, Blackboard has a modern UI that is available (they seem more focused on it for the corporate space), but as they have told me, their clients prefer the “classic” look.

Which really doesn’t make any sense, after all, it is for the student not the university, something many universities, schools, etc. forget (as in the real stakeholder here – you can even blast corporate into the same issue).  

I’d go with Learning Insight as the system, rather than the other versions. It packs a wallop for what a university who wants to dive deeper needs. 

System includes social (surprise, snore), mobile with apps, built-in authoring tool (lame, but most in the space are), analytical data (nice), admin features that make sense and IMO rather easy to learn for faculty.  Learners shouldn’t have an issue either.

#7 Moodle  (Edu/HE)– Well, here it is, The Moodle.  If you haven’t heard of Moodle, I truly feel for you.  It is free open source, but you really need to know what you are doing when you build your system.

In the end, free isn’t usually the case, because you have to have the right folks building it, maintaining it and somewhere you have to host this baby. 

Plus if you want totally cool, then graphic artists have to come into play too.  Anyway, the Moodle community is extremely active, which is what you need to the open source world.

Lots of plugins and updates too.  Mobile app and thus m-learning available as well.

If you desire open source freedom, with a community that engages in development with plugins to boot, here you go. Ready and willing.

#6 PowerSchool (K-12) –  Ever heard of Chalkable? No? Don’t worry then, because they are gone and PowerSchool is front and center. 

She isn’t the prettiest woman on the block, but feature wise – especially on the analytical side will get her a prom date that will meet and maybe even exceed your expectations.

The UI is well, you should read the paragraph below, but it slides into the rankings because of what it can offer on that analytical side (which K-12 is finally getting is significantly needed for the market).

Mobile ready, which includes responsive (every system offers responsive so don’t worry), a large item bank for assessments (they claim over 55,000 pieces of content/resources/assets), real-time access for students and parents via mobile (students can go desktop too, but clearly mobile is of better use), and did I mention a really need a major upgrade of the UI?  The mobile side is slick, but overall the UI is funky and not in a good way.

Built-in authoring tool, gradebook, social and the usual stuff you expect a K-12 to have.


#5 Agilix Buzz (K-12)- While bees are needed, they can sting and for some reason love swimming pools (I can attest to this fact).  Anyway, this solution is honey – sweet and slick.

Let’s get to the pros – wait before that, you should know that they go with the modular look and feel, including the appearance of the courses, content as blocks – something that is gaining traction in the industy as a whole, that said, here are a few items

  • Each student can have their own theme – select a color and a background
  • Peer to Peer help – a nice capability, albeit you hope that your peer (fellow student) can actually help, but hey, that is the way it exists regardless of what you do, etc.
  • Dropbox submission capability – Four spoons of honey please!
  • Announcements (a little too heavy push for me), To do List (not a fan of the task daily list regardless of the system and target audience, but this is for education after all..still), performance tool, nice set of teacher functions, ease of use is definitely seen here

#4 ScootPad  (K-8) – First and foremost, you can integrate/interface this offering in other systems, including Schoology, but again, to me it is ideally served as a standalone.

Granted the name has a connotation of a puppy training pad (or maybe it is just me),  the offering is super slick and if diagnostic, knowledge management is essential, Scoot is pushing you across the floor (in a good way).

I love the engagement pieces especially the ability to select your own avatar (cartoon characters), the use of coins (aka as points in the gamification scene), gamification in general, game-based learning (yes actual games), a piggy bank (fun), reward center – another huge fun win here, parent portal, ease of use is HUGE, and did I mention this is just the tip of the iceberg?

Mobile driven with this offering.  Love it.

#3 Instructure Canvas (HE) – It is a winner for the higher education space, as in the best one for the higher education market.

One of the first to offer apps right within the system, a full blown feature set and capabilities galore. 

The administration side is solid, but nothing that makes me go, uh go. 

As with any HE system, the “fun factor” for the student is lackluster – something that frustrates me to no end. 

Excluding that point, the system is mobile friendly.

You can’t go wrong with the system if you are seeking an offering for the HE marketplace.

#2 DB Primary (K-6) – I’m not going to lie here, this year it was very close between DB Primary and the soon to be announced #1 below. 

The system is fun for kids.   Easy to use is an understatement for students and teachers alike.

Why this system isn’t used extensively in the states is beyond me, I suspect it is because people are just unaware of them.  Hopefully, this will change.

As with any of the systems above, skinning/branding, assessements and announcements.  Includes a calendar, gallery, ability to send internal e-mail to the teacher (within the system), game based learning, gamification components, discussion board, to do list (they call it “things to do”), surveys/assessments and modular design, just to name a few capabilities.

#1 Frog Education (K-12) – Best for K-6 though. 

Mobile first is a new buzz word in the entire LMS and its subsets industry, but Frog answers the call with a resounding – “RIBBET”.

I love the teacher ability to capture with a mobile device a video of the student’s work or a a photo of it and store it in the system as verification of completion. 

I’d just see it as a wonderful “great job” angle for the student, something to showcase to the parent – “Look at this amazing play-doh thing Stevie did.”

Ease of use is the solution in of itself.  Front and back end. The system stresses fun and you see it. 

After all it is for kids, children, not an adult – something many K-12 systems forget about (you see it in the UI/UX). 

  • System comes with 250,000 “curriculum mapped questions – the language Frog uses,” but I’d just say a question bank.
  • Homework assignment tool – mobile friendly, did I mention this system really is mobile first?
  • Resources library
  • Parent Portal with message board
  • Calendar – again most platforms have one, but theirs is very fresh and visible in design
  • Progression charts, gap analysis – which you rarely see in the education (K-12) market.
  • Video tutorial capability
  • Just an absolutely awesome system!


Bottom Line

There you go. The Top 10 LMSs/learning platforms for education and higher education for 2017.

Grade them as you will.

For me, they all deserve an A.

Well, the top five get an


E-Learning 24/7