History of the LMS

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To understand the history of the LMS, there are five items that drove it. A modem. CBT (Computer-Based Training). ILT (Instructor Led Training – Workplace, even EdTech – K-12 and Higher Education). WBT (Web-Based Training). People – Learners and Students.


Prior to online learning known then as WBT, and then the latter term of e-learning (vendors today, use it to refer to content that is online), there was CBT. CBT was the “new” and exciting way to learn. You did it via your computer, right there on the desktop. You popped in a CD-Rom, which could hold up to 640mb. Thus, simulations, courses that were engaging/interactive (in many cases) was available. Most of it came, via 3rd party providers, or what we referred to as “boutique shops” – think custom development (fee-based) that someone, company, government, institution, and so forth hired to create a course or courses. Could someone create a course at said company? Sure, but in the early days it would have been very difficult.

The Birth of Online

Here comes the internet, Mosaic 2.1 the essential browser, CompuServe (think AOL, but in my opinion, better, albeit the UI/UX was, well, great at the time, but not flashy). Netscape showed up, and dominated the market. Then comes along AOL (did you know folks still have an AOL e-mail account? Scary).

Prior to the whole online scene, you could access information via FTP sites known as Archie, Veronica and Jughead (yes, totally true. I used them). It was text, that’s it. And another day, for that story.

We did Online Learning in the 60’s – False Narrative

There were systems back in the day, where they could be run on your own server, used via a CD-ROM, via WAN or LAN, but to me, that isn’t and e-learning LMS. But I do find folks who claim because they were accessing online learning in the 60’s thru WAN (Wide-Area Network) and LAN (Local-Area-Network) Sorry, that doesn’t fly. It’s called online learning for a reason, because it is via the internet – online.


You needed one of these to access the Internet. The early speeds were brutal (compared to know), but at the time, awesome. Prodigy (the first portal, pre-CompuServe and AOL -for home use), modem was 4800 bytes. Then, the speed kicked up to 9600. Next, came 14.4, followed by 28.8, and yes siree, 56K.

Think about it this way, could someone shove 640mb CBT online with a 14.4, let alone 56K modem? No – the time for you to see anything, would be, well, Rip Van Winkle time. The speeds presented were ideal speeds, but I remember, landing 38KBS in Boston, with a 56K modem.

Oh, and access wasn’t free. ISP (Internet Service Providers) fees were high.

Anyway, the early websites, were awesome in the day, nowadays, archaic. If you wish to get a flavor of them, check out the Wayback Machine.

The Online Course Revolution – AKA WBT

You can thank Education, specifically higher education, for the online course debut, and yes, even the LMS. Jones International, accredited no less, went online in 1994. You could take courses in various educational subjects. It was a university. Other options were universities who went online, via Lotus Notes. Heck, I was in a doctorate program, whereas the majority of the ‘courses’ was via Lotus Notes, the other was ILT.

Corporate wasn’t really there at the time, some places did it, but it was edtech, the launched the WBT scene, removing the distance learning debacle (which was the key player, think tv to tv or monitor, with people looking at other people, or the instructor, and yes it was very popular even into the 2000s).

With WBT via a browser, you had to scale down the mbs, because of the modem speeds. So, no 640 there.


The player for online learning and WBT? Blackboard. I used it in 1999, to teach a 100% online journalism course in the University of Nebraska system. BB dominated.

In 2000, I built my own LMS for a company, and was hired to create an e-learning program for customer training, as well as run a training division with ILT still in play (blended).

The point here isn’t me, and my history into the foray, it is about the LMS. Why? Why have a system to house courses, when ILT was the main way of learning and training?

It had something to do with ILT. And people.

ILT Follies

There are plenty of websites, and even this blog, which covers the disadvantages of using ILT (regardless in the classroom for Edtech, or in the corporate world, seminars or sessions in conference rooms – a popular place BTW). However, for the History of the LMS, a few key factors led to folks seeing what e-learning (as it was referred to) with WBT, could do if it was housed somewhere besides using an FTP (File Transfer Protocol) and a Intrenet site or some other site.

  • How to ascertain what people knew and didn’t know following the ILT session

The challenge there is that evaluations presented at the end, really didn’t tell you about the accuracy of the learning/training success or failure. Sure, there were “how would you rate the learning you received today/or training” – with a Likert Scale, and numbers such as 1-5. And yes, folks running Training and L&D would take that data via the evaluation, and compute numbers to track the trends (or they should have) and what worked and didn’t work, based on the data. It was flawed. What we couldn’t figure out was the level of retention, level of comprehension, and more importantly the synthesis of it.

Nor could we tell whether someone was truly paying attention or not. And what was important to them, during the session and what was not. And what they focused on, and wanted to go back to re-learn, and what was not.

However, we often found out, who hated the food (if it was provided), the temp of the room (common complaint), how the person was dressed (I once saw a complaint over the tie of the trainer) and how was the trainer. I found that if people knew the trainer was an employee, the scores tended to be higher – due to the fear that the person would be fired if the scores were low. Many folks running training and L&D, also saw the Five straight down the page. Indicating someone just circled five. Ditto on 1, thinking one was the best.

  • Need to learn again? No worries, just get sent to another session, and we may have to pay a fee for that, and we lose you for the day, and honestly, we don’t know how much you retained.
  • The Gripe – Very popular, where the department head or direct manager, complains that the person has to attend the session, and should be at their desk. Another popular was the Grip from the attendee. Who doesn’t recall, an employee griping that they have to attend X, when they know it or they need to be back at their desk.
  • The Trainers (Internal). Unless you made surprise visits (I did), you were relying on those evaluations. External, you would need to attend too (at least for a bit). Even with the trainers, there still wasn’t an accurate, or near accurate way to ascertain what someone walked away with around comprehension and retention.

Thus the Value of WBT and the LMS

Why use an LMS? Because it provided the following three essential items

  • Analytics and Reports
  • Learners access to courses online, with courses with TOC (Table of Contents), Chapters, Lessons/Practice sims. Instructional design was actually being used. The majority of people creating the courses used authoring tools, such as Authorware (difficult to learn, but robust), Dazzler Max (I used it, learning curve though), Lectora (difficult to learn) and many others that existed then. If you didn’t know ID, you would go and purchase a book on it, and self-teach yourself (as I did, happy to provide the name of the book, very useful, albeit dated today).
  • Formal and Informal – That’s right, it wasn’t all formal, nor was it designed to be. You might have chat rooms (my system, the one I initially built, and then the one I purchased – GeoLearning), forums, discussion boards, a library (mine did, including checkout capabilities), even classrooms (the appearance of them, I never used it). Formal was there – assigned learning available and you could assign the people to a group or groups, assign courses to a group or groups, learning paths, catalogs (where folks could see the courses, and select from). E-commerce existed with some systems. If you wanted everyone to see all the courses available, pick and choose, and then it appears on their home page to take the courses, at their leisure and not having it assigned, you could. Want to add your own courses to the catalog for anyone to select or assign them – you could. Wanted people to buy your courses you created? You could.

Analytics and Reporting

This was essential, because you could find out what the learner/student knew or didn’t know. You could see with the data, where they were going in the course, how many times, how long, and so forth. Sure, many systems did not offer such a level, but surprisingly, many had some of those items. I was able to get it, thru the reports of Geo, plus yes, I paid for a custom report which provided much more extensive analytics, to go further. If a customer purchased your courses (regardless of if free or not), you had the data to see where they were going, which aided in whether you needed to create more courses, similar subject, assuming multiples were going to the same, or not. Ditto with courses you provided to your employees, association members, students and so forth. Assessments? The data was provided. You could see what folks got right, what they didn’t, add feedback (not everyone offered it, but some did) and so on. Then, you could go to the course, and see, assuming if a lot of folks missed a question, if it was due to the way it appeared in the course or was it the question itself.

How you may ask, could you get such granular data (again, depending on the system, and if you wanted total granular, you paid for custom)? Because of the way the courses were designed. Everyone I knew, followed the ADDIE approach. The authoring tools, the popular ones, followed the similar methodology, of chapter, pages, lessons, assignments/practice, evaluation. If you wanted micro-learning, you could do it. Yep, readily available. Want to create mini-modules, with a TOC and interactive/engaging content – with real world scenarios in the micro? Yep doable.

But because the approach of the course design, the ability to see exactly where the learner was going, was there. You could see what pages they went to. You could see what chapters, they went to, and which ones they avoided. You could see how often, and how long. You could see if they went back, and how often and how long. Flash was very popular, but you needed to know Flash – and yep even in Flash, you could take the course design to a whole new level of engagement.

All of the data – via reports. If you needed to download the report, you could. Many folks pushed it to Access, others .SQL, or a database and others to Excel (as a .CSV). The visual of the analytics, was, what it was available. Pie charts. Bar graphs dominated. And yes, text.

It was up to you, as the client, to decide whether you wanted to gain insight with the data capabilities or not. It was up to you as the client, to either do assign or allow folks to pick the courses they wanted to select. It was up to you, to add an assignment, or a lesson, or a test or not.

Who were the folks that oversaw the LMS

I read and hear how it was designed for compliance, and thus compliance folks were the main users. Just the other day, I heard someone at a learning system tell me they were created for HR and learning, and that learning itself wasn’t very popular back then – referring to (without realizing it, WBT, which became e-learning, and that term, was an umbrella term for all types of online learning – LMS, LCMS (RIP), COP (ugh), authoring tools, e-learning tools, assessment tools, courses and so on).

They weren’t the first person who said that to me, it is very common to hear it from other learning system execs, CEOs even, founders too, salespeople equally so. You hear it from “experts (so-called IMO)”, “consultants (again not everyone)” and the list goes on.

All poppycock. (bring this old world term back)

The two main groups that oversaw the LMS (I’m not talking about an administrator here)

  • Training – Regardless of if it was internal training or external.
  • L&D – Internal

That’s it. Again, that is it. Were there folks overseeing compliance, in charge of the LMS, sure. HR? I never heard of anyone, but to assume nobody was using it, would be unlikely. Sure folks. Marketing? Not big, again, they had other things to do. Product? Rare.

As you can see, there isn’t compliance as the dominator here, nor HR. The system, and I need to stress this, so nobody, misunderstands, was designed for training and learning – and finding out what folks knew and didn’t know, and if they didn’t know, and it was a trend, what you can add or remove. If the person didn’t know it, they could access as often as they wanted, and go anywhere in the course to focus on, to gain comprehension, to retain, and wait for it, synthesize which is the essential here.

What to learn a new skill? Heck, that was a goal here right? Of course they could learn a new skill. Need a skill gap or want to do skill gap analysis? Absolutely, but you the person overseeing the e-learning, had to take the data, and do it yourself. The system provided the info, you had to do the analysis.

Other nonsensical

It was formal only. Not true. I’ve pretty much stated as such, with what the systems offered. Informal was there. Again, just as it is today, the client, the person who is overseeing the e-learning program, can go assigned or not. They have the power to choose, just as they did back in the original days, and even further out.

3rd party off-the shelf wasn’t available. Garbage, it was. Here is though how it worked:

  • When you bought your LMS, the salesperson would ask (or should have) if you needed any off-the shelf courses. If you said, yes, they would ask what topics/subjects and you provided it. OR you would tell them, what topics/subjects. They would ask how many seats you needed. You could say for everyone learner or just a group of learners, you could do this for every publisher that the vendor offered.
  • The vendor had partnerships with off-the-shelf providers. Not everybody (just as it is the same today), but if they had the deal, they would say something like, “we have XYZ that provides that, and we can load it into the system”. If they didn’t have it, they would state so, then you would have to find the course providers, and have the courses sent over to the vendor. That’s right, there wasn’t too many providers that had the courses on their servers and sent them via an API.

Other fun tidbits

AICC was the leader here, then came SCORM. If you used an authoring tool, you would wrap the course (as you do today), download it, then upload it into your system. If it was Flash, the files would be sent to you, or you had them, because you created the course in Flash, then you would upload them. If 3rd party created the course, they will wrap it for you, send it to you, to upload into the LMS. You kept the files on your computer.

I once bought Rosetta Stone courses for my LMS. They didn’t mention publicly they could do it, but I called them, and they sold me the seats and courses. From there, I had them contact my LMS vendor, and move the courses to the LMS, then before I paid them, I verified (BTW, you can still do this with your off-the-shelf provider, i.e. they move the courses over, and you verify everything works, before you make final payment).

There were LMS vendors certified by AICC, but the majority were not, and yes, some said they were, then you go to the AICC web site and see that they are not. It was truly the wild west back then.


Learning Content Management System. Plenty of people used them, and again, it was led by training and folks in L&D. They started to drop off the map, due to the LMS adding more capabilities that an LCMS could do. There are a couple out there. Dinosaurs fighting for survival. Uh, extinction is readily available.

Was there a system that was 100% compliance focused?

The answer is yes. There was one. All compliance focused. You wanted informal – not there. You wanted compliance this and that, you got it. You were in fields where you needed to have regulators check your stuff- this system could intertwin it so they could just login in and verify. Cobent was it’s name. RIP.

Who led the market?

This is totally subjective because the market early on, had many vendors – but actual numbers vary. Not as many as today mind you. When I did an analysis back in 2012 for example, I had a list of 429 learning system vendors (at that time, I listed them as LMS). Here is the dated directory, if you want to re-live the old days. Funny, folks still access it. Honestly, I thought I removed it.

Oh, and the legacy term as we refer to it today, (as legacy) for customer training was “Extended Enterprise” which is what the article is about, but it has a directory of the market, not just EE.

Back to the original days, who did well

  • Plateau Learning – Today? They are known as SuccessFactors (well, SF acquired them, and back then they were a HR solution, they made some modifications, improved it, re-branded it). It was a crummy system IMO, dated, and that says something. Yet, very popular.
  • SumTotal – Today? Owned by Cornerstone On Demand
  • Cornerstone On Demand – Today? Still in existence
  • Saba – Today? Owned by Cornerstone OnDemand
  • Knowledge Planet – Today – RIP (At some point Mzinga owned them)
  • GeoLearning – Today? Owned by SumTotal – who ruined it, because by then it was GeoLearning Maestro (not that great). SumTotal called it SumTotal Maestro. The only thing I remember, I was at a a trade show, and they had a ping pong table, in their booth area, but no information or anything on the system. The GL system I bought had multiple levels on it, 3D look if you wanted to see it with elevators, complete branding. Darn, that was an awesome system. So far ahead of its time. Then Express came, and ugh.
  • Blackboard – EdTech – Today? Blackboard. I swear for about a decade it looked like the same system. Okay more than a decade.
  • Learn.com – They came a bit later, but there is a good story, and yes, they still exist. Learn.com started out as an LMS. Then they became a course aggregator (with multiple providers. I consider them the first, because Skillsoft just acquired course publishers, NetG – who acquired the most amazing video course solution, which could run on 38.8Kps, and you could bookmark the courses – unheard of. NetG ruined them). Next, Taleo bought them. Taleo promised to invest big $$$ to make Learn.com amazing. Of course, they didn’t. Then, came Oracle, who purchased Taleo. The Learn.com former system, is still there, under the Oracle brand, which uh, yeah, not sure, how that looks.

LMS Tidbits back in the day

A lot of people had their LMS on their own servers – the vendor would come to your location and install the LMS. When you needed an update, they sent you a CD-ROM. If you wanted the LMS vendor to host their LMS on their own servers, you could – thus 100% online. The split tended to be, either the LMS servers were at the vendor’s location OR it was at a server farm (very popular).

I always went 100% online. The reason there were folks wanting it on their own server (and BTW, there are vendors who will still do this today, with any learning system) was for security. The fear of being hacked. I can tell you that in nearly 23 years, I only know of one learning system being hacked, and that was maybe two or three years ago.

For the folks who had the LMS on their own servers, they still accessed the courses online.

There were vendors where purchased, actually meant you purchased it and it was yours to keep. Purchase/Bought today means leasing, although again, there are a few vendors out there that will go with you buy, you own.

The downside to the buy you actually own it, is that if you want updates, you have to pay for that. And thus, you could be owning a LMS, and never do updates, and just be enthralled with it from the golden days.

Bottom Line

The History of the LMS. What hurt the e-learning course market, as in your creating your own courses, and even some off-the-shelf providers, were the rapid course authoring tools. They impacted the market in such a huge way, that the content (courses) you see today, overall, lack the ADDIE or as I did it, hybrid ADDIE method. I’ve seen off-the-shelf they do not have a TOC.

It is just navigation move forward or back. Articulate and Adobe definitely did damage to the market, again, with their original RCAT. I can’t recall the first Articulate product, but Adobe soon launched Presenter, then Articulate down the road, many years, sent us, Studio. The first inkling of RCATs was a product called Dreamweaver, which was designed for web site design. It was challenging to learn, but a great product. Dreamweaver then added templates, allowing folks to create courses. Dreamweaver eventually got acquired. By whom you ask? Adobe.

If you lack at TOC and at least follow some type of methodology (whatever you choose), then the data you actually need won’t be there. Whenever folks’ gripe about their LMS, or any learning system for that matter, it often isn’t the system, rather it is the content. Sure, there are learning system vendors whose support stinks (still #1 why folks hate or leave their Learning System, which is an ongoing myth that everyone hates their LMS (often cited, rather than any other learning system) – and ignores the key reason, oh, and not everyone hates their LMS, or learning platform.

Is Kirkpatrick still in play? I argue no. The RCATs do a poor job at it, and considering there are a lot of folks today who haven’t heard of Kirkpatrick, why would they tap into it? I never was a fan of it – it was designed for ILT. If you love it, then check out Gagne – also designed for ILT and manuals.

The LMS vendors that existed back in the early days, or even mid-early days, can still be good, and innovative and forward thinking. Just as an LMS nowadays, or a learning platform, or LXP, or whatever, isn’t. There were learning platforms back in the early days. Training management was really an LMS, but soon changed to like I said, scheduling.

Cornerstone is often cited as “Traditional”. Again, nobody says that about Google, which has been around since 1995.

Cornerstone though, in the last few years, has been in my upper tier for NexGen capabilities. That isn’t an easy climb to get there. They are the highest in my analysis for skills management/skills capabilities. Are they for everyone? No. Are they perfect? No. Do they have challenges, as any other vendor, has? Yes.

Saba – was the first vendor to tap into machine learning, with TIM. Nobody remembers that. That’s pretty NexGen.

NetDimensions was the very first vendor to offer their LMS on a jump drive.

ExpertusOne was the very first vendor to have a mobile app with geolocation. How many vendors have it today?

The point here is that you can’t assume that back then, and today, everyone was outdated. You can’t rely on what a vendor who decides to counter an LMS argument, says they were traditional used for compliance, focused on HR, only formal learning and not forward-thinking. The fact is, unless they were there using the system, the LMS, how would they even know what it was and what it wasn’t?

I was there. In 2000 for Corporate. And 1999 for EdTech.

And I know what they were when they started, and yes still know where they have been and where they are going (okay, for 2023, for many).

Anyone who was there in 2000 or early 2000’s and oversaw e-learning and had an LMS, knows too. If they were involved prior to, using CBT, they know how it worked.

Listen to them. Listen to how they tapped into what was doable. If they created courses, see how they leveraged what was doable, and what is missing today.

Not someone who says they are an expert, but never had an LMS in 2000 or 2004 for that matter. Not someone who works at a learning system vendor, who thinks this way, when in reality it was that way.

Not pundits who rely on whatever information they found, and make assumptions, that are erroneous.

And not even some founders of learning systems, like the CEO/Founder, who during our initial conversation, didn’t under what non-linear, i.e., jumping around the course, and its benefits, were more beneficial than having someone just complete it.

I explained it to them.

Their response?

They hung up.

E-Learning 24/7


  1. Because the problem space of computer-assisted instruction existed before the internet, and because I am ancient, the complete story dates to the early 70’s. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED075992 Through the 70’s, the Navy Personnel R&D Center produced a steady output of theory and practice. See @DeweyKribs [sic] and https://apps.dtic.mil/sti/citations/AD0772579, But you cover a lot in this extensive recap and complaints would be fully inappropriate.

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