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Accord LMS - “Wordpress of the LMS world”?

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I am very honored to present the following article by David Glow.  David has over a decade of experience with LMS systems and the learning portal market. He is an LMS Super-administrator and has developed learning solutions for corporate enterprises and higher education.

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"...to be honest I'm still looking for the Wordpress of the LMS world (I think there's an opening there!)."

Michael Heraghty on Barry Sampson's 10 Alternatives to Moodle.

"...no one can predict with certainty what will happen in the future. Nor would anyone in this debate argue that one single solution is best for all organizations or all circumstances."

From Thomas Stone’s summary of The Great LMS Debate.

Wordpress started as a blogging platform, but over time has matured into a fully featured web platform running many popular websites. Its solid core capabilities are extensible with thousands of plugins that fit unique needs of their clients. Clients are empowered to select the specific plugins that best align with their needs.

Rapid changes in the workplace and workforce require that our training tools are flexible and can easily embrace new technologies as they arise. Platforms that are not agile will be left further and further behind with clients forced to pay customization cost if they want to integrate new tools or applications. In When to LMS Clark Quinn discusses the challenges and trade-offs of LMS systems working as the central hub or as a peer component in a suite of federated tools for the most effective performance in an organization.

We seek a platform that is inclusive by design and easily embraces new technologies as they arise. We seek something flexible that allows us to pick and choose the features we need and present them in the manner that best aligns with our business needs. Such a platform also needs to be stable, scalable and well supported. Just as Wordpress started as a blog, but now the blog component seems for many sites just one of the elements of the site, flexible learning portals could allow administrators to select what mix of informal and formal learning to present in the correct proportions for their users. We need the ability and agility to change the features and mix over time as business needs change without expensive custom development costs or high administrative overhead.

In conducting a recent search for an LMS partner for a new client, I discovered a product which seems close to delivering on the value proposition of "the Wordpress of the LMS world": Accord LMS.

In conducting my research, I scheduled an hour overview webinar with Chris Wylie, the CEO of Accord LMS. I then hijacked Chris’s webinar to run litmus tests on a targeted set of issues I have seen with many LMS systems to explore how Accord LMS would address them.

After an additional two-hour deep-dive, “run-the-gauntlet” shootout test that was subject to every pain point I have experienced as an LMS administrator, I was amazed by the capability of the tool: it did not disappoint. As an administrator in a highly regulated environment with a multimillion dollar implementation of a leading LMS system in place, I saw no functionality lacking. In fact the Accord offered many features that our current vendor is not addressing.

Review: The Sacred Cows
Before my evaluation of Accord LMS, let me start with the sacred cows of the learning industry.

Surprisingly affordable for both licensing and setup at every level of implementation. For the features available – a hard to beat value.

Formal Learning
A very robust set of formal learning tools that are standards compliant. Advanced features such as certification management including expiration and notifications, roster management, flexible scoring and completion criteria for learning objects and more. Several unique features will be explored in greater detail later.

Social Learning
Numerous free and low-cost plug-ins are available to create integrated Facebook like features such as groups, members, private messages, discussions, feeds, and more. No lack of options.

Thousands of plug-ins (modules) are available from SnowCovered, the official DNN Marketplace. You can select best-of-breed tools for any kind of functionality you might need, just like you can with Wordpress. If you have unique business requirements, custom module development is available from a number of sources.

Accord LMS is built on DotNetNuke (DNN), an open source enterprise class portal framework that powers over half a million websites. The free community version is sufficient for 95% of Accord LMS deployments. Web farm support and advanced staging/production synchronization services are available with low cost commercial versions.

Review: Now for something special
With a decade of experience in selecting and administering learning portals, I have run into many requests that are of particular interest to many clients. Some LMS vendors handle these well, and other do not. Below are some of the common challenges with learning portals and how the Accord LMS measures up.

Sub-Portals: Branding and Administration
A common need in organizations is to deliver and track content from a central repository to unique portals for each customer, department, franchise or organizational unit.

The level of customization at sub-portal levels varies widely among providers. For example, Moodle does not offer any sub-portal capability.
  • Most platforms that do offer sub-portals only provide limited functionality: basic branding (a logo swap in the LMS header area).
  • Accord LMS is one of the few players in this space that provide customers unlimited branding options for their sub-portals AND complete management autonomy within the constraints of corporate policy. Customers can be granted custom ‘Manager Profiles’ that specify their domain of course ware and learners and very granular control over the LMS administration features. You can even allow a Manager Profile to create and assign sub Profiles within their domain.
As an administrator serving thousands of branches and tens of thousands of employees, this type of functionality would empower me to delegate many administrative tasks and allow me to focus on higher-value work.

Of special note is the flexibility of sub-branding. For most LMS systems this amounts to a simply a logo replace and maybe some font and color settings. With Accord LMS, each sub-portal provides complete customization over the entire look and feel, graphics, site layout, menu structure, feature options and security permissions. Sub-portals can even be localized for different languages.

As with most LMS, there are manual interventions required to set up the sub-portals but work is underway to automate much of the process.

Mentored Evaluation
In many LMS systems it is difficult for a manager or mentor to easily evaluate a learner’s activity and log a course completion within the system.

This isn’t difficult with a one-to-many relationship such as a professor teaching a college course. The professor is tied to the course as an evaluator, and can mark student progress/completion with a simple process with transparency, accountability, and controls.

The challenge comes when you have a universal activity that is mentored by a wide group. For example, you may have 10,000 employees across 2500 branch locations that need to demonstrate a set of specific on-the-job tasks for their branch managers. The challenge in most LMS systems is that “instructors” are tied to “activities”. So, you would attach 2500 managers to one activity.

If your legal department doesn’t refuse this design because of the risks from inappropriate controls (any manager can mark any employee complete in the activity), your managers will refuse the design (“I need to weed through 10,000 employees to find the three I manage? No thanks.”)

It is because of this constraint, many courses, including certification, do not have any mentored evaluation built in. Content and perhaps an assessment “certifies” the user, but nobody actually observed them performing the work and gave them feedback (we ask them to, but there is no formal proof of it occurring).

Some LMS systems do allow you to create a unique role for this purpose, but unless you have the ability for sub-administration, all of that work falls on the shoulders of a very few. With employee and manager moves in the workplace, this could become a full-time job.

Chris demonstrated to me how the LMS SuperAdmin can create ‘Manager Profiles’ that cascade unique permissions down through levels of the organization. This will allow administrative tasks to be appropriately delegated down through the organizations to put specific functions, such as evaluation of a specific employee’s performance of a work task, into the correct level of the organization that would best execute it. This ability to define unique profiles and permissions enables the organization to have global and local controls in balance to delegate the work effectively to reflect the corporate structure and business requirements.

Flexible Course Structures
There are two major shortcomings in most LMS regarding the flexibility in courses deployed. First is the ability to create a course where group A would be required to take one subset of content and group B would be required to take different subset.

I seldom see a course that is NOT deployed in two flavors: one for the manager, the other for staff. However, 80% or more of the content is the core “staff” content. The course is often deployed as a “staff version” and a “manager version” and the administrators have twice the work to perform, and occasionally, there is confusion on the deployment so employees end up taking the wrong versions. Alternatively, there is a design where everyone must take the “staff” version, and managers are required to take the “manager’s addendum”. Admin is still uploading and tracking multiple pieces, and often manager’s miss that there is a “part B”.

More elegant LMS designs allow for one activity structure to be built and include all the parts for all audiences to be included under one trackable object for registration. It then allows the administrator to assign specific activities within that structure to be visible, accessible, and required for each target group. Accord LMS includes this functionality.

The second major shortcoming is the inability to update an activity structure without disrupting all the users registered in that learning.

I had a sales course that required users to review some content on a sales process, then content on our incentives program, and then take an assessment. Because of economic pressures, the incentives program for the organization changed significantly. They “just wanted us to change that piece of content” (perfectly reasonable request to support the changes in the business). Here was the challenge: we had over 100 registered users in that course. No matter where they were in that course, the change in that one piece of content defined a new activity structure and all progress for all the users would be lost. This is not uncommon, and that organization quickly coined the term as “everyone out of the pool” syndrome.

An LMS should have the ability to update content while allowing student progress in the remaining modules to persist. Just because content piece B changed does not mean we should reset all users who completed part A - they have earned that completion. There are workarounds and designs that fragment the information in ways for this to be avoided, but the work arounds are almost as bad, if not worse.

In reviewing Accord LMS, it was demonstrated how new activity structures could be built, and any progress earned for any asset from the old structure would be applied and retained in the new structure. Furthermore, any learners who completed any of the retired activities from the old structure could still access those assets from their personal archive if desired. Problem solved.

Standards-Based: Tracking options and then some
Accord LMS is a standards compliant LMS. In addition it has remarkable features that allow inclusion and tracking of non-standard content.

Accord easily and appropriately handled many types of SCORM content from the most popular authoring tools in the industry. As advertised, it ran both SCORM 1.2 and 2004 assets without problem and as you would expect (this is not always true with some LMSs).

What truly impressed me about Accord LMS was it’s flexibility in handling non-standards based content and the built in tracking options. Do you need users to go to a policy that is either online, a PDF or Word document? Do you want to track it? Time it? Mark completion on close or after a specific duration? Check to all. What about an assignment upload or forum or mentor access? Can you make them required or track utilization? Check again. Websites, resources and documents in many formats are able to be referenced in the system, launched in a window type and dimensions of your choice and then tracked with any of these options: no tracking; incomplete on open; complete on open; complete on close and complete after a specific duration. The tracking status is saved with the user’s attempt records in standard SCORM format. Reports can be run on heterogeneous resource utilization just as any fully SCORM compliant object.

I bolded the word referenced for a specific reason. It’s one of the most common complaints in the LMS industry: if you put content in an LMS for tracking (generally SCORM wrapped) you have effectively put it in a lock box that users must go to in order to access it.

In today’s business world there are many pieces of referenceware (assets the employees must reference and use on the job) that are inappropriately duplicated in an LMS system. Is there a job aid that is an important component to an employee’s training and perhaps tracked? Often. Is the LMS a good repository for this asset? Almost never.

With Accord LMS it doesn’t matter where the asset lives. It can be a resource located elsewhere in the same portal, a file (including flash or audio) in the server directory, or any resource from any location on the cloud. Just wrap it up with some tracking options. Metadata such as keywords, descriptions and prerequisites can be added at your discretion.

In LMS- Enough Already Jay Cross makes the best statement to summarize the LMS debate in an attempt to give it appropriate closure:

 “The LMS debate isn’t about whether or not we should have LMSs. Rather, the issue is whether the LMS merits the fixation of the training community. Managers of learning need to focus on all the other important apps available to them.”

I am encouraged. For too long we have been constrained by rigid LMS architectures that only allow a weak association or an expensive hard-tied connection with other tools in our learning suite. For too long we have put the LMS in center stage and subordinated other important elements, even if the LMS truly didn’t define an appropriate nucleus for the organization’s training strategy. Forward looking and flexible architectures such as Accord LMS allow us to coordinate and track a community of tools of our choice. Open source platforms, broad industry support and thriving eco-systems of third party plugin developers ensure that such products will continue to meet our clients’ ever-changing needs.

David Glow has a decade of experience in the LMS and learning portal market. He is a LMS super-administrator serving several hundred courses to over 10,000 employees in highly regulated markets, and has previously survived four enterprise-level LMS implementations for corporate and educational markets as both a customer and vendor. David consults to organizations seeking learning solutions including LMS systems, Social Learning systems, and virtual learning environments based on Sharepoint.

Disclaimer: David has no reseller or endorsement arrangement with Accord LMS or any active clients on Accord LMS at the time this review was authored.

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