LMSs are just websites… no, really!

I had an interesting conference call the other day regarding a learning management system’s browser support. We’re trying to implement a new LMS, and it needs to be accessible for Mac users. The vendor promised us Mac support before the contract was signed and — surprise! — it doesn’t support Macs at all. It doesn’t even run in Firefox on a PC. (Gotta love sites that still use ActiveX and restrict you to Internet Explorer on a PC.)

So we had an internal conference call to discuss the issue, and I was trying to explain to some cross-town colleagues that a well-made LMS should adhere to web best practices, and by nature should be platform neutral. After all, an LMS is just a website, and should work in any browser.

Then one of my colleagues blurted out “an LMS ISN’T a website!” I was flabbergasted. I mean, I know LMSs seem complicated and all, but they have a web-based front-end and a database back-end, just like any corporate or retail website. When you boil it down, even Amazon.com is just a website (ok, a very complicated one, but a web site nonetheless).

LMSs are basically HTML (often delivered via PHP or ASP), a database, some CSS, some JavaScript, and maybe a little XML for good measure. There is no reason anyone should be using proprietary and browser-specific code in a website, especially in an LMS that should be as accessible as possible, allowing your training courses to reach the widest possible audience.

*Sigh*

Her comment really struck a nerve with me. Over the last year, I’ve learned that many of the people involved in bringing an LMS to a company are NOT technical people. Many of them don’t understand the basic technology involved, and even fewer have any grasp of best practices and standards for web-based technology. The key decision-makers are often basing their decisions on what the vendor has promised the LMS can do — usually in a series of sales pitches and extremely controlled demos — not the recommendation of the technical people who will be using the system on a daily basis… like me!

And I’m pretty sure this is the case at MOST companies, not just mine.

It feels like someone bought us a used car from a shady dealer:

  • without having our in-house mechanic look under the hood (“Why should he look at it? I’m buying it from a dealer, so there’s a warranty!”)
  • without taking it for a test drive (“When the dealer turned the ignition for me in the showroom, it sounded great!”)
  • without checking consumer and professional reviews to see if the car performs well (“Oh, I didn’t know it has a rebuilt Yugo engine… I just saw a picture, and it had a really nice paint job. Plus it comes with a CD player! Didn’t you say you wanted a CD player?”)
  • without checking to see if the person driving it is capable of driving it (“You didn’t say you needed an automatic transmission! Can’t you just learn to drive an 8-speed stick shift? I already signed the lease. What do you mean it’s too small for you? I know you’re 6’5″, but you can still squeeze into a compact car if you need to, can’t you?!”)

…you get the drift.

It’s hard for me, knowing that I will be one of the primary users and administrators of this LMS, and that it doesn’t even meet our most basic need: running in a browser other than Internet Explorer. Again, the vendor said they’d ‘fix’ this, but with proper planning it could have been avoided altogether. And their fix will only make the learner module platform-neutral, not the manager or administrator modules, including the all-important report writing feature… they’ll still require IE on a PC. Bah!

Folks, it’s simple — if you have to paste a “this site works best with XXX browser” message on your site, whether it’s an LMS, an online course, or just a website for your mom’s knitting club, you’re doing something wrong. Do us a favor and stop it.

And if you’ve developed a mega-expensive LMS that only runs in Internet Explorer — especially if you’ve designed it in the last few years — shame on you! You should know better!

Oh, and a side note: my colleagues promptly and authoritatively informed us that they discussed Mac support (specifically Safari support) with the vendor, then did their own research into the ‘major’ LMSs, and no, NONE of the major LMSs support Safari. To which I quietly grimaced, bit my tongue, and slowly walked away from the phone.

I spent the next 60 minutes on google and came up with the following results: of the 15 major LMSs I could think of, 10 clearly state that they support Safari and/or use browser-neutral code. 4 clearly indicate that they do not support Safari, and one LMS didn’t give me a clear indication one way or the other. So that’s roughly 2:1 support for Safari. People, if you’re going to use ‘industry data’ as an excuse for bad programming, at least get some real data. Sheesh.