L&D Leaders Discuss the Differences Between Learning Management Systems, Learning Platforms, Online Learning, and More - Senior Executive

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Learning and Development (L&D) 9 min

L&D Leaders Discuss the Differences Between Learning Management Systems, Learning Platforms, Online Learning, and More

What is an LMS? This comprehensive article explores the definitions of learning management systems and learning platforms.

by Jami Kelmenson on January 19, 2024


  • Even experienced L&D professionals struggle to define or differentiate between learning modalities.

  • The term “LMS” has become an umbrella phrase that encompasses a plethora of software, solutions, and tools that address different aspects of learning for various end users.

  • An LMS typically contains in-house learning content, while a learning platform hosts third-party learning content.

L&D leaders like you oversee a variety of tech platforms to deliver learning opportunities and training material to your workforce, and you probably get pitched on dozens more tech solutions every year by L&D vendors.

Learning management systems (LMS). Learning platforms. Learning experience platforms. Digital learning.

In conversations with peers, you’ve likely heard such terms used almost interchangeably. So when 98% of companies engaged in workforce training say they use an LMS, each organization may have their own definition of what this really means.

Even experienced L&D professionals struggle to define or differentiate between these learning modalities. The term “LMS” has become an umbrella phrase that encompasses a plethora of software, solutions, and tools that address different aspects of learning for various end users. For perspective, software review platform Trust Radius lists over 700 categories under “Learning Management System” before you even get to the individual providers.

When we lump together learning management systems with learning platforms, and then add digital and online learning solutions to the mix, the L&D industry becomes a complex assortment of software and tools that can confound even the most experienced learning professional.

Here, we break down the nuances of learning industry terminology to help L&D professionals navigate discussions when selecting the right software, platform, or tool for their organization’s needs.

Why the mad dash toward learning?

The shift to virtual learning (and working) during the pandemic, compiled with the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning, has meant that online learning, a.k.a. eLearning, can now accommodate a variety of use cases. As a result, vendors have found themselves needing to differentiate their services in a burgeoning market.

This is a challenge, especially given the fact that the customer education industry is still relatively new. Many workforce professionals are now in roles that didn’t exist when they were in school, notes Debbie Smith, senior director of Visier University, a people analytics platform for workforce planning, and president of the Customer Education Management Association (CEdMa).

This means we need to learn the skills someplace other than traditional schools. We also change roles quite frequently, and technology is changing how we perform our roles,” Smith adds.

As L&D technology evolves, so does the terminology. Smith sees the rise in learning terminology as an outgrowth of “marketing teams trying to create new words to differentiate their services, which just makes the market more confusing. As technology expands and companies want to differentiate themselves, they keep using new words to say the same things.”

However, the time these definitions of learning platforms really matter is when you’re looking to make a purchase, advises Aimee Raphaeli, mentor for the digital community L&D Shakers, and previously an L&D leader for Snyk, Spotify, and StubHub.

“At the end of the day, knowing what type of learning platform you need is important when it comes time to make a decision and an investment for your company. You have to know what you want to get out of it in order to choose the right platform or system. But from an end user/learner’s perspective, they don’t care what you call it, what matters is the experience they have with it.” 

So let’s take a look at some of these words and the things they promise to do.

Learning Management System vs. Learning Platform

When it comes down to it, an LMS typically contains in-house learning content, while a learning platform hosts third-party learning content.

An LMS is software that can host an array of company resources including online training courses, post-learning assessments, or training material. “The learning content hosted on these systems is typically created and or curated by the company that purchases and hosts the LMS. As a result, this content is often bespoke, or designed to educate employees and/or customers about specific products or services,” explains Bert Lamar, learning specialist consultant at Pyramid Consulting.

A learning platform, on the other hand, is “a source for online learning courses and curricula, created, curated, and hosted by a third party. These platforms can be an excellent source for specialized content that may not be available in your company’s LMS,” says Lamar.

Speaking of specialized, the term LMS has spurred an industry of companies that educate everyone from college students to employees to customers and vendors. From agriculture to zoology, there is probably a specialized LMS you can find. 

Learnexus distills the differences between learning management systems and eLearning platforms down to three areas:  

  1. Scope and focus: eLearning platforms provide content specifically for education and interactive learning. LMSs encompass the whole learning process through extended features. 
  2. Customization options: eLearning platforms frequently offer more personalization options than LMSs.
  3. Target audience: eLearning platforms’ use cases include professional development, corporate training, and academia. LMSs cover more use cases.

Enter the Learning Experience Platform (LXP)

What is a learning experience platform (LXP)? In short, it’s a more evolved version of a traditional learning platform, utilizing AI to adapt to and personalize learning recommendations for individual workers. 

360Learning, which is itself an LXP, describes the term and its relationship to an LMS as “software that aims to improve the user experience when engaging with online eLearning courses…whether utilized as a standalone platform or integrated into a larger learning management system.”

LXP solutions differentiate themselves by employing AI to a greater degree to customize each user’s experience and help them find content specially tailored to their learning needs, advises Raphaeli. 

Over the course of her career, she has used both LMSs (Fuse) and Learning Experience Platforms (EdCast).“The [EdCast] system would get better at making recommendations each time a learner used it,” she said. “So it was essentially learning from our learning. We liked it because it was more personalized and that’s what we were striving for.” Accordingly, the Fuse platform has since expanded its offering and is incorporating AI as well, more in line with how LXPs are operating today.

If you’re still confused by the terminology, stay with us. 

Detangling the Language of Learning Systems, Software, and Tools

We dug further into this quandary with experts who have been using these modalities for years to help us detangle the language of learning.

Learning Management Systems (LMS)

What is a learning management system? LMSs may be considered the grandparent of modern corporate learning. Originally focused on automating some of the functions of academic learning at educational institutions, the term generally applies to software that enables users to learn via several online formats including courses (live or on-demand, instructor-led or self-serve), webinars, podcasts, and more. Content authoring tools including quizzes and assessments may be built into an LMS, along with ways to track user progress and engagement.

LMSs are used for both academic and corporate learning. On the corporate side, some companies use an LMS to train employees (internal use), customers (external use), or both. Most LMSs can be used for either type of training but some have risen to the top based on their features for internal vs. external training. 

According to L&D leaders we spoke to, popular LMSs for workforce training include Cornerstone, Intellum, Moodle, SAP Litmos, SAP Success Factors, TalentLMS, and WorkRamp.

LMSs widely used for training of external audiences include Absorb, Docebo, Northpass, Raven 360, Skilljar, Thinkific, and Thought Industries.

Tell us: Which LMS do you use?

(e)Learning Platforms (Including Learning Experience Platforms)

What is a learning platform? Sometimes, it’s considerably faster and more practical to purchase access to pre-existing, specialized training material than to create it yourself from scratch. Whether you prefer the “e” or not, learning platforms tend to be a type of software (as opposed to a broader system) that delivers pre-existing content on a particular topic in a form that is designed to appeal to a user and make it easy for them to learn something new.

An evolution in learning platforms, learning experience platforms have disrupted the industry by using AI to focus on the user experience, making it more interactive and personalized for users to interact with learning.

Whatever you call it, Raphaeli believes having a learning platform or LXP is valuable. “It’s a critical tool for an L&D team to employ in their mission to nurture learning culture and to help employees access learning content. It helps you align your learning with your company’s culture, values, and strategy, compared to an out-of-the-box alternative.” However, she cautions, “It’s worth an investment by L&D teams only if they truly understand their needs and how they will use it and optimize it for their learners.”

Examples of corporate learning platforms include Coursera, LinkedIn Learning, Pluralsight, and Udemy.

Examples of learning experience platforms include Absorb Engage, Continu, Degreed, and EdApp.

Within an eLearning platform or LMS, you might use one or more tools specifically designed to aid in learning content creation and distribution. For larger companies, these tools are typically used by instructional designers or training content managers. 

Popular content authoring tools include Adobe Creative Suite, Articulate Rise and Storyline 360, Bongo Learn, Camtasia, Canva, CloudShare, Instruqt, LearnExperts, and Lessonly.

Tell us: Which eLearning platform do you use?

Online Learning vs. eLearning vs. Digital learning

Online learning takes place via a connected device, rather than in an actual classroom. Sometimes called eLearning (for electronic learning) this can be led virtually by an instructor (VILT) at a designated time or viewed on-demand, at a time of the user’s choosing. Digital learning is just another way to say online learning, updated for the modern age.

Lamar sees these terms as relatively interchangeable and all describing the same thing – learning delivered online via a computer or other digital device. These days, all LMSs and learning platforms deliver some type of virtual (yet another term!) learning experience.

“Rather than selling the individual features of learning modalities, [vendors] need to focus on clearly articulating the essential benefits, if not the indispensability, of these systems and software to the business community,” advises Lamar.

No matter which learning platform or tool you use, the important thing is to choose the solution that aligns best with the L&D programs at your organization.

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