LRS vs LMS: A comparison for tracking and reporting digital learning

Learning technology has come a long way since the first Learning Management System was developed in the 1990s. With most people now using mobile devices to access the internet, content is much more easily accessible and readily available. The concept of informal, social learning is also more prevalent, whereby learning occurs in a social context through interaction with peers, direct experience and on-the-job, i.e. in the flow of work.

Many organisations now promote this social culture of collaborative learning by providing an open environment where employees can ask questions and receive answers from their peers. However, this deviation from formal learning often presents challenges for an LMS when it comes to tracking and reporting these types of collaborative or informal learning activities.  Typically, formal learning comprises a ‘course’ ideally involving multiple learning assets (research, role-play, simulations) followed by a questionnaire or knowledge assessment to prove understanding and/or compliance. While some LMSs may provide tracking and reporting of collaborative or informal learning, the data is likely stuck in the LMS or not available in a standardised format.

The aim of this article is to compare the benefits of a Learning Management System (LMS) and a Learning Record Store (LRS), for the purposes of tracking and reporting digital learning content.

 

Learning Content and Data Standards Explained

Before we embark on an explanation of the use cases for each of the LMS and LRS platforms, it’s important to understand the content and data standards which underpin them, in order to truly appreciate the history and benefits of each.

1998

Aviation Industry CBT (Computer-Based Training) Committee (AICC) was released in 1998 as the first content tracking specification, created to provide basic tracking between computer-based training courses and LMSs. It is very well known by people involved with learning standards and was really SCORM's predecessor. AICC is still widely supported by LMSs and some authoring tools.

2000

Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM) is the most well-known learning content standard and was first released in 2000 to address common challenges with LMS interoperability and content reuse. Most LMSs offer some form of SCORM support. SCORM was created to provide content interoperability, reusability, sequencing and run-time tracking between self-paced eLearning courses and LMSs.

2013

Experience Application Programming Interface (xAPI), also previously known as TinCan, was formally released as version 1.0 in 2013.  As the name suggests, xAPI specifies the means to track      and provides access to data to be used in reports and visualisations on any type of learning experience, not just courses. The xAPI was created to provide data interoperability and shareability with other applications, not just an LMS. The xAPI enables      us to collect data about the wide range of experiences a learner has (online and offline). Read our xAPI article for more insight into this standard.

2016 - 2023

CMI5 is a derivative specification and profile of xAPI. It supports some of the SCORM use cases for tracking courses in an LMS, but defines more specific behaviours for content launch with an LMS environment. The cmi5 profile was first introduced in 2016, but has recently matured and now includes a conformance test suite, as of 2021. The cmi5 profile was created to provide a modern approach and light-weight alternative to SCORM. cmi5 also focuses on content interoperability and run-time tracking between self-paced eLearning courses and LMSs.

The older standards were complex and had limitations regarding the types of content supported, whereas xAPI is simple and allows for greater flexibility in learning interactions - with the inclusion of mobile learning, simulations, virtual learning, gamification, social learning, offline learning and collaborative learning, which can all be tracked and reported with xAPI.

xAPI vs SCORM: Learning Standards Comparison

Today, SCORM is commonly supported by the majority of LMSs. Some may also support xAPI, although this is generally through integration with an LRS. The table below provides a comparison of the capabilities both content standards offer for tracking and reporting learning activity.

A table comparing the capabilities of xAPI and SCORM learning standards

LRS vs LMS

LRS

A Learning Record Store, or LRS, is a server-side application (i.e., system capable of receiving and processing web requests) responsible for receiving, storing, and providing access to xAPI learning records. As detailed above, xAPI is much more about helping track what happens in the entire learning experience, no matter what medium the learner chooses to use. The xAPI standard makes it possible to collect data about a broader range of learning experiences, undertaken either online or offline.

As xAPI- enabled learning activities are experienced, activity streams are sent to and stored in the LRS as xAPI statements. An LRS can be configured to allow permissions for those who have access to read and write data to the LRS.

The LRS is therefore a repository for the xAPI data and provides tracking and reporting functionality as it receives, processes and transmits data. Typically, the learner will not interact directly with an LRS, although some do offer a front-end interface to allow learners to access content.

For any learning activity to be tracked in the LRS, the activity itself should generate conformant xAPI statements.  Several eLearning content development tools include some level of xAPI support. It is possible to customise these statements to capture the required information.  The xAPI can record the broader experience, for example launching a video or partaking in a team game. It can also record more granular experiences or interactions, such as playing or pausing specific segments in a video or pressing specific buttons in a game or simulation.

Commercial LRS platforms are now available which not only offer a more accessible, if simple, interface for organisational use, but also allow the addition of corporate branding, login / password security as well as a learning record storage and content repository.

A diagram showing the steps undertaken by a Learning Record Store to process learning data

LMS

The core function of a Learning Management System, or LMS, is to provide an online platform for hosting and sharing of learning content across an organisation, and then tracking learner consumption and achievement. All activity performed by the learner in the LMS is tracked and tracking information can be reported upon, or exported to third party systems.

A learning management system allows you to manage your users (the learners) and content. It provides a user interface that allows learners, instructors, managers, and the L&D team, etc. to monitor and track learner progress. Learners can enrol in courses themselves, learning content may be assigned to them (perhaps according to their job role or compliance requirements) and the most updated systems may incorporate LXP (Learning Experience Platform) capabilities, offering personalised learning based on a learner’s interaction with the system as it learns their preferences.  Most LMSs also offer additional functionality such as scheduling of all types of learning (eLearning, classroom or virtual), competency frameworking (to identify skills gaps and adherence to compliance requirements) and content development or compilation features.

However, an LMS should not be confused with a Learning Content Management System (LCMS) which offers a collaborative environment for Content Authors, Designers and Managers. Looking to dig a little deeper? We provide an in-depth overview of LMS and a learning management system comparison between LMS and LCMS.

For many organisations choosing a new LMS, their initial requirement is to be able to import existing training information without any loss of historical data. Most LMSs offer this functionality, in some it is an integrated part of the solution, in others there is an additional consultancy charge.

What's the difference between LRS and LMS?

Historically, the LMS has been used to track formal learning interventions, whereby learning content is uploaded, stored and deployed to learners via the platform.  Today, there are so many more opportunities to source information and learn, the LMS alone can be too restrictive - learning does not just occur purely inside of its packaged content. Anything can be learning, not just eLearning courses, it could be a website, a YouTube video, a magazine article, an email from a colleague, or conference you’ve attended, the list is endless! In contrast, with an LRS it doesn’t matter what the learning is or where it happens, everything can be tracked and reported. By using xAPI to track learning experiences, organisations can develop a more complete picture of what their learners are learning.

Tracking xAPI data using an LRS enables organisations to track and analyse learner data at a granular level, and stipulate specific actions as a result of each outcome. For example, you can build criteria into the results of an assessment, so if a Learner answers a question incorrectly, you can recommend a particular piece of content or course to improve their learning. It is therefore not only improving the granularity of your tracking and reporting, but also enabling you to further personalise your learning deliverables.

Not only can LRSs communicate with one another, allowing for the portability of data across systems, but an LRS can also be integrated into an LMS so that the results of all learning activities are stored there, in one central place.

Do I need an LMS or LRS, or both?

If you wish to track learner activity outside of your LMS, then using an LRS alongside your LMS is extremely beneficial. If you are only tracking learner activity from within your LMS, then you may be missing the bigger picture. It could therefore be considered that your learning initiatives are falling short and not meeting expectations and/or targets, when in fact your learners are gaining more insight into content matter through informal means, which are not being measured.

In terms of tracking employee learning, most organisations still need an LMS, and depending on the types of learning experiences, may also need an LRS. Where the LRS adds real value is when the learning audience is broader than just the workforce, for example members of the public. For organisations that are publishing learning content into the public domain, an LRS can provide very powerful data, such as tracking how many learners are accessing the content and what elements they’re using – this data can be invaluable to prove return on investment. Whilst on the subject of investment, it’s also worth considering that typically LMSs are licensed by user, whereas LRSs are licensed by volume of content and activity. Although an LRS isn’t always more affordable, it is a lot more affordable when you wish to track and report on a significantly large number of users.

In the broader context, we could also consider the regulations surrounding privacy of personal data. In some European countries (including Germany, The Netherlands and France), tracking and reporting of employee achievement whereby individuals are identified contravenes the Industrial Relations Act. Use of an LRS offers an organisation the ability to track learner consumption and activity anonymously, thus providing measurement data to support L&D whilst protecting the privacy of the individual employees.

In summary, we would conclude that the LMS and LRS should not be considered competitive - it’s not necessarily an either / or scenario because they are complementary tools. The choice of one tool over the other, or indeed both, comes down to what an organisation wants to know, and at what level of detail.

Introducing Larmer LRS

We have recently launched Larmer Brown’s very own Learning Record Store, Larmer LRS.

Built to work in conjunction with a Learning Management System like LMS365, the Larmer LRS is a cloud-based, xAPI conformant Learning Record Store that supports all types of xAPI data. Why choose Larmer LRS over a competing platform? Larmer LRS uses several unique features that aren’t typically found in other LMSs currently on the market.

Discover Larmer LRS and book a demonstration.