What is an LMS? What is a CMS? How are they different?

An LMS is a “Learning Management System”, typically designed for schools/classrooms to provide content, assignments, quizes, projects, and discussion forums (and sometimes even social networking) to the students.  An LMS is basically a CMS dedicated to one purpose, i.e. education/learning.  A CMS is more generic, allowing to create pages, blogs, news, links, and sometimes include discussion forums or photo galleries.

A CMS is a “Content Management System”. The phrase now seems somewhat outdated, but it basically refers to the ability of website users to change the content of a website. In the older days of websites, web site developers typically built “static” (i.e. fixed/non-changing) web-pages in “HTML”, and uploaded them to the website, often by an FTP – File Transfer Protocol program. Some times users designed their own pages, with products such as Microsoft FrontPage or Adobe’s Dreamweaver.   Web 2.0 turned that into “dynamic pages”, where the web pages were typically generated by a software program, pulling the content from a database (such as MySQL).   With Web 2.0, users could now logon to their website via the browser, and add or change the content, often without having to know any HTML.

How do people create content without knowing HTML you ask?  Most CMS’s uses one of several open source controls, often called “Rich Text Editors”, such as TinyMCE or  Yahoo’s YUI 2.  These are also called “HTML WYSIWYG” controls, based on the old acronym: What You See Is What You Get.

With a CMS, you may still need a site designer, developer, and/or graphic artist to get the site up and and running, but after that, the users themselves should be able to populate it with content (such as news or blogs).  Typically, one person is designed the super-admin, and he or she can add other users with various privileges.   For example, one user might be able to edit all content, but another user can only submit new content which must be approved by his manager.

With an LMS, the content developer is typically the teacher.  He can put his class online, typically divided into weeks or lessons.  The content will often include text, audio, and video, and will often include attachments such as PDF files or Word documents, The class progresses from lesson to lesson, either on a set schedule, or in some cases, at the each students own pace.  The teacher may design quizes to verify the students knowledge and progress, for example, a student might have to pass the Quiz for Lesson 1 before she can start Lesson 2.

There are different models of software for both Learning Management Systems and Content Management Systems.  A popular movement is “Open Source”, where the usually you can get started for free, if you are willing to install and run the software on your own servers (or servers that you pay for).   Since the source is “open”, that means you can change it or enhance it as desired (and since it is open, that means you can basically download it and use it for free).  The cost of open sources comes in your own IT staff and servers.

Another type of LMS is cloud-based.  A few years ago, we used to say you can have a hosted solution from an “Application Provider”, but today, “cloud-based” is almost the same thing.  It means that someone else is responsible for running your servers, and backing-up your data, for a cost.   Cloud-based might also imply more of a social-networking solution (such as Schoology).  Blackboard has been the traditional example of an “Application Provider”, and I’ve heard they even have a large library of “canned” content; in other words, if you want to start a new private school, instead of having your teachers write all the classes, they can just plug-in to the pre-existing classes and modules.  The premier example of an open-source LMS has been Moodle.  A new player in the LMS world is Instructure.

For Content Management Systems, the one taking the world by storm seems to be WordPress, every release seems to get better and better (and there are hundreds plugins).  Most people associate WordPress with blogging, but it also allows you to create “pages” instead of “posts”.  Another popular CMS is Joomla.  Both of these are “open source” (see above) and run on the “LAMP” stack (Linux Apache MySql and PHP), which is available from thousands of hosting companies for as low as $5 to $9/month.  Once you host your site, you must set your own domain on a service such as GoDaddy, and then use a tool called “Fantastico” on Cpanel (control panel) to install your software.  So it’s a little more involved, and you have to be a little more techie – or at least have someone techie you can talk to.

If you don’t want to pay for a website, or aren’t techie enough to do your own, then you could consider Google’s Blogger if you just want to do blogs, but if you want to create more of a website, consider Google’s Sites, part of Google Apps.   WordPress also hosts blogs for you at WordPress.com (download the software from .org, but create your own free blog on the .com).   Choosing the right CMS may involve with your are creating a personal website, if you have one, two-five, or dozens of users, and what your security requirements are.

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