Recently, I’ve received a flurry of inquiries from clients and others who are wondering if a so-called headless LMS is the right choice for their unique requirements. These questions usually come in three flavors:
“How do you define a headless LMS?”
“Why would anyone want an LMS with no head?”
“What use cases are driving this apparent need?”
Although the term headless sounds like it comes straight out of a horror film, the concept really isn’t scary. So, rather than continuing to answer all these “headless” concerns one inquiry at a time, I’ll address them in this post.
I think the answers reveal why the LMS industry is moving toward more customized learning solutions that offer more power, flexibility, utility and measurable value. Hopefully, this will also provide a framework for discussing the headless software strategy as it evolves over time.
Every learning management system — regardless of the use cases it supports — is designed to manage learners, instructional content and relationship between the two. LMS solutions typically include an administrative back-end that stores all the data, content, rules, configurations and users. It also includes a front-end where learners, managers and instructors — most of a system’s users — interact with the system. Often, a middleware API interface manages communication between the system’s front end and back end.
A vast majority of LMS solutions provide a pre-defined out-of-the-box learner experience. This includes access to assigned content, available functionality, progress dashboards, catalog, social capabilities, transcript, certificates and more.
With modern LMS solutions, client administrators have some flexibility to modify colors, functionality and logos. Sometimes, they can also modify the layout to align with the organization’s brand, but this capability only goes so far. Many high-profile brands want to enhance and customize the learner interface further than the LMS vendor ever imagined.
A headless LMS includes the capability to remove a system’s out-of-the-box learner experience and replace it with an interface created, customized and maintained by a client. This new custom front end communicates with the LMS back-end database through the LMS vendor’s existing API layer to pull data for display and push data to the back-end for storage.
Additionally, with a headless LMS, the custom front-end interface also pulls and displays information and data from other proprietary systems such as a CRM, CMS, HR, ERP, customer service system, survey solution or other toolkits. This information can be displayed alongside or in combination with training data.
Who Would Want a Headless LMS?
The most common trait of all headless LMS applications is that client organizations need to engage learners in a way the LMS vendor didn’t or couldn’t anticipate. Typically, an LMS is built to support a predefined set of learning use cases that operate simultaneously. The LMS is made useful for all types of corporate, non-profit or educational institutions through configuration, audience grouping, domains and portals. But usually it isn’t built to support any particular case in a highly customized manner.
Organizations that have invested heavily in their brand and learning programs often want to maximize the impact of programs in meaningful ways. This is where a headless approach adds business value.
Extended Enterprise Applications Lead the Way
A headless LMS is rarely deployed for employee learners because workforce use cases are too diverse and often focus on automation, compliance, and cost savings. Usually, the desires and engagement levels of employee learners are considered secondary to the organization’s needs. As a result, a headless LMS scenario often is too costly or time-consuming to pursue.
However, it’s a different story for external, non-employee, extended enterprise use cases.
Extended enterprise learning use cases focus on educating customers, channel partners, association members, content-as-a-business clients and other external constituents. Business goals involve revenue generation and other measurable benefits that depend on satisfying a learner’s needs. In these scenarios, it pays to invest in a customized learner experience. Here are two brief examples:
Many tier-one universities and professional associations offer credentialing programs that generate millions of dollars of revenue. The learning experience is unique for each program, focusing on content access, consumption and progress, lab practice, proctoring and certificate completions. Successful completion rates are directly and measurably tied to future enrollment and profit estimates.
Customer education programs are tailored to drive initial customer onboarding and on-going customer success with complex products like software applications, industrial machinery or medical devices. In this kind of situation, an out-of-the box experience just doesn’t cut it. Successful customers increase their usage, renew their relationships, expand their investment, advocate among their professional peers, and tend to be more satisfied. All of these behaviors translate into metrics that drive business income and profitability.
Developing your own front end for a headless LMS can be expensive. This means organizations that can’t predict or prove a measurable advantage for investing in a headless LMS application will 100% of the time choose a standard LMS with an configurable out-of-the-box learner interface.
That choice comes with disadvantages, but it’s the safest route.
A custom front-end learner experience can include as much functionality or information an organization needs to support a desired learner journey or experience. Here are some headless LMS application examples I’ve seen:
A professional association inserts its AMS ecommerce engine and uses it in place of the standard LMS ecommerce capabilities.
Instead of using an LMS vendor’s default grid display for a training plan and a learner’s progress through each step, a headless LMS pulls training progress information and displays it on a treasure map that leads learners through a gamified digital adventure. This includes the ability to unlock cash rewards and other incentives along the way.
Rather than displaying the LMS catalog, a custom federated catalog widget includes LMS course listings, content from an internal SharePoint system and relevant courses from Coursera or LinkedIn Learning.
Social interactions between learning cohorts and instructors are displayed in a widget that includes social interactions pulled from and pushed to Slack, Microsoft Teams, and mainstream social media.
When registering for a live instructor-led course, each learner is presented with a custom option to book a hotel room and choose their meal preference.
A custom dashboard view shows combined training completions progress and the corresponding increase in sales or customer satisfaction rating.
An organization can change the workflow associated with how to register, launch and complete training activities.
In all the above use cases, the custom front-end is pulling and pushing data from LMS and any number of proprietary applications that no LMS vendor could have predefined.
Best Headless LMS Vendors
Based on our research, less than 10% of LMS vendors are willing and able to support headless applications. Headless LMS systems require a super-robust, documented set of APIs — RESTful, or even better, GraphQL. Most often, these vendors use the very same API to facilitate all communication between their own front end and back end.
In addition, these LMS vendors always offer deep professional services and technical capabilities. This is because a headless LMS is rarely something clients can successfully implement and deploy without some help and support from the learning platform vendor.
Don’t be scared. Be focused on what’s best for the learning audiences you serve.
Increasingly, headless LMS solutions are the answer for all kinds of situations. These applications are becoming more widely available through LMS vendors, and APIs are improving as more organizations seek a measurable competitive advantage for their instructional offerings. Does your business depend in whole or in part on selling educational content? If so, a headless LMS can provide the best possible learner experience. And that can give you a strategic edge a common LMS just can’t touch.
Thanks for reading!
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John Leh is Founder, CEO and Lead Analyst at Talented Learning and the Talented Learning Center. John is a fiercely independent consultant, blogger, podcaster, speaker and educator who helps organizations select and implement learning technology strategies, primarily for extended enterprise applications. His advice is based upon more than 25+years of learning-tech industry experience, serving as a trusted LMS selection and sales adviser to hundreds of learning organizations with a total technology spend of more than $100+ million and growing. John would love to connect with you on Twitter or on LinkedIn.