In the information age, learning management systems are indispensable tools for knowledge management. Through reuse of learning courses and increased efficiencies, they offer the twin benefits of reduced administration costs and increased efficiencies. In addition, our solution for the week offers multiple other benefits. This week, we will review Firmwater – a hosted learning management system built specifically for e-learning training vendors. We will look at its features, interface and see how it can be of use to you.
Designing a Learning Management Solution
Firmwater was founded by Richard Williams, Stefan Leyhane, and Jan Vopalensky. Client requirements, which included porting courses from client server to a web-based delivery approach, provided the impetus to create the solution. “At that time, there were a relatively small number of learning management system vendors with expensive and difficult to use products,” says Williams. So, the company entered into a long-term relationship and developed an easy-to-use SCORM compliant and content provider focused solution. Although its products can be used by a variety of companies, Firmwater’s focus remains on content providers in the business to consumer and business to business space. Williams says they are the first LMS vendor to focus on this niche. “Our customers have usually developed most of their e-learning courses and some resell e-learning developed by other vendors,” he says.
Solving Small Business Problems
Firmwater LMS comes with compelling value propositions: create interesting courseware delivery and knowledge management solutions for a fraction of the price and time it takes to invest in an on-premise learning management solution. Williams adds that their solution enables businesses an affordable entry point. What’s more, the cost of Firmwater’s service is tied to the business’ revenue streams. Thus, businesses can scale their costs based on the number of pieces of content that have been consumed. This is because Firmwater charges on a per course started model whereas other LMS vendors typically charge per user. “Since users come and go (ie., they are not always active), our clients are only paying for users when they consume their content,” he says.
In addition, Williams lists intellectual property control and business transformation among the solution’s benefits. “The e-learning vendor retains complete visibility over how their customers use e-learning content and can charge customers based on actual usage,” he says. Added to this is the fact that Firmwater enables small businesses to charge for content and transform their business. “They can transform their business from single sales of the course library into an on-going subscription-based revenue stream that goes on for many years,” he says.
Working with the System
The Firmwater LMS enables clients to create private, branded sites for each customer. On their personal LMS site, Firmwater clients can load content and selectively share it with their customers. The tagging feature lets content vendors readily perform operations on multiple courses in a single operation reducing administrative overhead.
For end-users, the atomic unit of Firmwater’s LMS is content. Each piece of content is SCORM-compliant, which means that it has to adhere to strict standards of reuse and technical specifications. The good part is that Firmwater clients can load several file types using the content loading function including SCORM packages in either SCORM 1.2 or SCORM 2004 format, documents created in standard formats such as PDF, Microsoft Word, PowerPoint etc., and assessments, quizzes, or surveys in QTI XML 1.2.1 format.
The LMS works through training plans that describe activities currently assigned to a user. Activities can be added to user training plans through several mechanisms. Administrators can create assignments for users individually or define rules to automatically assign training to all users that have specified properties. For example, administrators can create an assignment that assigns a New User orientation module to users that have been categorized as New Hire in all locations. Each assignment has a start, end, and due dates.
Convenience is key to the Firmwater experience. Training content is set up such that end users can self-register for training activity. Thus, users can pick and choose between training content types. In this model, you can set the price for each course, in which case the workflow is automatically adapted to integrate payment into the self-registration process.
The LMS supports tracking of continuing education credits. Completing a training activity may earn different numbers of different credit types. For example, a healthcare client offers courses that earn two types of credits where completing the course earns 0.5-CERPS and 1 Nursing contact hour.
The LMS permits clients to categorize their users by job title, department and location. A location hierarchy can be defined for locations if desired. Each of these properties can be turned on/off for a particular client. When the property is turned off for a client, the application does not display this property in other parts of the user interface.
Based on customer feedback, the folks at Firmwater have added email notification functionality so that a user gets notified when training is assigned to them and managers get notified when users complete a training activity. In addition, they have integrated the solution with Shopify. “Customers can use Shopify to sell their courses enabling people to buy courses for either their own use or buy for their employees,” he says.
The Firmwater LMS has a public API. Some benefits of the web services API include enabling integration with internal systems for data transfer or integrating Firmwater LMS functionality into your software. Williams illustrates the latter scenario with the case of a large customer in the incentive management space, which integrated the LMS as an additional feature of their incentive management system product without developing their own LMS. “Because we are a white labelled solution, our customer’s clients are completely unaware that the LMS functionality is being provided by Firmwater ” he says.
Evaluating the User Interface
The solution’s interface is similar to the Windows explorer interface, which has been well liked by customers. “The Windows explorer interface has the advantage of providing a familiar interface to the user” says Williams. He adds that the solution’s UI designers strive for simplicity in the interface.
The application follows a monthly subscription-based system of tiered pricing. It has four levels: bronze, silver, gold, and platinum. Firmwater uses an innovative system of charging customers based on the number of course starts that occur each month. “A course start is defined as a single user launching a training activity for the first time,” he says. “Once a user starts a course, they have up to a year to complete it at no additional cost to our client.” According to Williams, this reduces the LMS cost for clients because they simply pay for the number of active users, instead of an aggregate number of users, some of who may no longer be actively using the system. Williams says clients can upload as many courses and create as many users as they like. “We only charge when the user first launches a course,” he says.
Supporting an LMS
Williams says the firm’s founders believe in providing knowledgeable and sage advice to their clients. “When they call or email for support, customers are supported by the very same people who developed the solution” he says. The solution already comes packaged with a comprehensive online help that addresses questions and tasks within the system. These questions or tasks can range from simple to complex issues. Email and telephone support is also provided. In the to-do queue are explanatory videos for common but infrequently performed operations.
We live in the information age and the knowledge economy. Investment in the Firmwater LMS might be a wise decision. What’s more, if you are a content provider, the investment might just enable an additional revenue stream for your business!