Digital Transformation

How To Support A Headless LMS

Caleb Shull 6 minute read

Outside of the L&D world, the word “headless architecture” isn’t new. It’s a well-developed principle of software design that’s been in place for several years, but which is only just now making its way into learning technology spaces. So if you’re an L&D pro unsure exactly what a headless LMS would look like for your organization, don’t worry, you’re in good company.

Let’s take a close look at just what we mean by “headless” when talking about headless software or a headless LMS.

In short: a headless LMS is a system where the learner-facing system runs independently of back-end business logic. They’re connected by a system of powerful and customizable APIs, which allow a tight but flexible integration between the learner experience and the software running in the back end.

Let’s dive deeper into that answer, and learn more about whether taking your LMS and your learning technology headless might be right for your organization.

The Shortcomings of a Non-Headless LMS

Most LMS solutions on the market are what are called monolithic. The same software that delivers content to learners handles the backend business logic. That’s a simple solution, and for small businesses, it’s a good balance of cost and capability.

But an enterprise organization is going to need more out of their learning tech stack than these off-the-shelf monolithic LMS systems can provide. Very rarely are these systems designed for large organizations with complex training operations. Functionality like resource management, sales, CRM – there might be very basic capabilities in these areas or none at all. What tends to happen is that enterprise teams end up with an LMS surrounded by a constellation of supporting software systems, all poorly integrated and difficult to manage.

The trick is right there in the name. A Learning Management System is designed to manage learners and the last-mile delivery of content in the learning experience. It isn’t really built to manage the whole scope of training operations. Trying to make it the nerve center of your training operations is going to push it past its designed role.

So instead of treating the LMS as the nerve center, why not let it do what it does best – deliver content to learners? That’s the goal of a headless LMS and headless learning architecture.

Headless Technology and APIs

The key to a headless LMS – to any headless architecture – is creating a front-end presentation layer that’s highly customizable and flexible so that it can best serve the needs of your specific users. By leaving specialized management functions to specialized management software, the LMS can be more adaptive and responsive to learners. The management software gets linked to the front-end learner experience through a system of APIs that populate the front-end with the data it needs to function.

Right now, in Administrate’s experience, the average training team is using 9 to 12 different software systems to manage their daily training operations. The market has simply focused much more on providing lots of point-solutions rather than larger suites of more capable training management software. This is that constellation of support software we mentioned before.

These tools are rarely built for easy integration, and so the result is often a human pulling a spreadsheet out of one system, feeding it into another, and pulling another spreadsheet out of that system, over and over.
But in a headless system, the backend is just as important as the front-end. A headless LMS is only as good as the systems feeding it data through API calls. So in most headless systems, a lot of effort goes into creating a well-integrated, high-capability infrastructure of backend business logic software. Replacing spreadsheets and manual data transfers with API calls between systems takes work to integrate and set up, but it unlocks powerful capabilities for a headless LMS.

What’s Possible With A Headless LMS?

One of the most common dream projects for a training team is a content curation algorithm. Imagine if you could automatically and dynamically recommend learners content based on a combination of different needs. Learners who need to update their certifications could be pushed towards relevant content. Learners with a certain job title or role could be pushed towards courses targeted for them. Learners with specific requests from their managers for training could be targeted for other courses – et cetera.

The reason that there are far fewer advanced content curation tools out there than teams that would like to have them has to do with data. Making that kind of dynamic recommendation requires being able to aggregate large amounts of data about learners, content, and business needs. In most learning tech stacks, that data resides in multiple systems that aren’t well-integrated, if at all.

But imagine if they were.

If you had a system of API calls set up so that your LMS front-end could pull data from the HRiS about certifications, from CRM systems to provide details on your learners and from CMS systems to provide details on content – then you might be able to develop complex projects like a dynamic real-time content recommendation system.

You could tackle any number of problems and engineer exciting solutions. Integrating generative AI tools, for example. Or perhaps you could follow after one of Administrate’s long-time customers and reduce learner friction by engineering a system for tracking learner progress on content and courses without needing them to be logged in, and synching that anonymous progress with their accounts. That kind of powerful capability is really only possible with the flexibility of headless architecture.

The Takeaway for a Headless LMS Project

The important thing to remember is that an LMS doesn’t immediately gain any new capabilities or functionalities because it’s been made headless from the backend business logic infrastructure. Headlessness is more about creating a software infrastructure that’s flexible and provides both tight integrations that make data access simple and easy, but also adaptability and scalability so that new tools and new capabilities can be added. Being headless means building a platform to support future innovations on the front and the back-end.

At Administrate, we’re experts in providing the back-end training management software that enables and empowers a headless LMS. After all, going headless without the right setup of APIs and integrations in the back-end will leave your LMS barely functional at all. But with the Administrate platform, you can get a powerful open API, an extensive suite of data-driven tools built for enterprise training, and expertise on implementing and integrating a nerve center for your backend training management that’ll support a headless LMS.

If that sounds like something you might need, feel free to get in touch with us, and talk to us about how Administrate can assist on your headless journey.

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