Massimiliano Ferrari, FORMA LMS: “flip your attitude and develop content relevant to the user, don't just display information”

A business requires effective digital assets that can be utilized at any moment and from any location to flourish in the face of an unpredictable future.

Some businesses resist embracing change, but it's evident that technological solutions are the clear path forward. One excellent solution is implementing a Learning Management System (LMS), which helps companies easily monitor, manage, and report training activities. It plays a crucial role in preventing skill gaps within organizations, retaining talented individuals, and staying competitive in the market.

To shed more light on how businesses can make their training programs more effective, we sat down with Massimiliano Ferrari, Co-Founder of FORMA LMS – an open-source LMS for engaging and customizable corporate training solutions.

Tell us more about your story. What inspired you to create FORMA LMS?

FORMA LMS was initially born in 2013 as a ‘fork," or natural evolution, of the last open-source version of the LMS platform Docebo. Since then, it’s evolved a lot and is now regarded as one of the most famous and widely used open-source LMS.

As the original open-source version and its community had been left ‘alone,’ the Elearnit team launched a new community immediately, resulting in a reactive and participative environment. By the beginning of 2017, four Italian partner companies had created a unique and robust collaboration method. This project finally evolved into a stable organization: the FORMA Association.

Today, the association has about 80 members. It's a rare example of a functioning network where different potential competitors cooperate daily and join forces to develop the best product they can offer. Our organizational type and open innovation model are unique in the open-source environment.

FORMA LMS has reached over 100.000 downloads, a very active community with about 6,000 users and 14,000 topics. The FORMA project has also won several industry awards, including Sourceforge's 2023 “Open Source Excellence” award.

Can you introduce us to your learning management system? What are its key features?

FORMA LMS is an award-winning Learning Management System that manages and delivers online training courses.

It’s mainly designed for corporate training and has a modern and responsive layout.

With FORMA, it’s possible to manage different training materials: SCORM multimedia, HTML pages, videos, etc., and create powerful assessments directly with the built-in functionalities for managing scores and prerequisites. We now also have an integration with H5P, thus making FORMA a content authoring system.

It’s also possible to manage different types of training, from classroom training to blended learning to self-paced learning.

One of the features our customers appreciate the most in FORMA is that it can be used as a multi-customer or multi-branch application with different URLs, logos, colors, and features for every branch.

We also have many add-ons and plugins to enhance and enrich FORMA’s functionalities.

Moreover, you can easily integrate FORMA LMS with third-party applications such as HR management systems, Microsoft Active Directory, video conferencing systems, and more.

Finally, we think FORMA LMS’ most important feature is its network and open innovation model. Any customer can ask for and finance any development by speaking to the core developers directly: the new features will sometimes be incorporated into the application core or released as a plugin. The idea is that if we put the customers’ collective intelligence and needs together, then everybody will profit. You can sponsor a feature, and you get many new features back.

Corporate training can often seem boring and time-consuming. What techniques do you use to ensure engaging and effective training?

This question has more to do with how you develop content than with the LMS itself.

Corporate training can be tedious, mainly due to developers and customers being lazy and not user-centered but information-centered.

First, you must flip your attitude and develop content relevant to the user, not simply displaying information. How do you do that? You constantly engage your users with questions, interactions, and quizzes and give them contextual information.

Finally, you place them in real-life scenarios where they can practice what they learned.

You should use a combination of text, video, interactions, scenarios, and assessments. The right mix, of course, depends on the topic.

Subject Matter Experts often produce very verbose and descriptive texts. The challenge is to turn SMEs into allies rather than foes and let them give you meaningful examples rather than slides full of text.

In your opinion, what are some of the biggest mistakes teachers and institutions make when it comes to online learning?

This topic is related mainly to the previous one.

In summary, the main mistake that any SME with no experience in online training (teachers of schools of any level, but also business professionals of specific sectors) makes is not to consider the most noticeable feature that makes online training a medium different from face-to-face training, i.e., the absence of the teacher.

This aspect is evident in asynchronous online training, where the techniques described above help keep the participant's attention alive and the degree of retention of the related training contents high.

But even in synchronous online training, this aspect is important because, during a video call session, teachers must consider the advantages and limitations of not being physically in the classroom amid their group of learners.

It's evident that open source is an important part of FORMA LMS. Would you like to share more about your vision?

Open-source software (OSS) is a software licensing and development model in which source code is released under a license under which the copyright holder grants users the rights to study, change, and distribute the software to anyone and for any purpose. Open-source software may be developed in a collaborative, public manner.

Open-source software is a prominent example of open collaboration, based on the crazy concept that sharing ideas and knowledge with others is better and more convenient than struggling alone with the growing complexity of new technologies.

The term “Open Innovation” describes an emergent model of approach to innovation in organizations: firms draw on research and development that may lie outside their own boundaries. This new paradigm completely changes how companies think and apply their research and development plans by opening collaborations with other players.

We prefer acquiring and sharing knowledge with external partners instead of managing the complex mix of technological evolution and marketing strategies internally. This winning strategy is leading to three great improvements:

  • Lower costs
  • Fewer risks
  • Faster time-to-market

What would you consider to be the biggest challenges surrounding online learning nowadays?

There's too much content scattered across companies and on the web: in the corporate intranet, on the LMS, on YouTube or Linkedin, on Coursera and Udemy, and in the catalogs of contending vendors such as Go1.

The biggest challenge will be to create tools that make it easy to collect and curate that plethora of content in a meaningful way and to make it work for the goals of the Learning and Development Department. That means also focusing on new and improved types of KPIs.

Another challenge will be automating the processes as much as possible: onboarding, product training, compliance, etc.

Finally, the emergence of generative and conversational AI poses a new challenge for online learning: what kind of new features and tools will be needed to make these formidable tools work meaningfully?

Since the education sector is your main field of focus, how do you think this industry is going to evolve in the upcoming years?

Our focus is mainly on corporate training rather than education. Schools and universities also use FORMA, but our efforts are to develop new features for companies and not for education.

So I will focus my answer on the evolution of corporate training. LMSs will be with us for some time, although many pundits predicted they were dead years ago.

They will be a pillar in the middle of other specialized apps: for corporate social networking, HR management, skills evaluation, etc., but the LMS will be integrated with all of them.

They will allow for more informal and bottom-up learning, such as letting the users create or share their content, curate it, and be facilitators for their colleagues.

Formal, mandatory training will always be there, at least for compliance reasons, but other forms of training will emerge.

In this age of ever-evolving technology, what do you think are the key security measures everyone should implement on their devices?

The first and obvious ones from an end-user point of view are strong passwords, changing the password periodically, MFA, VPN, and paying attention to phishing and social engineering.

As developers, we tend to deal more with the security of our applications (password encryption, keeping the core components updated, penetration testing, etc.) and our servers (we use a Global Firewall, a Virtual Private Cloud, and several monitoring systems and alerts).

We take cybersecurity very seriously, which is why our team does all our development via VPN and MFA.

And finally, would you like to share what’s next for FORMA LMS?

We’re about to release FORMA 4.0, a fantastic success if you think of all the steps forward that we have taken. The LMS has almost been rewritten in the last ten years.

Now all the main features have a contemporary look and have been redesigned for a better user experience.

The multi-tenant features will be improved with FORMA 4: Multi SMTP management has been implemented to allow sending emails from different domains.

While we plan to introduce major improvements in the UI with our next product, FORMA 5, in 2023, we will focus on two major things:

  • Develop new integrations with 3rd party applications
  • Add a ranking algorithm as the first step to add gamification to our LMS

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