Headless Learning: What Types of Headless We Can See in Education

Tomas Nosek
7 min readAug 8, 2023

Headless is one of the newer buzzwords seen in many corners of the content management world. And it finally starts to get its feet wet in the educational space. But what options does it bring to the learning world?

Stagnation rules the education

Stereotypically, governments are not known for their speed and agility. Compulsory education started in the 1700s and is, therefore, one of the newer kids in the government class. In most of the world, it started only recently, in the 1800s and 1900s.

It was a time when the most intelligent person was the most knowledgeable person. Remembering things was the key to success. But there’s so much to remember! To split the list, we just said, “We’ll now have an hour of learning about geography,” and “Now, in this hour, we’ll learn something about math.” The concept of classes and courses, a dedicated time devoted to 100% concentration on one topic, has survived until today.

SCORM’s last version was issued in 2009.

So, when Bill Clinton created the Advisory Committee on Expanding Training Opportunities in the late 1990s, I’m not surprised they came up with SCORM. SCORM has been here with us since 1999; its last (seventh) version was issued ten years later, in 2009.

This has been reflected in the education software. For many, many years, there’s been this universally accepted model where:

  1. You purchase a costly authoring tool just for e-learning content.
  2. It creates a SCORM file.
  3. You upload the SCORM file to an LMS.
  4. The LMS plays it to the students and records their results.
LMS with a separate authoring tool

If you’re lucky, your LMS and authoring tool both support streaming SCORM. Thanks to that, you just put a URL to your LMS, which is then automatically streamed to your LMS. No need to upload it every time something changes anymore.

If you’re super-lucky, your LMS comes with other integrations, such as 3rd-party authentication support, or with an API so that you can move some data to your CRM.

But still, the SCORM specification is old. The latest version is 14 years old. In 2009, iPhone 3GS hit the market, Facebook became known in Europe, and President Obama was inaugurated for the first time.

SCORM doesn’t support tracking of interactive content.

Not only does SCORM follow hundreds of years old framework, but it also uses this ancient framework when it comes to reporting. SCORM will give you a general overview of completion but won’t let you see how students interact with your content. In the 2020s, the era of interactive content, that’s just abysmal.

SCORM also contains formatting, so you must create and implement a design just for your courses (that you won’t easily reuse elsewhere), and you’ll always have a separate appearance for your education. You can play your content in a new window, which is a terrible user experience, or embedded (in an iframe), like having a browser within a browser.

Want more? Get locked

To provide more than this subpar experience, there are more modern, slicker LMS providers. Instead of sticking to the obsolete standard, they created their own experience.

This will enable you to improve your appearance because the LMS just takes care of everything. You can also get deeper statistics because the LMS just knows everything first-hand. All the other options, such as integrations and APIs, are still an option.

LMS with built-in authoring

The downside is that if you want to change your LMS, it’ll be virtually impossible. You’d need to copy all materials to the new LMS manually. Don’t get me wrong, migrating the authoring tool in the previous example would be equally painful, but at least you could’ve swapped the LMS.

LMSs with built-in authoring don’t solve the problem of having a separate portal.

Also, this may solve the problem of a course played within a separate portal, but it doesn’t solve the problem of having a separate portal in the first place. LMSs are usually giant monoliths where you must sacrifice many sheep to connect them with the rest of your content and data.

It’s one thing to have a separate educational appearance; that is often wanted. But it’s another thing to have a product web, documentation, a help center, and a learning center, all looking differently because all have different configurations, different options to customize the appearance and different control.

Still in the diapers: Headless LMSs

To address the last problem, some LMS vendors want to be ahead and started to look at its brother, CMS. If you’re not sure how headless CMSs work, let me offer a short explanation before we dive in…

How headless CMSs work and how they differ from traditional ones

Opposed to traditional CMSs, headless CMSs are content repositories that don’t have any front end. You build that yourself.

From the other way around, you’re creating your front end (a website, mobile app, VR goggles, home assistant, whatever), to which you’re then injecting content from a headless CMS. Displaying what you want and however you want. And if you want more, you can just integrate another microservice into your technical ecosystem.

It sounds technical, and the premise really is technical. From the business point of view, it gives you the power to create your front end however you like it. The built-in functionality does not limit you because you’re building the appearance and the behavior yourselves.

Both the traditional and the headless approaches have their pros and cons, and there are plenty of sources to describe them.

Headless LMSs work with the same premise. They will take your content and provide it back to your front end via APIs. This way, the headless LMS works like a content repository enriched by educational functionality.

Headless LMS with built-in authoring

Here, not only can you track everything because you’re not tied down by SCORM, but you can also display it however you want. The API is a crucial feature now because its options determine how expandable, scalable, and applicable it will be for your use cases. So, the vendor lock-in may not be that bad either.

Headless LMSs won’t be for everyone, though. It will be the right choice for medium to larger companies with access to development capacities because this isn’t just CSS and JavaScript tweaking; it’s building the whole front-end app.

Headless LMSs still separate content in the organization.

Headless LMSs are at the beginning of their journey. There are some first prototypes of headless LMSs out there, either as standalone small projects or younger siblings of more established traditional LMSs. If they follow the same timeline as headless CMSs, they could be out there and usable in 3–5 years. Maybe even more quickly if they learn from the CMS world.

However, even headless LMSs still don’t address another key problem with educational materials and their systems. The last key problem is content reusability and silos. Headless LMSs are still separate systems where you create separate content that isn’t reusable elsewhere and where you cannot reuse any of your existing content unless you copy and paste it, which will become a maintenance nightmare.

Breaking the chain

To really break the chain and detach both the front end and the authoring experience, we need to decouple LMSs from both sides. The front end is already decoupled in the headless LMS.

What’s left is decoupling the authoring side by loading its content from a headless CMS used within the company.

Headless LMS with headless CMS support

In this situation, authors create their content in the same place as all the other content creators in the company. This content can be shared and reused across all channels.

This will be the way out for larger companies, maybe even medium ones after some time, with developers. That’s because only with this approach you can remove silos and speed up the processes significantly.

We’ll need to wait until the late 2020s to get a first business-ready solution.

Now, if you want to have learning management on top of a headless CMS (like we did), you must build all the learning functionality yourself because there’s not a single LMS supporting this approach.

If we’re lucky enough, we’ll see some attempts at a headless LMS supporting headless CMS authoring in a couple of years. I estimate 2026. However, one swallow does not make a summer, so I think we’ll just need to wait until the late 2020s to actually get a first business-ready solution.

Note: I work at Kontent.ai, a headless CMS vendor, so my stance is, by default, biased. However, I wrote this article from the view of a person from the Customer Education area, and it reflects my views after nine years in this field.



Tomas Nosek

Customer Education and Consulting team leader, occasional blogger, a movie person, comfortable traveler. Find all my articles at nosek.net.