Use an Open-Source or Commercial LMS?

As a technology and approach to training, the case for eLearning has pretty much been settled. Sure, there are still debates about the actual definition, ROI, and efficacy of the published courseware, and those are certainly valid concerns, but as an approach to satisfying learning requirements, eLearning continues to experience significant growth.

One part of eLearning is, of course, the actual courseware and/or hybrid approach to traditional classroom training. The other significant part is tracking and reporting on those activities. This is increasingly the role of the Learning Management System (LMS).

Some organizations appear to still be hesitant to implement an LMS for a variety of reasons; is the LMS dead already? Are commitments to rigid? Are costs to high or not containable?
Those are all certainly valid concerns.

And LMS products range in features; some are fairly ‘plain vanilla’, some ‘french vanilla’ systems include a few nice additional features (i.e. classroom tracking, group enrollments, calendaring, advanced notifications), and some are the ‘rocky road’ (or whatever your favorite fancy flavor) with additional components like real-time chat, webcasting, shared whiteboards,

With over 500 LMS products with a variety of features, platform support, and pricing structures…there really does have to be an LMS for every possible use-case.

Ultimately, once it is realized that an LMS may just be the best way to track and report on the audience learning activities (actual efficacy of the training aside for now), the next question often falls to three options:

  1. Create a custom LMS.
  2. License an existing, commercial LMS.
  3. Use an existing open-source LMS – either through a hosting partner or self-hosting.

Creating a custom LMS is a significant effort. I can’t overstate that enough and will just leave it at that. If your organization feels it has the expertise and resources to commit to such a project, best of luck!

Through web searches and various links in this article, you can surely find a commercial LMS system to fit your requirements.

Now, open-source LMS products involve a bit more consideration:

  1. Use a ‘managed hosting partner’ (i.e. MoodleRooms) – in which case, there may not be any actual (itemized) pricing for the LMS license itself, but support, hosting, and customization costs often rival the pricing of at least the lower-cost commercial LMS systems.
  2. Download the latest stable release and install the system yourself, either your organization’s servers or a leased external server. The former may not have direct outside costs but there are certainly CAPEX/OPEX considerations.

A frequently-noted benefit of open-source products is the ‘open’ nature which allows ongoing development and support by anyone and no distinct reliance on a particular organization’s solvency. However, open-source project lose interest and are abandoned frequently. There’s no guarantee an open-source project will not stagnate any less than a commercial product. In my opinion, that heralded benefit of open-source systems is a proverbial red-herring.

Another popular ‘benefit’ is the availability of plugins to enhance the overall featureset of the open-source product…which is great, until the LMS is upgraded and all the plugins break; then you are stuck waiting to upgrade your LMS until all your needed plugins are likewise updated…by a largely volunteer team on no particular deadline.

ALL that said, there’s an attraction to open-source LMS products – even if they’re often really-not ‘free’. If you DO have the expertise, resources, and infrastructure for hosting such an LMS yourself, here’s a list of my top five…

Ah, you know what, I don’t want to just list…I want to describe a bit too…So will post that list once I have it more refined as a new article (edit: see Top 5 OpenSource LMS post). Hint! Moodle is on it, and so are some of the more common ones…but I’ve had to leave a few off…or I could make it a Top Ten list? Meh, I think 5 is more concise…

One of interest that will not be on the list is Google’s collaboration with Pearson and their OpenClass LMS. I’ve not worked with this at all, and being tied to Pearson doesn’t give me…warm-fuzzies. BUT it’s an interesting concept and worth keeping an eye on.

Once an LMS is implemented there can still be frequently-encountered issues; insufficient reporting, unanticipated costs, poor product support, HTML5/mobile issues, and security concerns. It’s difficult to vet and assess all the potential issues during the investigation and trial phases. Be sure to put together a solid list of desired features before the LMS investigation (and there are vendors who will assist with such research).

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2 thoughts on “Use an Open-Source or Commercial LMS?

  1. I completely agree with your comments. You may find my list at http://www.trimeritus.com/vendors.pdf useful.

    The list of open source LMSs includes those that are not technically open source like Pearson’s OpenClass. Google Classroom is another one. Like you I haven’t explored either of these enough to appreciate the difference or the value of these.

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