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When or When Not to Use Open Source LMS?

Oh! You love Microsoft! – this is what a client’s IT Manager commented after looking at technology requirements sheet of our Wizdom LMS in a presentation last week (It’s built on .Net, and uses Windows Server, IIS, & MS SQL/Oracle as back-end platform). The presentation than briefly turned into a debate between open-source and proprietary systems.

Now, this was not the first time when someone asked me to compare open source vs. proprietary systems, and I am sure it won’t be the last. So I thought I will try to be as objective as possible (even though we sell proprietary LMS) and present how I see open source vs. proprietary LMS debate. So here goes ..

I neither love nor hate proprietary or open source systems. Our decisions to adopt a particular technology or platform either for development or internal use is governed by what works best for our customers and for us. For example, we use Microsoft platform for Wizdom Web, but use Linux based servers for our network management. We use Wizible (a proprietary tool) for project management, but use Bugzilla (open source) to manage internal QA process and WordPress (open source) for blogging.

So did we choose these open source technologies because they provided source code and theoretically we could modify these tools? Or did we choose them because they were free?

No, we chose them because they were the best fit for our requirements (and we have never felt the need to modify source code inspite of having in-house development team). Similarly, we chose proprietary technologies that we use because they were the best fit (read proven, robust, scalable, and with clear road-map that mapped to our growth needs) for us or for our customers

How about open source vs. proprietary LMS’s?

Questions one should evaluate –

  1. Is my organization practically ever going to setup an IT team to manage or customize the system?
  2. Does the future road-map of open source system map with my industry/domain growth needs?
  3. Can I manage without active support?
  4. If I am getting the open source system customized, will it still be able to support enhancements that will be made to the system in future (remember with open source systems the development community would not know how you have customized your system, and hence won’t make future enhancements that may fit the customized LMS)?

I generally recommend that if customer’s LMS needs are such that they can be met by out-of-the-box product, and if they have an IT team or access to pool of programmers (such as students) to manage and support the system then it makes absolute sense to go for an open source LMS.

However, if you are an organization who wants LMS to become integral part of talent development plan (read easy integration with ERP’s/HRMS’s, usage in competency management, skill gap analysis, succession planning etc), or if you are getting the system heavily customized, or if you don’t want to setup a dedicated support team for LMS then seriously consider proprietary system that best matches your usage scenario.

I raised the question of domain needs above, because most of the open source LMS’s have been designed with education domain in mind and their growth continues to be influenced by the needs of the same domain. This can be easily ascertained by looking at the terminology used in demo sites, and by going through future road-map of open source LMS’s. So in my honest opinion, they are not the best fit (not in their current form, and not atleast with next couple of releases) for a medium to large size corporate implementation.

Now, the million dollar question – How do Open Source & Proprietary LMS’s compare on Cost Front?

Assuming that open source LMS matches your objectives and organizational structure, then yes, if you have small to medium sized implementation then certainly open source LMS’s (even if moderately customized) are much more cost effective compared to licensed proprietary systems.

However, if you have medium to large scale implementation, then the license price of the LMS itself is not so significant component of the entire implementation (or atleast not so significant component with our and many other good LMS’s license prices).

Given below is a case in example, where we implemented Wizdom Web for 7,500 users for a client that’s spread across the country. I have compared this implementation with a popular open source system (OSS), and I have assumed certain efforts for OSS customizations based on my understanding of that system (Note: Costs are approximate, and currency has been converted to USD for wider audience reach).

Open Source Vs. Proprietary LMS Cost Comparison
Open Source Vs. Proprietary LMS Cost Comparison

 Note: Common Customizations- Reports, UI Customizations. Additional Customizations for OSS- Categorization & Assignment of Courses Based on Department/Location, Configurable Work-flow based Enrollment Approvals

Given below is a graphical representation of total cost of ownership (TCO) over the life of LMS license.

Open Source Vs. Proprietary LMS Cost Comparison
Open Source Vs. Proprietary LMS TCO

 As you can see, over a period of time costs converge and can actually be more for OSS depending upon support & enhancement requirements. For bigger implementations of over 30k users, the license cost is even less of a factor, and in such cases the most critical factor is how robust the system is, how well the LMS partner can support you throughout the LMS life cycle, and what is the proposed road-map of the LMS system and whether that aligns with your domain needs or not.

So this how I see open source vs. proprietary LMS debate. I would love to receive your criticism and feedback.

4 thoughts on “When or When Not to Use Open Source LMS?”

  1. Good post. As an LMS provider ourselves, the obvious question is always "oh like Moodle?" - except that I think your four evaluation questions are absolutely key. It can happen both ways: Sometimes customers are scared of oss because of the perception of a less-complete end-to-end solution, and on the flip side, some customers only see the 'free' element and rush after it.

    In the end, it all comes down to the organisation fit, there will never be a one-size fits all LMS solution, open source or otherwise.

  2. Your observations are mostly correct. However, since the last few years some top open source frameworks like Moodle (LMS) and Drupal are offering enterprise grade support via their official partner network. Which is why a lot many bigger entities are going in for open source frameworks which are robust and full-featured.

    1. I don't know if my audio expressed this very well but I am all for open socure and rolling your own. Just yesterday I was dealing with a complaint from a student in a Blackboard course who was having trouble navigating an online course. Some teachers organize the class by weeks, units, or content areas. The navigation of the course will then depend on the buttons along the side of the screen or links in a calendar. I told the student that taking an online course means taking the time to learn how to navigate the course. How do you see this working if not only was there a different navigation in something as homogeneous as an LMS, but each course being on a different platform using different tools? I think we can give the students the technology skills to be adept in that kind of environment we are working towards that now at TCC with some of the different kinds of courses we are creating (multi-modal, pre-web 3.0 tools, etc.) but if the LMS went away today we would have a problem.I don't see the LMS concept as intrinsically evil. I think it is a tool and my job as an instructional designer is to figure out the most effective ways to use that tool. The questions that most concern me is how to I open up the tools to multiple learning and teaching styles?For myself, ideally, I would like the students to learn the technologies the instructors use early in their academic career and then focus on the content just as I want the instructors to forget the technology and focus on teaching. It would be great if everyone who taught online thought critically about online teaching, cared about the media, and embraced innovation, but the sad truth is that there are many kinds of online teachers just as there are may different kinds of face-to-face teachers and we have to support them all.

    2. I spent a number of years snaidtng behind typical LMS users watching their interaction with various systems and the problems they had. That's led to the easy to use philosophy behind our new lms - it's designed to be used by the people who use LMS's on a day to day basis, placing importance not just on the student experience but also crucially on the admin too. It's about speed and clarity. Reporting information is embedded throughout the application rather than hidden behind complex filtering screens and rows and rows of form fields. Everything is organised around what it is that people do every day - eg. running a report on a user instantly to assess training taken vs. training needed - that's a daily task in a lot of orgs. for HR / training teams, but I'm amazed at how difficult it is in some systems to do.It's such a difficult balance - to maintain only 'core' functionality, do so with a simple UI, but also allow the underlying complex interactions/functions that make an LMS useful. The previous system from a major vendor I worked on went the other way - it was possible to do anything - literally anything in the system, but users got so lost after navigating 5 form-filled screens to access functionality that after daily use for a year or two the system was widely disliked. It seems endemic in the industry - a new LMS is launched in an org, with all the hopes and praises heaped upon it, and then the attitude towards it changes from that of saviour to that of hated-utility and then the cycle repeats again.

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