Learning management systems: open source vs vendor supplied

Learning management systems: open source vs vendor supplied

Selecting a learning management system (LMS) for an organization is a difficult decision that can lead to costly mistakes along the way. This article is the first in a series that examines the steps to finding the best LMS for your organization.

Open source LMS

Open source software is software that can be freely downloaded from the Internet, usually under the Creative Commons or GNU license. Not only can you install and use the software for free (and that doesn’t include any annual license fees or lower per-user fees), but you can also modify the software; create new modules, connections to other databases, etc., as long as you follow the license rules. The rules usually require you to upload any mods so others can use them.

Open source learning management systems include Moodle, ATutor, OLAT, ELMS, SAKAI and many others. Just do a search on open source LMS and you’ll find the lot. The open source system you choose will be based on your specific needs and the amount of modifications you want to make to your LMS project.

Currently, Moodle seems to be the most popular with 51675 registered users and who knows how many unregistered users on the system. Schools, colleges and universities are using Moodle, as well as business organizations.

LMS provider

There are countless LMs from suppliers. They all provide the basics, each with a different interface and in a slightly different way, and many offer additional modules that their competitors may or may not have. Blackboard is an educational LMS used by many universities and colleges. Corporate LMSs include SABA, SumTotal, Outstart, Syberworks, etc. Do a search and you’ll find many, many systems.

Vendor systems cost dollars and prices range from small to ridiculous. You will need to do your homework on the different cost options. Don’t forget that if you are already using another vendor’s system, for example PeopleSoft, they may be willing to offer you a cost discount to stay with their brand rather than bring in another vendor’s system. Negotiate, Negotiate, Negotiate.

Vendor systems may also have the option of using their system instead of installing yours, a cost-saving option. This allows you to develop, upload and track your education in a private section of their system, without the hassle of installing, configuring and maintaining your own networked system. If your materials are confidential in nature (for example, government-based), this option may not be available.

Why would you choose to use an open source system over a vendor system?

Obviously money is an important factor; you just can’t beat free versus the ongoing purchase and licensing costs of a vendor system. You only need to pay for the hardware, the rest of the software: databases, web server, LMS are free to install and use.

The ability to modify the system to meet your needs without consulting the software vendor is also an advantage. With the right programmer, you can create modules that meet your specific needs.

Why wouldn’t you use an open source system?

Most open source systems were not built for the corporate environment and lack useful (and sometimes necessary) components that vendor systems have built in. Things like tracking required courses, maintaining an educational record, and plugging in to HR systems aren’t easy. available in open source systems. The available modules are quite new and not well tested in the corporate environment. The use of language in the system is another problem: most systems started as university systems and use language consistent with the academic world and not with the corporate environment.

Many vendor systems include extras such as the ability to conduct annual performance reviews. Of course, you can modify open source systems to provide some of your corporate needs, some cheaper than others. Creating a connection to PeopleSoft, for example, won’t cost much and isn’t complicated programming. However, deciding to add an entire module such as performance evaluations will be costly and time-consuming. So expensive that in the long run you might be better off with a vendor-supplied system that has a built-in module available.

If you modify your open source system too much, you may find it difficult to upgrade to new versions without incurring significant costs. You have no guarantee that your modifications will work with the new update; in fact, you’re pretty much guaranteed that there will be work to make your mods work within the updated version.

And finally, check with your IT department. You may find that they have a policy about using open source software on your network, for or against it. Some IT departments have agreements with another software vendor, where they get cheaper software prices if they stick with that vendor’s software instead of using a combination on the network. Or they may be fine with open source LMS, but want to make sure you’re using a Microsoft SQL Server database instead of Apache (or vice versa).

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