The Right Way To Go About Open Source LMS As responses to a recent post where I listed five things not to do while selecting an LMS I received a couple of queries about using an Open Source LMS, customizing it to suit the requirements and if it is advisable to do so. There were also questions around the best approach to use an open source LMS and on how to estimate the amount of maintenance such might require on an ongoing basis. This post is for people exploring an open source LMS as an option either for a new LMS setup or for a switch-over.

A lot has already been written about open source LMSs in multiple contexts. However this post attempts to prepare people wanting to use an open source LMS better. I’m looking at the process right from selection through getting it live and running and other considerations during this process.

Selecting an open source LMS

The adage is ‘look before you leap’. Without going into any debate on the capabilities of the open source LMS available in the market (which I believe are very good) I’d suggest not simply downloading a popular LMS thinking it will be the panache for eLearning needs and then, after download, spending time to map your requirements with the LMS. This is invariably going to lead to a list of things needing modifications in the LMS; I believe this is NOT the right way to start. In my opinion the best way is to spend significant time in understanding and documenting your requirements and then conducting a review of available open source LMSs to identify the one best suited to your needs. Prepare a checklist of critical and essential things you need from an LMS which can let you start almost immediately and preferably without any modifications to the system. Then select the system that’s either the closest (but without major variance) or perfectly fits your list of needs.

At this point I’d say that even if you are sure about using only an open source LMS I would strongly advise to include evaluation of commercial LMS systems at this stage if no single open source LMS is fitting the requirements closely. The total cost of ownership of a commercial LMS may not differ much (and may even be less) especially where the open source LMS doesn’t have the critical features you need.

Here are a few factors that should be considered at this time:

  1. Customization of the open source LMS. If no single open source LMS comes close to your requirements then you’ll need to get it customized to suit your requirements. Evaluate carefully whether you have the skills to do it internally or if you would outsource to a vendor. Having prepared a list of requirements helps getting an estimate on the costs you are looking and timescales being involved. It is important that the people involved in the customization are not purely software developers only but also understand the domain of LMS systems. Be sure to look for qualified vendors who are either experienced in working on the open source LMS platform you have selected or have LMS (eLearning) expertise and experience along with software development skills. Otherwise the customization exercise may end up a failure putting your initiative of implementing LMS at risk. It’s important to understand that being open source doesn’t necessarily mean that any IT vendor/developer could easily bring about the changes you need in the LMS.
  2. Ongoing maintenance. When the customization done in the system is of a significant nature the demands on ongoing maintenance increase dramatically.  It also means increased dependence on the developer/vendor to maintain the system, there is also the problem of the customized version falling out of the open source LMS roadmap. This leads to higher costs for keeping the system bug-free and reduces the access to the help available otherwise on open source platforms because of the customizations done. This aspect is mostly ignored at the time of customization as the view at the time remains short term and the key objective remains getting the system up and running without the understanding that in the long term the costs of maintaining the system may mount substantially. Once again, the stress on the importance of LMS selection and exploring commercial LMS systems (in case of a high variance in what you need from an LMS) and what open source LMS platforms are offering. The customization and maintenance costs of commercial LMS may turn out to be less expensive and less uncertain (as the vendor would be aware of all aspects of the system while the developer customizing the open source LMS will not make any guarantees on the base code of the open source LMS).
  3. Training. As your version of the open source LMS, post customization, starts deviating from the core version the training needs of your team also change accordingly. This leads to a higher cost if the customization vendor is providing the same but also makes parts of the external open source documentation redundant.

As a summary on the selection process –evaluate the available open source LMS carefully against your set of requirements and it may be advisable to explore commercial LMS systems as well at this stage if the gap between what is available and what you require is large. Remember your objective is to implement an LMS that will take care of the eLearning needs in your organization – whether the LMS is open source or commercial is secondary. Getting something ‘open source’ does not equate to free or inexpensive.

Implementation and setup

Assuming that after considering all the factors for the process of selection you have finally zeroed in on an open source LMS and have taken a fully informed decision in doing so, the next question is how to start using it. There are two options available at this stage – 1) customize first and roll out; 2) roll it out on pilot basis, customize based on feedback and then roll it out full scale.  Let me explain.

  1. Customize first. If the timescales involved in getting the system customized fit in well with your plan of going live with the LMS then this is a feasible option. However the plan should be to customize, roll it out a pilot group and then recalibrate the system based on the feedback from the pilot group and a final rollout of a tuned version to the complete user base.
  2. Roll it out first. The best way to use an open source LMS and ensure that it is the right choice before spending any big money on customization and maintenance is to roll out the open source LMS as-is, without any modifications, to a pilot group and gather feedback on the system. Evaluate the costs of customization, maintenance and training and then go for customization. It may be appropriate here again to look at other options (commercial LMSs) in case the timescales and costs are considerable.

For the implementation process, my only advice is that you think twice before spending money on customization – it’s a cost you will never recover if you ever want to move out of the system due to any reason. Because there are no vendors backing up your system at any time the risk, at times, could be very high. An Open Source LMS is free when it comes to the initial licensing and it stops there.

Evaluate these factors carefully before going in for an open source LMS, there is a range of excellent commercial LMSs available and those can also be an option when you consider the total cost of system ownership.

I look forward to your comments.