The Real Cost of a Free (Open Source) LMS! Moodle is a good LMS with which has grown over the years and offers a host of functionality and features that are very useful to have in an LMS. Add to it the fact that its open source which makes it free to use, has made it very popular.

Moodle has been able to sustain itself and keep evolving through its community, resulting in its emergence as a good option for anyone wanting to use an LMS. But is Moodle or any other open source LMS (there are a few good ones like the ones mentioned here) really free? Though they may be free at a tangible expense level, they do carry a cost which the organization implementing the LMS should be aware and careful of.

The cost is not only in terms of money spent on various components of procuring, managing and supporting the element but there could be other costs which can be quite detrimental.

So what is a real cost of a free (open source) LMS? To understand let’s find the elements that have a cost associated with them.

Thumb rule – For any open source LMS only the license cost is zero. That’s the only thing that’s free. Nothing else!

There are three ways in which you can use an open source LMS:

  1. Go to a vendor who has rebranded, modified the open source LMS as its own and provides managed hosting services on that or also deploys behind the firewall. This works almost like a commercial LMS arrangement – prices may vary. LMS is not free in this case.
  2. Go to a vendor who offers managed hosting services on the open source LMS without a rebranding. The vendor has skills to customize and maintain the LMS. In this case as well the LMS is not really free and turns out again like a commercial LMS.
    In fact, in both the cases the cost of customizing might be high – not only development hours put in; but also from the fact that the vendors may not want to do that in first place. Or the maintenance cost would shoot up as the vendors offering open source LMS might prefer to keep the variance in different versions they offer to customers to a minimum.
    So if you are looking to customize the LMS to a significant extent, be aware of both ongoing development costs and maintenance costs before making an investment. Otherwise it isn’t any different from going for a commercial LMS. In fact the system might even be constrained by the vendor’s open source LMS development skills, as not all the vendors offering the LMS have the required skills to dig deep in the system and customize it. To me, it seems most of the vendors are offering the open source LMS because it is quick to deploy and they don’t need a lot of technical skills to offer it. It would help to read my other post – the right way to go about open source LMS
  3. Deploy the open source LMS at your organization involving your IT team for deployment, and also ongoing maintenance. Well this seems free. But is it? Here is why it is not and it has an added cost – the cost of eLearning initiative going awry in the start itself. Most often an open source LMS is the first choice when an organization is just starting eLearning. As most would like to keep the costs low, but you also need to keep an eye on the end value/result (not only in terms of LMS features but also the entire experience to the user) delivered to the real LMS users.
    1. The involvement of IT team doesn’t stop at installation and configuration. In fact that’s just the beginning. And what started as a low involvement project suddenly turns a support nightmare for the IT team, who may not be prepared and even geared up for handling this. As a result they may not be able to allocate enough, skilled resources or if they do then you can imagine the cost to the company for such resources. Pretty soon you will be answering questions about spending so much on IT for an open source LMS. It is not that the open source LMS needs more support – No. It’s the fact that we mostly ignore this cost element that we are caught off the guard on this.
    2. Infrastructure costs will exist as depending on the user base size the appropriate hardware and infrastructure would be needed. This may not be an additional cost compared to your initial estimates but it’s a cost anyway.
    3. Who will customize even the basic features? If IT doesn’t have the skills (mostly PHP and MySQL and of course a good understanding of the LMS code) you either outsource that part or hire additional staff to do the same. In both cases it is not free. An open source LMS doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easy to work on at code level. It’s easy for a high level skilled resource but then the resource is not going to be free.
    4. Assuming you acquired the skills by either outsourcing or through internal resources who will manage that resource (or team)? Not your IT team! Even if the IT team does you’d still need to manage by providing detailed directions on what to do, etc. It might prove to be a drain on your own time. The cost of spending your time on such an activity is extremely high as it affects various other things you may not be able to look after which are a part of your job. Remember that having got an open source LMS everyone assumes that it is not a big deal to manage it. You may have a hard time to explain what’s happening and even if you provide the right explanations, it may backfire on you.
    5. Ongoing support, enhancement and maintenance. Either internal or hired resources would do this but not without a cost. Depending on your user base size this cost could be a small one or could end up being significant. Technical Support also requires the resources to be trained on the LMS which either would take time if done on own or cost real money if external parties are involved.
    6. General Open Source LMS support. Once you customize your version of the LMS it, more often than not, is the case that it becomes unfriendly to the upgrades to the original open source LMS versions. Again, it may take really skilled programming team to code everything in a manner which would still keep it open to upgrade – however there is no guarantee and the upgrade implementation could also take time and resources to achieve. Otherwise you may get stuck with the version and may have to do your own upgrades internally (or through outsourced team). In either case it’s not going to be a free. Additionally, there are the hassles of product management, versioning, transitioning, data migration (if needed), etc.
    7. Effect on the eLearning initiative. While all the costs mentioned above can still be managed by loosening the purse-strings and spending time and energy on the above activities, however an attempt to control these costs because we were not prepared for them in the start might result in a sub-standard offering to the end users (in terms of features, etc.). Since this would be the initial stage of eLearning initiative a disinterested user base will not help carry the initiative forward. This is the real cost which you would have to deal with and is has the potential to be a serious concern. From a company’s perspective even after spending so much in time, money and energy if the initiative has not worked out well it’s a real cost and a huge one. Not only will it take a long time to gain the users interest back; but it might possibly take longer to get management backing you again.

Most of these costs surprise us because of our presumption that an open source LMS is free. As you can make out by now, it absolutely is not free at all. The only thing that may be free is its license cost but then the other costs are very real and if you aren’t prepared for these, it could lead to unwanted scenarios.

I hope this helps giving you some points to chew on when considering an open source LMS. No harm in going for one but dive-in with full gear on. Never get caught unarmed! Happy learning!

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