Free Open Source LMSs are like Puzzles

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As you prepare your LMS discovery you might be thinking to yourself, perhaps I  should get those free ones, you know like “Moodle”.  And it would understandable to think that way, after all you just sat in a panel session where people from big name companies created their own LMS – and tell you that is the way to do it (which happened at a trade show last year).

Or you may have read an article or seen a webinar recently, promoting the idea that free is the best way to go – for total control and unlimited users without paying for them.  Which on paper seems like a great idea.  But it is paper and in reality, getting free isn’t all that it is cracked up to be.


When people receive free software it falls into one of these categories

  • Limited functionality
  • May look like something you drew when you were nine years old – but hey its free!
  • Has ads
  • Robust nice looking but to do anything you really need to buy some component or extra
  • It fell off the back of a truck in Midtown
  • It is amazing and wonderful and the world is full of magic ponies

Puzzle Time

Everyone loves a good puzzle. I remember the days when you go and buy a puzzle (in a puzzle box) and then spend hours putting all those nifty pieces together and hope it comes out what they show it as on the back of the box.

But what happens if it doesn’t?

Puzzle Challenge

Let’s say you decide to offer puzzles to your employees and customers.  You figure the best way to do that is go out and buy a puzzle, put it together then offer courses on how people can put that same puzzle together in under five minutes.

You can buy a pre-built puzzle or go it alone. For argument’s sake you go alone, especially when you find out that the puzzle box you found is free.  Free? Yes sir!

You are elated because the back of the puzzle box shows an amazing 3D puzzle of a Castle and that clearly will be better than any of those other puzzles out there. 

Next, you open up the box and find out that the puzzle has 10,000 pieces. No problem, you and your staff are puzzle experts.  About half way through you realize that there are pieces missing. 

You scan the box and in very tiny print it says, “Puzzle may not contain all the pieces. After all it is free.”.  You shake your head, but figure, no problem we can make it work.

Along the way you find out that there  is a puzzle community, where others from around the world contribute their own pieces of the puzzle. Sweet you think to yourself, now we do not have to hire someone because there are all these pieces out there.

  You soon learn that the pieces are basic and require a specific skill set which you or your staff does not possess.   Worse some of the pieces haven’t be updated in months or even years, so that one piece no longer applies to any puzzle, let alone that new 3D one.

Now you are worried – but hey, you are aware of puzzle piece people who can build you a custom piece or the puzzle itself. You go out and hire a person (contractor).  All is fine.

The puzzle is nearly built and then you realize that the puzzle piece person does not have 3D Widget compliance experience, which you will need for your puzzles.  Now, you need to find someone who has that.

And oh yeah, that puzzle piece person tells you that once the puzzle is complete any additional changes will cost an additional fee.

Just when you think it can’t get any worse, your kid walks in with their mobile device and asks will they be able to see and complete the puzzle on the mobile device.  Yeah you say, sure you can.  Then they ask will it look like the puzzle I see regardless of the mobile device (responsive)? You say, “Yep”. 

Lastly your kid asks if they can work on the puzzle offline and then when they get back to the internet it moves everything back into the cloud.  You say, “Yep”.

Your kid is delighted. 

You are panicking, because now you need to find someone with those skills to solve it.

Fast forward one month

Your puzzle is finished. Champagne flows. People Cheer.  You launch.

48 hours goes by and someone calls telling you they have problems with your puzzle.  It is at that instance you realize you do not have a help desk or support staff to assist folks.   Okay,  no worries you say, you will hire them.

Two months go by and gamification in puzzles is all the rage.  You don’t have that with your puzzle.  So you reach out to your puzzle person who tells you they can do it and will charge you X dollars. You agree.

After all that you go and review your financials. You just spent $60,000 for resources, time and labor and unless you have no plan to continue to enhance or at least keep it updated, will spend a minimum of $25,0000 to do so.

But hey at least it you can have unlimited users and you did get it for free.

Breaking up the Pieces

What you just read is what happens when you go free with a learning platform.  I would say open source, but there are systems that provide open source and they are not free.  Thus free open source (a proper way) or some platform that is free.

To take it out of the box, implement it and roll it out – and thinking it will look exactly like the examples – is highly unlikely.  Because a free open source system is just the basics, the infrastructure (and even then, with some of them out there – that is stretching it). 

In the end you will need to customize it, add components, have support in-house or outsource it, ensure that the skill sets of the people building it have those specific skill sets you need (inc. the mobile and whatever compliance standard you plan to use), and lastly, keep it updated, enhance it and move forward with it.

Oh, I failed to mention – host it. Whether you do it via Amazon S3, Rackspace or whoever – it is not free.  Even if you decide to have it at your location, those servers in your IT room did not sprout from magic beans – they cost you or your company money.

Glue it or Smash it

There are a lot of people who swear by proprietary based systems (they build it themselves, etc.) and there are equally a number of people who swear at them (uh, not the people; the proprietary based system).

But before you go down that rabbit hole realize that just because it states “free” it is far from it. 

But my Fee based system is ****

I won’t lie here, you could end up with a crappy commercial LMS, just as you could end up with a house that is a money pit (I had one) or a new car that constantly goes into the shop or buy a computer/laptop/electronic equipment that turns out to be a dud.

That is reality. And someone’s great experience with system A may not be the same experience you had with that same system.  

I wish I could tell you that every system is unbelievably awesome – but then I would have to inform you that a scary and mean monster is hiding in your home closet right now, so don’t panic and just feed it your shoes.  (no proof this works)

Bottom Line

There are people who love their free based fully customized system.  They will tell you about it. Rave about it to everyone and anyone.  They will make it appear as though it was so easy anyone could do it.   But rarely do they mention all those other key pieces you will need.  Those pieces that will either provide you a super star system or a virtual cardboard box.

Which in your case, would be as good as your learners receiving a free puzzle

With missing pieces.

E-Learning 24/7

No blog next week as I will be on vacation. But next blog: April 14th – My newest Top 10 Rankings for 2014-15 (1st release Plus systems to watch)


  1. Excellent blog, Craig. We’ve spoken to so many people who have discovered exactly what you described. Further, doing anything innovative with an LMS that is rooted in ‘free’ is just so time consuming, it is unbelievable.

    However, you are also correct that you can pay for these headaches, too. The waters are tricky, but navigable.

    Back to square one: do the homework of establishing what company goals are, what the learners need, and how you want to track and report training. Understand that ‘free’ isn’t.

    Great job!

  2. I based the amount on a person building a learning management system with open source code. If the person was located in the US – the cost to build a full blown system can range anywhere from about $50 an hr (just based on a general search through a couple of freelance sites to more than $100 plus an hr). Although there are many who charge more so. For the article I slated a cost of $75 an hr, with an estimated time – including beta testing at more than 200 plus hours, and including the below time, which would boost overall time and resource cost – increased total cost.

    When you toss in someone who has to do the mobile angle, the SCORM component (assuming that the initial person you hired does not have that skill set – and for the record, the SCORM manual is massive in size: and maybe going SCORM 1.2 as well and if someone really wanted to punch it using PENS, and adding the TinCan API or something similar, costs escalate. Hence the numbers and increase in total hours to build, beta test, etc.

    Lastly, if the company had the person on-site, then the cost of space must also be added, and there are additional variables even if off-site, which may come into play.

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