Right now you are probably in one of three camps when it comes to open source LMSs, specifically Moodle:

  • Huge fan and most likely have it
  • Not a fan of it
  • Thinking of soup, I mean Noodles!

And you may be thinking, okay, here it comes – here comes the “hate” with Moodle. 

It is not hate that I bring upon you good folk, rather it is the facts concerning Moodle and to be fair a comparison between it and in general commercial systems (since feature sets may differ, systems do differ to a degree, design, UI, my mom’s BBQ chicken (mmm), etc.)

I humbly thank you; well, well, well

Moodle has a very hardcore fan base and I applaud that. 

I wish many products in the e-learning market had such a fan base, oh wait, Articulate does, but on the LMS side of the house, not really.  I mean people either really love their system, dislike it and stick with it, or dislike it and search out another platform, but Moodle has fanatics (and I mean no disrespect to that).

Who are the core of these fanatics?  Well, clearly it comes from the education crowd or as we pitch it in e-learning, edtech (which is e-learning education, i.e. education technology, blah blah).

Anyway, it is education.  This is Moodle’s core audience.  But there are plenty of folks on the corporate side that are using Moodle too.  As many as education? Uh, no not even close.

But both audiences are using it and I will add that under the corporate umbrella, I will slide in non-profit, association, etc.

The heartache

With so much fanfare at least from the Moodle crowd and those who are seeking an open source system (BTW there are plenty out there, not just Moodle), the question on whether to go with Moodle or not, is something that happens on a daily basis.

Spend a few hours zinging around Linkedin and you will find people touting the benefits of Moodle, perceiving Moodle as the best choice including better than commercial systems and so on.

What I rarely see are people who have used Moodle and found issues with it or ended up scraping it, and then posting about it.  Which surprises me, because there are plenty of folks out there who thought Moodle was the route to go, heavy customized it, then found out the minuses on Moodle – too late I might add.

Must give us pause

There are commercial systems built on Moodle and heavily customized.  Yes, Totara is built on Moodle, but I am talking more about some very well known commercial systems who have so customized it, that it no longer appears as it once was.  Here you also find two camps of the customization commercial angle

  • Initial infrastructure, but so heavily customized that any updates, etc. are built by the vendor themselves and in essence it is just the pieces of the structure. These vendors do not use any items, plugins, etc., from Moodle community.   I should add there are systems built on Drupal, DNN too.
  • Built on Moodle, state that they are built on it, and any updates i.e. plugins, add-ons, features come from the Moodle community.  What you get is a customized version of Moodle, but you can still go into the code and tweak it yourself – if you have that expertise.

On the latter side, the downer is that you are paying for something you can get for free.  Sure, they have customized it, but those “new features” etc. come from the community, the same community you could go to and get it yourself.

I have no problem with that, nor those folks who do other things but offer to customers a customized system they built on Moodle.  What bothers me are those folks who do it, but do not provide the Moodle code – as they are supposed to, by using Moodle.  

As for those who do include the Moodle code for free download but sell a customized version, again no issues with it. In fact, they can easily become a very profitable platform, quickly I might add.

As Hamlet once said, “Tis Moodle Facts”

Before I delve into the comparison between commercial and Moodle, let’s put out some facts – real facts on Moodle. 

  • It’s free
  • It requires heavy customization.  Moodle is not a turnkey platform, i.e. out of the box ready to go
  • You either build your own plugins or get them from the Moodle community, which is very active
  • It has a reputation for poor documentation
  • Tutorials on the net do exist – many people are unaware of that
  • It was developed as a CMS not a LMS – surprise!  But, it is used as a LMS
  • It was developed for the education community, which as noted above is still its core audience
  • It can either look good or look bad, because of the customization.  Most of the ones I have seen (and not customized by a vendor per se), really are not that impressive.  No one is going to mistake the UI for uber Modern (again, sans vendor build).
  • Unlimited learners

Slings and Arrows

There are costs involved which surprises many people – because it is free.  But, you know that “customization” statement comes into play, plus something else people tend to forget.

  • It requires resources (people) to build the system and maintain it.  If there is an issue, you need to have someone fix it.  Companies that use Moodle tend to have a good size staff in-house to handle it. Those who do not, are often caught off guard.  And even if you have the staff in-house, the last time I looked, they still cost money.  I mean a person who is a FT employee, gets benefits (I assume), and a salary.  Thus, they are not free. 
  • If you hire someone, they are a resource.  If you do it, it is best to get someone with Moodle experience and those people tend to cost more than non-Moodle background folks
  • Customization can be pricey, depending on what you do.
  • You will need a help desk or support, because when an issue arises, people will want help.  They might go to your administrator, but they – i.e. your admin – still needs help.
  • Updates, maintenance are your responsibility (Again, whoever is handling it)
  • It has to house somewhere.  This is something people tend to forget.  Which means you have to either have the servers in-house (and again, have to factor in the server cost – which many tend to not do) or have it hosted on the web.  Perhaps you use Amazon S3 or Rackspace – you pay a monthly fee for either of them, or any of the other server farms out there.  Some folks have it hosted via a service provider they use for other things.  Regardless, it is not free.
  • Additional fees can spring up – some people use APIs from other products, including those that are fee based.  If you have thousands of registrants, you might need to have a company oversee that to get them into your platform.
  • Training – as in you train the admins how to use it – you handle yourself.  Thus, you need to have the expertise and knowledge to do it. The worst thing you can do, is have the person who built the system (Assuming they do not have a training or teaching background) provide the training.  Just because they are an expert in building Moodle, doesn’t necessarily make them a great trainer/teacher.
  • It is not uncommon to see yearly budgets for Moodle in the range of 80K to 150K or even higher and that likely does not include the resources factor (that we tend to forget).

You will also need to stay current with the latest technology and capabilities – something that many of us do not have the time to do or knowledge or background to do so (and there is nothing wrong with that).

Some of my IT friends, gurus in their own right, are not up with the latest technology or capabilities.  Sure, you as a Moodle person could rely solely on the community to provide everything you need, but is that something you would want to do on a daily or yearly basis?

That if you be honest and fair, your honesty should admit

I have seen schools including HE who have created really amazing UI design. Heck even better than some okay a chunk of commercial systems.  Equally, I have seen quite a few schools including HE who have done the best they can, but fall short.

The point is, just like anything there is slick and there is dated. 

Bottom Line

To be Moodle or not to be Moodle, that is the question.

For it isn’t really free, nor universally easy to build or use (learner and admin side), nor something for everyone.

And I’m not sure Hamlet would be able to provide the answer.

Maybe Rosencrantz.

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