The Open Source LMS: Look Out, Big Kids

By Jessica Knott
Editor, Twitter

As a supporter of the “edupunk” movement and a former learning management system (LMS) administrator, I am interested in LMS development, support, and use. In the past month, two blog posts in particular (the first consisting of two parts) have caught my attention, and I wanted to share them, for others who find themselves in the same boat as I, with an eye toward the future of online teaching tools and philosophy.

The first blog post, “The Evolving LMS Market, Parts I and II,” was written by Michael Feldstein and looks closely at the shifting market shares in the LMS space, based upon data from the Campus Computing Project’s annual survey. Feldstein delves into several interesting paradigm shifts, especially the market share gains that we’re seeing in open source learning management systems. Perhaps the biggest takeaway I find in this post is this gain, especially the ANGEL plateau following the Blackboard acquisition announcement. What are customers, educators and the learning community speaking out against? Is it the corporation or the product? Is it the support or their dwindling voice in the development process? Is open source simply seen as being more affordable? This blog post offers much to think about, from the teaching and learning perspective as well as the administration and IT perspective.

The second post that really made me sit up and take notice recently was published in Moodle News so it may admittedly be skewed. However, it is cross-posted at, and the author is an independent Moodle user from Germany who has created a comprehensive comparison of Moodle 2.0 and Blackboard, which indicates that Moodle 2.0.1 and Blackboard Learn 9.1 SP3 are 95% similar when it comes to tools and features. Given that so many institutions are finding themselves in tighter financial times, this find could greatly impact the LMS market and the way we, as educators, think about online teaching. To view the full matrix, click here.

What do you think? What trends are you seeing on your campus? Are you more likely to use a centrally supported learning management system or strike out on your own and teach from a blog? Let me know!

Jessica was recently featured in a remind101 interview, “The Evolving LMS Market.”

WebCite Alternatives:
The Evolving LMS Market, Part I
The Evolving LMS Market, Part II
Campus Computing Project survey data.
Blackboard vs Moodle 2.0: 100+ metrics compared head to head by @MoodleRUB
The full matrix.
remind101 Interview

6 Responses

  1. I am not attached to a school or university, but based on what I’ve seen in Switzerland, the choice of Free / Open Source is not entirely based on financial considerations.

    Back in the early 2000’s, the Swiss Virtual Campus (2000-2008) opted for WebCT on the basis of an assessment of various LMS by the Centre NTE of Fribourg university. This report also stated that while the authors were aware of the existence of Open Source LMS’s, they had not taken them into account.

    In a discussion about this odd statement among the participants of the pilot project using WebCT, who had, to say the least, mixed feelings about it, the authors justified it by saying that they did not know anyone who had been using such OS solutions. As one of the participants was among the authors of OLAT, an OS LMS developped by the University of Zurich, he was able to explain about it. However the Swiss Virtual Campus had already paid for the expensive WebCT license.

    By contrast, in 2009, the Geneva Department of Education decided to migrate all public schools to free softwares – not only LMS, but also office suites etc.

    The GeLibrEdu site about this migration, and in particular its Texte fondateur (which translates fairly well with Google Translate) make it clear that while financial reasons were also a motive, the main reasons were technical (OS solutions are more trustable) and above all educational.
    Among the latter:

    • – ensuring that the learning resources will always remain available (something you can’t be sure of with proprietary solutions that do not use open standards
    • – enabling students to learn about tools in terms of concepts (what is a spreadsheet, text editor etc and what is it for) rather than acquiring automatisms
    • – introducing students to a civic, participatory culture
    • .

    Possibly, this shift from an initial diffidence towards FOSS solutions to the acknowledgment of their educational and civic advantages also happened in other schools that moved from a proprietary LMS to a FOSS one.
    Another factor might be the great progress in user-friendliness of FOSS tools over the last decade. Back in the early 2000’s, the learning curve for some of these tools was a bit steep for non-geek teachers. Not so today anymore.

  2. It is interesting that the posts talk only about college campuses, as if those were the only ones in need to an LMS. My experience has been in two other markets: K-12 education and independent producers of curriculum.

    K-12 represents a rapidly growing market for online education. It has now been a decade since I started an online school as a part of the public school system. All of our options were too expensive for us and the relatively few students we were serving. Moodle was newly in existence, but it was relatively clunky, and our IT department nixed it. We finally went with BlackBoard, with the costs eating into the economic viability of the program considerably.

    The economics of the K-12 market have not improved since then. The district in which that online school is still housed is closing schools in a desperate attempt to shave millions of dollars from its budget. All across the U.S. public schools are struggling to make ends meet. Unlike colleges and universities, they don’t have the luxury of being able to raise tuition rates or tap into the estates of wealthy alumni to raise funds in this tough economy. Many smaller school districts and individual private schools have no choice but to use open source LMSs.

    The K-12 market is further challenged by its greater need to use course ware developed by independent developers like APEX, Aventa, and others. These courses have distinct advantages, the most important of which is that they can include high quality components created over a year or more by teams of experts, thus creating a far better course than any teacher could create while working in his or her spare time.

    In choosing such courses, K-12 programs must either choose to have the courses hosted on the vendor’s LMS with the vendor’s teachers, migrated to their own LMS with their own teachers, or any of a variety of other options. There are advantages to each option, but it is usually financial considerations that force the decision. Almost any school would prefer to use their own teachers on their own platforms if they could afford it.

    So now let’s look at it from the perspective of the creators of these independent courses. As the former Executive manager of Curriculum for one of them, I am well aware of their need to play in all possible markets. Although some of them have their own proprietary systems or require schools to use their LMS and server, we decided to be “platform agnostic.” Our courses therefore never mentioned the LMS being used, and we gave no specific instructions to students in how to perform LMS functions like turning in assignments. We never put content in the LMS itself–all content resided on an external server and was linked into the course via URL. When we contracted with a school, we would have a team move the quizzes, assignments, grade books, etc. into their platforms as needed.

    In that market, we saw a distinct migration away from BlackBoard in recent years. The reason was clearly financial–schools were looking for the biggest bang for their bucks. Once you realize that any LMS can deliver the same course with the same effectiveness, then cost becomes your only serious consideration.

    I am currently consulting on a project with another independent producer, a project on a much smaller scale than those massive companies with their multi-million dollar development budgets. We, too, are making the course ware platform agnostic, but we need to have it hosted centrally for now. In this case, we can’t even consider something like BlackBoard.

    So Moodle it is.

  3. John, you bring an excellent perspective. I have very little experience in the K-12 realm, and what I have is mostly from the tutoring angle. I really love what you have to say about how you use your LMS. Do you find you have ever have problems with the URL linking approach? Does that extra layer ever break down? I’m interested in your approach, it offers really great potential for flexibility in design!

    • The URL linking approach never breaks down. It has several tremendous advantages over building course content within the LMS.

      Have you ever seen a course that is perfectly made? Neither have I. I was once making revisions on an English course and noticed that the audio link to a Shakespearean sonnet was broken. My fault–I had screwed it up from the start. The course was being taken by more than 1,000 students in different high schools across the nation at the time. It took my less than a minute to fix the link and upload it to our server, thus fixing the problem in all schools instantly.

      (More interesting to me in this case was that no one had ever mentioned the problem, despite the fact that thousands of students had taken the class over a two year period of time.)

      The extra layer is normally invisible to the student. The student clicks on the link for the course material and gets the course–in most cases there is no way of knowing if the content is in the LMS system or hosted outside the system.

  4. John, I may be wrong, but I read Jess’s question as concern over LMS links that have to pass through a school or college’s secure network in either direction — incoming or outgoing. For example, If I link from within an LMS to a non-school social network or website, the LMS will control the way the information is displayed or if the info will be displayed at all. Linking to a page within an LMS from a non-campus site is usually not possible. In other words, the LMS resides within the college’s (or school’s) safety net and the net adds a barrier to the link. Also, if the campus network is overloaded or down, then access to the LMS suffers. If this isn’t what Jess meant, it’s a problem nonetheless for teachers and students in LMSs. If I can find the time, I’ll publish a comment or article (in response to Jess’s question) on the decision I’ve made to rely primarily on blogs rather than LMSs for my online classes. -Jim S

  5. Jim, you’re right, I was concerned with both directions, and the LMS health, as well as other issues, such as IDM and FERPA. I am really getting a lot out of what John is saying, though, I’m interested in how people are interacting with their LMS, how they’re designing in it and how, as a result, students are interacting with content and the Web. Thanks, Jim and John!

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