Online Learning Management Systems: The Software Options

With e-learning at a stellar boom, more and more organizations are evaluating how best to introduce or enhance their learning management systems for online courses, virtual universities, and learning portals. Online learning can enable companies to train staff more effectively, from tackling front-end staff development to enhancing the skills of the training department. Companies are also increasingly recognizing the value of social media tools in the workplace and many are considering the best way to introduce discussions and portals online.

A wide variety of software packages are available to enable companies to manage their e-learning system; These include proprietary solutions, in-house developed systems, and open source software. The most appropriate option depends on a variety of factors including: internal skills for initial setup and ongoing administration, the desired sophistication of the learning management system, accessibility, and the number of users (proprietary companies often charge per ‘ seat ‘or by user).

Open source differs from shareware or freeware and can be defined as “both the concept and the practice of making the program’s source code openly available. Users and developers have access to basic design functionalities that allow them to modify or add functions. to source code and redistribute it. Wide collaboration and circulation are critical to the open source movement1 “. Such software can be entirely managed by an end-user organization or you can use a third party like HowToMoodle to provide training, hosting, and customization. Many organizations begin their experience with such software with the help of a third party and use the training they obtain to improve the skills of their own staff. They can then choose to manage the ongoing administration themselves and use third-party consulting to help them explore more complex facets of the system and its application to their particular training environment.

Choosing software with a strong and active user base helps ensure that the software vendor continues development and ongoing support. For example, the open source software Moodle has more than 48,000 registered sites and the user base has doubled in size in the last year alone. Moodle sites include Dolland & Aitchison, the UK’s largest retail optometrists. They used it to develop tailored training for staff in their 400 stores and support centers after they couldn’t find a ready-to-use package that offered the sophistication in interpreting the training results they needed. The Chartered Institute of Housing has members in more than 20 countries and chose Moodle for its new online master’s course.

When calculating the cost of open source software to the owner, the biggest savings will be the license fees associated with closed source software. The organization is not limited to a particular vendor and gains much greater control, speed of change, and flexibility than would otherwise be possible.

Open source software is no longer just an option for IT nerds. Moodle is a truly intuitive and easy-to-use application that is constantly being added and refined by the team of developers and community contributors from around the world. Closed software is traditionally developed through small beta testing, while open source software benefits from continuous peer review and improvements through its user community. Active and mature open source software incorporates improvements much more frequently than proprietary software, but still follows a published roadmap.

In 2004, open source software for managing e-learning and creating online courses, activities, and communities was a completely new proposition for businesses. Early adopters of Moodle included colleges of higher education that traditionally had good levels of IT expertise internally, but found it difficult to find a ready-to-use system that suited their complex curriculum and customer base. Now the breadth of sectors we deal with is staggering: from the Royal Navy to charities. Open source software is gaining popularity year after year and remains completely free to download and use due to the absence of license costs. Even the European Union’s competition commissioner recently urged the European Commission to use open source software2.

We offer some tips for using open source software to develop a learning management system:

– Think first about the learning outcomes and then what tool will help you achieve them with your students.

– Focus on the activities, try to think beyond the content.

– Don’t think using open source software means that all the burden falls on your internal team, consider using consultants to train your staff or to help you provide the vision to make your learning management system great

– Choose open source software that has a large and active user base, a sizeable development network, and the choice of external trainers / consultants

– Consider sophisticated open source software that enables learning

management system that will be configured to closely match the objectives of your


– Check how ongoing research and development will be funded or carried out on your proprietary or open source system. There is concern in the industry that proprietary system providers are increasingly merging, which could lead to a monopoly situation. Could you link this mission-critical app to a single company whose business goals you don’t fully understand and can’t influence?

– Think about what other systems you may want to integrate with your learning management system (eg human resources, finance). Open source software is an open system that makes it easier to integrate with other software applications than proprietary applications, and someone else in the open source community may have already produced a free middleware patch.

1. Lakhan S, Jhunjhunwala, K, (2008) ‘Open source software in education’ Educause Quarterly. No

2. Tait N (June 10, 2008). ‘Kroes seeks open source software for EC’ Financial Times.

First published at, November 2008

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