Online learning management systems – the software options

With e-learning on the rise, more and more organizations are examining how best to introduce or improve their learning management systems for online courses, virtual universities, and learning portals. Online learning can enable companies to train their employees more effectively – from front-end staff development to advanced training for the training department itself. Companies are also increasingly recognizing the value of social networking tools in the workplace, and many are considering how to use them online. It is best to introduce discussions and portals.

A large number of software packages are available to enable companies to manage their e-learning systems – these include proprietary solutions, systems developed in-house and open source software. The most suitable option will depend on a variety of factors including: internal skills for initial setup and day-to-day administration, the desired level of sophistication in the learning management system, accessibility and the number of users (companies often charge per “seat” or per user ).

Open source is different from shareware or freeware and can be defined as “both the concept and practice of making program source code openly available. Full collaboration and dissemination are central to the open source movement1” End-user organization or they can use a third party vendor such as HowToMoodle to provide training, hosting, and customization. Many companies start their experience with such software with the help of a third party and use the training they receive to educate their own employees. You can then choose to manage the day-to-day administration themselves and seek advice from third-party vendors to explore more complex facets of the system and its application in their specific training environment.

Selecting software with a solid and active user base helps the software vendor continue development and ongoing support. For example, the open source software Moodle has over 48,000 registered sites and the user base has doubled in the last year alone. Moodle sites include Dolland & Aitchison, the UK’s largest retail optician. They used it to develop bespoke training for employees in their 400 branches and support centers after they could not find a standard package that offered the sophistication required in interpreting the training results. The Chartered Institute of Housing has members in over 20 countries and has chosen Moodle for its new online Masters course.

If one calculates open source versus proprietary software, the license fees for closed source software are saved the most. The organization is not tied to a specific provider and receives far more 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 really intuitive and easy to use application that is constantly being expanded and refined by the development team and community contributors around the world. Closed software is traditionally developed through small beta tests, while open source software benefits from continuous peer reviews and improvements by its user community. Active and mature open source software is much more likely to contain improvements 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 whole new offering for businesses. Early adopters of Moodle included continuing education colleges who traditionally had good IT skills in-house but found it difficult to find a standard system that suited their complex curriculum and customer base. Now the range of sectors we deal with is staggering: from the Royal Navy to charities. Open source software is becoming more and more popular every year and due to the lack of license costs it can still be downloaded and used completely free of charge. Even the European Union’s Competition Commissioner recently asked the European Commission to use open source software2.

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

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

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

– Don’t think that using open source software puts all the stress on your in-house team. Consider using consultants to train your staff or help them develop the vision to make your learning management system great

– Choose open source software with a large and active user base, a large development network and a selection of outside trainers / consultants

– Consider mature open source software that enables learning

Set up your management system so that it meets your goals


– Review how ongoing research and development is funded or carried out on your proprietary or open source system. There are concerns in the industry that the providers of proprietary systems are increasingly merging, which could lead to a monopoly situation. Could you tie this mission-critical application to a single company whose business objectives you do not fully understand and cannot influence?

– Think about what other systems you might want to integrate into your learning management system (e.g. HR, finance). Open source software is an open system that makes it much easier to integrate with other software applications than proprietary applications – and someone else in the open source community may have already created 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 on November 2008

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