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Discovering the best in open source LMS

The world of learning management systems is a vast one. There are hundreds of commercial LMS products available as well as open source products. We recently did a survey of the open source LMS space and found nearly 90 projects spread across various open source project sites including Sourceforge, Github, Google Code and Codeplex.

How do you find out which ones are worth evaluating?

The dilemma for the person charged with finding an LMS for their organisation is how to filter out the products which are worthy of closer inspection. We knew from the start that the 90 platforms we found would be littered with inactive projects that are no longer maintained or immature projects that would still be buggy and not ready for production use. So before we even started thinking about assessing the platforms against our list of required features, we had to filter this list down to the products which were worthy of consideration.

The key with open source selection is to find projects that are mature and sustainable. When you evaluate traditional, commercial software you look at elements like vendor stability and longevity, but with open source projects there may not be a single vendor so you are more concerned with whether a community has become established around a project and whether that community is a sustainable proposition over the long term.

The following table outlines our criteria and why each one is important.

Criteria Why do we want to know?
Does it use an Open Source Initiative license? This confirms that it’s a valid open source product, and tells us the terms on which the code can be re-used.
Is code being committed? This provides evidence that the product is actively being developed.
What is the current version? This establishes that the product is production-ready, e.g. Alphas and Betas indicate the project is not fit for production use yet.
Are there regular stable releases? This indicates that the product is being well managed and maintained.
How many developers are committing code? This indicates an active core development team has become established around the product, which is a major factor in long term sustainability.
Are there plug-ins available on the project website? This indicates an active contributor community, another major factor in long-term sustainability.
Are there support forums? This indicates an active support community of end-users, another major factor in long-term sustainability.
Is commercial support available? Mature open source products will have companies offering commercial support services to assist with installation, customisation, hosting and technical support.
Is there good quality developer documentation available? This is vital in attracting new contributors to the project and ensuring long-term sustainability.

So which are the viable open source LMS platforms?

Applying this set of filters reduces the list of 90 down to a mere 10 LMS projects which can be considered mature, stable and sustainable. This is clearly a much more manageable and feasible list against which more detailed feature comparisons can be made.

Name URL
.LRN http://www.dotlrn.org/product/
Chamilo LMS http://www.chamilo.org/
Claroline http://www.claroline.net/
eFront http://www.efrontlearning.net/
Ganesha http://ganesha.fr/
ILIAS http://www.ilias.de/
Moodle http://moodle.org/
rSmart Sakai CLE http://www.rsmart.com/sakai/sakai-cle
Sakai CLE http://www.sakaiproject.org/learning-management
Sakai OLE http://www.sakaiproject.org/node/2239

There are an additional three projects which did not make the cut because they failed on some criteria. Canvas, Dokeos and Totara had no available plug-ins on their websites, which indicates that a mature developer community has not yet become established around these products. In the case of Totara, the absence of a public code repository or public file downloads further complicates things because the product fails on two other criteria: evidence of recent code commits and evidence of regular releases.

However, it is important to apply some qualitative judgement based on your own expertise in these types of deviations. It’s simply a case of ‘buyer beware’ and understanding the risk of failing to meet any specific shortlist criteria, and knowing when to invoke some elements of commercial due diligence for vendor-driven open source such as looking at profit and loss accounts.

LEO Learning is happy to take an independent view of the open source or commercial LMS markets to help you select the right LMS for your organisation, so please speak to us about our research and consultancy offerings.