I'll just come out and say it.
Free LMS platforms really only have one thing going for them: they're financially affordable.
What's the draw of a free LMS platform?
We’ve all heard it, but nothing in life is truly free.
When it comes to software and technology products in general, there are certainly some interesting free and open-source programs. Free LMS platforms definitely have their draw and entice potential users with the too-good-to-be-true value.
They're also risk-free in terms of initial monetary investment.
You don't like the first one you tried? No worries – just try another. What you're losing here isn't money, but time. But if you've got plenty of that, you might not mind...
Open source, free learning management systems are also interesting for certain niche businesses because of the community-driven add-ons and customizations.
Moodle, for example, has community-developed modules that may fit the needs of your organization's training initiatives if you're lucky to find the right – often highly specific – one.
The big problem with free LMS platforms, however, is that they’re not actually free. There are many costs to consider before investing your time in integrating free LMS tools into your business.
'Free' isn't actually free – you're making a trade-off
So, what are the true costs of a free LMS? Well, this might surprise you.
Opting for an open-source, free LMS, you’ll be on your own for a lot of the set-up and troubleshooting.
Don’t expect support from a dedicated team that can walk you through the implementation phase. Sure, there are all kinds of great resources online to help you - but your time is money, and a free LMS will definitely take a lot more time to get it up and running exactly how you need it to.
And once you’re finally up and running, any issues that come up will also cost you additional time to solve: The cost of “getting it wrong” is substantial.
From the main user’s point of view – the employees – the cost can be significant if it’s not running smoothly. If it’s slowing down the learning process or creating a negative user experience (think password resets, site downtime, slow performance, or long load times), the cost is their ability to not do their job effectively.
Add in growing employee frustrations, and you’re looking at an unmotivated, disengaged staff that’s wasting time which would be much better used actually learning the material!
The risks of using free LMS software
Using free LMS software has a few very important risks to consider. Before investing valuable time and resources setting up your company with a free LMS, let’s walk through a basic risk assessment:
Changing browser requirements – Risk Level: Medium
Online open-source and free LMS platforms are slow to adapt to changes. This means that if Google changes its browser requirements, your LMS might be left unstable or downright unusable. It’s not on anyone’s priority list to adapt the free LMS to meet these changing requirements.
This isn’t a huge risk, as most platforms or browsers will eventually adapt to accommodate its range of users. However, it can be very annoying for your employees if there's a continuous or repetitive issue with downtime due to browser requirements.
No safety net – Risk Level: High
With a free LMS, you can’t rely on a service-level agreement (SLA). If a problem arises, you’re pretty much left on your own to troubleshoot. There’s no immediate responsibility for the LMS platform’s providers to offer a solution.
You won’t be able to pick up the phone and get direct help. If the service is down at a crucial time – like right before a major company-wide training sprint – it could really throw a wrench in your plans.
Lack of accountability – Risk Level: Medium
Your users, the learners, deserve a stable system they can count on to help them grow and learn new skills. With free LMS platforms, there is a lack of commitment to the employer and the learners.
Imagine if the platform was discontinued or changes, your workflow is immediately affected without advanced warning (i.e., Google Classroom could begin charging for features or discontinue the platform). That would be pretty frustrating as a user who’s worked through modules and various material, all to see it wiped away or unavailable suddenly.
Paid LMS vs. Free LMS
Employees want accessible, intuitive, and easy to use LMS platforms. You don’t want the LMS to detract from their experience, leading to a lack of motivation or disengaged workers.
Free LMS platforms can often bog down the user experience:
Importance of intuitive user design for learning
Look at Moodle. It’s an open source, free LMS platform. It works, sure, but their user interface leaves a lot to be desired. It’s clunky, over-complicated, and difficult to configure.
Out of the box, Moodle - and other free LMS platforms - lack intuitive design that’s needed for users to easily find what they need quickly and efficiently. This slows down learning and can have a dramatic impact on user engagement and satisfaction.
Learner perception and motivation
We all hate to admit it, but we’re often influenced by brands. For users of LMS platforms, this bias also impacts their view on their experience. What does it tell your staff if you’re using that free software package? Why isn’t it performing as smoothly as their peers in other branches or other companies?
The perception of using open-source software, which could face an array of shortcomings as we’ve talked about, might send a negative message to the learners. This inadvertently comes between their experience and the desired outcome, which is potentially hindering their development and growth.
Paid, subscription-based learning platforms are more than just the features that they can check off a list. When you partner with the right vendor, your success becomes their success. They bring a team of people who are experts in their field and instantly become your strategic partners. Their customer success divisions monitor industry standards and routinely interact with clients across your industry, giving you the benefit of other people's mistakes and other people's successes.
Technology vendors are invested in your success because their organization's survival depends on it. If their product does not continue to improve and be a valuable asset to your business then they will cease to exist. Imagine a team that is working for your success as though their existence depends on it.
When to choose a free vs. paid LMS
While a free LMS platform is certainly better than no platform at all, I hope you can see some of the major pitfalls that could occur when opting for free or open-source systems.
LMS software, both free and paid, is evolving. For professional and paid services, prices are dropping, and platforms are becoming more accessible and intuitive across the board.
It’s important to always consider your users: the employees. It’s in the best interest of the company to make sure their staff has a good experience with their LMS to keep them engaged and passionate about their career and personal development.
With over a decade of various healthcare and emergency service leadership experiences, Benjamin's focuses are on staying on top of the latest learning & development practices and continuously growing his understanding of learning delivery.