The High Cost Of Free: 6 Unexpected Drawbacks Of An Open Source LMS

The High Cost Of Free: 6 Unexpected Drawbacks Of An Open Source LMS
Summary: Your finance department will usually pick the cheap option if you leave the decision in their hands. But what’s the real implication of using open source software for your organization? In this article, I explore the unexpected drawbacks of an open source LMS and whether it’s really in your price range.

Open Source LMS: 6 Expenses That Hide Behind A Free Platform

There’s a saying: if you’re enjoying something for free, then you’re the product. It even applies to social media users on free platforms. LMS is an organization’s L&D digital hub, running everything from onboarding online training to performance management. Netizens are aware that for every item you can purchase, there’s a free option somewhere. It’s not necessarily pirated, it may be open source code that you can modify for your needs. Think of it as couch-surfing vs. Airbnb, but for coders. But what’s the hidden cost behind an open source LMS? What are the cons you should consider before making your final decision? Let's look at 6 open source LMS drawbacks every organization should bear in mind.

Top Open Source LMS Drawbacks

1. Hosting

When you purchase a pre-packaged LMS, it’s often ‘located’ on the LMS vendor’s server. This could be a cloud-based system or physical servers on their premises. Open source LMSs typically exist solely on the open web. When you download and install them for your organization, you have to attach them to a hosting service. You could pay a monthly/annual fee, or you could purchase physical servers to keep in your office. Even if you already have servers, you have to carve out space for the LMS. This space takes away from other services, and while it’s not a cash cost, it’s certainly calculable. There’s also the small matter of keeping your data safe and secure. Which is usually handled by the SaaS vendor.

2. Staff

Commercial LMSs are ‘plug-and-play’ systems. You install them, log in, and you’re ready to go. An open source LMS just gives you the framework. It requires high-level coding to configure it for your requirements. You have to align it with your devices and merge it with software you already have. If the LMS replaces your in-house platforms, the cost of that prior platform goes to waste. You need specialist techies to get the LMS up and running. You might have to hire a contractor or bring someone in full-time, or you might already have the expertise within your IT team. But they’ll still have to leave their standard duties to focus on the new LMS. Thus, the steep learning curve may push an open source LMS right out of your budget.

3. Compatibility

Remember that an LMS can take months or even years to develop, and that’s for dedicated vendors. Your IT personnel, who already have other tasks, will have to divide their time. This adds up to a lot of man-hours. Also, the LMS itself won’t have all your needs. This can easily be remedied with plug-ins. They’re open source functions that run independently, so your coders have to tweak them and ensure efficacy. Sometimes, the function of one add-on interferes with another. Also, because each plug-in was created separately, it may not have been updated. So when the rest of the LMS upgrades, your plug-ins glitch. There are also your existing tools to think about. Will the new open source LMS mesh with your current eLearning authoring or CRM tools? Or will you have to pay for replacements?

4. UX And UI

Commercial developers work in comprehensive teams, so they cover every step of the process. They offer a product that looks good and works great. Open source is strictly code and only offers the foundation for your LMS. You still need to create a ‘face’ for it, with graphic designers and front-end coders. These are not typical staff members in most organizations, so you’d have to outsource them. Temps generally draw premium pay. You could opt to hire a full-term employee, but it’s still an additional wage. And this salary is sure to be more than the cost of buying a packaged LMS. Additionally, you must consider your audience, not just the behind-the-scenes team. Will your online learners be able to use the open source LMS to access learning materials? Or is the User Interface too complicated for the average user?

5. Hardware

Shopping for pre-built LMS solutions is relatively easy. You list your requirements, check your budgets, and double-check must-have features. You might want mobile access or offline usability. With an open source LMS, getting the code is only the first step. You have to install it on your primary hardware and modify it for your staff. You may have to build it into an app which then has to be configured for various phone OS. This is a specialized skill in itself, and it’s labor intensive. It could easily take six months of the programmer’s time. That’s half a year’s worth of work they’ll have to catch up on. And that’s not counting the billable hours lost.

6. Lack Of Support

Most open source LMSs don’t come with advanced support services. In fact, one of the most notable open source LMS drawbacks is that many only include online FAQs and possibly user communities. This means that your team will have to go it alone, without an LMS vendor to offer phone or email assistance. If they run into any trouble, they need to allocate resources and time to resolve the issue as quickly as possible. Otherwise, you may have to push back your launch date or, if it’s a serious issue, think about switching platforms again.


An open source LMS is touted as the best solution to cash-strapped businesses. Unfortunately, its costs can really pile up in cash, time, and labor. Open source platforms require highly trained developers to ‘make them pretty’. Some of the areas that utilize hundreds of hours include installation, maintenance, and User Experience. You’ll also incur expenses for hosting, buying or configuring staff devices, and upgrading individual plug-ins. Given all the drama, you may be better off investing in an LMS that’s already built and is ready to deploy. Unless of course, you already have a dedicated team of IT experts who are willing and ready to take on the challenge.

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