Why it’s hard to find an LMS

It’s been several weeks since my last blog post about my LMS search. The search moves ever so slowly. I can’t say I’ve learned anything new about LMSs, but I am increasingly surprised by how much they cost. I am seriously considering building my own. Why would I pay tens of thousands of dollars year after year for something I can build myself? Time is the only valid reason – I don’t really have the time.

Shopping for an LMS is nothing like shopping for eLearning development tools. For example, if you want to compare software recording tools it’s pretty easy. You go to the various web sites, download trial versions and compare prices. Shopping for an LMS is not that easy.

I’ve found three areas that make it hard to find an LMS: they don’t all post pricing online, they don’t all have trials available, and the feature sets vary greatly.

Price - As a rule of thumb, if the price is not on the web site it’s going to cost a lot. Vendors want you to contact them for the price so they can get your email address and phone number so they can make person-to-person contact. I understand that, but I prefer to contact you when I am ready. I research online because I don’t want to talk to sales people until I am ready. Putting your prices online saves me time and saves you time. If your product is out of my budget, then you don’t have to waste time calling or emailing me.

(Side Rant – don’t hide your phone number on caller ID. I will not answer the phone unless I can see who is calling, and I might just delete the voice mail without listening to it. I consider it a professional courtesy to show your phone number on caller ID.)

Trials - Several vendors do give you free trials, which I greatly appreciate. I can’t imagine why any vendor would not offer a free trial. Webinars can give an adequate overview, but I want to get in and poke around myself. I don’t make any major purchase without some kind of test drive, large software purchases should be no exception.

Feature Sets – Most LMSs cover the basics pretty well (course tracking, user management, reports, and catalog management), but they can differ greatly once you get past the basics. Don’t let this get in your way. Before you start talking to sales reps, nail down your requirements. If you know exactly what you need, you can easily weed out products that offer too much. Keep in mind that you will pay for all those features, even if you don’t use them. I’ve seen incredibly robust LMSs that have awesome features that I would love to have, except that I don’t really need all the features. If you don’t need it, don’t pay for it.  You have to find the LMS that meets your requirements without too many extras you don’t need.

And don’t be afraid to tell the sales rep that their product is too robust.  You have to be honest with them; even if they don’t get the sale they will appreciate your honesty. Tell them up front what is most important to you and don’t get distracted by bells and whistles. You have to compare products based on how well they meet your requirements, not on the features they offer.

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16 Responses to Why it’s hard to find an LMS

  1. Chris S says:

    Gary:

    Resist the urge to build your own LMS. While it may feel like you are rebuying the software every year, here are a few problems that you get to avoid when you buy vs. build:

    o Tech-support and documentation. Trust me, they seem like small issues but these two alone are worth a good chunk of that annual maintenance agreement. You do not want to be the person trying to troubleshoot the system after the CEO calls you on a Saturday night when (s)he can’t get to something.
    o Security patches. Sure would stink to develop an LMS that is an information sieve. Face it; there is a lot of important info in there that you really wouldn’t want the wrong people getting their hands on.
    o Insurance against obsolescence: While nothing is totally future proof, what you dream-up and build today will limit you later; i.e. when you want/need new features or scalability. Let someone else deal with those hassles, otherwise you will end up doing nothing but working on your LMS.

    Finally, take a look at some of the Open Source options that are out there. While most are geared toward the higher-ed market, they can work (possibly with a little adaptation) in a corporate setting. Plus, just think of all the money you’ll save.

    Best of luck!
    Chris

  2. Frank says:

    Chris,

    I couldn’t agree more. Especially in the education space, open source development has really taken off.

    eFront (http://efrontlearning.net) is an example of a quality open source LMS backed by a worldwide distributed development and support community. (do not work for them, just a fan)

    What are your requirements? In most cases the functionality is already there and if it is not, the product can be extended without fear of future upgrades breaking everything.

  3. Chris & Frank,
    I’m really not going to build my own mainly because I don’t want to spend my days working on the LMS. That’s what concerns me about the open source products. I’m sure I could get them to meet my needs, but the integration with existing systems would be problematic.

    I will check out eFront. If the configuration and customization isn’t too much I’ll consider it. Any open source solution will be a hard sell to IT, though.

    Thanks, Gary

  4. philip says:

    Quick point about commercial LMS pricing: Commercial LMSs are rarely ready-to-use ‘out of the box’ as they say; the prices they give you are rarely what you end up paying. Many LMSs require “customization” which adds thousands (in our case tens of thousands) of dollars to the bill. And when I say “customization”, I’m using their term to refer to what *I* would call configuration, which one would think comes with the price of the system. They milk you any way they can. We pay big bucks by the hour just to talk to their tech support team, and this is on top of the $$$ we pay for the system itself.

    RE: rolling your own, I was once frustrated about our LMS vendor search and considered building my own LMS, too (or taking something like moodle>, ilias, or sakai and customizing it). I’m really glad I didn’t, for a number of reasons. The #1 reason is the sheer complexity of an LMS. It gets complicated fast, especially when you’re trying to build in the features your coworkers need for their jobs, such as batch enrollments, custom reporting (a gargantuan task in itself), creating and maintaining organizational hierarchies so managers can check on the status of the people who report to them, creating the various security roles (learner, manager, admin, course developer, etc.), managing classroom bookings, wait lists, etc.

    It’s not as tricky if you’re not handling registration for instructor-led training, but even creating an LMS just for for online education is an incredibly complex task. For instance, trying to build your own SCORM run-time environment is not exactly fun. :P

    That’s where the aforementioned open-source LMSs come in handy: they have many of those features installed already. But (to me) their are a number of shortcomings with open-source LMSs, too. #1 in our case was lack of support for classroom-based education. #2 was reliability in a corporate environment where downtime and bugs aren’t tolerated. #3 was customization; while yes, you can customize, many of these systems are fairly convoluted and would require a LOT of effort to customize the to meet our needs (but then again, so do the commercial LMSs!).

    So basically you can’t win. We went with an incredibly overpriced and bloated commercial LMS mostly because if something goes wrong you can call the vendor and make them deal with it.

    If I was using my own money and had to pick a commercial vendor, I think Desire2Learn looks like a great product (though I have never used it beyond a demo). If I had to pick an open-source system, I’d probably pick moodle; it has a ton of people developing modules for it, and being PHP, modding moodle is not much different from modding a system like WordPress. I’ve just never been crazy about moodle’s layout and user interface.

  5. John Paravas says:

    Check the open-source community. There are plenty of options there and they most often have a demo as well to try. I would suggest to check dokeos.com and efrontlearning.net (I like the interface of both, and the functionality is good as well). The latest offer a specialized enterprise version that costs something between $2000 and $7000 (depending on users) – I know because we contacted them about it.

  6. I know one more point that really frustrated us was the price-per-user system. We have no idea what the adoption rate will be. We didn’t want to be charged for 2500 users if only 100 were going to use it the first few months, or year even for that matter.

  7. Thanks everyone for the comments and suggestions. It’s really great to see the feedback and contributions to the discussion. I have been following up with the suggested systems, and coming up with my recommendation. I hope to get a blog post done on it in the next day or two.

    And price structures are incredibly frustrating. It’s almost like they make it up as they go. Nothing else I’ve ever purchased or researched has such a wide and weird array pricing structures.

    Gary

  8. Erik says:

    This is what happens when I get behind in my blog reading.
    ICS Learning Group’s Inquisiq LMS was developed to exactly address these issues.

    http://www.icslearninggroup.com/products/inquisiq/learning-management-system.htm

    The Pricing sheet is on that page. There’s a 30-day trial available. The feature set is minimalist to keep the pricing down, though they are working on ‘add-ons’ to address the market and interest as it grows.

    I agree absolutely with all your points and wanted to bring this product out in answer.

  9. Erik,
    Thanks for the comment. Inquisic was at the top of my list because it was recommended by a couple of people and because they offer a trial and post their prices. I mentioned them in my first post, “The Great LMS Selection Adventure” http://elearningdevnews.wordpress.com/2008/07/17/the-great-lms-selection-adventure/

    Gary

  10. Ah, I need to proof read my comments better. Inquisq has a “q” at the end, not a c. Thanks Erik.

  11. Rick says:

    The Global Learning System is worth a look at http://www.eLearningManagementSystem.com. It is affordable with a very good feature set. It is also customizable and uses .NET/AJAX technology.

  12. Rick,
    Thanks for the suggestion. I’ll check it out.

  13. Travis says:

    with all due respect, i detect a few shameless plugs by product stakeholders here… I have a recommendation… that’s to read “Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell… read the section on “Mavens” ;)
    they generally tell you the good and the bad of a product… not just the good. ;P

  14. Roby says:

    i have gone through may E-Learning Websites. Lot of LMS fails on UI design and cost-effective factor. the one i am impressed with the User friendly design and cost-effectiveness is,

    http://exponentlogic.com/e-learning-systems

  15. Laxmikanth G says:

    MyClassboard.com offers schools and colleges the power to own an online learning management software that gives students access to course material stored online, thus making knowledge accessible from anywhere at any time. The LMS offers teachers a comprehensive tool to organize study sessions and conduct virtual discussions to the benefit of every student.

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