You’re shopping for an LMS and behold FREE OPEN SOURCE LMS pops up. “Free!” you say excitedly. Yes, indeed. Free and open source. Well hold the phone because if it sounds too good to be true, it’s because open source isn’t all it claims to be. Yes, it sounds like a good idea, but if you own a business or run an association, you might want to think twice about open source.
What does open source mean?
Open source means that the source code for the software is accessible and editable. Taken from How Stuff Works:
To be considered as open source software by the software development industry, certain criteria must be met:
- The program must be freely distributed (It can be part of a package that is sold though, such as Red Hat has done with Linux ).
- Source code must be included.
- Anyone must be allowed to modify the source code.
- Modified versions can be redistributed.
- The license must not require the exclusion of other software or interfere with the operation of other software.
What’s wrong with that?
Why would letting you customize a program be a bad thing? I hear many eyes on the code makes for a safer program. What could go wrong?
Open source is an easy target for hackers, like keeping the door to your house unlocked. Sure your neighbor’s house with a locked door could also be broken into, but your unlocked door makes it convenient to hit your house first. Open source means code is open and this gives hackers the ability to exploit vulnerabilities in that code to obtain records, steal your work and sell it as their own, or worse break your program just because they can.
You don’t have to be in technology to have heard about Heartbleed (a major internet security breach affecting Open SSL putting countless people’s information at risk). Open SSL is an open source encryption tool used by almost every ecommerce site on the internet to secure data. When you see that little lock on your bank’s website, it’s using an SSL to encrypt your data so it isn’t stolen. Likewise any site begins with https is also encrypted. In both cases, they’re probably using Open SSL, so when the Heartbleed vulnerability was exposed by Neel Mehta of Google it was a very big deal! It is important to note that all programs can be hacked, but open source programs make it much easier to find and then exploit vulnerabilities in code.
You’ve heard the expression, you get what you pay for. Often this is true for open source LMSs. If it’s free, it may be because it’s an over-simplified bare bones LMS, counting on you to customize and make the platform what it should be. Or, you can choose an LMS provider with a reputation for quality that has already created a fully functioning robust platform that can still be customized to be everything you want and more.
If it’s a free open source LMS then it’s probably not coming with technical support. Sure there are forums, but if you’re not already a programmer familiar with code and your IT staff isn’t full of software developers, who do you count on to help you when things go wrong? Who do you call when members can’t access a module? Who do you call when you can’t figure out how to upload a video? Who do you call? A proprietary LMS vendor.
One of the key arguments for fans of open source is that if your provider goes out of business for some reason, you’ve been abandoned. You have to find another provider, migrate your data, etc. With open source you have ownership of the code and are never at the mercy of a provider.
Except of course for the fact that resellers are using free LMS platforms to start their own LMS companies that are fly by night small organizations that could easily go out of business and you’ve still been dependent on them to do the programming for you. Or you can choose an LMS provider with a proprietary software that has been in business for decades and will be in business for decades to come. Who’s more reliable, an LMS provider with a stellar reputation but a proprietary LMS or an open source LMS provider that gives you no support or closes up shop without warning?
This isn’t to say that an open source LMS is bad, or that the technologically savvy can’t make an open source LMS work for them. But if you’re an average education director looking for an LMS provider that will give you what you need and support you when you need it, you might want to consider whether free is worth the cost. Because maybe, an open source LMS isn’t always the best option.
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