Open Source vs SaaS Learning Management System

For the past 20 years, the prevalence of learning systems has increased exponentially. As technologies evolved, so have the use and application of the LMS from just launching and tracking training (a compliance system) to management of professional development programs, talent management programs and training that includes social interactions are now part of the norm in LMS capability. Whilst these systems have always been relatively quick to adopt leading edge technologies, they have all undergone substantial refinement on the features they offer learners, educators and administrators.

The majority of all LMS’s:

  • Centralise and automate administration
  • Use self-service and self-guided services
  • Assemble and deliver learning content rapidly
  • Consolidate training initiatives on a scalable web-based platform
  • Support portability and standards
  • Personalise content and enable knowledge reuse

However in recent years one of the main distinctions between the systems available has been the choice between open source and SaaS LMS’s. Aided by the financial constraints levelled on many businesses, open sourced systems have gained much wider market presence due to the myth they offer lower capital overheads to run the systems. But also the prevalance of companies just renaming an open source system and claiming it as a new learning platform. No its still Moodle. Moodle is great for schools and community colleges but simply can’t compete with enterprise solutions.

The question is though, is this apparent cost benefit all its made out to be and can open source systems including commercial open source systems really provide end users with a learning experience that truly supports performance development.

Before going any further it should be noted that all businesses are different and therefore the needs around the practical application of an LMS will vary greatly. All businesses when researching the systems available should do this with a detailed understanding of the business goals driving the implementation of an LMS and the ultimate decision on the platform to be implemented should directly align with these goals.

Furthermore these business goals should not just encompass the immediate needs of the business but also the future aspirations of the business. The inclusion of any LMS should be viewed as a long term investment in the development of your employees and therefore your business.

Let’s now look at a couple of the major differences in open source and SaaS systems.

DIY v’s Supported

One of the single biggest differences between these types of systems is that, open source LMS’s are a Do It Yourself (DIY) experience. Instructions and guidance are provided for the installation of the software after which getting to know the system, its capabilities and limitations are left up to community forums and trial and error.

Proprietary systems on the whole have dedicated technical and business support services that form part of the licensing cost. What’s more the majority of LMS vendors will have their own localised or partnership implementation service providers. These providers know the system back to front and are able to circumvent many of the set up and configuration pitfalls that exist before the physical implementation even starts. This also has the added benefit of having virtually immediate troubleshooting support available to keep the system up and running.


For L&D departments and business management, one of the primary requirements of any LMS is the need to get detailed and meaningful reporting on the training activities conducted or managed via the LMS and ideally how staff knowledge and behaviours are changing over time in relation to these training interventions.

LMS developers, both open source and proprietary have looked at this requirement in a number of different ways. The most common being:

  • Provide a small amount of broad standard reports that capture a vast amount of data but require the administrator to filter this data every time the report is produced to attain some meaningful metrics
  • Provide a range of generic standard reports based on the structures within the LMS such as course completion, curriculum progression or assessment results.
  • Include the development of customised reports as part of the implementation cost
  • Include the ability to link to an external reporting application and let the administrator build their own reports. This usually requires some coding ability and an in depth knowledge of how to conceptualise and build report structures


All businesses change over time, this is a fundamental concept. What drives a business today may well be a secondary concern next year (or even next month).

With this in mind any LMS being considered for implementation, should be capable of adjustment and change over time.  This ability to change should cover the range of functionality, the look and feel, the capacity to easily accommodate new users and user group requirements and finally the ability to link to other enterprise systems such as HR or Payroll.

Most LMS available today are able to accommodate such changes in business goals and changes to systems look, feel and functionality however the path to adopting change is quite different.

This area is something that open source systems can struggle with, particularly around the integration of additional learning needs, for example starting to have classroom training where previously only online courses were offered. This is also an issue where additional third party systems might require integration to provide new or enhanced user records.

The primary reason for this difficulty goes back to the availability, focus and quality of support available around the open sources systems. Since all business will differ in their requirements, it’s often quite hard to find community based support ideas that will suite your particular need and more importantly help you trouble shoot issues as they occur.

The second reason is that many of the open source systems require some knowledge of database management and programming, even coding, to be able to adjust the systems functions and outputs. If the administration team does not hold this skill set it can be a timely and costly exercise to engage or hire the resources required to update the system.

With the proprietary LMS’s such changes to the system are made considerably easier owing to the vendors or vendor partners ability to assist in scoping the change, manage or direct any IT centric tasks and provide training and support whilst the change is adopted and beyond.

System Enhancement and Upgrades

The LMS industry is not unlike other IT based industries in that the only constant is change. New technologies and social trends drive development of new features and functions, the most recent example being the integration of social collaboration tools to the learning experience.

System upgrades and enhancements are handled in very different ways. For the open source systems, upgrades and new functionality are often only provided when an existing user develops the changes themselves, then makes the changes public (not always for free). This can work quite well and changes can be published very quickly, since there are quite a few of users who like to customise these systems and share the results, but often the customisation is built to fill quite specific business requirements and therefore may not integrate readily or at all with your requirements.

Proprietary systems however have a team dedicated to research and development of upgrades and enhancements and their focus is not only making the changes robust and bug free, but also on making changes open to configuration depending on the business need.

In essence, of the systems currently available on the market there is very little difference in terms of “out of the box” functionality or capability, the real differences are realised with the support and services wrapped around the system, the thought, planning and support for enhancements and the usability of the system for both learners and administrators.

Software upgrades are often a difficult and costly exercise for businesses. Especially if the original system has been specifically configured to fit unique business need. With Birch, the upgrade process is continual and more importantly part of your subscription.

  • All upgrades are part of the support and maintenance package, there are no extra or hidden costs this is not the case with all systems.
  • An upgrade does not affect any configuration that has been done in the clients system, all configured items transfer seamlessly into the upgraded software package.

B Online Learning adopted a governance model that allows clients to make suggestions for Birch system enhancements which are then added to the product roadmap.

Find out more about Birch Learning Platform here or contact us to discuss how it can help you.

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