Rather than being an idealistic software experiment, the open source Moodle learning management system (LMS) has become a market leader. John Stokdyk looks at the impact it is having on elearning.
In the wider world of technology there is a conflict taking place of near religious dimensions between the freedom fighters of the open source software movement and vested interests such as Microsoft and other companies that develop code under the traditional commercial software licensing model.
Trainers and academics are less concerned with the theological perspectives - instead, they have enthusiastically embraced the open source Moodle application as a low-cost, highly functional LMS that can cater for most of their needs - with or without a little bespoke adaptation.
Even commercial software suppliers such as the CS Group's John Buckley acknowledge 'the Moodle effect' and how it has changed the market's dynamics.
In contrast to commercial learning management systems, Moodle is an open source program, which is developed by a community of designers and programmers who publish their work free for others to use - there is no licence fee to pay.
If the proposition sounds interesting for your organisation, remember that just because there is no software fee, the application is unlikely to be free - you will still need to install, run and maintain the system, and train your people how to use it. And just to ensure that Moodle isn't taken as be the be-all and end-all of the open source LMS world, a similar system called Sakai has been developed at the University of Cambridge.
For the moment Moodle is making the running with 41,674 registered sites at the time of writing - nearly double the number 12 months ago. Moodle's strongest following is within the academic community: the UK's Open University is among the application's leading users. But training consultancies and developers such as Kineo have also embraced Moodle and used it to support corporate clients that include BUPA, Europcar and Marks & Spencer.
On its website, Kineo explains that Moodle has a range of standard features including learning blogs and collaborative wiki documentation tools, chat rooms and online discussion groups, a calendar for booking training events plus the ability to publish learning materials in a range of formats.
Rather than reading a dry description of the system's capabilities, one of the best ways to get to know Moodle is to take a look at Kineo's free Moodle demo site, or the Open University's Moodle-based LearningSpace site, which hosts 400 free courses.
After discovering such a treasure trove of learning - and what looks to be a very effective way of delivering it - some may find it hard to revert to the topic at hand. Moodle has taken off "because it's so simple to use" explained Joel Greenberg - the Open University's director of strategic development, learning & teaching solutions - at this year's Learning Technologies conference.
The Open University has committed more than £4.5m over the past three years to its Moodle virtual learning environment. Open source doesn't mean free, Greenberg explained. Rather, he said, "we spend more on training and development than software fees".
Of the money spent on the system to date, 37% went on development costs to adapt the system to its needs; admin and running the system absorbed 36% of the costs and 14% went to the university's computer centre to host it. Training accounted for 7% of the budget.
While the university pays external programmers in the Moodle community to create the enhancements it wants, all of the source code is published so the rest of the world gets it for free too, Greenberg said. The Open University maintains the Moodle quiz module for the rest of the community and is working to add improvements to the calendar module, plus synchronous collaboration tools, so that learners can use the system to look at remote desktops in a similar way to Skype and WebEx collaboration systems.
A learning assessment module is also in development to provide feedback about students' understanding of their learning, Greenberg said.
Moodle is well suited to the education market, he explained. "Students don't care about the look, they want access to the environment." While commercial developers like Microsoft place great emphasis on useability and look and feel in their applications, Greenberg argues that the Web 2.0 phenomenon has "blown apart all usability preconceptions".
He continued: "In the past we expected students to adapt to the systems they were given. But we are moving into a world where learners choose which resources they access. Our open source learning tools give us a better chance to do that".
If your organisation is prepared to sacrifice some sleekness for basic, integrated functionality, Moodle and similar open source platforms are a simple and low-cost way to deliver online and blended learning programmes. In spite of the obvious advantages, some suppliers detect pockets of reluctance in the corporate market.
"If there are all these great free tools, why are cost-conscious firms not adopting them faster?" asked Academy Internet's Viv Cole in a recent blog posting.
"What Moodle is doing is changing the business model of how the LMS market works," Cole explained later. "The days of the £2m learning management system are over."
But as the Open University example shows, corporate training departments do need to budget into the hundreds of thousands of pounds if they want to get an open source LMS like Moodle to do what they want it to.
"Moodle is still seen as a system for the experts. If as a large corporate you've got thousands of people who are having to navigate their way around an unfriendly system, it's a huge waste of opportunity."
Where the LMS concept used to be based about selling technology, the market has moved more to selling the know-how to customise it to meet client needs in an intuitive and non-clunky way, he added.
TrainingZone.co.uk member Randy Rice has been using Moodle for developing and delivering elearning content since 2006. "Open source software is not free," he confirmed. "There are costs you will encounter in time, support and frustration. Allow time to learn the product."
But if you've got the time and patience the Moodle developers have made it as easy to use as possible for an open source application and the Moodle users are very free at providing help through the system's user forums, Rice advised.
It's a different way of thinking about software implementation and development - but one that fits very well with the self-directed and interactive nature of learning theory in the 21st century. If you want to find out more about Moodle, what's stopping you? All you need to know is waiting for you out there on the web.