Is an Opensource Virtual Learning Environment Really Viable (and is it really free)?
As more and more organisations look to take advantage of the flexibility offered by online training and education, there are an increasing number of platforms - some called learning management systems, some called virtual learning environments - available to organisations to choose from. These platforms offer an online environment in which training and education can take place, incorporating a variety of learning tools.
From a range of alternatives, Moodle (Modular Object Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment) has become favoured by many private and public sector organisations. Moodle is unique in the market because it is an opensource system (which means the system is primarily developed by a large community of volunteers, and it is not company owned). Moodle has been successful in building a reputation for being a reliable, flexible and intuitive system. This is demonstrated by some large and reputable names choosing to use Moodle . These include private sector companies such as Google, higher education institutions including the Australian National University and Open University UK (250 000 students), and multinational institutions like the World Bank.
The widespread uptake of Moodle can be explained by a couple of factors.First, because it is an opensource system, Moodle does not require any software or licensing fees. This is immediately appealing for companies with tight training budgets or for those who are wanting to dabble in online learning for the first time. Of course nothing is ever truly free, and while Moodle itself may not incur a cost, there is still a price associated with hosting such a system, including server space and adequate technical support. For some organisations, these costs are kept in-house, using existing infrastructure and skills to host Moodle. Other organisations choose to outsource the hosting of Moodle to companies with expertise in this area. However, even when keeping these associated costs in mind, Moodle usually comes out ahead for most organisations from a financial perspective when compared with company licensed products. While the financial advantages of Moodle are well known, it is the educational quality and flexibility of the product which underpins the wider appeal of the system.
Moodle works as a 'modular object' based platform, which in plainspeak means it provides a simple platform from which a wide range of learning tools or 'objects' can be plugged-in. The standard Moodle platform comes with an array of these tools, but there are also hundreds of extra tools which you can download (or build yourself) from the Moodle community website (http://moodle.org/mod/data/view.php?id=6009). This means that organisations can tailor Moodle to their own needs, creating a platform for: communication; accessing learning materials; and richer learning experiences including quizzes, wikis and multimedia learning tools. This dynamism is one of the core reasons why Moodle stands out from some of the more generic platforms.
Moodle is an evolving platform, with regular updates and a lively community continually creating new tools to respond to the latest technological advancements and educational demands. For example, a plug-in has already been created to allow Google Wave (Google's 'next big thing' which incorporates a new approach to email, instant messaging and document sharing in a single platform) to be integrated into Moodle, even though Wave is still only a beta Google product. This kind of development and responsiveness to the users' technical and educational needs is simply unparallelled by company owned products. While opensource products are sometimes considered risky due to their reliance on a community of mainly volunteers, Moodle appears to have reached a threshold whereby it is now a serious player in the online learning market, with some unique and enviable characteristics.