Friday, July 5, 2013

Free LMS Software Roundup

When I first returned full time to the classroom a half decade ago, I decided to jump into the LMS world with both feet. It was coming anyway so why not get started from the ground up on a digital curriculum instead of having to convert a more traditional set of classroom resources to digital.

A few years before, I had been using WebCT under the license of my school's partner in education, but the BlackBoard purchase of WebCT had ended that license structure. So I Google'd "Open Source WebCT" and found Moodle. I signed up for a $35/year hosting plan (2M is my personal preferred host), bought a domain name for $10 (Namecheap preferred for this) and have been paperless ever since.

The problem is, Moodle requires installing on a webhost. I had been playing with PHP web apps for several years, including installing Wordpress, Joomla, Drupal and XOOPS. Installing Moodle wasn't much more difficult or technical than installing Wordpress, but it is not for everybody. So this year at ISTE13, I went looking for representative of LMS software on the floor, got their literature and talked to their reps.

Moodle did not have their own booth on the floor. This is because they are an Open Source program and not owned by one company who would make their presence on an Expo floor. Some Moodle value-added vendors were present, most notably MoodleRooms, which hosts Moodle installs, complete with third party and value added services, for institutions and systems. MoodleRooms is a Blackboard owned company, so that is worrisome (see below). There are free Moodle servers for your classes, but I have never used any of them and can't speak to their security, stability or most importantly, how long they will survive.

So I found a few free LMS that exist for a teacher while at ISTE13.  I have set up accounts with most of them and pictured the interface for adding an assignment for comparison. Let me say as a warning that I just toured the interface and did not interact with students through these sites. If you know other LMSs, leave a comment and I will test drive them.

Edmodo has been around for a couple of years and when it came onto the scene it was viewed as a school friendly replacement for Twitter or Facebook, allowing classes to interact in that familiar way. As time has progressed it has added LMS functionality like assignments and quizzes. Many teachers love their Edmodo and I know of schools and systems who have paid for their Edmodo subdomains so their eLearning is all gathered together. In touring the Edmodo interface and setting up a couple of things, I find it to be LMS-lite. It seems hampered by its social network aping heritage. But it seems simple enough.

Edmodo Add Assignment Dialogue 

Blackboard is the biggest player in the LMS field. But I need to state upfront my innate bias against Blackboard. A few years ago the company, which has grown more by acquisition and grafting bought eLearning  products onto each other, patented the concept of eLearning and sued other companies based on this patent. This sort of "Intellectual Property as club" attitude was caused me to hear the company described as "evil." The patent was thrown out, but attempting to patent something that has existed as far back as PLATO in the early 1960s and using that patent to try to control the market was irresponsible corporate behavior in my view. Blackboard has its Course Sites, which allows a teacher to create five classes in Blackboard. Five classes may be too limiting for many, but by using groups and creative management, most teachers could make this happen. Blackboard is, as stated above, a myriad of different technologies grafted together and feels like it from the user end. While offering a teacher a great amount of power, it is a difficult and clumsy interface. As evidenced by being the only LMS I review here to require three screenshots to show the "Add Assignment" interface.

The CourseSites Add Assignment Screen

Canvas is another player, fairly new to the scene but used by several large universities. They will also allow a teacher to create their classes for free, in hopes that a critical mass of teachers will convince a system or a school to buy a full featured product for the system. While more complex than the stripped down interface of Edmodo, it has the power of the Blackboard CourseSites, without having to compromise in shoving your classes down to meet the 5 course maximum of CourseSites.

The Canvas "Add Assignment" Screen
Finally we come to what seems like the best option for a teacher looking for a free CMS option, Schoology. I was invited to beta test Schoology a couple of years ago and found it a good and stable solution then. Checking back now after a couple of years and it seems very slick and intuitive with quite a bit of power under the hood. Like Canvas, they let teachers use the product for free and hold back some value added services in hopes of reaching critical mass for schools and systems. If I didn't love my Moodle server, I would be on Schoology. 

The Schoology Add Assignment page.
There are other services you need to install that I am curious about, particularly Sakai. Soon I will install Google Course Builder and see how it runs and give a detailed review. If you know of another solution or a free Moodle system host, please email me.

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