People, Puppies, and the Pandemic
In this episode of the Higher Edge Podcast, we had the opportunity to speak with Phill Miller, the managing director of Open LMS, one of the world's largest Moodle-based LMS (learning management systems).
Open LMS is commonly used by colleges and universities around the world, but also by thousands of companies outside higher education to provide education and training to employees across a vast array of industries.
Open LMS currently employs about 150 people that are spread almost equally across three very geographically dispersed countries, the United States, Australia, and Columbia.
In this review, we will dive into various topics related to learning management systems, especially during the last few years of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Shortly after Phill Miller graduated from Ball State University with a bachelor of science in computer science-information systems, he went to work at a tech company called Angel Learning. Miller then earned his master's in business and a law degree by taking night classes at Indiana University while working at Angel Learning.
In the next few years, Blackboard would acquire Angel Learning. Miller moved to a different tech company called Moodlerooms, which Blackboard also bought up soon after.
“I stayed with Blackboard for quite a while until I decided to make a kind of strange move,” said Miller. “That was to take the company that I brought into Blackboard, which is called Moodlerooms, and bring it out of Blackboard. That happened in 2020.”
Since then Phill has been the managing director of Open LMS, one of the world's largest Moodle-based learning management systems.
What Is Open Source in the World of the LMS?
Open LMS is an open-source learning management system. All of the software code is freely accessible at no licensing cost.
“Now, when we say free in this scenario, it's free like speech, not like beer,” said Miller. “Right, it's free, everybody has rights to it and it lives independently.”
This means that the code itself is not a free product, you still have to pay for it, but it's free like speech because you can use it however you see fit within the open-source community.
Miller shares that this distinction is incredibly important because open-source systems tend to spur a lot of innovation because a lot of people can participate, not just one group of employees in one company.
Also, open-source software tends to cost much less in a lot of different ways including the fact that there is no license fee to use open-source systems and the exit cost also is much lower than other systems.
“The other joke about open source software is that you know it's free, but we say it's free like a puppy,” said Miller. “Somebody gives you a puppy and they say, ‘oh, it's free’, but we know that there's an ongoing cost to that, and so the same thing is true of open source.”
This ongoing cost refers to the fact that there still is an ongoing cost to use the open-source code and the fact that the code is always changing with new things being added by different people every day.
Open LMS is designed to allow the company or institution to maintain and support its open-source system in a way that benefits what they are trying to accomplish.
“If you have control of the code, you can control your destiny,” said Miller. “You’re not beholden to a company.”
Open LMS During the Pandemic
On March 1st of 2020, Open LMS separated from Blackboard right at the same time the world was being transformed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Luckily for Miller and Open LMS, they saw a surge of people using their site during the first week of quarantine.
“In one week, our bill went up by more than 400%, which means that people were using our platform more than four times as much as they were the week before,” said Miller. “Our team was working around the clock to support our clients. But you know, I've got a lot of respect for our clients, the professors, and the IT workers who were transitioning to online learning. It was a crazy few months.”
While some businesses were hurt by the pandemic, Open LMS was one that did very well. Even as colleges and universities are now transitioning back to in-person classes, Open LMS still has clients using their platform for hybrid and online learning options.
"We are seeing that transition back, but we're seeing it kind of back to a different level than it was before,” said Miller. “Like the online learning part and the hybrid learning is definitely at a higher level than it was beforehand. It feels like we're at a different place after this.”
The Appeal of Open Source LMS for Institutions
For many institutions, open source systems like Open LMS tend to provide a great deal of flexibility and support to many different cases because the people using the code come from a variety of different places.
Open LMS works with all kinds of different institutions around the United States and many in other countries outside of the United States as well.
“Moodle has a significant market share in North America,” said Miller. “What’s interesting is that it has an even bigger market share almost everywhere else.”
The flexibility of the system makes it so that Open LMS can work with so many different kinds of institutions from higher education to medical to corporate institutions and more.
“Many institutions want that control, right, and that control matters a lot because one of the things we need to think about as we go forward,” said Miller, “especially with this big move to online or hybrid learning, is the fact that the university experience has changed a lot.”
Each college and university campus is very different from one another, physically but also visually. When students walk on campus they are greeted by the campus's unique look and feel.
The switch to online learning meant that students were not normally walking around and seeing the campus every day, but instead went to their computers and logged into their learning management systems every day for classes.
“Institutions want to have that flexibility of controlling the online learning environment that acts as the front door of your campus,” said Miller. “That's the same as the bell tower, the quad, and the gates to your campus. It’s that first experience that people have in your online environment.”
The value play is another key appeal to an open-source LMS, besides the flexibility.
“We often at Open LMS tend to be more affordable, especially on a long time horizon, than our commercial competitors,” said Miller.
This is because Open LMS is an open-source platform. They don't employ hundreds of developers to constantly maintain it but instead are a part of a huge community that maintains the platform together.
“One of the most important things that people forget when you adopt a software solution, is that there's not just the cost of acquiring that solution, but there's also eventually the cost of leaving that solution,” said Miller.
A non-open source LMS institution can run the risk of having to switch their LMS if there is a new version that comes out, the original company gets bought out, or even if the software no longer meets the requirements of their institution. This means potentially having to spend tens of millions of dollars to get a new system put in place.
“Our goal is to help our clients avoid that and to reduce that cost of exit,” said Miller. “We want to give them control.”
Collaboration between For-Profit and Open Source
Last year Open LMS announced its commitment to open source by committing to distributing core Open LMS modules and enhancements via the new General Public License, allowing users to change and share all versions of a program.
“I think there's a big misconception that open-source can't provide for for-profit companies and can't create for for-profit companies,” said Miller. “I think for-profit companies are an important part of any open source movement.”
This is important for Open LMS because they don't make their money through license fees but rather through supporting, hosting, and delivering the LMS. Their profit comes from the opportunities that arise from a thriving open-source community.
“This is one of those symbiotic relationships where for-profit and an open-source community can come together,” said Miller.
The commitment to share core Open LMS code, modules, and enhancements has allowed Open LMS to work with its community.
“It's a commitment because when you put something out in the open source community, you can't just leave it sitting there,” said Miller. “If somebody downloads it and asks you a question, you have to respond, and if somebody finds a bug, you have to fix it.”
“So it's a pretty big commitment. But it is important to do that, and it's also important to establish that we're participating in this community,” said Miller.