The beginning of an elearning project can be an exciting and auspicious time. As an insider, it rings all too true whenever a young and motivated team wants to “disrupt” the space with groundbreaking new tech. Their unwillingness to compromise is inspiring, while also the subject of wagers as to when and how reality will strike. Innovation is welcome and deserves support, but it is usually a mature mindset which reaches the goalpost. Perseverance, community engagement and an embrace for Open Source alternatives will increase your odds of success regardless of the path chosen.
What are the key differences between an off-the-shelf and a custom Learning Management System?
When you first start researching into creating your own elearning platform —typically a Learning Management System (LMS), but lately we’re also talking about TMS (for Training) and LXP (Learning Experience Platform)— the first thing that people often come up against is understanding all the different types available. Without a doubt, it’s the nuances between off-the-shelf systems and custom systems that cause the most confusion. At face value, both offer the same thing: A system that helps learners succeed. Of course, it’s often the little things —that we’ve defined below— that set them apart.
As you may be aware of, most but not all LMS have similar core features; a login screen, your branding, a place to upload your learning content, quizzes and assessments; a dashboard for learners, teachers and admins; basic reporting and user management. But if you need something more elaborate say, licensing, a knowledge base, a custom design or integration with third-party software then you might need a custom system. (Building every available feature from scratch, of course, could be onerous as well.)
The second thing to be aware of is the limitations that are set by off-the-shelf systems. If you are a big company or growing training provider, limitations on users, course content, file sizes etc could be a total deal breaker for you. Therefore, you might need to dig into your pockets to upgrade your plan or think about going custom to relieve yourself of these limitations all together. If you’re staying with an off-the-shelf LMS, you might want to look for providers who don’t charge you per user but per resources.
When it comes to off-the-shelf systems, you pay for what you get. Extra features, more ‘seats’ (or users), more courses etc usually come at a cost. This is how providers make their money. A study found that on average, a system with about 1000 users can cost up to £5000 GBP a month, that’s £60,000 (or $75K+ USD) a year, while a custom system could be created for you for half the cost. Largely, your budget will dictate the option that’s right for you.
Remember the £60,000 figure we mentioned above? More often than not this figure includes the cost of licensing the software you’ll use to host your online learning content. It’s priced that way to cover the costs of using the built-in features, supply hosting and support and to keep everything up to date and running from a technical standpoint. With a custom system, you often only pay for licensing any plugins, hosting and technical support but you’ll want a specialist support team and need to be wary of the ongoing maintenance that comes with putting a system like this together from scratch. One final consideration is whether you need to own the system outright. If the answer is yes, then custom or Open Source are your options.
One of the most common drawbacks of going with an off-the-shelf can be the limited options for design and branding. Where most will allow you to choose the colours and branding, and are often user friendly in their design, they obviously don’t offer the full range of customisation available if you were to design and develop your platform from scratch. This isn’t always a concern, but for companies that need their system to be totally cohesive and look like a part of their product offering or brand this can write off the suitability of an off-the-shelf that does not provide themes or CSS styling options.
So, should you choose an off-the-shelf LMS or a custom system?
There are a number of merits to having an off-the-shelf system. If you’re a small business or your organisation doesn’t have the expertise of an in-house development or IT team, then paying for the ease of using a pre-built system is the way to go. But if you need specific features, or to own the platform outright and having the scale enough to make the project cost-effective, then going custom is the better option long term.