Is It Really Worth It?
Introducing eLearning to an organization requires considerable resources. One needs IT support to take care of technical questions, at least one administrator to manage content, and either an Instructional Design team creating training materials, or a coordinator managing material preparation outside the organization. eLearning needs to be properly marketed among the employees to encourage them to have a positive attitude, and among the managers to encourage its use whenever possible. Manuals need to be written, people need to be trained and the help desk needs to be on its toes. All this requires “resources”, which eventually translates as “money”. No wonder, then, that many organizations use the opportunity to cut back on expenses and opt for a free, often open-source, Learning Management System (LMS). But does the fact that it’s free mean that you don’t have to pay for it? Let’s take a closer look.
4 Hidden Costs Of A Free LMS
1. Unintuitive User Experience
Everyone needs training on new tools, this goes without saying. However, depending on how user-friendly the tool in question is, a different amount of time needs to be spent on onboarding. While some LMS platforms are so intuitive they hardly need a manual, others may require in-class workshops to get your head around them. Also, the worse the User Experience, the higher the necessity to follow up and regularly refresh the training, not to mention the strain on the help desk.
2. Limited Integration Possibilities
Many actions connected to user management, content creation, and report generation can be done either the hard way (manually) or the easy way (via integration). As many free LMSs have limited integration possibilities, we are left with the hard way. An LMS may enable you to import a list of a thousand users via a .csv list or a template, but these often need to be created or adjusted manually—and that costs time. It may present performance statistics on individual users and allow .xls report generation but the results won’t magically appear in your talent management system—that requires handiwork.
While the import/export feature saves trouble with the bulk of users, there are always “special cases” that need to be taken care of separately. Optimistically, let’s assume 1 special case per 100 employees in an organization. How many would that be in an 180,000-employee workplace? Take these 1800 employees, spend 5 minutes on each and you have 750 hours. With a 40-hour week (and no lunch or bathroom breaks) this gives us over 18 weeks, or 4 months, of work. And we all know that there are usually more special cases, especially in the face of an upcoming deadline.
3. System Updates
System updates are an important part of LMS maintenance. They fix bugs, improve safety, add extra features, or improve User Experience. On occasion, they don’t work, cause more problems than they solve, generate the need for additional training and/or help desk hours, and require maintenance breaks, which might affect missing deadlines by some (see above: special cases). What might cost an organization even more is a lack of updates.
4. Curating Content
Managers, administrators, and Instructional Designers all remember to upload the latest version of the occupational safety and health course on an LMS. But does anyone remember to take it off when it becomes outdated? Curating content, or at least occasional spring-cleaning, might take an administrator a couple of hours/days/weeks of work but this is a necessary cost as the growing amount of moth-eaten materials may cause problems on a wider scale. Time may be lost and motivation lowered when navigating through old content while searching for crucial information. Acquiring outdated information will affect employees’ results and generate additional hours for completing up-to-date training. Disorganized content discourages employees from learning on their own initiative.
Are Free LMSs Worth It?
While free Learning Management Systems may come with unexpected costs, they are still worth consideration. Cost-generating issues like complex training, help desk, semi-manual data migration, maintenance breaks and content clean-out are mostly true for the bigger organizations; smaller organizations should be able to find a way around them.
A free LMS is a solution I’d recommend to small and medium-sized companies who are considering introducing eLearning but are not yet convinced of its effectiveness, those wanting to minimize investment, or spread eLearning implementation costs among a couple of budget periods, as well as those who want to try a demo/basic version of a system before investing in its development. What is your experience with free LMS systems? Were you surprised by unforeseen expenses?