201: Muddling through Moodle

By Dan Keckan published June 23, 2014

eLearning, , , , , ,

There is an allure to Moodle’s value proposition. What’s not to like about FREE?!

For a company considering an LMS solution, spending $100,000 annually can cause sticker shock. In return, the organization receives an untried delivery channel to host, track, and report on the training content delivered to employees, distribution channels, and customers. Alternatively, many Software as a Service (SAS) LMS solutions have a cost-per-registered user model that seems affordable when you have a limited number of users, but can ramp up to be a very pricey annual expense if you have a large user base.

A while back, I had the opportunity to participate with a client in a thorough review of LMS vendors, and I found it interesting to see the “feature rich” presentations of each company’s offering. We witnessed virtual dog-and-pony demos from six leading LMS vendors. For this particular client, keeping the “devil they knew” ended up being the best choice.

But another client of ours, Bendix, LLC, also needed an LMS. Bendix wanted to reach a potentially large audience with modest to shallow course offerings. The original goal was to have one or two courses per year available to approximately 5,000 learners. In order to deliver the courses and track and report their learners’ progress, we needed a reasonably priced LMS.

At that time, the per-user cost for an SAS ranged from $10 to $12/year, which sounded reasonable … until you factor in 5,000 users. The actual cost totaled up to about $50,000-60,000/year, which caused our long-time customer to experience some of that sticker shock mentioned earlier.

So I mused, “What about this Moodle thing?”

Moodle has roots in academia. Its features are designed to support a classroom learning model, not business metrics. Corporate clients have different priorities. However, the Moodle LMS does track learners and generate basic reports.

Deploying Moodle as a corporate LMS solution for the first time can be a nerve-wracking pursuit. But like getting married, the key to a successful relationship is choosing the right partner.

One Moodle Partner offered a first year price of $18,000, decreasing to $13,000 for the second year. Because this Partner did not charge per-user, but instead supported unlimited users, our client could train their 5,000 projected learners for under $5 each, per year. The quoted price was to include hosting, with acceptable limits on server space, as well as adequate bandwidth, custom reporting, integration, and training on Moodle. Most importantly, they didn’t have a limit on technical support baked into their pricing model, so we entered our first Moodle relationship.

As Bendix’s custom eLearning provider, our goal was to get their LMS up and running so that we could deploy content. It was at this point that we were reminded of a very important lesson: “You get what you pay for…if you are lucky”

The marriage to our first Moodle Partner was testy from the start. Some of the challenges that arose were:

  • Technical issues, including slow server speeds and the inability to effectively deliver the amount of Flash-based video that our courses contain
  • Disappointing level of customer service, due in part to an unresponsive “Trouble Ticket” system
  • Working with a convoluted, proprietary customized version of Moodle

One of the main difficulties was that we were not given direct access to our Moodle instances and we were forced to go through a cumbersome process with our Partner to make changes, such as uploading a theme. This operational model afforded us less control over the LMS than businesses typically expect and turned out to be a bottleneck.

You know your “marriage” is in trouble when you find yourself hanging up on your Moodle Partner sales rep out of complete frustration. Nevertheless, we persevered through the challenges. Bendix learners were receiving the training they needed, which was the most important thing.

As Year One with our Partner was winding down, we received a renewal quote that was 20% higher than we’d been promised for Year Two of our relationship. But there were other more critical changes. There was now a limit of 28 Moodle support hours, and each additional hour would be $175.

We decided to seek a more responsive Moodle Partner – one that would give us control of our instances and, hopefully, offer more attractive pricing. And we found one.

The cost for Year One with our new Moodle Partner was $5,600 – far lower than our previous Partner had offered. The migration went smoothly and, with access to our instances, we could make updates and changes without a “Trouble Ticket.” However, after a year of marriage, this relationship ended in divorce as well. We were stunned when the renewal rate for Year Two went from the previously quoted $5,600, up to $18,000. The implied message from this Moodle Partner was that they didn’t want our business any more.

Sometimes you need to be nudged to leave the nest. Or, in our case, get pushed.

By now, with two years of experience working with Moodle, we felt that we knew enough to manage the LMS on our own: we didn’t need the “help” of a third party. What we did need were really fast servers with big pipes, and a reliable system to back up our data.

We explored cloud service suppliers and quickly found that GoDaddy offered the speed, uptime, and data back-up to meet our client’s needs at a price that was half what they had been paying.

Before making the commitment, we did some heavy testing of the GoDaddy servers and found their speed far superior to that of our previous Moodle Partners.

At the time of this writing, we’ve been using GoDaddy to host Bendix’s Brake-School.com Moodle site for eight months. We have 10 instances of Moodle and over 18,000 registered learners in 20 Countries, with 60 eLearning courses available. We estimate that some 3,700 hours of training on Bendix products and systems has been delivered, and all these numbers keep going up.

Our conclusions: Moodle is a viable solution as a Corporate LMS and, once you’ve climbed the learning curve, you might be better off without a Partner in your life with Moodle.