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Published on:
September 14, 2022

Why a Free Learning Management System Might Not Be the Best Option

“Let’s opt for the free learning management system. Why pay for something you can get at no cost?”

When it comes to major expenditures, we often first opt for the free solution that eliminates some of the hassles and slashes costs.

But, when it comes to a learning management system, free may cause more issues than it solves. Greater risks to company security and privacy, fewer features, limited users…all important considerations before making an informed decision.

A free software solution may promise you that it can amp up security and acquire more features, but it will require upgrading your package and paying a fee.

Then you wonder why you bothered going free in the first place.

In this guide, we’re going to dive into free learning management systems and explore the risks associated with free software. We’ll also compare free LMS to paid LMS and explain when you should opt for one or the other.

What is a Free Learning Management System?

A free LMS, or learning management system, is software for administering, creating, and delivering educational content, provided at no cost. A learning management system enables businesses to manage, distribute, and edit employee learning material easily, and a free LMS allows businesses to do all this without monetary commitments and credit card details.

Generally, free LMS software comes in three flavors:

  1. Freemium LMS
  2. Free trial LMS
  3. Open source LMS

A freemium LMS (a combination of “free” and “premium”) will offer the basic functions of a learning management system for free but hold high-level features back until you pay a premium.

This is usually in the form of a package upgrade.

For example, the freemium version of the LMS allows for 10 users in the database, but you have to upgrade to the paid package to have 50 users.

An LMS free trial is usually access to learning management system software for a short time, anywhere from one week to one month.

It gives you unlimited access, generally to the best package available, to entice you to pay for the service once the trial is over.

An open-source LMS is software with an open, publicly available source code. It’s released under an open copyright license, meaning anyone can inspect, edit, and enhance the source code.

Because of the open copyright license, open source LMS is usually free and often collaborative projects between a group of programmers.

This type of LMS usually offers high customization (with the right tech know-how) but no support.

But we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves.

Let’s talk about what makes free LMS platforms so alluring.

What’s The Draw of Free LMS Platforms?

When you want to be one of the 90% of companies that use an LMS, it’s tempting to jump in fast and furious and opt for a free program. You want to keep up with technology and trends, but don’t want to make a considerable investment. 

There are three primary reasons companies jump the gun and pick free software:

  1. Try an LMS in your training without commitment
  2. Get started with less executive buy-in
  3. They believe they’re going to get basically the same product for no cost

Number three is probably the top draw of free LMS software.

Many companies believe they’re going to get the same thing for no cost or at least get the essentials for no cost.

This isn’t usually the case (and most companies know it), but because there’s no harm in trying, why not go for it?

Well, it turns out there can be a little harm in trying. Risks that could potentially harm your business and threaten your security.

Let’s start with the drawbacks of free LMS platforms and move from there.

The Issues With Free Online LMS Platforms

When opting for a fast and cheap solution, there can definitely be problems along the way.

A quick look at the issues with free LMS software looks like this:

Issue

Description

Most aren’t actually free Microtransactions, set-up fees, and offers to upgrade are present in nearly every free LMS
Most great features are held back Free LMS software gives you a sample of features but not the most essential
Limited users A user cap of 5 to 10 limits scalability and growth
Low quality Offering a product for free carries the risk it was made quickly without much care
Lack of support and documentation Little-to-no customer support and coaching

Most aren’t actually free

Free shipping with a purchase of at least $25 dollars.

Free savings account as long as you maintain a minimum balance of $2,000 dollars.

Free is seldom 100% free.

Free learning management systems can have a myriad of hidden and long-term costs, such as microtransactions, or costs that pop up during implementation, like set-up, maintenance, training, and support.

When it comes to LMS free trials, you also have the upcoming cost once the trial has run its course.

Unfortunately, if you give in and end up paying all these additional fees, it may be more expensive than if you had just bought your ideal LMS in the first place.

Most great features are held back

Many big-name software companies offer a free version of their service. This could lead you to believe you could grab a popular, high-quality LMS for no price tag.

But if you take a close look at the features in each package, the free one will lack some of the most important functions.

Features that are often held out of reach are:

  • Gamification
  • Microlearning
  • 24/7 customer support
  • Insights and analytics
  • Social and collaboration aspects
  • Content libraries

Free learning management software will lack many basic features and essential functionality. 

This alone can be frustrating, but it leads to even larger issues.

Dealing with an LMS that’s missing essential features will leave a poor taste in your mouth. It could give you a bad experience with eLearning and make it seem unattractive in the future.

It’s like eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich without the jelly. You could then continue through life thinking you hate PB&J – when you never got to taste it in the first place.

Limited users

Related to the last point but deserving of its own section.

A free learning management system for business will typically give you a cap, for example, free access but only for a set number of users.

And this is generally a pretty low number. Think 5 to 10 learners.

This is incredibly low when you’re trying to host training for a business. Larger companies could train over 50+ new hires while upskilling over 100+ current employees.

This is yet another tactic free LMS software uses to nudge you towards upgrading your package. They count on you quickly finding out that 10 users won’t do and running to the “upgrade” button.

If you’re going to end up paying in the long run, it’s best to know from the start so you can choose your ideal product – not just whatever was free.

Low-quality

Software that’s offered for free has a high chance of being low quality or poorly tailored to specific use cases.

It isn’t always the case but often when a community is willing to offer a product for free, it means that they had less time and effort to put into it.

This can include a complicated interface, an awkwardly steep learning curve, and a poor user experience. And 51% of organizations cite poor user experience as their primary satisfaction barrier to learning technology.

You may even think you’re getting premium features by reading the label, but then you dive in and find out:

  • “Insights and analytics” don’t include the key metrics you need
  • “Gamification” means yes/no question quizzes, and nothing else
  • “Support” means emailing the developers and hearing back two weeks later

When a product is free it can vary wildly in overall quality and the creators may have inconsistent levels of skill, experience, and programming knowledge.

Lack of support and documentation

Freemium LMS software won’t include 24/7 support – and sometimes won’t include any support at all.

Free open source learning management systems rely entirely on you for support and maintenance.

Lack of support will impact your implementation, setup, and learning curve.

We’d all like to believe that computers will work the first time – but that isn’t usually the case. It might even be one hour into set-up before you’re wishing you could call tech support for a shoulder to lean on.

Lack of support is a critical point for open source software since customization, scaling, updating, and management are entirely your responsibility.

You’ll be lost and will probably call a professional for help anyway. Which isn’t cheap.

Plus, no support means no training.

Support isn’t just about being there when something goes wrong. When you don’t have the support you also don’t have a coach to show you the ropes.

Tovuti has a strong system of ongoing support. We pair you with a coach for training sessions for the first 30 days. But the help continues after that with access to our customer success team by phone, email, or right through the program itself.

The Risks of Using Free LMS Software

So free learning management systems have their ups and downs – but everything has pros and cons, right?

No harm in trying it, right?

Using free LMS software carries a risk along with it that’s more threatening than just being a “disadvantage”.

The top three risks free learning management systems pose to your business are:

  1. Poor security and privacy
  2. Updates are scarce or non-existent
  3. Time investment into a temporary solution

Let’s take a look.

Free LMS software isn’t as secure

When you pay for your LMS software, you’re also paying for tight security and peace of mind.

Freemium learning management systems will typically have downgraded security than the packages above them. Basic protection.

Although basic protection really won’t do with sensitive company information – especially when you’re holding customer data, like healthcare information.

This is absolutely critical when security breaches increased by 13% last year, which is more than the last five years combined.

And free open source LMS can be a whole other can of worms.

Open source software comes with no legal claims of security and privacy, and because a professional won’t be setting it up for you, it carries the risk of being implemented incorrectly.

This software also has some key vulnerabilities. These vulnerabilities aren’t secret. They’re public knowledge, usually made public by the developers themselves (for transparency’s sake). 

This puts you at an even greater risk. In fact, from 2019 to 2020, open source vulnerabilities increased by 58%.

There’s also no accountability in free software. If anything happens to your business data, it’s entirely up to you to handle the consequences.

Furthermore, your company’s in charge of security, privacy, and maintenance, so unless you really know what you’re doing, you’d better have an IT professional on staff.

Which is closely tied to the next point.

Updates are scarce

Open source software is generally maintained by a community that isn’t exactly being paid much (if anything). So this software is updated and maintained out of the kindness of their hearts.

Rare updates could lead to major compatibility issues as time goes on. For example, your operating system could update, and old software could conflict, clash, and glitch.

What are the odds that your system updates? Well, Windows 10 updates at least once a day, and Mac generally updates at least once a month.

Every time an update downloads, there’s a small chance your software could conflict if the developers aren’t incredibly active.

And what if the developers have completely abandoned the project? They may never update it again.

Freemium LMS packages won’t be this dire. But they’ll still face the reality that free versions just aren’t shown as much love and attention as the paid packages.

You can’t really blame them – it’s tough to find the time to get all your paid work done, let alone maintain the free stuff.

Time investment into a short-term solution

Let’s say you choose a free learning management system.

You dig in deep – creating courses, learning how to edit, manage, and deliver lessons. You nail the basics, it becomes second nature, and you decide:

“I can do this!”

The next step is upgrading your software and really taking your eLearning to the next level.

So you must purchase a brand new product and start the learning process over again.

Source

Depending on the free product you started with, you may have quite a few steps ahead of you:

  • Recreating lessons and courses
  • Teaching your employees a brand new system
  • Relearning the process of creation and delivery yourself
  • Getting the hang of a brand new interface

Sinking that much time into a process only to end up changing tactics isn’t just frustrating – it’s wasting your precious time and resources.

Time is your most important investment, and pouring it into the wrong resource can be heartbreaking.

The time it wastes may even equate to the money you would have put into a paid LMS in the first place.

Free LMS Systems vs Paid LMS

Phew. That’s a lot of info. 

Let’s move to a direct comparison between free and paid LMS.

Free is enticing to many companies – after all, who wouldn’t want something for free?

Larger businesses. They often opt for a paid LMS in the first place. They might even have a professional development fund already set aside for diving into the real deal immediately.

After all, they’re more than happy to shell out some extra dough for a tool that ticks every box.

What boxes? 

Here they are in a concise, side-by-side paid vs. free LMS comparison:

Paid LMS

Free LMS

Most essential features are given upfront Most features held back
Choose the number of users you need immediately Limited users
Transparent pricing Hidden costs
24/7 support team Lack of support and training
Tight security with multiple authentication processes Lack of security and privacy
Frequent updates and maintenance handled by professionals Few updates and little maintenance

Most of the time – we’d say about 95% of the time – a paid LMS is going to be the way to go.

After considering lack of support, needed customization and upgrades, implementation trouble, wasted time investment, and scaling issues, free learning management systems may cost more than paid software in the long run.

When you end up paying for the free LMS anyway, you may finish with a product you only chose because of the $0 price tag. It’s a smart idea to shop around, find exactly what your company needs, and make a purchase. 

It’ll suit your needs, give you more features, and waste less of your time.

Although the most important reason is security. The lack of security and privacy in free learning management systems could cost you time, money, effort, and reputation if anything happened to your data through a breach.

So – is free always a bad choice?

Not exactly.

Free might be a good idea if you’re interested in testing the waters just to see how an LMS works. 

Maybe it won’t be a deep-time investment – you just want to give eLearning a quick try.

A free learning management system may also work for a small start-up with only a handful of employees. You can always pay for a more premium LMS after scaling.

Frequently Asked Questions

“What is the best free LMS?”

Most people agree that Moodle is the most famous free LMS software, and many also say it’s the best.

As far as free learning management systems go, it’s a pretty solid choice.

“What are the different types of LMS?”

The main types of LMS are corporate and academic. The first is used to train and upskill corporate employees, and the second is used to create and deliver school courses for students.

For in-depth information on this, read our guide on What is an LMS?

“How do I set up an LMS?”

The basic steps will be to create an implementation plan, choose your provider, build a project plan, train your administrators, and execute a pilot launch. 

However, it will be different for everyone, so here at Tovuti, we provide each customer with their own implementation timeline.

Free Learning Management Systems: Not Worth the Risk

The problems and risks associated with free learning management systems are a little too high compared to the benefits. 

Limited features, hidden costs, and lack of customer support can sour your LMS experience – but low security is a risk not worth making.

Put some serious consideration into a paid LMS. Your time and your customer’s data are definitely worth the investment.

As you consider your options and make your decision, check out our guide on the best online learning tools and our guide on creating e Learning courses.

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