By Mike Churchward, CIO/President

At Remote-Learner, we often get challenged by clients and the community alike to explain why we charge for the services and products the way we do. There is often a presumption that our services should be free or “near-free” since the primary application we service is Open Source and therefore free. Primarily these challenges are made of our development services, our expert advice and consultation, our support and our maintenance of other third-party add-ons. To explain this, I will describe who we are and what we do.

Our goal is to be the company that provides the services customers need to run their e-learning programs successfully, using Moodle, an Open Source learning management system (LMS).

Open Source Moodle is freely available to anyone to acquire and use, under the GNU General Public License. One of the key concepts of an Open Source application like Moodle is that it is “free”. The code is free; the application is free; there are no fees in the form of any licenses required for anyone to acquire, install and operate Moodle.

But, operating Moodle is not free. It is often said that Open Source is “free as in a puppy; not free as in beer”. It will cost anyone who wants to use it, the time and resources needed to install, operate, manage and maintain the application, and the efforts needed to administer, create and operate the learning programs on Moodle.  This is true whether they do it themselves or whether they contract someone else to do it for them – like us.

As  a company, we have costs – employees, overheads, infrastructure. We need to pay for these, and like any other company, we do this through revenue. Our revenue comes from supported hosting, training, development and other expertise-based services.

Primarily, our clients host their sites in our infrastructure, where we can support it best. Our infrastructure has been optimized for performance, security, management and maintenance. We provide a number of pre-approved add-ons from the community, with every installation. We also allow our clients to request other add-ons included in their sites, once they have passed a rigorous approval process. This process looks for potential security and performance issues, and ensures the add-ons meet the minimum development standards defined by the Moodle project.

We support the application layer, administrative functions and teaching functions through our commercial services. If for any reason you need to discontinue our services, you are not locked in. You can take your code and data with you and run it on any suitable infrastructure.

Moodle is a highly configurable, highly pluggable application. It can be changed and configured in infinite ways.. We provide services and systems to allow clients to change Moodle in that way, including helping them install custom plug-ins that they need. Our systems are designed to provide a platform that is maintainable and supportable using these methods.

When we develop code for Moodle, it is either in the form of pluggable add-ons or as a core development project for future releases of Moodle. All of our work is provided as Open Source, available to anyone. We also provide documentation both to the Moodle core and for our own development work.

But because the source code is completely available, many users of Moodle want to change it for their own use on their specific installation. We strive to avoid this with our clients.

One of the greatest strengths of Open Source software is that it can be modified by anyone for their own use. One of the greatest weaknesses of Open Source software is not understanding the responsibility of making those changes. Having custom code means taking on the responsibility of maintaining a “fork” of Moodle. A “fork” is essentially the same as maintaining a custom built LMS.

Maintaining a “fork”, means taking on all the responsibility of maintaining it. That means any changes to Moodle (point upgrades, version upgrades) will require extra development work each and every time the application is updated. Extra work means that each Moodle upgrade will incur extra costs and cause delays. There are significant risks in maintaining those changes. If the changes are not part of standard Moodle, the Moodle core code could change in a way that irreparably breaks the modified system.

To that end, we work with our clients to understand their needs and problems, and find ways to solve them with the managed Moodle codebases we provide. We use our Moodle expertise to find the most efficient, low-risk and maintainable way for our clients to do what they need done in Moodle.

There are many organizations out there maintaining their own forks of Moodle. They have their own staff of developers, testers, documenters and support to do so. Our systems allow you to utilize our resources for this, and only bear the cost necessary for your portion.

In closing, Remote-Learner strives to offer freedom and options to clients. Our services and methodologies help to further democratize learning across the world. We promote growth and innovation through open technologies, and we do not shackle clients with expensive locked-in, license-to-use technologies.

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