Tag: proprietary software

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

A Few Words About: Getting Help in Moodle

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Last month I asked my Moodle host to upgrade BeeLearn.com to 2.1.  I’m getting antsy to overhaul my curriculum using the new features of Moodle.  It took him about two hours to complete the entire site upgrade, including the back-ups of the old site. Everything works swell, except for a couple of third-party modules that we knew wouldn’t work beyond Moodle 1.9x (not yet, anyway).

A few days earlier, I had set up my new desktop PC, with the latest of every version of software for every application you can imagine.  As of today, I am still trying to get to the same level of functionality I had before the upgrade.  Since I had the same computer, with the same version of the operating system and application software for five years, I had many customized settings.  I had grown accustomed to the location of tools and options.  Now, I can barely delete an email.

The thing is, when I have a question such as “how do I enable conditional activities in Moodle” I have four choices:

  1. Poke around until I figure it out myself
  2. Read through the online documentation (always easy to locate)
  3. Post a question at a forum and wait for a response from another user
  4. Ask a Moodle expert, such as my host (if I have engaged him for a support contract)

All of these options are reasonable, by my standards.  I typically receive helpful answers in a short period of time.  Option # 4 is the only one that costs anything and it is also the most reliable.

In the six years that I’ve been using Moodle, I’ve heard some folks express concern that since it is open source there’s really no one to respond to questions; no one is responsible to provide explanation of a feature or help troubleshoot a problem.  That seemed like a valid concern, if options 1-3 above were not feasible for certain people.  I get it. Not everyone has my curiosity or tenacity; maybe they are more interested in rock climbing than learning Moodle.  That’s cool, too.

Now I’m wondering how those people are coping.  When I clicked on the Help icon in my brand-spanking new desktop software (it doesn’t matter which application; they’re all the same), I was stunned, horrified, mortified (you get my point) to be taken to an online community forum and presented with literally hundreds of posts that were somewhat related to my keyword.

What happened to the help index?  Where is the comprehensive list of how to do whatever?  I’m fine with that process when the software is open source and I didn’t pay to download it.  But when the application costs $1000 and I have to accept legal terms to use it, I do not expect to receive support from some other user who happened to figure something out!

What this tells me is that open source software (such as Moodle) just took one more giant leap toward “the business model of the future”.  That one advantage of proprietary software – paying more for the product to ensure technical support – just went down the drain.

If you had any reservations about Moodle – or any other open source application – because of the “lack of support” – you can rest assured that you will get at least – and probably better – support from the enthusiastic Moodle community than you will from the reluctant and desperate users of those “other products”. Most Moodle Partners offer on-going support contracts (essentially, personal help forums) that are less money than the purchase price of my desktop suite that has no such support.

Note:  When you’re building your business case and determining your budget, be sure to include the costs of training and support for Moodle if you plan to do most of the build yourself. If you don’t have the time or desire to learn Moodle to that extent, include the costs of a course developer in your budget.  Actually, these costs are added on to any project, regardless of whether you use Moodle, other open source, or proprietary software.  None of them come out of the box with your content in them!

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Friday, August 13th, 2010

Open Source vs. Proprietary: What does it mean to a small business?

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Most conversations I have with potential clients include this question: “If Moodle is free, what am I paying you for”.  I wrote the answer to that in a previous post.  I promised to explain what “free” means, how that applies to Open Source Software, and what difference it makes to a small business owner. 

Open source software is that which has unencrypted code – meaning that anyone can see the source files (where the software program exists), and freely modify it.  Open source software is usually free of charge, and usually comes with no guarantees that it will work as described.  This might sound horrifying to you, but most of us have experienced bugs, poor support, and even fatal errors with software that was proprietary and cost a lot of money.  Proprietary software has encrypted code; if you look at the program files all you’ll see are a bunch of symbols and you are not allowed by law to modify them even if you could figure out how.  The free in open source refers to freedom of use, not cost.  Contrary to popular belief, open source software is still “copyrighted” in most cases, which does more to protect the users than the creators.  That’s a good thing.

Why would you want to use open source vs. something that was “guaranteed”?  Well, here’s a perfect example.  I am so used to going into the source files of Moodle and WordPress (both open source with strong communities of developers and users), to change colors, images, and strings of text that I found myself staring at my Microsoft Outlook the other day, wondering how to do the same thing.  I wanted to use the “out of office assistant” but I didn’t want the subject of the email to read “Out of Office Reply”.  If Outlook was an open source application, I would find that string in the code and change it to something else, such as “Thank you for contacting us”.  This does not take a genius to accomplish.  It’s really simple; but it is impossible to do in a proprietary application such as Outlook.  Moodle and WordPress (as I have them installed with reliable hosts and responsible web companies looking after them) are far less quirky (for me) than Outlook. In my eBook, Moodle e-Learning: Questions and Simple Answers about Online Training, I tell the tale of the proprietary LMS software that promised to do everything but did nothing.  I couldn’t get my $5000 back, even with an attorney! So “guarantees” mean nothing to me.  

Now, you may be thinking “I don’t want to make modifications”, but you probably do want those changes made, even if you’re not the one doing it.  Your web designer, for instance, makes changes to existing code all the time.  When you say “I want that color to be a little brighter” or “Can you change the font to Arial?”, you are asking him to modify the code.  This is relatively easy in Moodle, WordPress, Drupal, and all open source applications…it can not be done in proprietary software unless the creators built in a button to change the color or font.  In order to make those “little” changes that you have probably become accustomed to (if you have a website), you would have to go through a lot bigger effort and spend a lot more money if you are modifying proprietary software.  That is, if it could even be done at all.

Some software companies, like Apple and Articulate, have proprietary software as the core and offer software development kits (SDK) so that the community can create “applications” that integrate perfectly with their software.  This results in some really cool stuff, as most of you know. 

As a business owner, you should investigate all of your options for whatever functionality you desire.  Sometimes, a proprietary application will be the best solution for your needs.  Chances are, unless you are a giant business, you will have to settle for the out-of-the-box applications if you go the proprietary route.  If you want more flexibility, open source will likely be your best solution in the long run. Before deciding on any application, you should obtain actual user reviews, with specific ratings on function, support, scalability, and anything else that matters to you.  You can find very reliable reviews of an exhaustive list of open source software at SourceForge.net.  This is where I was able to find Moodle, the LMS I strongly recommend for small and medium businesses, authors, trainers, consultants, and other entrepreneurs who want to offer online training to clients and employees.

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