Open Is As Open Does

The recent announcement of the OpenLMS making its extensions to Moodle available as Open Source generated a bit of a dust up in the EdTech journalism space.  Here are several great articles:

  • Phil Hill wrote a piece titled “Moodle’s Dispute with LTG and its Growing Suite of Former Moodle Partners” that focused on the relationship between Moodle and OpenLMS.  OpenLMS keeps buying Moodle commercial partners as soon as they get a decent number of customers and switching the customers from the Moodle community edition to the OpenLMS edition.  It highlights the difficulty of making a 100% open LMS sustainable (i.e. getting sufficient funding to support a team of 50 or so).
  • Michael Feldstein wrote a piece titled, “Moodle’s Sanctimony on Openness is Moot“.  It is a fun read as it wanders around the well-known fact that virtually all open source products are available from commercial vendors and those vendors add a bit of glue so the products run cheaply and reliably at scale in hosting environments like Amazon.  Michael takes the somewhat narrow position that if a little bit of code is not open then the whole “claim to be open” kind of falls apart (greatly simplified – ed.) – if there is a single crack in the “perfect open” – then there is no point in loudly arguing subtle differences.

Please read these before reading my post – as my post is very much additive to the conversation and I will not repeat what both of the above posts have accurately and elegantly said about the situation.

Also before reading further, understand that this is not me grinding an axe on my enemies or competitors.  I am friends with Martin Dougiamas (Moodle),  Phil Miller (Open LMS),  a number of Canvas employees like Karl and Melissa as well as friends of Phil Hill and Michael Feldstein.   I cherish those friendships so this post is not to bash anyone – it is just looking at the current situation through my personal lens.

Open is as Open Does

I think that the major flaw in both of the above pieces is that they look at the situation through very literal non-gray-area lenses like.  “What is the license?” or “Does Martin have a legal right to be upset about OpenLMS?” or “Where is that hidden code?” or “Is there a moral right or wrong when something is claimed to be open?”  These excellent “in depth” pieces are flawed because they are “in depth” and as such miss the bigger picture and don’t explore the all important gray area that matters most.

The bigger picture is that the purpose of “open” is to empower others to fully participate in a software ecosystem and contribute to its directions without requiring a commercial relationship.

I will look at the major “LMS” projects that will provide a Git repository with an OSI-certified license – that is the pure definition of “de-jure open”.    But that is only a small part of the “de-facto” definition of open.  I see a number of factors that are very important to non-paying adopters where I will grade each LMS in the grade book below:

  • How many non-paying servers have been installed?  This is where the rubber meets the road and the analysis could almost stop here.  Ultimately the other factors in this grade book lead to better or worse adoptability and that drives installation count.
  • Is there a structured community where non-paying participants have equal standing as paying participants.  For example, are there conferences?  Are these “paying customers only” or are they open?  Are the conferences about building community or herding customers into rooms with free drinks and snacks once per year.  Are there active developer lists, IRC’s or Slacks where folks can and do participate?
  • Is there a real way for non-paying adopters to get support for their product?  If they install a new version and see a weird message during database conversion, where do they go? Who will respond?  If they find a bug, can they submit a patch?  If they submit a patch will it ever make it into the core source code and a released version of the product?
  • Can non-paying adopters be part of the core team of developers?  Can they be part of the core decision making process?  Do they have access to the leadership team and can they make their case for a feature to the actual person who will build the feature?

All of these are variations on an organizational value of “welcoming, celebrating, and appreciating non-paying adopters”.

Since I am a teacher, I gave four LMS’s with some aspect of “open” in their nature grades in these categories.

The Grade Book

Non-paying participants
LMS License Server Count Community Support Leadership Access
Moodle GPLv3 A+++ (> 100K) A A+ B-
Sakai Apacheish B (> 100) A A A++
Canvas AGPL D (Some) D F F

Comments on the grades

  • Moodle is the best / “most de-facto open” in this analysis.  They “do open” better than anyone else.  They are three orders of magnitude better than all of the others combined in the most important metric of non-paying servers installed.  Their community is wonderful – their idea of teacher-centered MOOTS is *brilliant*.  If you have a problem with Moodle you post to the list and will likely get an answer from almost any time zone in the world and in almost any language.  #Jealous The only knock I have on Moodle is the insular nature of their core team.  They are treated as celebrities at Moodle events but then run back and hide in the walled garden of HQ and make all the decisions.  Fixing a bug or making a small contribution to Moodle requires you to become friends with folks on the inside and leave your offering at the door and hope someone comes out and picks it up.
  • Sakai (my entry in the list) is much smaller than Moodle in terms of servers installed.  Sakai’s events and other community activities are an even split between teacher and developer focus.  We have many examples of large and small contributions from relatively unknown non-paying community members.  If the code is good and follows the style guide and they fill out the contribution agreement – it goes in.  It is sometimes a little challenging to know the right way to do something in a nearly 20 year old code base with 1.4M lines of code. Sakai has a 1.5 hour online core meeting *every week* with open access that anyone can attend where our most core, senior, and talented engineers, UI experts, and accessibility experts will review github PR requests from anyone on the planet and help the person re-work their changes so we can get them in.  Sakai’s strongest column is “Leadership Access” – you can monitor core meetings by just joining online – Sakai has over eight meetings per week that are open to the public.  These are the only meetings where things get done and decisions get made.  “Sakai is 100% open – all the way to the core”.
  • Everything about Canvas derives from the AGPL license and “Open Core” approach.  I won’t nick them on Open Core because frankly the core is enough of a decent LMS for a smaller organization to use that the non-core bits are not all that important.  And the bits to host at scale are not very reusable anyways.  Canvas does not encourage non-paying adopters or small commercial companies hosting Canvas – but it happens.   I have no idea the extent or the number of schools and companies that run the free Canvas.  I think this is more prevalent in places like China and India where (a) Canvas does not have much presence, and (b) the countries have a wealth of technical talent and can handle a Ruby-On-Rails application without asking a developer list for help.  Canvas does a good job of maintaining the instructions on how to install the open version but does not really welcome non-paying adopters into “the family” with open arms.  Also the core Canvas staff (who are awesome by the way) are super insulated from any customers (paying or otherwise).   Their “vote on new features” web site is a laughingstock – but consistent with a core value that non-paying adopters are only useful as a marketing gimmick to assure the infinitely more important paying customers.  But kudos to Canvas – their minimalist approach to openness has made a decent LMS available to countries and communities that can make use of the product.
  • And now we come to OpenLMS.  To be fair, OpenLMS has only been open source for a month.  Almost all their grades are TBD.  There is a nascent community at – there is an Open LMS Open Roadmap: What To Expect blog post you should read.  That is all we get.


Since OpenLMS is only a few weeks into their Open Source experiment, OpenLMS / LTG is mostly “potential” and they will be making some decisions along the way.   They can look at this blog post (and its grades) as one possible roadmap to “open greatness”.  I think back to the “score card” that Ray Henderson did at a few Blackboard meetings – OpenLMS could use my grades and categories as their starting point and goals.

OpenLMS could track and regularly publish how many non-paying adopters use their product.  They could have a series of online forums and Slack channels staffed by OpenLMS staff to help those not paying any money for the product with online support.  They could even open source some of their “scaling magic”.  They could have their core design and developer meetings open to the public.  They could be the most open open source LMS ever!

But… (there is always a but)  LTG is a public for-profit UK company.  Companies are not known for their largess.  Phil Miller is a great friend and really cares about his paying customers.  He loves to build clever software to keep his development and hosting costs low (some of the best in the industry by the way) and pass some of the savings on to his customers.  And it is why LTG loves (and should love) Phil Miller.  I have learned a lot about how to build inexpensive scalable systems (like Tsugi) from having beers with Phil and his teams over the years.

My opinion is that LTG/OpenLMS will evolve to follow the Canvas path – in essence the high level goal is compete with Canvas head-to-head.  Release it open source – don’t worry too much if no-one bites – and if there are some markets that OpenLMS is not interested – some tiny companies can use OpenLMS and sell services to a few local schools.  But with Moodle available and a known commodity it would be hard to find that much extra value in  OpenLMS.  If I were a small school and interested in OpenLMS after I downloaded it and ran it on my desktop – I would probably just pay LTG for hosting and let them deal with all the complexity.  Oh wait,  LTG just acquired a new paying customer who was attracted to the free version as bait.

Only time will tell.  But at least this blog post will be available in the Internet Archive and we can all come back and see if my predictions were accurate :)

P.S. Oh yeah – in EdTech I far prefer to deal with non-US companies and for those companies to be public – not private.   I am quite unhappy about the LMS market trend towards large privately held US companies.  So I like the fact that LTG is UK and public.