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Is Open edX the Next Big Thing in Custom LMS World?

When your eLearning business is developed enough, so you start to look for a custom LMS solution, you face a challenge to make a long term and a future proof decision: what kind of solution and what type of technology to choose. That decision is going to affect literally everything, from long term perspective budgets to actual ability and timeframes of implementing new features, new integrations, etc. If you are in that stage right now, or if you are looking for a potential replacement or migration of your current custom LMS, we promise to surprise you with the new prominent LMS technology – Open edX.

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Member of the Board, Raccoon Gang

Sergiy has 18 years of experience in eLearning and management. Creating educational programs, career paths, online and offline courses he is making the educational world better as a co-founder of RG.

Is Open edX the Next Big Thing in Custom LMS World?

Open edX is the LMS technology that has been developed by MIT and Harvard University in 2013. The technology was born in the form of the world’s top MOOC platform – edX.org which serves over 35 million users worldwide. In 2014, it was shared with the world in the open source form. That’s why it’s called Open edX. Since then, Open edX technology becomes the LMS technology of choice for more and more organizations and businesses:

Open edX adoption by the world’s top brands Year by year

The list of prominent organizations that choose Open edX as their LMS technology of choice is extending exponentially over the last 5 years, and this happens for a lot of reasons.

Spoiler: security, cost-effectiveness, and scalability are among them 😉

Let us outline the main reasons why we strongly believe that Open edX is the next big thing in the custom LMS world.

Common custom LMS wishlist

During the existence of our company, we’ve talked to thousands of organizations looking for a custom LMS. Of course, it’s natural that there are patterns in the expectations regarding the technology of choice. We’ll list them and explain each in a little bit more detail. If we miss something, let us know in the comments.

Common custom LMS wishlist

  • Feature coverage out of the box
  • Customization flexibility
  • Scalability
  • Security/compliance
  • Future-proof factor
  • Customizations cost and the total price
  • Support and maintenance conditions

Further, in this post, we’ll explain what we mean by each factor and how Open edX “performs” in a given area.

How Open edX covers common expectations from a custom LMS

Feature coverage out of the box

Each organization that is considering or looking for a custom LMS, has a list of requirements in some format (general ideas, a list of requirements in some document in rather generic formulations, or – much less likely – a software requirements document with wireframes, architecture vision, detailed feature descriptions).

It’s natural that the best solution would have all of those requirements covered, however, in most cases, it’s not the case. Even if you see that some feature is described as “covered” in the sales/marketing materials or proposal, it doesn’t mean that the feature is going to do stuff that you expect and do it in the way you expect.

For example, you might want your LMS to have a gamification feature, and you want that gamification functionality to provide learners with badges for different activities.

Sounds simple, and a lot of LMS providers would say that this feature is covered. But when we dig deeper into use cases that you might have in your project, everything can become not that simple:

  • What actions do you want to award learners for?
  • Do you want to be able to extend or customize the list of those actions in the future?
  • Do you want to give “isolated” badges for different groups of learners, and at the same time have some badges that are common to all the users?
  • If you want to change some “badge awarding rule” but some learners have already earned that badge, how do you want it to behave?
  • Do you want learners to be able to share their badges on social media (like Linkedin)?
  • Do you want learners to be able to see what badges their peers have?

When you start to realize those expectations (and get closer to having detailed requirements for your project), the list of vendors and technologies that cover everything you need starts to gradually shrink.

However, some of those technologies/vendors would cover a bigger part of your requirements out of the box than others. They would definitely have a higher chance to get into your shortlist.

What Open edX technology offers out of the box

Disclaimer: as Open edX is an open source system and every vendor can have their own version of the system “out of the box”, we’ll further describe what Open edX technology can offer “out of the box” if delivered by us.

In our practice, out of the list of requirements that are described in a more generic form:

  • “mobile app”
  • “badging functionality”
  • “automated certification”, etc.

Open edX covers about 80-85%.

When the requirements are more detailed

  • what kind of content should be available in the mobile app?
  • what kind of content we want to be available for the offline mode?
  • do we want different gamification admin panels for different platform subdomains or for different trainers and their groups?
  • do we want to isolate leaderboards or have several leaderboards?
  • what elements we want to be auto-completed in certificates?
  • do we want to have several certificate templates, etc.?

Open edX covers about 50-60%, which is a very high rate, much higher than other technologies and vendors that can offer about 30-40% when it comes to detailing the requirements.

Why so? That’s because Open edX is one of the youngest systems in the game and at the same time, it’s massive because it has been developed with a vision of a global, flexible platform designed to cover use cases of the best educational institutions in the world: MIT and Harvard.

We are lucky that the creators of the platform are so generous that they’ve shared what they’ve created with the whole world for free.

We compare edX being open sourced with Elon Musk sharing the electric vehicle technologies with the entire whole world. And we believe that this is not a coincidence that Tesla decided to use Open edX as their LMS technology of choice in 2021.

Let us share some materials regarding what Open edX has out of the box:

  • Open edX Admin/instructor interface
  • Learner interface
  • Social abilities
  • Reporting and analytics
  • Gamification
  • Mobile Application: more details on our website

Customization flexibility

The main reasons for an organization to look for a custom LMS are the following:

  • Need for a custom look and feel, theme, UX/UI
  • Need for custom workflows, user roles, access management
  • Need for the usage of some custom content types
  • Need for custom reports
  • Needs for custom integrations (content, partnerships, other internal systems like ERP, CRM, etc.)
  • Need for custom certification logics and certification customizations
  • Need for custom assessment flows, proctoring features
  • Need for custom automation

customization flexibility

Needs for changes often come up constantly, so the system should be able to keep up with such conditions.

How flexible Open edX technology  is for customizations

Open edX is open sourced technology, so its nature is to be super customization friendly. Let us provide you with some cases from our practice.

  • Arizona State University wanted its LMS to be able to provide learners with real graduation credits after they finish some online courses. For that, we needed to integrate their CRM and their internal university software, and develop custom workflows and APIs so the LMS sends a certain amount of credits for a certain graduation program in a given learner profile in CRM and then in all the related internal software. More on that, in our ASU project description

  • Cybersecurity learning courses provider Cybint Solutions wanted their platform to provide learners with an integral “cybersecurity awareness indicator” based on what courses related to the corporate role they’ve finished compared to which are actually recommended. Also, they wanted to provide their corporate customers with a comprehensive dashboard that corporate executives can use to monitor the “cybersecurity awareness indicator” throughout the whole organization. Open edX was friendly enough for not only that but for other workflows and interfaces. More details in our Cybint portfolio item.

These examples are just a small fraction of what different organizations are able to achieve using Open edX as a base for their custom LMS. Based on what we know and on our experience, we can surely say that Open edX is a super customization friendly system, due to its open source nature and Python/Django stack it’s based on. More on that further 😉

Scalability

Scalability is the ability of the system to quickly adapt to the amount of data flow that depends on the platform usage intensiveness and of course the number of users. A lot of custom learning management systems fail to “hold” let’s say 500 users that watch a video on the platform simultaneously. When it comes to 1,000 or 5,000 simultaneous users, a pretty short list of tech/cloud stacks can handle that.
Along with the ability of the technology stack to be up and running when there are a lot of active users, scalability is considered from the perspective of the business to be up and running when the number of registered users is growing. When there are cases of 1,000 simultaneous platform visits, there are approximately 30,000 registered (not always active users). Learning management system providers with license based pricing will charge you per registered user. The platform ownership costs are rising, at the same time you are vendor locked and the migration is not a pleasant procedure… Almost every experienced eLearning project manager has been in that uncomfortable situation.

So, “LMS scalability” is naturally how efficient the platform is from the perspective of high usage loads and how userbase growth influences the platform ownership costs.

Appx Open edX hosting expenses/depending on monthly active users

Open edX technology scalability

As we said, Open edX is a “young” technology and that is its strength – it is built on Python which is a new programming language, beloved by Google, Instagram, Spotify, Pinterest, and by a lot of big data and data science project managers for its high scalability and flexibility. edX platform, which is built on the same technology, handles 35 million users worldwide. So, we can surely say that Open edX is scalable as a technology.

From the ownership costs perspective, in the case of an open source based platform, you don’t pay any license fee that is often paid per registered user. You pay for maintenance which is naturally independent of the number of users, and for hosting, the cost of which doesn’t grow with the userbase linearly. Based on our experience, below you can see how much you would pay monthly for hosting on Amazon Cloud depending on how many registered users you have on your platform:

  • 500 users: $70/mo ($0.14/user/mo)
  • 2,000 users: $120/mo ($0.06/user/mo)
  • 10,000 users: $400/mo ($0.04/user/mo)
  • 50,000 users: $1,600/mo ($0.03/user/mo)

If the hosting is configured in the right way, using Open edX as a technology for your custom LMS would give you a highly scalable platform.

Some real world examples of the organizations that use Open edX as their LMS technology of choice and the number of users they serve as of 2021:

  • Arizona State University Open edX LMS: 30,000+
  • Cybint: 20,000+
  • International Center of Non-Violent Conflict: 5,000+
  • Al Jazeera: 120,000+

Open edX based platforms serve thousands of users effortlessly

Open edX technology’s state of security and compliance

Some of our clients that employ Open edX technology host the LMS on their own servers: Applied Materials, Stanford University, and Norwegian University of Science and Technology. As they own the platform, the security and compliance are entirely under their management. If something doesn’t work as they want, they can customize literally everything.

Even when it comes to cloud hosting of the platform, it uses the security standards of MIT, Harvard University, and Amazon Web Services.

There are very rare cases when a basic security level is not enough. We’ll use Al Jazeera as an example: it has military-organization-grade security requirements, so we needed to customize the Open edX platform that we’ve implemented for their Al Jazeera Media Institute platform so it complies with the organization’s security policy. However, this case proves that Open edX technology has the capability to be top-notch from the security and compliance perspective, whether it is self hosted or cloud hosted.

Open edX technology and the future-proof factor

While building a custom LMS, organizations often consider what’s going to be ahead:

  • Will the technology be supported for the next 5-10 years?
  • Will the technology be friendly to emerge trends (in our case it’s AR/VR, AI/ML, blockchain, etc.)?

In the case of Open edX technology, its advantage, again, is the fact that its tech stack(Python/Django) is relatively new and promising. A lot of new projects related to the emerging technologies are developed using Python, and the actuality of the technology is gaining its momentum. So, Open edX technology is going to be future-proof from the perspective of the new features coding potential.

From the technology support of Open edX technology itself, it’s more than future-proof:

  • Open edX technology has a large and growing developers community: new features, modules, and tools are developed and updated each month
  • edX.org, along with Open edX, has been recently acquired by 2U, Inc. for $800M in cash. That means that the technology is about to even increase its growth and development dynamics.

That said, Open edX technology has everything to be future-proof and to be called “the next big thing in the custom LMS world”

Customizations cost and the total price

In our “How Much Does a Custom LMS Cost?” article we’ve outlined the custom LMS cost structure depending on which way you choose: proprietary LMS, open source LMS, or developing LMS from scratch. In short, open source technology and developing your LMS from scratch would give you the best customization cost as you are not going to be vendor locked. But in the case of developing your LMS from scratch, you are going to have 0% coverage out of the box.

Open edX technology: pricing perspective

Open edX is an open source technology, so it’s free. However, setting it up requires knowledge of the platform and takes some “billed hours” to implement.

Out of the box package, which includes the LMS itself, reporting package, and gamification package is going to cost around $15,000. You can add $5,000 to that to have iOS + Android mobile applications. This package will cover your requirements by more than 50% and will still have a lot of stuff you will find very useful in the future (the Open edX documentation is massive and the majority of our clients are amazed with how many features they even didn’t think about are already in place). Depending on your needs, you add customizations you need that might comprise an additional $5,000, $20,000, or even $100,000, depending on your needs. However, the final price for the whole custom LMS is going to be super cost effective as you have a great starting point. Let us add several project presentations for your reference, and the price ranges for them:

  • Project 1 (Custom LMS for Cybint Solutions): $40,000-60,000 total
    • Custom design
    • Variety of available content types to build the courses
    • Course pacing and content visibility settings 
    • Enrollment and bulk enrollment
    • Course privacy and enrollment types
    • Ability to automatically grade quizzes, peer assessments, drag-n-drops, provide course completion certificates
    • Ability to gather all the user interaction data and build custom reports
    • Ability to build learning paths and create libraries of courses
    • Ability to provide course access to clients’ sub-sites
    • Custom metrics and dashboards for new custom entities: sub-site, department, team, employee
    • Ability to assign teams and departments to specific course collections automatically
    • Ability to separate the reporting data on a course and sub-site level
    • Gamification and badging
    • Custom “recommended courses” section
    • Online Zoom classroom scheduler
    • Extended course categorization meta-data
    • Flexible and auto-scalable AWS hosting that automatically extends the number of servers usage according to the usage intensiveness
  • Project 2 (Custom LMS for Arizona State University): $90,000-110,000 total
    • Сustom eCommerce implementation that takes into account that finished courses are transformed into the ASU graduation credits according to the logic set in the admin panel; also includes the logic of payment for user ID verification
    • Integration with SalesForce CRM: accounts in LMS are synchronized with the same accounts in LMS
    • Integration with the internal student database: accounts in LMS are synchronized with the internal systems so when learners earn some credits, those credits are ready to use
    • Scalable LMS cloud hosting is able to serve thousands of simultaneous users around the world
    • Integration with the PSI proctoring
    • CogBooks integration
    • 20+ custom API connections to integrate the LMS with other systems, enable and streamline all the needed automation
  • Project 3 (Custom LMS for Harrow school network): $120,000-150,000
    • Includes full cycle of requirements clarification, custom design development, wireframes, specification documentation, consultations
    • Customized gamification engine and dashboards
    • Custom learning paths implementation: course sequences, custom categorization, and recommendations
    • Custom trainers rating functionality, including customized trainer profiles
    • A custom learner profile that includes career progression indication
    • Custom skill matrix implementation: each course has its relevance and impact to some skill; by completing courses, learners develop their skills and the progress is displayed on the matrix
    • Course ranking engine
    • Custom video meeting/online classroom software integration
    • MS Teams conferencing tool integration
    • Power BI reporting engine integration
    • Multinational cloud hosting the implementation, including Chinese cloud
    • Multi-language implementation: English, Chinese
    • Seamless login implementation (Social media login, MS login)

Similar solutions using other approaches would cost at least 50% more, which makes Open edX a winner even from the pricing perspective.

Support and maintenance conditions

In the case of Open edX, the ongoing costs are going to be related only to the hosting fees and support/maintenance fees.

The hosting fees are mentioned above and will comprise around $0.04-0.1 per registered user per month if LMS is hosted on the cloud.

The support/maintenance services can be provided by numerous organizations from the Open edX community, including our support services.

You can be sure that you can be fully covered, the system and its community already gained 5+ years of active service infrastructure development.

Conclusions

Right now, Open edX technology shows itself as a 5-star option from all perspectives. You can own an efficient, feature-rich, scalable, secure, and future-proof custom LMS at a super competitive price with super affordable ownership expenses.
We believed that Open edX is going to become the next big thing in the LMS world since our first year of working with it (2015) and we believe that it has become it already🚀.

And of course, we are proud to be one of the best Open edX solutions providers in the world, with a track record of hundreds of delivered projects to date.

If you are interested in implementing your custom LMS using Open edX technology, don’t hesitate to schedule a demo.

Custom LMS [on Open edX technology] is easy with us!

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