Friday, 10 August 2012

Is Customisation a Dirty Word?

Despite constantly battling my spell checker as it tries to correct my Queen's English, I have to ask the question regardless of whether you use an s or a z is customisation something you should avoid at all costs or just a part of getting what you want from your learning technologies?

Once upon a time (a good start to any story) Customisation really was something that only the rich and famous went for. You basically accepted software the way it was developed by the people who wrote it and that was that. Go ahead ask Microsoft to make a few changes just for you (ooh don't get me started..) and see where that gets you. In fact sometimes even if you could get something that commercially targeted changed just for you, how much would it cost you, not just now but moving forwards whenever updates forced your customisation to be changed too? But surely things have changed haven't they? We're now surely driven by what a user needs and wants so software is more configurable.. Hold on, that's different too, let's start there..

For the sake of this blog and not just because it's right, let's take these basic definitions:
Configurable means that the software you are using has lots of options and can be changed to work in different ways through the front end (ie not through code). Customizable means that you can change it by changing the basic code of the program, a back end change that you generally need someone else with very thick glasses and no human interface to do for you. (customisable means the same but is spelled properly, but I can't fight the BlogPress dictionary this late at night).

In answer to how things have changed the answer is yes and no (yeah but nah as we like to say in New Zealand). Big corporate offerings generally are far less likely to deviate from their standards and you'll find a general resistance to any customisations that you may wish to instigate. If you opt for your LMS to be a big corporate offering like this, pick the one you think won't require changes that you may never get and accept your fate. This of course offers some benefits in that you often get a very stable product that is unlikely to be buggy and require changing processes once you align to their way of thinking. If you really don't know much about learning technologies and don't have a strong opinion about your processes this could be a positive as you can be led by a well-thought out LMS.  If you want to fit the LMS to your processes definitely not.

Your best option if you're looking to make the LMS do exactly what you want is to look closely at Open Source solutions.  Not only do systems like Moodle give you stacks of configurable options, they also allow you (yes, all of you) access to the code base.  That means making changes is soooo much easier than with a corporate offering.  There are also lots of 'off the shelf' plugins that enthusiasts have already put together for you - and when I say off the shelf I mean without cost too!  The downside sometimes is the same as the up.  When it's easier to make changes there is often too much of it.  Rather than changing your processes when it makes sense, it seems easier to just change the way the LMS works - this can leave you with a funny offering that has some strange idiosyncrasies that mean when someone new takes over admin or trainer roles they can struggle with the setup.
This is probably why I'm such a big fan of TotaraLMS.  It's a distribution of Moodle but adds in the functionality most modern corporate LMS's add in via plugins.  The good thing about this 'customised' version of Moodle is that you don't have to try and update it yourself; the good team at Totara do that for you (yes, there is a small subscription fee..).  Both Totara and Moodle allow one great 'customisation' that you should look at; changing the theme.  It means your LMS doesn't have to look like it belongs to anyone but you.  You certainly shouldn't have to have a logo from another organisation on your site unless you want it!

I'm not sure I'm helping that much here.. what I'm trying to say is that if you want a solution that you can customise then definitely take a look at open source offerings as they give you the best options.  Whilst that holds true, I would still think twice before leaping into custom solutions for common issues.  Ask yourself this question first; how convinced am I that the way I 'need' to do this is the best way? Too often we see implementations where someone tries to change the LMS before looking at their own processes.  That's where a good partner can help; part of my role is to assist clients in working out what they can and can't do and what they need to change (be it with the LMS or their processes).

In short customisation isn't a dirty word, but it's not the answer to every problem either (surprise surprise there's no silver bullet!). 

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad whilst at another bloody airport