Opinion – Free Hosting and it’s place in the Moodle community

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I’ve talked quite a bit about free hosting options for Moodle since starting Moodlenews and it’s because I believe these sites to be an important and positive aspect of the Moodle community at large.  I do respect and acknowledge the stance that Moodle HQ takes with these companies and that they represent a possible (probable?) Service or Trade Mark violation.

Unmet Demand

What’s clear to all is that in recent years the use and adoption of Moodle has grown substantially (http://moodle.org/stats), but I will take it one further and assert that demand has outpaced the adoption.  What I mean by this is that with the allure of Moodle (often characterized by “free”, “open”, and other open source catch phrases) has attracted many 1000s of teachers to seek Moodle.  The problem lies in the fact that demand has outpaced supply, and this has happened for a number of reasons,

  • official Moodle Partners, who are the only organizations allowed to proffer “Moodle hosting”, all charge for the service (cost is generally greater than $1 per user per year).  Even this cost is prohibitive for many individuals teachers
  • cPanel controlled Moodle installations require both money and expertise/tech savvy.  Though cPanel creates an easy to use installation service, there’s a cost for setup and not unsubstantial knowledge necessary for setting up a site.  Moodle’s ease of use no doubt refers to it’s lowest common denominator: e.g. the course creation process (not Moodle server setup and management).
  • Moodle.com has refrained from approving a “free hosting” partner to meet this demand.  For obvious financial reasons, though at least one organization has submitted applications to be official Moodle partners offering free Moodle, these applicants have all been rejected (I speak from personal experience).

What’s happened is that 3rd parties world wide have filled this free hosting void.  On the Moodlenews Hosting page nearly a dozen hosting services (all with a level of free service) are highlighted, and there are certainly more out there.  These businesses, while offering free Moodle to 100s of 1000s of users, have varying business plans (some arguably have no business plan) and levels of service, but all are providing a no-cost entry to the popular LMS; which but for these organizations would not be available.  One free hosting company that I’ve been in touch with personally represents over 8000 sites (which is 15% of the figure reported as total registered sites at Moodle.org/stats).  These are not insignificant numbers.

The Free Hosting Downside

Now, it’s important to note the other side of the coin: Moodle.org is directly subsidized by revenues from Moodle partners (the majority of which probably comes from official Moodle hosting).  According to the site (and to Martin’s keynote) 10% of revenue/profit is posted to Moodle.org by all partners in order to facilitate the central staff in Perth.  If everyone were to jump on free hosting, how would the partner system work?

Procuring hosting through an official Moodle Partner has a direct positive benefit on the Moodle code and community.

Additionally, 3rd party, non-Partner free hosting sites have inherent drawbacks:

  • Ads
  • possibly less control
  • questions of sustainability (after all, if there’s no business plan, how long will the service be available?)
  • data security
  • upgrades
  • ease of backup/restore
  • limits
  • uptime

Conclusion

Despite the risks and disconnect between these companies/organizations and Moodle.org, I do believe that they are playing an important role in the Moodle community: they are a stepping stone for new Moodlers worldwide and provide an important opportunity to teachers and schools without the means for self-hosting or partner hosting to explore the world of Moodle.  Some (but not all) may even “graduate” to official Moodle hosting through a partner in the future.

If you’re curious how Moodle.org could embrace a level of free hosting for new users, I suggest looking at WordPress.com‘s model.  It’s important to note that WP.com doesn’t have “official partners”.  It provides paid hosting directly, but as lead generation it also provides a free level (with inexpensive upgrade options like unique URLs) of hosting.  There’s a cost of providing free hosting (which is why many of the free hosters all offer “upgraded” hosting options), but the upside of lead generation turned into paid hosting could be a boon for Moodle.org and it’s partner network.

What do you think?  Do you use a free service for Moodle, and is it “worth” it?  Do you use a partner?  Do you think free hosting services should be allowed or shutdown?  Comments below.