As with a regular website or blog, you have a number of options for how to get your elearning site up and running on the web. These fall into three basic categories: 1) Self- or “barebones” Hosting, 2) Managed Hosting and 3) Software-as-a-Service or “SaaS”.
Broadly speaking Self-Hosting and Managed-Hosting are similar in that you run the elearning software of your choice, but the level of work required differs. In the Self-Hosted case, you’re basically given a web server which you can upload and run whatever software and services you want, with few limitations. This gives you the ability to add whatever extensions, plug-ins, tools and services you want. Most of these self-hosted or “barebones” providers are quite inexpensive too. Some solid providers include Bluehost and Dreamhost.
Plus, if you are an advanced user who likes to get “under the hood” with the code of your elearning platform this could be a good approach. You could download the latest Moodle source code, configure your host, boot up the servers (if using a virtual server environment), start the databases, upload your Moodle install and boot it up.
The Managed Alternative
If all of that sounds intimidating, but you still want to use a downloadable software package like Moodle and don’t want to touch the underlying “IT” infrastructure, Managed Hosting may be for you. Think of Managed Hosts as a Web Server provider who is an expert in a specific software platform. For example, WP Engine is an expert who focuses exclusively on WordPress Hosting; so you’ll be looking for a host that is an expert in your Online Learning Platform of choice.
In this case, the hosting provider allows you to do “one-click” installs of the platform and handles all the configurations on the back-end. The upside is the Managed Host has a team of IT folks who will test the version of the elearning tool along with the databases, web servers, and all other components to make sure things run. You’ll still be able to do a lot of customizations on your elearning site, but the “infrastructure” parts are more hidden from you than in the basic hosting case. You also have access to a support team that is more versed in online learning tools than the barebones web server type hosts.
The downside of Managed Hosting is you are limited to the online learning platforms the host has decided to provide, which is usually restricted to only one or two options. Further, you have to wait for their IT folks to test and validate the latest version of the tool before they deploy it. This could mean you’re running an older version of the online learning server than is currently available, which means you might not have the latest new features, bug fixes or the ability to install the latest plug-ins.
Other downsides are that usually you’ll still need to be the “support desk” for your customers. While Managed Hosts often provide excellent customer service to you as their client, they rarely provide a help desk you can forward technical issues from your students to, though some do offer this. Plus, if you have any special customizations to you online learning platform they don’t official support, you’ll need to involve yourself in the troubleshooting process.
Lastly, if you are selling your courses, you’ll have to apply for and configure your own merchant processing account as Managed Hosts are not typically in the business of providing this service. All of this could be a big time sink for you.
Some examples of Managed Hosts for Moodle include MoodleRooms and Classroom Revolution. The Moodle website has a further list of global providers. We are planning on doing a review of Moodle Hosting Providers soon.
The last option, Software-as-a-Service or “SaaS” provides the most “turn-key” solution for online learning. Services like Siminars and Udemy basically handle “all” the tech issues for you. Not only do you not have to deal with configuring the web server for your elearning site, you don’t have to configure the platform as it’s the “same” for all users. They also let you use their payment processing solutions right out of the box, which is less work and lower liability for you. Plus, students can reach the direct help desk provided by these services and have their issues resolved that way. Of course, you trade-off the total customization you can get by using Moodle or WordPress with an elearning plug in, but you’ll spend less time dealing with tech and software issues.
Indeed, the lines between SaaS and some Managed Hosts continue to blur, with Managed Hosts claiming they provide SaaS type features. In this case, it’s important to ask exactly what the Managed Host provides to be sure it’s a real apples-to-apples comparison. More on this when we do our review of Moodle Managed Hosting.