Open source or hosted?

February 23, 2019

When you get started using Adapt, whether as a freelancer, agency, internal team or a company looking to procure custom e-Learning. You will have to make a conscious choice whether you will use the open source version or a hosted version. The two versions are quite different in how they operate so it's important to make the decision that is right for you.

What is the open source version?

The open source version is the version advertised on the official Adapt website. It consists of two parts: the framework which is the code-based output and the Authoring Tool, the server-based platform that you use via your browser. You will be responsible for installing and maintaining these. Either on your local computer or on a remote server so that you can access your courses from anywhere.

You can freely inspect and download the code of both products on Github, the platform where Adapt development takes place.

What is a hosted version?

A hosted version of Adapt is one that is provided by a company. They sort out all the technical stuff, so you can focus on creating your content. They also make modifications to the Adapt core code, usually adding features like their own plugins, support for theming through the interface or their own custom integrations with third-party tools. For access to their platform you pay a per user, monthly fee.

What are the benefits of the open source version?

Firstly, by using the open source version you are going to be using the latest version of the core software. The Adapt framework gets updated on average at least once a month. These versions bring new features and support. For example the v4 release this month brought better support for accessibility.

Hosted versions can, of course, incorporate these changes but due to the changes they have made to their system will always be slower to do this. A good comparison is the Android operating system. Google releases a big update twice a year and can quickly push it phones that are closely aligned to the core OS. Companies like Samsung make bigger changes and it can take months for their users to receive these changes. This is the same for forked/hosted versions of Adapt.

Secondly the community plugin support. The Adapt Learning website has a plugin browser with over a hundred high-quality community plugins that add lots of custom features to Adapt. You are free to add these to your Adapt instance and instantly have brand new functionality in your courses.

Finally, is the ability to access the code. You can make changes to the templates of any part of Adapt and change it looks and feel to a degree that would not be possible in hosted versions of Adapt, where themes and templates are kept more streamlined.

The open source version is also free. You will have to find a server to install the authoring tool to, but this will be a fraction of the cost of the hosted versions. You also get freedom to choose how fast processing and how much storage you will need.

What are the benefits of a hosted version?

Hosted versions of Adapt are a lot more user-friendly. The theming is available for you through the interface, rather than having to dive into CSS. You can create some great on-brand e-learning themes quickly using this approach.

You get access to a Software as a Service (SaaS) platform where installation, maintenance and upgrades are all performed for you. The open source Authoring Tool is a complex technical product with databases and code compilers. Most e-Learning developers and Instructional designers would prefer to have this all done for them and with the hosted versions of Adapt it is.

You also benefit from customer support. As part of your monthly subscription, you will be provided some kind of support. This may be anything from email support, phone calls or even workshops that will help you get the most out of Adapt. The open source version has community support through the Gitter chatroom, but of course this is limited free support.

Import/export & Vendor lock-in

The open source version of Adapt has import and export functionality. You can export the source code of a course and import it to another instance. This is great if you want to share courses and move content from one instance of Adapt to another. Adapt is unique in the Authoring Tool space in that its code is de-coupled from its hosting. So even if development stopped nothing would be stop you from keeping on using Adapt forever, as it's open source you could even maintain or develop the product yourself.

Vendor lock-in is a term used in SaaS products where a customer is unable to leave a platform due to incompatible changes they have made. With propriety tools like Articulate, Gomo or Elucidat if your providing company was to fold they would probably give you a few months of notice to download your courses before they turn off their servers. Your courses would be stuck in a stasis where they couldn't be changed, and future updates would require a full rebuild in another Authoring Tool. In a world where over 50% of startups fail in their first four years this should be a major concern for your company or organisation.

The changes that are made by the hosted versions of Adapt could mean they lose their ability to imported into an open source version and recovered. A few years ago, my former team at King's College London had to rebuild about fifteen modules when we migrated from a hosted version of Adapt to the open source version as we couldn't access the source code. If you are using a hosted version of Adapt it's worth asking your provider where they stand on interoperability with the open source version and what will happen to your data if their company folds.

Which should I pick as an agency/freelancer/internal team?

This depends on how much access you have to a developer or technical resources. Or, as an individual, if you are happy to put in a couple of days to learn how to install the tool and learn enough CSS to get by.

If you can I would highly recommend the open source version. This gives you the most control and flexibility. If you go onto the Adapt Learning showcase it's easy to see which courses are created in the open source version as they have greater customisation and more interesting components.

However, the hosted versions of Adapt can still be great if you are less technically able. They allow easier theming and some versions have more powerful features such as review tools. If you are an internal team and you require less complex branding/theming, then you will be able to get what you need from these tools.

I'm procuring custom e-Learning. How does this affect me?

If you are a company or organisation who is looking to procure highly custom e-Learning then you should be looking to work with supplier that use the open source version. As mentioned above this is due to the more intricate theming and more bespoke components and interactions that are only available to the open source version. Unless you are working to a tight budget where there is no scope for advanced theming or customisation, a supplier that uses a hosted version will be enough.

Your just an open source zealot, aren't you?

Not at all! When I was involved in the hosting of the Adapt Meetup London two years ago I insisted that the Learning Pool and VYASS should be able to pitch their versions of Adapt to members of the beginner track. I certainly do not think the open source is right for everyone. Hence why I create this guide comparing the two and the benefits they both bring.

Which hosted version would you recommend the most?

There are four of the collaborating companies that offer their own hosted versions of Adapt: Learning Pool, Can Studios, Learn Champ and VYASS. Can Studios starts at £74/month, VYASS at $25/month, Learning Pool and Learn Champ don't show their prices on their website. All prices are per user so the bigger your team the more you will pay.

All offer fortnightly free trials, so I would suggest spending a few hours with each of them and deciding which one to go for. You should inquire into what features they offer, how close they are to the latest version of the open source framework, how much data and storage you get, I would also highly recommend asking their policy regarding export/import. In an ideal world you should be able to export from one provider and import into another one. Just as you would when you swap electricity, gas or phone providers.

I'm getting started with the open source version. How should I start?

If you are looking to get started installing the Framework first. This is the version that you will be using to create themes and plugins. The wiki contains a great installation guide. If you require help during the way there is community support available on Gitter, the Adapt developers chatroom. The developers here are usually patient and ready to give you pointers.

Once you (or the techie in your team) is comfortable creating themes you can setup the Authoring Tool so that everyone can access your courses. You can upload themes and plugins through the plugin browser and grant access to the tool through the account management feature.

If you require further assistance you can look for an Adapt expert to partner with, whether through a freelancer or agency. You should be looking for someone/an agency who knows the Framework and Authoring Tool in and out; has plenty of experience creating themes and plugins; and has breadth of knowledge of existing community plugins.

My company, Adapt Freelancer offers a variety of services for Adapt including setup and strategy. I work with clients ranging from small e-Learning agencies to multinational corporations. If you have any further questions regarding Adapt I'm always keen to have a quick chat 😊