University of Northwestern St. Paul Finds the Freedom to Innovate With Open LMS

Read the case study to see how switching to Open LMS has allowed the University of Northwestern - St. Paul to save costs, embrace LMS customization, and even launch its own MOOCs.


Founded in 1902, the University of Northwestern - St. Paul (UNWSP) is a private evangelical Christian college located in the heart of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. The college offers 75+ areas of undergraduate study and six Master’s degree programs to approximately 3,500 students.

Background & Challenge

In 2006, the University of Northwestern - St. Paul switched its learning management system (LMS) from Blackboard to Moodle™ after a year of looking at available alternatives. After this switch, it self-hosted for a number of years as was typical in the early years of Moodle™.

However, as usage on campus increased and Moodle™ became more complex, UNWSP realized that it needed more robust LMS features and help from a Moodle™ vendor to run its learning platform. In 2009, the university moved to a Moodle™ vendor, however by 2013, UNWSP was facing some challenges with the system and there was a growing lack of satisfaction with Moodle™. After digging into the issues, it was determined that the root cause was not Moodle™ itself, but the hosting situation the university was in. It had concerns that its current partner wouldn’t be the best fit moving forward, which is when UNWSP conducted an LMS review to evaluate other systems, price points, and functionality. During the LMS review, UNWSP considered self-hosting again or switching systems. When it started considering other LMS solutions, it decided that Moodle™ was still a great fit, but that it needed a better and more service-focused hosting arrangement.

"We were happy with Moodle™’s functionality and customization possibilities, how it could be expanded with different plugins and modules, but we were restricted by our current hosting company," said Joel Johnson, Director of Academic Technology & Online Learning at UNWSP. "Many of the plugins weren’t supported by this company, we had storage restraints, and the support wasn’t to a standard that we were comfortable with."

By early 2014, UNWSP was making a dedicated effort to grow and expand its online programs, and it needed a system that could scale, meet its current needs, and provide the flexibility to adapt to the needs of the future. UNWSP had a clear vision of what it wanted for its new and improved Moodle™ instance. “We had our list of criteria—what our requirements were, what pain points we were trying to solve, what improvements or new things we were trying to see—and so as we engaged with other partners it felt like we were, in many ways, going from one set of constraints to another and that really wasn’t what we were looking for,” said Johnson. “We wanted to be in a situation where we would have more control over our system in a way that could grow, expand, and evolve with us.”

With Open LMS, the University of Northwestern - St. Paul found what it was looking for.

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The Solutions

Fully-Managed Moodle™ by Open LMS

After an extensive review process, UNWSP selected Open LMS to provide a fully-managed Moodle™ experience covering all LMS needs, including implementation, hosting, troubleshooting, integrations, consulting, and more. The university’s new LMS, Open LMS Edu, is an open-source, Moodle-based learning management system, tailored specifically to the needs of higher education institutions and schools. Open LMS and UNWSP worked together to create a roadmap for the next stage of Moodle™ at UNWSP and continue to do so as the university’s needs evolve.

Unlimited Storage

Prior to Open LMS, UNWSP had to aggressively monitor, archive off the system, and regularly delete courses and content. The university had to approach faculty members and ask them to clean up their courses and delete unneeded material to remain under the storage limit, which was not only bothersome to teachers but a tedious task. With Open LMS’s unlimited storage, this particular pain point is no longer a concern for UNWSP, freeing up faculty and administrator time.

Quality Support

For UNWSP, support was the most important consideration when evaluating systems. With Open LMS, UNWSP found “a true partner rather than a vendor,” said Johnson. With its previous vendor, support was slow. It was often little more than receiving links to Moodle™ documentation that their team could find on their own, and it wasn’t receiving the level of support that it needed and wanted. With Open LMS’s support model, UNWSP enjoys unlimited modules, storage, and customizable reporting, providing its team with the flexibility it wanted and the freedom to customize without restrictions.

“In many ways, Moodle™ is the most important application that we have on our campus. If Moodle™ is down, courses can’t run and students can’t learn. It’s really important that Moodle™ is not only available but it works well. Now when we have a problem, Open LMS helps us navigate an issue and look at all the different factors that might be contributing to it,” said Johnson. “Honestly, I thought after the implementation—where we were getting all kinds of love and attention from Open LMS—that the great support might dry up a little bit so I braced myself for that but fortunately and pleasantly the support has continued to be incredibly responsive and thoughtful.”

Johnson continued: “As we keep growing and trying new things, Open LMS is there to help us, keep us aware of what changes are happening with Moodle™ as a system and in the community, and give us professional advice for what to consider, how to configure our system, and what we might want to take advantage of in new releases.”

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The Results

Freedom to Customize

With Open LMS, UNWSP has access to the thousands of community-developed plugins in Moodle™, allowing its team to configure Moodle™ to provide a custom solution to meet its specific needs. “One of the beautiful things about Moodle™ is that there is a variety of community-developed plugins that enhances it, which we couldn’t leverage in our previous hosting arrangement,” said Joel. “Open LMS has allowed us to explore and take advantage of those plugins and expansion opportunities. When we are thinking about a plugin, we check in with Open LMS. Together, we discuss the pros and cons of putting certain plugins on our system and Open LMS helps us determine which ones will be a good fit.”

Confidence to Innovate (Including Creating MOOCs)

With Open LMS, UNWSP has access to the thousands of community-developed plugins in Moodle™, allowing its team to configure Moodle™ to provide a custom solution to meet its specific needs. UNWSP has taken advantage of the endless possibilities in open-source Moodle™, from plugins and theme customization to creating MOOCs (Massive Open Online Course).

Open LMS's support team worked hand-in-hand with UNWSP to help the university develop its first MOOC, which opened on March 19, 2018. The course was called “Life of Christ” and had 1,000 participants sign up. Having a course run at this scale caused the instructional design team to rethink some of the strategies and approaches to development and delivery in Moodle™.

“When developing our first MOOC, we worked with Open LMS to evaluate the pros and cons of different options. Creating a MOOC required us to think in a way that we hadn’t had to do with normal courses or programs that we’ve done in the past. When making a course that is accessible to the public, we had to think about how we open it to the public, different types of registrations, payment processing, and different levels of proctoring and oversight,” said Johnson. “All of these things were new, but we’re confident now going forward largely because of Open LMS’s guidance, support, and even enthusiasm for us trying something new. It’s been very refreshing to have a partner like Open LMS to help us avoid stepping in a hole that will cause harm, but also to partner with us to try new things and encourage innovation that will meet our needs.”

Now, due to the success of the course, the development of additional MOOCs is being considered.

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Better Value, Lower Cost

Last but certainly not least, price is always a factor when it comes to an LMS—whether self-hosting or hosting with a vendor. With Open LMS, UNWSP was able to lower costs while gaining more value. “Although we considered bringing Moodle™ back in-house, we just didn’t have the robust IT department expertise and when we made a comparison, dollar-to-dollar, we felt like we’d actually end up paying more to hire somebody to maintain Moodle™ and support it than we would have if we went with another hosting company. So from a financial perspective, we felt that we’d actually come out ahead—which we have—by moving to Open LMS,” said Johnson.

“Also, compared to our previous vendor, Open LMS has provided us with a robust solution at a much better price point, and the support model is a bonus. In terms of the value we receive with Open LMS and the quality of service, all I can say is that I wish we made the switch sooner!”

All in all, utilizing Open LMS Edu has given the University of Northwestern - St. Paul the freedom and confidence to customize, innovate, and scale its online programs. With Open LMS at hand to help, UNWSP continues to improve the learning experience for its students, save on costs, and take advantage of the endless customization possibilities and newest technologies available to Moodle™.

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Note: A version of this case study originally appeared on the eThink Education blog. eThink is now part of Open LMS and some details of the case study have been updated accordingly.

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Jeremy Schweitzer
About the author

Jeremy Schweitzer

Product Manager at Open LMS

Senior leader in education technology with a proven track record of supporting enterprise clients. My team develops and implements learning solutions that support organizations’ strategic goals. As a former systems administrator and instructional designer, my technical knowledge and people skills drive a systems approach when I conduct needs assessments and design solutions. My focus is building sustainable options for my clients that are adaptive to evolving needs and challenges. In my current role with Open LMS, I work with three learning management systems building solutions for clients in higher ed, non-profit, government, and corporate sectors.

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