eFront Lands in the Hot Seat

I’ve been researching LMS systems. We want a system we can move our training programs into, to make them more automated and publicly available, and to be able to charge for the courses and for software or template packs to accompany the courses.

We require a system that will allow us to automate the billing, control the delivery of the courses, and that allows content creation within the system, and not just attachments. It needed to either have a base template that was not embarrassing, or the ability to easily template it. It absolutely HAD to be an independent solution – I will not use a hosted solution for this. And it needed to be freely distributable, because otherwise it is not sustainable right now for us, or our target market to whom we might recommend it as a potential solution for them.

I’ve researched a LOT of them. Most are clunky, unintuitive, and ugly. Tested several, including Moodle, Atutor, Docebo and Dokeos. Dokeos and eFront were the only two to make it into the finals Moodle and Atutor were just too clunky, Docebo lacked functionality in key areas for our purpose. Dokeos bombed in the home stretch, unable to integrate with an effective billing system, though it was a serious contender in other areas.

Well, frankly, eFront doesn’t integrate with our billing either. Their instructions SHOW a PayPal module – but they don’t tell you up front that the PayPal module is only in the Education Edition (paid edition).

I chose it anyway, based on the option of a workaround. It allows the creation of user groups, to whom you can assign a course, and then a key code. Users can self-register, and if they have the right key code, can be automatically enrolled into specific courses. A bit of a round about way to do it, and a lot of extra work to set up groups for each course, but our Billing manager can issue a specific email for a specific product (also a lot of work to set up specific emails for each course), so we can make it work, and once it is set up, it oughta run fairly smoothly, and do the majority of the delivery work for us. Our billing manager can also deliver software packages or auto-installed companion site structures for specific lesson types, so the student has a practice ground. A definite advantage to this setup.

It is nice when you first get into eFront. Big friendly buttons, color and nice looking. Oh, that the elegance went all the way through. It really wasn’t very well thought out – It has all the earmarks of something that was very simple to begin with, and to which layers of function were added wherever the current programmer thought he could most easily work them in. It feels like planning broke down a few places along the way, or that it was first created and then coding standards and practices changed midway through. It is also obvious that it has been fairly extensively developed though – you don’t get this kind of function without a massive endeavor, so we are not belittling the effort.

It has been a trial figuring out just where to go to do things. The instructions are pretty brief (the only downloadable manual for the free version is a Quickstart manual, which runs through it so fast that it leaves skid marks on your eyeballs, and barely hints at the real process), and there is an assumption that you know what you want to do and what it is called, you just need to know where to do it, or that your idea of how to teach something will match with theirs. The learning curve has been needlessly high.

Yes, I did check the Wiki – it contains the same brief and rather unhelpful info that the Quickstart manual does. That is, it tells you everything you can learn by looking at the backend of the interface, but nothing that you really NEED to know, like what the heck to I do to get the thing to do that, or is there any way around the stupid dual login issue?

I also tried the forums – Gotta love those forums that stop you from searching “common” terms, and which are set to judge “common terms” by the ones that are used frequently on the forum. Hence, “student”, “list”, “course”, “module”, “lesson”, “category”, and any other word of value is blocked from the search. By this time you want to cover your head and scream in frustration.

Let’s see if I can give you a step by step on the process for creating a course, with lessons.

1. Create a category – if you want to categorize anything, you have to create a category to put them in – typical CMS type order here. If you don’t create categories, your courses are thrown helpfully into a default category which is unaccountably titled “Default Direction”…. Huh?!?

2. Create the Course. You select the Courses, click on New Course, and fill in a very simplified form. You save that, and then it shows you an extended form. They expect you to add any needed users here – you HAVE to add a professor. If you don’t, you’ll be limited in what you can do, because unlike most CMS systems and well-thought out systems, the administrator in eFront does NOT have access to everything. So, after you save this, you get thrown to the course list – clicking on the course name brings you back to this extended course form and where you control users and groups for the course.

3. Click a button next to the course name, to fill in details about the course – why this could not be in the extended form that you see right after you create the course, I do not know! Heck, why it could not all be in the New Course form initially, I don’t know!

4. Create a new lesson. Much like creating a course, first the short form, but things are in different places than with the courses. They’ve moved the users from being under the name link, to being under the gear tool icon (which means you are always clicking the wrong button somewhere to find them since it is inconsistent). You have to assign users to this also, they do NOT inherit them from the course, even if you say the lesson can only be accessed through a course and not independently. This time we have more buttons. One to fill in information about the lesson, one to set tools for the lesson. There is no way to set a global default for lessons, so if you wish to use a standard set of tools, you MUST enable them one by one for every lesson. And if you click the wrong area to look for where to change something, there is no graceful way to move from one area to another. You have to back out, and try again.

5. We just did the easy part… from here on out it gets more difficult. You can’t assign a course to a lesson. We now have to go back to the course, open it, and pick the lesson from the list of ALL lessons – and we can see that by the time we get even two or three courses completed we are going to have a VERY VERY long list of lessons with no sort options, and no categorization options.

6. We are now done where we are, even though we have done nothing more than create a framework and shell. The administrator can do nothing more. The administrator has no access to lesson contents. None.

7. We have to go to the front of the site, and login as a Professor. This will log us out as an admin. When we get there, we see that the lesson we set up is there, unless of course, we selected to allow access to it only through a course and we forgot to assign it to a course – in which case it won’t show up, even though the professor HAS been assigned to the course. If that happens, we have to logout, then log back in as admin, dig around to find the right screen to assign the lesson to the course, then logout, then log back in as Professor to continue. By now, I’m thinking that there are some serious usability issues.

8. Next, we get to create content. We click on the name of the course, and get a ton of things to choose from. Choosing the Content button presents us with three choices: Update Unit, Create Unit, Create SubUnit. Assuming that in order to add content one must put it inside a Unit (we now have four layers of structure), I create a unit. I am able to paste info in, but the editor has some bugs and issues. It doesn’t do special characters (though they do create some REALLY interesting effects if you try!), and it seems to be inconsistent about formatting, without the ability to firmly control it.

9. After saving the content, I find that I am stuck in the lesson. The top navigation is no help – the breadcrumbs don’t go all the way to the top, and clicking on Home, takes you back to the beginning ONLY for THAT LESSON. Finally I notice a text link at the bottom of the left column that says “change lesson”. I manage to find my way back to the lesson list.

10. At this point, I probably want to create another lesson for my course. But I’m logged in as a Professor. They can only create lesson content. They cannot create a course, or a lesson. I must logout, and log back in as Admin, and go create the lesson, jump through all those hoops, hope I don’t forget a silly thing buried somewhere that I forgot to look, and then logout, log back in as Professor, and create the lesson content. The limitations of the double login are serious – it means that NO SINGLE USABLE PROCESS can be completed through a single login! You MUST switch back and forth if you want to create the structure and the content. I find this a complete and total time waster, even for larger institutions that want control over some things at an admin and trainer level. It means that if you DO have two levels of management, they always have to be asking the other to do half the work. And if one step is missed on the Admin side, the Professor has to nag them and ask them to fix it before he can do ANYTHING of value. C’mon, who thought THIS was a good idea? And no way to change the permissioning! You are stuck in ridged roles with lines that cannot be crossed, and which make no sense for efficient management. This is VERY close to being a showstopper – and would be if there was any real alternative for the other functions we need.

11. The front of the site also leaves MUCH to be desired. All categories, courses, and lessons default to a standard (big, ugly and cumbersome) nested list which opens up Expanded. Category, Course, Lesson, all strung down the page in an unending list. I can collapse them after I am on the site, but I cannot tell the system to open with them collapsed. I cannot control the ORDER of the items in the list – so I cannot put the first courses first, or order the categories. For students who enroll in more than one course, this is going to create an annoyance REALLY FAST.

12. So after creating my courses, I am logged in as a Student (yes, there is a third login you have to maintain). It takes me several tries to get all the right boxes checked in the backend to see the classes as a student – each time having to switch logins. When it finally shows up, I am happy to see that it has a nice percentage completion box next to the individual lessons.

13. Navigating around the lessons as the student has the same unituitive issue that the Professor login has – it is not easy to find where to move from lesson to lesson. Students can mark a lesson as complete when they finish it. I do not see a completion bar for a course though – which would really be helpful to track overall progress through a full course. I can also see that there is a serious need to pretty up the lessons – they are, by default, big, plain, and uninspiring, rather like a cow in aspect, though lacking any chewing of cud. Images and colors will be needed in each lesson.

14. You can’t change the student navigation as far as I can see, without hacking the core. NOT GOOD! It is difficult to find where the bits of the lesson are – they are under different buttons. Who’s to know? It is completely unintuitive and inconsistent. It means the student has to explore several areas for each lesson – you can’t have them move through the lesson smoothly from point to point, and then to the test or project. They are compartmentalized in an obscure way. Many deadends, many confusing areas, or links that take you back somewhere other than where you expected to go, lots of obscure return links that are not clearly labeled. You end up just sort of fishing around over and over trying to get where you want to go, and the navigation keeps changing or disappearing – you go looking for what you want and get thrown somewhere you didn’t mean to go, and it ends up being a dead end with no way back and no way forward. Clicking a Return link can take you anywhere, but not necessarily where you wanted to go. And it isn’t easy to learn either. The rules about what takes you where are so inconsistent that even after messing around with the student area several times, I’m still confused as to how to navigate from lesson to lesson or course to course. I’m not a stupid person, I learn such things faster than average, so if I’m confused about it, there is a serious problem!

15. I had a tester run through the registration and enrollment, to take a course. He could not figure out how to move through the lessons. Again, not good, because you cannot control that workflow. It is what it is. This may end up being a show stopper. If the student has to take lessons on how to take lessons, then the program will be a colossal failure, especially if it is confusing enough that a simple explanation cannot clear things up!

16. My video is not showing up on the front of the site either – it is recognized in the back of the site, but does not play in the front of the site, and there is no link. Just a completely blank page. Will have to troubleshoot that.

Some other issues – the entire thing is coded so that you spend a lot of time watching the Loading message. It times out more frequently than other sites, and it is fairly resource intensive. It runs in shared hosting, but it isn’t happy about it.

The coding also means that if you have a page time out, and hit the Refresh button, it will send you back to the home page for the area you are in, rather than refreshing the screen you were on. It times out often enough that this has been a noticeable annoyance, and the navigation is confusing enough that each time it happens you have to figure out all over again how to get back to where you were.

I seem to be in another situation like I am with CRE Loaded. Being forced to use awkward software, because it is still the only thing that does what I need it to do. The Moodle folks out there will swear that Moodle does it all, but it was more of a hassle than eFront, after you get it installed you can’t even figure out where to go or what to do to get started, and it requires installing tons of modules just to get basic functionality that I require.

There are some things I like about eFront – It handles prerequisites (albeit awkwardly), and delivers quizzes or tests. It has the capability of delivering certificates, though the templates are absolutely apalling! A black box outline with Arial text in it is NOT sufficient. I’m not sure how flexible their RTF default formatting will be, but I’d be flat out humiliated to use the included templates!

I like the ability to group things in categories and subcategories, it helps me to create a large certification course which is made up of smaller modules that can be paid for independently.

It is easier to figure out than Moodle – I installed this yesterday, and I have the base configuration done, with 50 courses entered, and I am beginning to build lessons, two of which are completed with a third in progress (have to make a video for it). So I think that if I can divide the tasks, and create a completion list for each lesson in the Admin, to batch create lessons in the Admin, then login to the Prof login and batch create lesson content, I may be able to endure the hassle, though I still feel that over time it will be costly in lost time. I’m not sure if I can find a way around the frontend workflow issues.

Most LMS systems right now are either so immature they are not usable for flexible demands, or they are overkill – designed for universities, and not appropriate for a small business that wants to put training courses online to sell. In fact, it seems that this niche (which is a strong growth niche) is completely overlooked, though it is apparent from the forum posts that people are asking for it, and not getting it!

eFront seems to be the best of the lot at the moment, for our purposes, though I do hope long term they do something about the permissionings and workflow for creating lessons and courses, and the frontend workflow. If they do, they’ll have an enthusiastic endorsement from us, and it will be added to our list of Top Applications that are recommended to our clients and students.

I will post more on this later as I learn more, and am able to either MAKE it do what is needed, or run into problems which make it unsustainable.

UPDATE NOTE: I need to mention that their forums do receive responses. This is notable in the Open Source world, the developers seem to actually have their ear to the forums, and will respond to rational questions. In this area, they get an enthusiastic vote of approval.

7 Responses to eFront Lands in the Hot Seat

  • A.Papagelis says:

    Your comments are worthy and we will use your suggestions for the next eFront version.

    The mean time I would suggest to check the “mapped accounts” option to map an admin and a professor to avoid the multiple login-logout issue you mention. This option is available when you click the image of each user on the upper left of the page.

  • Laura says:

    I did check that function before I posted the review. My statement that you cannot change the permissioning was made after carefully checking for the ability to change it. Because the mapped accounts feature only allows you to change WITHIN the pre-sets. Administrators STILL cannot create lesson content – there is no option to enable it. And Professors STILL cannot create lessons or courses – those options are not there. The lines are drawn at that point, and you cannot cross over it. You can only restrict someone further within the pre-set permissions.

  • A.Papagelis says:

    Mapped accounts is a handy way to move between a professor and an admin role (or professor->student or whatever combination you want actually) with a single click. As you correctly pinpoint this does not mean that it extends the functionality of Admin or Professor in any way. I could further argue that the correct way to structure a system on the long run is by clearly differentiate between administrators and professors but I agree that this is a matter of preference and your actual environment. I repeat that we take your notes and issues seriously and we will work on improving eFront on each and every one of them.

  • A.Papagelis says:
  • Laura says:

    Thank you. I found the post in the forums which referred to this – fortunately, “mapped accounts” are words not often searched, and the forum search worked.

    I think adding this to your Wiki will help, but I am not sure that anyone will know to look for those terms, if they are searching for user login shortcuts, user login switching, or user login management.

    I also set this up – and oddly, it took several minutes before it worked. The account name appeared, with a red X, and the notice that no accounts had been set up. I wandered off, trying to figure out why, and about 5 minutes later, the switcher icon showed up at the bottom of the sidebar. Did the same thing both directions, a fair delay in there before it activated.


  • alemat gebru says:

    thanks for your post about efront ,
    can i run the efront on wamp server?
    in their site there is only a guideline to run efront using XAMPP.

    please tell me which web server is best to run efront.


  • Laura says:

    I really have no idea. I’m running it on a LAMP Server, and it is working well.

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