Why Moodle’s Mastermind, Martin Dougiamas, Still Believes in Edtech After Two Decades

Why Moodle’s Mastermind, Martin Dougiamas, Still Believes in Edtech After Two Decades
Moodle founder and CEO, Martin Dougiamas
Moodle

Before the “LMS” became an acronym and a hotly contested market of its own, Martin Dougiamas was writing code to share his “object oriented dynamic learning environment” across the web. That project would go on to become Moodle, one of the most widely used learning management system across the world today.

Just don’t let Dougiamas catch you calling his pet project of the past two decades an LMS. Those three letters make him wince—just a bit. “I prefer to say learning platform,” he says in this week’s EdSurge On Air interview. “Sometimes we call it an LMS maker,” he adds. Moodle’s “flexible modularity” allows anyone to “build the perfect LMS.”

From his home office down under in Perth, Australia, Dougiamas recalls the journey he’s been on, and how his core team of 50 have managed to keep an open-source project sustainable. Key to its growth, he shares, is the ability to nurture a global community of partner businesses (which make up a “major source” of Moodle’s revenues) and staunch loyalists who volunteer their time to improve the open-source platform.

We also probed for his thoughts on the competitive LMS market. After all, what’s it like to go from being the new kid on the block to the incumbent that startups now look to compete with?

The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. We encourage you to listen to a complete version below, or on iTunes (or your favorite podcast app).

EdSurge: Across the edtech industry, Moodle is perhaps one of the most recognizable tools and brands out today. It helps, of course, that you’ve got a pretty fun-sounding name that rolls of the tongue quite nicely. How did you come up with that name?

Dougiamas: In the very beginning when it was just an idea...I had to name that folder something for the first bit of code. That’s when I actually sat down—before I had written anything and brainstormed a lot of words. It took me about two hours I think. It had to be a domain name that was free, work with search engine optimization and had to be something you could say. Also, I like acronyms.

So it ended up in the very beginning being “Martin’s Object Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment.” I changed the Martin to Modular as soon anyone else started using it because that’s a bit much. It made more sense anyway.

Moodle is most often referred to as a learning management system, or a LMS of short, But that’s not quite how you would describe what Moodle is?

Yeah, I prefer to say learning platform. Yes, we are focused on any case when learning occurs or when education is occurring. But those situations vary a lot. As a platform Moodle allows everybody to make their own LMS. Sometimes we call it an LMS maker. You take Moodle and all its tools and its flexible modularity and you build the perfect LMS for that particular case, whether it’s in a school, university or workplace.

Say a little more about the Moodle ecosystem. There’s your core team, the Moodle team, and I understand it there are also partner businesses and a community that has grown up around the Moodle open-source platform.

Sustainability of this project has been my major focus from the beginning. I had seen too many open source projects start, flourish and fail because they hadn’t considered sustainability. They were operating on grants or something like that.

The business model of Moodle is totally designed to support the project but still achieve the mission of providing the software for free, open source, and has all the benefits that it does. The structure that we have is a central company, Moodle Proprietary Limited. (It’s like Moodle Inc. in the U.S.) It operates similar to a nonprofit; basically all profits go back into the company.

The company is a core team of around 50 people now, and that’s grown in very linear fashion since the beginning about 15 years ago. About half of them are developers and the other half are people who work on documentation, on communications, running community, financial stuff and looking after the other parts of the Moodle eco-system.

Most of our income comes Moodle partners, which are certified companies that do services. They provide hosting, consulting, training, custom development, all sorts of things like that. If people say they want a phone to call to get some help, that’s where we’d get that from, a Moodle partner. We have 85 or so partners around the world and they contribute roughly 10 percent of their gross revenue towards the Moodle company. That’s the major source of the funding there.

Moodle team in Perth

In every market there’s competition. As you think about where in Moodle is in relative to the other players in the market, is Moodle the incumbent or the upstart? Where do you see Moodle in the market today?

I have to say, to be perfectly honest, it was fun being the upstart when we were. The initial uptake of Moodle was accelerating very, very quickly. Now I’d say that Moodle is fairly mainstream and that puts us in a very different position because we focus a lot more stability, on providing compatibility. As a platform, if you have educators moving from one institution to another they take their knowledge of Moodle from here and they go to there, they use Moodle there. If they have courses and content you want it to be compatible when they copy them across to another Moodle site. Those issues become more important and we are playing a different game completely from most startups in edtech.

We’re not driven by the exponential curve, the need to make certain amounts of profit. We’re not profit-driven at all. Our duty is to the people who use Moodle, and create a place where we are empowering educators. We are supporting education and particularly for me most importantly public education.

Public education is so often badly funded and needs help. That’s our goal, and there are a lot of people working in public education who are massive Moodle supporters because they realize that through this project we’re sharing a lot of resources around the world. Somebody who comes up with an innovation in South Africa, for example, is going to help someone in Japan, is going to help somebody in the U.S., is going to help someone in Brazil.

How have you seen the competitive landscape change over time? The players who were in this space maybe ten years ago versus now? Or maybe another way to ask this is, how have your users needs also changed over the time since you started Moodle?

There’s been a lot of companies come and gone. There’s been a lot of technologies come and gone. What is constant is the nature of a learning institution. Schools and universities are not disappearing quickly, and the whole need for people to get together into groups and learn things is not going to go away. The whole need for a teacher, a good educator to facilitate learning of those groups is not going to go away.

It doesn’t matter what technology we’re using. We could be all sitting here with AR headsets and neural interfacing to the internet in 10, 20 years. These things are still going to happen, these basic structures are still going to happen. At least I want to see them happening. Some edtech seems to be going towards the everyone with neural interfaces directly on the internet learning off machines and AI and that’s a very depressing prospect. That’s a dystopia I want to try to avoid. I’m all about people getting together and about community, I’m about that sort of stuff.

Over the years I’ve seen a lot of talk from edtech companies about disrupting education, about destroying old models—it’s quite violent language in a way.

There’s amazing stuff happening all over the world, obviously on the internet, where you can learn things yourself, and information, and open educational resources is where it’s all at. But you’re not going to grow from two to 20 years-old just completely learning from apps on your device—that would be quite sad.

What I’m trying to get to is that I think that there’s a place for everything. I don’t think there’s a either/or situation where this product is going to take over the universe. I think there always needs to be a mix of things that bind people together, that organize information and processes. Then there are going to be things that teach specific things or provide specific experiences that are useful. It’s about bringing all that together.

In what ways do you think technology has made the most impact on teaching and learning, since you’ve been at this for over ten years probably approaching twenty years now, right?

It has certainly increased the amount of information in the process. The amount of resources available have skyrocketed, obviously. The ability for things to be more asynchronous is fantastic. Here we are having a conversation, it’s night time in California there, it’s the morning here in Australia. It’s actually a holiday today but I don’t care because those old structures of “I work here” and “you don’t work here,” they’re becoming very fluid now, you know? You mix it up: your life is your work, your work is your life. For those of us in the first world we have this luxury, I hope we can spread it to the rest of the world and give everybody those opportunities, too.

On the flip side, what hasn’t changed? As you referenced there’s a lot people talking about disrupting education or models of schooling. But from your perspective, despite all these advances and cool apps and gadgets, what hasn’t changed about teaching and learning?

What hasn’t changed is that we’re still operating with this [points]—our brain. We have this lump of meat that we’re all carrying around and that’s where learning is going on. There are biological limitations on learning that I’m not going to change very quickly (short of Matrix-style downloading helicopter instructions being invented in the future). The way our brain works means we need to undertake certain activities to really learn things.

And when I mean learning I mean deep learning. I’m not talking about watching a video. Watching a video isn’t really learning. I mean, try to remember a video you watched last week for example. It’s quite difficult because a lot of the stuff we think of as learning is actually entertainment. It passes the time, we feel good while we’re doing it and it goes out, it’s gone. Maybe a little bit of stays around if we really focused on it or if we really made an effort to try and remember those things.

What I hope doesn’t change is that we keep people involved in the education process. I really believe that humanity as a whole will suffer if we allow everybody to crawl into their own filter bubble and just become so specialized at one thing that they don’t have the ability to interact globally, across cultures, to understand and to empathize with people on the other side of the world. I mean, a massive bomb just got dropped on Afghanistan. This kind of behavior is not good for humanity as a whole, so how we get the world to be a better place?

In my opinion, this is the role of education. Organized education needs to take that on and really drive that. So, I hope that doesn’t change because otherwise this isn’t going to be a very good world.

What gets you the most excited when you wake up in the morning and don on the Moodle hat?

When you have a company, a community and a product, you are constantly focused on what is not happening. You have a big to-do list of things that aren’t happening as good as they could be. I want to fix all those things. I talk Moodle users all over the world, all the time. I travel a lot. They’ll say “This is giving me problems” and I’m like, “I feel for you, I really want to make that stop.” It’s just people who care and they’re driving it, we’re all working together.

Last question before we go, what do you think you’d be doing if you weren’t doing Moodle?

It’s very hard to imagine. I got a job offer at Netscape communications back in the day. That was kind of like the first big Silicon Valley internet startup. I nearly moved to California to join that and I didn’t. I wonder what would have happened to my life if I had. I also wanted to go to MIT media lab, and I was very keen on that at one point.

I must say though, if I look at my life all the threads of it point to this. My early education was distance education. Until I was 12 I did all my schooling on shortwave radio from the center of Australia. I ended up working at universities because I was interested in the activities, research and learning going on there. I’ve always had interests here so it all seems to lead to this, so maybe I would just be doing this. I can’t imagine doing anything else.

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