Monday, October 23, 2006

Interview with Martin Dougiamas, Creator of Moodle

If you look at the "stats" page for the Open Source program Moodle, you will see the incredible growth taking place in the use of this e-learning program. Martin Dougiamas, the creator of Moodle, spent an hour with me talking about Moodle, what is is, where it is being used, and how a large Open Source program like Moodle is sustained. Martin is thoroughly engaging, and the interview goes by much too fast.

Some notes:
  • Martin grew up in the desert of Australia, and his own schooling as a youth was from "The School of the Air." Through CB (Ham?) Radio, he and four or five other youth talked with a teacher who was 600 miles away, and every other week an airplane would stop by with school materials. Seems quite appropriate that someone with that background would 1) of necessity become a self-learner (again, reference the Doc Searl's interview and the "self-learner" aspect of the Open Source world), 2) understand the value of e-learning, 2) understand the nature of distance learning, and 3) see the value in learner-participation that lies at the philosophical heart of Moodle.

  • It was a test of Martin's patience for me to ask him to explain Moodle as though he were talking to a teacher who knew nothing about it, but he did a very good job, and I hope it makes the interview a better resource to the teacher community. There is a skill involved in not only managing a project as complex as Moodle, but also being willing and able to communicate its value in basic terms to new users. This impresses me about Martin.

  • Moodle isn't just for distance-learning situations. It is also built for and used in "face-to-face" learning or "blended" learning environments, and he mentioned its value in homeschooling.

  • The Moodle community that works on the actual software project is a model of the "community of practice" or "collaboration" that Moodle strives to help create for learning environments. They are their own best "customers" of the project, as they work to extend this core value of participation. For several months I have been wrestling with the two values of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) to schools. The first is "FOSS in Education," which is essentially the use of FOSS programs that, for the most part, are just replacing proprietary programs which were already in use or which weren't in use because of their financial cost. The second is "FOSS as Education," where the use of FOSS programs introduces the student to the Free and Open Source world, and allows them to participate in collaborative programming. Jeff Elkner's work teaching FOSS programs like Python to students at Yorktown High School in Arlington, Virginia, is an example of this. What makes FOSS more than just a "cheaper" replacement of proprietary programs is this second opportunity--to engage students in very real-life aspects of a world that is becoming more and more based on collaborative work. The fascinating value that Moodle seems to bring to this picture is the ability that Moodle has to bring these collaborative opportunities into the regular classroom, bridging the gap between the worlds of regular computer use and Jeff Elkner's computer lab--because if "FOSS as Education" were only to take place in the computer lab classes, it's impact would be limited only to those technically-minded students. (Coming up for air now...)

  • Moodle is most definitely having a unique impact on the awareness and understanding of Open Sources software in schools. This is largely, I think, because it is viewed as "free" (as in cost) competitor to very expensive proprietary programs. Our Moodle demonstrations at the NECC and CUE shows have literally been standing-room only. But Martin is quick to point out (as was also clear about OpenOffice in my recent interview) that it is the combination of features and the benefits of the Open Source community that are driving the adoption of Moodle, and not the low cost.

  • The project is financially self-sustaining because of the commercial partnerships that Moodle has under the website. There are 40 Moodle partners who provide hosting, support, consulting, training, and certification (and some 200 additional applicants) who pay royalties into a Moodle trust. Funds from that trust go to pay developers to work on Moodle.

  • There are some very large deployments of Moodle, including the upcoming use of Moodle by the Open University of the UK, where they anticipate it being used by 200,000 students. Large organizations that use Moodle also help the project by devoting staff to maintain or improve Moodle, and Martin said that the Open University will be working on helping to maintain the "quiz" module, as well as funding directly some upcoming developments.

  • Martin wasn't sure he wanted to get into the fray over "Free Software" and "Open Source Software," but he admitted he uses the phrase "Open Source" himself.

  • Maintaining a project with some 20,000 scripts is a big job, but Martin still finds time each week to do some actual coding himself. He loves his job, and wishes that everyone would have something exciting to work on so that they want to jump out of bed each morning, like he does.

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  1. Anonymous7:24 PM

    Thanks, Steve, for bringing this background on Moodle and its creator to us. I've dabbled with it for a few years and have been delighted to see its growth.
    Just one trivial correction - the 'School of the Air' that Martin learned from didn't use CB - even if it was legal at the time the vast distances would have ruled out its use. I think it was more like Ham radio - short wave probably. I remember, as a child, visiting a host School of the Air studio in Broken Hill (a long way from anywhere!) while a class was in session. Funnily enough, not a lot dissimilar to the culture of an online mediated chat.

  2. I also figured it had to be Ham radio. And I was very struck by the connection between his background and e-learning!

  3. Steve, links to audio aren't working for me. Would you double-check them?

    Miguel Guhlin

  4. Thanks, Miguel. I recently made a server switch, and that file didn't get ported over. Taking care of now! :)


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