Interview with Martin Dougiamas, Moodle's founder and lead developer
Education management with Moodle: The beginning, middle, and today
There are 80 million registered instances of Moodle worldwide.
Moodle is the de facto standard in open source learning management systems. It is described as "a learning platform designed to provide educators, administrators and learners with a single robust, secure and integrated system to create personalised learning environments." Plus, Moodle is free software, licensed under the GPL.
Martin Dougiamas, Moodle's founder and lead developer, generously took time from his busy schedule to have a good, long talk with me about why he created it, where it is today, and what's next in open education.
First let me give you a little background. I was introduced to Moodle in 2005 while visiting a public school district in Portland, Oregon, which was using Moodle as part of their instructional delivery. After returning home I installed it on my school's web server, which ran on Fedora Core. Three years later I began to use it for instruction; I had been asked to teach a digital citizenship class to middle school students and I was looking for a good, yet safe environment for my students to experience the Internet. I bought some books and used online resources to teach myself how to use Moodle, and together with my students we began to explore its many nuances. A year later I enrolled in a master's program at St. Bonaventure University, and there I experienced Moodle as a student.
What about your life experience and background led you to develop Moodle?
I spent my early years in the desert regions of Western Australia, relying on distance learning (Kalgoorlie School of the Air) for my education and communication with other classmates. This experience influenced my interest in the interface between computer science and education.
Later in my role as webmaster at a local Western Australian university in the 1990s, I started creating experimental tools that could effectively help educators and students use the Internet in an interactive and collaborative way. After some years of lone development this became Moodle.
What was your original goal? Why did you choose to make Moodle open source?
Education has always been important to me. I've always been a voracious reader, especially speculative fiction, and I love learning new things and thinking about the future. Education is the meta-subject—you need it for everything else.
When I started prototyping Moodle around 1999, the web was very new and was largely being treated as a one-way publishing medium. However, as I'd already been using the Internet quite heavily since 1986, I knew a lot more interactivity and collaboration was possible. So I started researching the latest in pedagogy and working on Moodle as a way to bring these experiences to the web. The activities in Moodle are designed a little like Unix programs, in that they do a few things well and you can link them up (like pipes in a Unix shell) to produce more complex learning experiences. My main goal was to create an environment full of tools and affordances that would free up a teacher from administration and software maintenance to focus on these learning experiences.
As a Unix and mainframe user in the 1980s and 1990s, open source models seemed very natural and right to me. Software is knowledge and sharing knowledge is like education. They're all very compatible and working in open source feels good.
I think it's because the physics makes sense: Electrons are basically free, so producing an infinite copy of something costs nothing. The work is all in the production (and in computers most of the time) so the focus has to be on finding sustainable ways to pay developers directly for their time, without charging for copies.
How many Moodle installations and users are there worldwide?
Moodle has become a key part of operations for leading education institutions such as Open University UK, Monash University, California State and Columbia Universities, as well as big organizations such as the United Nations, UK Government, and US Defence force. But it can also be used by your local high school.
Fifteen years since its public release, I'm proud that many millions of people benefit from the openness of Moodle: educators, students, government, and businesses in every country in the world.
As Moodle is open source, we don't know exactly how many people use it! We have a registration button inside every copy of Moodle, but it's up to administrators to choose to hit the button and share information with us. From those who have registered their Moodle sites, we know about 80 million people worldwide use Moodle. But, since we know anecdotally that less than 10% of our sites actually register, these numbers could be closer to 800 million.
You can view the number, location and organizational name of registered Moodle sites.
The last time I used Moodle as a teacher was version 2.0. How has Moodle changed since then?
It has been five years since Moodle 2.0 was released. Since then we've released two new releases a year (May and November) and we're currently working on the 3.2 release, which introduces a new interface called Boost.
Since you last used it, our team of between 150-300 core developers—from Moodle HQ and our Moodle community (which varies per release)—have added a huge list of new features and improvements to the user interface. They've also developed tools for better management such as competencies, as well as numerous refactors of the backend and activities. You can see all this in the release notes.
Our processes for core development have matured with a well-defined and rigorous set of reviews, quality control and testing. We have also built all kinds of systems and bots for automated testing as we always strive for improving safety and reliability in Moodle. Now Moodle also has a thriving plugins community with over 1,250 additional plugins (from nearly 700 developers), and that number is growing rapidly.
Lastly, there is the Moodle Mobile App, also open source, and connects to any Moodle site from all major mobile platforms. The Moodle Mobile App focuses on making learning usable on mobile platforms with small touch screens that are sometimes offline. The app can be fully customised and branded for any Moodle institution. More information on this can be found at The Branded Official Moodle Mobile App.
In summary, in the last five years since version 2.0, Moodle continues to be the the most widely-used learning platform. We work with our global community and network of Moodle Partners to advance our mission of providing powerful and flexible tools that could effectively help educators and students use the Internet for learning in an interactive and collaborative way.
How do you see Moodle facilitating and assisting in the current emphasis of open educational resources (OER)?
Some years ago we launched Moodle Net as a central hub that enables Moodle users to share Moodle-based content under creative commons licenses, such as:
- Courses you can download and use
- Courses you can enroll and participate in
- Resources (such as quizzes, database and glossary entries) you can import into your own courses
- User tours are created and customized by site administrators; they introduce new features, explain important information, and more
We have some big plans to reboot this site soon with tighter integrations in Moodle and some other exciting ideas to stimulate more sharing and reuse. To stay up to date, I encourage you to follow moodle.net on Twitter or subscribe to our news.
How many developers are currently working on Moodle?
Moodle HQ currently employs 45 people, which includes about 25 coders plus testers, user experience, designers, managers and so on, located in Australia, Spain, Canada, and the UK. In addition to development we do ourselves, we also review and integrate work from between 150 and 300 community developers per release.
Some of our most important community members are our Moodle Partners. Our Moodle Partners network consists of over 80 certified companies around the world (including some very large ones) who provide paid custom services, training, hosting and a variety of other support activities around the Moodle platform. Moodle Partners provide 10% royalties towards our open source project. Our Moodle Partners are integral to making our project sustainable.
On top of this there are hundreds more important community members writing plugins for the platform, and thousands more involved in the documentation process while also supporting each other in the forums and translating into over 100 languages and much more. Today, Moodle is truly a collaborative product, supported by a global community who believe in and help to advance our project and make education accessible to everyone.
What is your greatest current development need?
Our biggest focus is making Moodle easier to learn and use well. Like most software we find that probably 80% of our users are only using 20% of the functionality. There are many reasons for this, many not in the software, but still, we'd like to see 80% of our users using 80% of the functionality to make online courses that are engaging, efficient, and high quality. This drives our focus on user experience and user research, but also on engaging more people, on a political, influencer or decision-making level with education systems.
Our other major priority is to build good infrastructure that will enable our community to build on top. This includes providing tools and frameworks to help Moodle plugin developers and Moodle mobile developers get the best out of their learning environments, creating platforms for sharing code and content, management of feedback from the community, and systems for incrementally improving everything.
All of this costs money, of course, and increasing our funding for developers in a way that fits our Mission and Vision is constant work that we do.
What are the best resources for someone who's new to Moodle and wants to learn how to use it?
There are a number of ways you can start off.
At the center of it all is Moodle.org. There you can find our documentation at docs.moodle.org and our demonstration sites at moodle.org/demo. There are also a lot of support forums and other resources in many languages where you can meet and become part of the Moodle community.
If you want to jump straight into playing with Moodle without having to install it locally, you can get a free site instantly at Moodlecloud.com. There are some helpful quickstart resources that will help you use a MoodleCloud site at hello.moodlecloud.com.
For training options on how to use Moodle, we have a 4-week online course (also known as a MOOC) called Learn Moodle that we run twice a year.
For more personalised assistance, we encourage you to contact your local Moodle partner who offer all kinds of training, support and hosting services. Our partners support all kinds of Moodle users ranging from individual teachers to K12 schools, company training centers, and large universities worldwide.
I'm a teacher and I want to use Moodle in my classroom. What's the best way for me to get started?
Of course, Moodle is an open source project that you can download and install on nearly any computer you have access to. However, most teachers are not so adept at running web servers and so we've created much easier options.
For new individual teachers I'd recommend our site MoodleCloud as the best way to get started. We have a Moodle for Free package there (up to 50 users) as well as a very affordable Moodle for Schools package (up to 500 users) which also has some additional plugins and features for K-12 schools. More packages are on the way for other sectors and once again, if anyone is interested, I recommend following MoodleCloud on social or subscribing to our newsletter.
We are constantly updating Moodle to make it the very best platform for online learning. To stay up to date with new features, releases and products, you can subscribe to our regular e-newsletter or stay in touch via our social media channels.