Field Stories / Opinions

How a Boy from the Desert Brought Education to Millions

By Harold Elletson

It is baking hot and there is no breeze to stir the windsock on the edge of a tiny airstrip in the Western Australian desert.  A small light aircraft is just visible in the distance through the heat haze. In one of the buildings in what passes for a settlement on the edge of the airfield, a group of children have been listening to a short wave radio, as they do most days. When they hear the sound of the aircraft engine, they turn off the radio, pack their books and rush out to watch the pilot land his plane on the dusty runway. All the children are aboriginal Australians, apart from one, who is of European heritage. He packs his books carefully and adds them to the pile that will be taken to the plane.

When Martin Dougiamas’ life is made into a film, the opening scene will probably be something like that.

Dougiamas, who went on to found Moodle, the world’s leading learning platform, grew up in the desert in the nineteen seventies and had an extraordinary education, which must count as an early form of distance learning. If you take the aircraft into account, you could argue that it was a form of technology-assisted learning too.

“I was educated in the ‘School of the Air,’” he explains. “It’s an old institution in Australia and it led the way with distance education. We had a connection once a day with our teachers by short-wave radio and we sent back our homework by plane.

“When I eventually came to the city – to Perth – I was a year ahead of my peers. It taught me control in learning. It didn’t hurt me at all.”

Eventually the boy from the desert went to university to study engineering.

He completed a master’s and a PhD at Curtin University in Perth, which is now ranked in the top 1 per cent of the world’s universities.

“I read engineering. Then I figured out that computers were what I was interested in. Then computer architecture. I came back to Curtin to work there. I wanted to know more about education.”

He began to blend his knowledge of engineering and computer architecture with what he learned about education.

“It was clear that, on the campus, there were educators and there were technologists. But someone needed to be in the middle and to understand the technology. The institution had no interest in supporting me. But then it started to take off.”

He began working in a technical support role and remembers how he set about trying to discover how the university operated, how it communicated and how it delivered education.

“I spent the day walking round the campus and talking to everyone who worked there. There were 25,000 students. I got to see the entire operation and I saw everyone struggling with technology.”

Whilst at Curtin University, he began developing the online tools that were eventually to become ‘Moodle.’ Originally an experiment in adapting his PhD research (on “the use of Open Source software to support a social constructionist epistemology of teaching and learning within Internet-based communities of reflective inquiry”) into a practical application, Moodle took off rapidly.

By 2015, it had become one of the most popular learning management systems in the world, with 70,136 registered sites in 222 countries.

Dougiamas had two concepts when he established the system. The first was that it had to be modular.

“Anything you would call a ‘course’ is a series of activities. These are strung together to make a longer programme. The tools for these activities are scattered all over the Internet. It became clear that I had to build a modular system. The second idea was that all the components had to flow back onto one page. I had a matrix drawing, showing all the data flows.”

The simplicity and convenience of Moodle is what has made it so popular, he believes.

“Moodle is the most used learning management system in the world. People can just take it and use it. There are big numbers there. My initial hope was that people would see how to use it just by looking at it. They would teach others how they were taught. They would turn the tool into what they want. ‘Dump and pump.’”

In spite of the big numbers, Dougiamas says that he is “a little disappointed.”

“It’s not yet as successful in terms of quality, as I would wish. Quality is what we’re focussed on right now.”

He continues, however, to believe in the value of massive online learning and in Moodle’s capacity to continue to expand.

“Even the simplest online course can be better than anything else. It has so much potential.”

When Moodle began to grow, Dougiamas faced a choice.

“I needed revenue. I needed to pay people to do things. I needed to choose: do I build a large company or do I outsource? I decided to outsource.”

Dougiamas built a network of partner companies, such as Blackboard, which pay royalties for using the Moodle system.

“Now we’re broadening our revenue streams,” he says. “We’re focussing on larger development projects, NGOs and Governments. Partners are coming together and Moodle is managing it.”

Making money is not his first priority, though. He points out with some pride that his goals are very different from those of the big corporate providers.

“There is a very big difference. We are not profit focussed. We don’t have VCs demanding profits. We don’t have debts. Sustainability is the no. 1 important thing for me. The key thing about open source is can you build sustainable models?”

As Moodle continues to expand, Dougiamas is convinced that Africa will be increasingly important for it, although he stresses that “we’re not profit focussed, so we’re not looking at Africa as a market to be exploited.”

He mentions Moodle’s mobile app as being “particularly useful for Africa.”

His visit to Kigali in September for eLearning Africa perhaps marks a change of direction for Moodle and an acknowledgement of the growing strength of African economies, although he admits that the continent has not been a priority in the past.

“Although Moodle is used a lot in Africa, we are not interacting as much as we could. It all comes down to networking. Our engagement has been very low. At eLearning Africa, I hope to meet more people and find out how we can help.”

He is looking forward to the discussions he will have in Kigali and he has plenty of advice to offer.

“Africa needs to strive to be a leader in technologies and education,” he says. “I would encourage African countries not to look at commercial, cloud-based solutions, tied into license fees, etcetera. They need to make things locally.”

He says that he is “worried by the Silicon Valley approach” and “the disturbing trend for large corporations to seize power and control, controlling the conversation with a cultural agenda.” African countries should be “doing the research on what works for them.”

His emphasis on sustainability, rather than profit, means that he is committed to Moodle.

“I love what I’m doing. Someone once offered me $20 million for Moodle and I said no. I have found what I like to do and I’m always going to be involved with edTech.”

 

About Moodle

Founded in Perth, Australia, Moodle produces an open source learning platform with over 100,000 registered sites including more than 130 million users worldwide. In pursuit of their mission of “empowering educators to improve our world”, Moodle’s software gives educators and learners powerful, flexible software tools for online learning and collaboration.

Moodle software is used as a key part of operations for: schools and Universities such as the UK Open University, University of Barcelona, Monash University, Columbia University, Shanghai International University and Mumbai University; corporate users such Mazda, Allianz, Vodafone and Coca-Cola, as well as other organisations such as the United Nations, World Vision International and the US Defence force.

Moodle’s open source project and development is supported by its global community of users and network of certified Moodle Partners, who offer a range of tailored Moodle services and support.

For more information, visit https://moodle.com.

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