Field Stories, General, Opinions

Interview with Moodle Founder & Head of Research Martin Dougiamas

1. It has been more than five years since you shared with eLearning Africa that you were “worried by the Silicon Valley approach” in Africa, and “the disturbing trend for large corporations to seize power and control, controlling the conversation with a cultural agenda.” You noted then that African countries should be “doing the research on what works for them.” What have you learned from the continent over the last half decade?

I should point out that these issues of Silicon Valley Big Tech dominance are pretty widespread in most parts of the world (excluding China maybe), not just African countries. 

One good thing in EdTech that happened last year is that some of the large open universities in Africa (UNISA, OUT, NOUN etc), who all use Moodle to power their universities, have got together to run MoodleMoot Africa every year.  Part of the committee work includes organising working groups to create features and techniques around shared local issues, using the Moodle open source learning platform as a base. This is a tremendous move, in my opinion, and exactly shows how open source allows local ownership of a platform.

Other than this I don’t have a lot of information and experience with what’s really happening across a whole continent and I would not presume to say I do!   In general, I have been focussed on AI in particular for the last three years, and the same old colonial effects from early movers like OpenAI and Microsoft are there as well.  Although encouragingly, the open source movement around AI is VERY strong, and that gives me a lot of hope.

2. Tech Billionaire Elon Musk recently told the British Prime Minister that “[w]e are seeing the most destructive force in history here. There will come a point where no job is needed – you can have a job if you want one for personal satisfaction, but AI will do everything”. The narrative around AI seems to ebb and flow between ‘the greatest opportunity’ and ‘the biggest threat’ to civilisation.  What are the implications of Artificial Intelligence on human learning and skills development as you see it, in particular across Africa? 

Well, I totally agree about the two-sided promise of AI.  However AI is inevitable and absolutely can not be stopped, so we better all be working on making it create an amazing world we all want.   I prefer to focus on the opportunity side, which is so massive that it makes a lot of the objections irrelevant.

Firstly, it’s important to look at AI in context.  Yes, it can and will disrupt a lot of what we’ve come to think of as normal.  But do we really have everything working well right now?  I argue not – we have an epidemic of crises going on right now in all areas.   Most of the Sustainable  Development Goals are beyond the scale of politicians to really solve, and we are missing deadlines left and right.

Secondly, AI is clearly going to evolve into AGI (Artificial General Intelligence) in a few short years, and from there it will be self-improving into many super intelligences that are each many thousands or millions of times “smarter” than any human on the planet.   With the incredible pace of robotics right now, they will soon be embodied in robot bodies that can walk around and do anything we can do (and much more).  Many of us will have a home bot like the one in the movie Bicentennial Man in 5-7 years or so.  This is not fanciful scifi, everything happening now points to this as an absolute certainty.

These “children” we are building are exactly what we need to solve all our largest pressing problems, and some of those solutions can go well beyond bandaids. 

We have been used to a world of relative scarcity, with haves and have-nots.  Once we solve energy, water and we have unlimited intelligence providing labour and services, then we can rapidly create a world of abundance.  This changes a whole lot of basic assumptions that we have today and take for granted such as “adults need to work for a living” and “some parts of the world are too poor to have good education and high-level living”.   It will not be instant of course, and there will be a lot of chaos along the way.  The most important thing we can all do is hold our governments to account to start planning for this transition and get serious about planning for unemployment of 50%, 60%, 80% in the coming decades.   A complete reconstruction of  our economies and welfare is necessary.  I am a big believer in Universal Basic Income – designing our welfare in a way so that EVERY person gets a good living wage with no means testing.

Once we have that, then I think people will have a lot more time to learn all kinds of things that interest them for all their lives, because they’re no longer struggling trying to earn money doing a very specialised job just to survive.  For many, this could be a golden age for broad learning, a new renaissance. 

I’m under no illusions that everyone will learn useful things, and many will fall down rabbit holes in internet content and VR experiences (as some do now) to follow whatever interests them, but as long as we have abundance in resources, then what’s the problem?

3. You recently shared that you ‘think most copyright law in general is the capitalist problem and just bunk.’ Adding EVERYONE is being influenced by everyone else all their life. What thoughts can you really “own”?’ How do we practically pursue a greater democratisation of information?

Mostly big corporations benefit from copyright law.   It’s a hangover of protections for creators in the physical realm, and where selling lumps of atoms was necessary to survive.  Authors (or rather their publishers!) don’t want someone else copying a book, for example. 

In the digital realm copyright has always been sketchy.  You have to copy things relentlessly even to see them.  You have to “copy” them even into your mind through your eyes to read them.  That’s how we learn, and everything we then create is based on those other works we experienced.   It’s all grist for the mill in my opinion.

We have to realise that in a world where a computer can create a book, a movie, a 3D world etc just from a prompt (perhaps even a prompt from observing the world, as we do!) and thus this content will rapidly overshadow everything people have produced in the past 300 years since copyright law was invented, so the whole idea of preciously “protecting” a particular string of words or an image is kinda ridiculous.   ESPECIALLY if we can bring in UBI, so that creators no longer need to use scarcity to make a living.

I am intimate with a very big example which is Moodle.  I deliberately made it open source to let it spread and be copied, and it became the most widely-used software for managing learning in Higher Education.  That’s how immense value to society is created.  The internet in general is 80% open source at least: same story.

When it comes to AI, we want it to read and learn from as much as possible. it needs to know us, to be aligned with us, as a child would be.  It seems counter-productive to try and prevent that.  I would go further and ensure that it learns even deeper about everything, so that AI is always able to accurately attribute ideas, styles, words and characters to original creators.  Not for monetary reasons, but as a respectful thing to do, just as everyone does citations in academic research.

4. Having just handed over the CEO reins at Moodle after 20+ years in the job, how have your views changed –– if at all –– about the potential to effect exponential change through the use of open source online learning? Has the experience with the benefit of hindsight (albeit short) made you more of a realist or idealist?

Well, I found a new CEO to take over the (fairly standard) work of managing a sizeable company (which was rarely fun for me), so that I could put my focus exclusively back on new technologies and thinking about future products.

I’ve never stopped being an idealist – I think good visions are essential to fight against the inertia of reality, and drag everyone over to new realities.

I should add that I also appreciate NON-online learning more and more as I get older.  I do yoga weekly and Toastmasters every two weeks which has been a lot of fun.  My wife is a professional coach/counsellor. 

I hope that in the future as everyone has more time to learn that they find a healthy mix of local communities to be part of and be biologically human with.

5. Why are you so energised by your new role as Head of Research at Moodle and what do you aim to achieve with the Moodle Research Lab?

In a sense this was always me.  I am never happier than when innovating and learning about things that never existed before.   That’s why I started Moodle in the first place.  Making Moodle sustainable has been my side quest for the past 20 years!

We have a few big projects that the Moodle Research Lab is working on.  The three most exciting are:

  • Coach, an open source AI-based app that lives ENTIRELY on your phone that you can trust with ALL your personal data, and is thus able to be a high quality assistant to help you achieve your life goals through coaching and finding you learning opportunities.
  • EduBot, an organisational chatbot that lives in all the chats for an organisation, that sees and remembers everything and is able to help and facilitate teams in doing whatever they need to do.
  • MoodleNet is also slowly evolving with more and more AI – come and see it at

6. Ahead of your visit to eLearning Africa in Kigali in 2018 you celebrated Moodle’s reach throughout the continent but saw room for greater engagement and interaction. How has Moodle’s engagement with and vision for the continent transformed since?

Ah actually I answered this in your first question, about the Moodlemoot.

Unfortunately I won’t be joining E-learning Africa 2024 this year, but Moodle HQ will be sponsoring a booth with 4 of its Moodle Certified Partners (visit them at Stand #39) and hosting a MoodleMoot Rwanda conference on a pre-conference day on the 29th of May, 2024. So if you’d like to learn more about Moodle case studies in Africa, please join us for some interesting presentations and networking opportunities. I will also be making a pre-recorded presentation at MoodleMoot Rwanda on the Future of Education and AI, and its implications across Africa.

Martin Dougiamas

(AI was not used)

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