Interview With Martin Dougiamas On Changes To Moodle Community This Year

In my post last week on Blackboard’s Moodle strategy in Latin America, I made the following observation:

At the same time, this strategy and growth comes at a time where the Moodle community at large appears to be at an inflection point. This inflection point I see comes from a variety of triggers:

  • Blackboard acquisitions causing Moodle HQ, other Moodle Partners, and some subset of users’ concerns about commercialization;
  • Creation of the Moodle Association as well as Moodle Cloud services as alternate paths to Moodle Partners for revenue and setup; and
  • Remote-Learner leaving the Moodle Partner program and planning to join the Moodle Association, with its associated lost revenue and public questioning value.

I’m working on a follow-up post that looks more deeply at these changes to the Moodle community, and as part of the research I’ve interviewed Martin Dougiamas, Moodle Founder and CEO, by email. Given Martin’s role, I wanted to avoid the risk of having his answers get buried within my upcoming analysis post; therefore, I’ve decided to publish the interview in full. The only changes I have made are for clarity: showing and correcting[1] full names instead of acronyms[2], correcting grammar, and reordering questions to show follow-up discussions in context.

Phil: Given Blackboard’s trend in acquisitions for Moodle (Remote-Learner UK, X-Ray Analytics, Nivel Siete), and assuming these are not the last, how do these moves affect the Moodle community and future (including roadmap, Moodle HQ funding, whatever)? What are the biggest benefits and / or what are the risks and downsides?

Martin: In any community there’s always going to be some concern about any one organisation trying to gain dominance. Our certified Moodle Partner program was designed specifically to avoid these kind of risks by building a large global network of different companies (currently 68 and growing, including Moonami and Elearning Experts recently in the US) who are committed to supporting Moodle HQ. The recent Blackboard acquisitions don’t bring any benefits to Moodle as a whole.

Phil: When you say “the recent Blackboard acquisitions don’t bring any benefits to Moodle as a whole”, I note that in Latin America the only other Moodle Partners are in Argentina (1) and Brazil (3). Would Blackboard / Nivel Siete expansion to service most of Latin America end up generating more official Moodle Partner revenue, thus helping fund more core development through HQ?

Martin: We have South American Moodle Partners in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Peru and several in Brazil, as well as Partners who work in South America from other locations. Our Partner program is all about supporting local businesses who are Moodle experts, and they support us by paying royalties.

There is always some talk around acquisitions which it’s good to be mindful of. From a Moodle point of view there’s no new “expansion” – it was already happening.

Nivel Siete, like Moodlerooms, was a tiny company of several people who grew to 20 or so people with our support over many years. Meanwhile, Blackboard has had offices and resellers selling Blackboard Learn in South America for many years. As you know, acquisitions usually happen to remove a competitor or to gain some capabilities that the buying company was not able to develop on their own.

Phil: Do you agree with my characterization that “Moodle community at large appears to be at an inflection point” this year, driven by the three examples listed?

Martin: Sorry, I don’t really agree with your characterization. Unlike nearly all other LMS companies, Moodle is not profit-focussed (all our revenue goes into salaries). We are an organisation that is completely focussed on supplying a true open source alternative for the world without resorting to venture capital and the profit-driven thinking that comes with that.

Of course we still want to grow our core development team significantly in order to help Moodle evolve faster. So some of the big new things you’re seeing from us this year have been in the pipeline for a while and are about driving that: the Moodle Association is a formalisation of crowd-funding for additional new core developments; and MoodleCloud is very much about supporting and strengthening the Moodle Partner brand (while helping those who want these new services).

Regarding our ex-Partner Remote-Learner, it’s a shame we’ve lost them as friends but they are driven by their own internal issues. Saying they have switched to the Association is a little like saying you switched to Kickstarter, it doesn’t mean much. In any case they cannot actually even join the Moodle Association as commercial LMS service providers are not eligible.

Phil: My note on “inflection point” is not based on a profit-driven assumption. The idea is that significant changes are underway that could change the future direction of Moodle. A lot depends on Blackboard’s acquisition strategy (assuming it goes beyond Remote-Learner UK and Nivel Siete), whether other Moodle Partners follow Remote-Learner’s decision, and whether Moodle Association shows signs of producing similar or larger revenues than the Moodle Partner program. What I don’t see happening is extension of the status quo.

Martin: Moodle’s mission is not changing at all, we are just expanding and improving how we do things in response to a shifting edtech world. We are starting the Moodle Association to fill a gap that our users have often expressed to us – they wanted a way to have some more direct input over major changes in core Moodle. There is no overlap between this and the Moodle Partners – in fact we are also doing a great deal to improve and grow the Moodle Partner program and as well as the user experience for those who need Moodle services from them.

Phil: You have previously described the Moodle model as a ‘benevolent dictatorship’. Do you see that core model changing in the near future based on the three items I mentioned under inflection point (Moodle Association, Blackboard acquisitions, Remote-Learner leaving Moodle Partner program) or do you see roughly the same model but just with additional crowd-funding through Moodle Association? I think you’re answering the latter, but I want to make sure.

Martin: Yes, the latter.

I don’t use the ‘benevolent dictatorship’ term myself although it’s common in the open source world. Yes, I wrote everything in the first versions of Moodle, and my company continues to lead the project via Moodle Pty Ltd [aka Moodle HQ].

However, rather than any kind of dictatorship we see our mission as being *servants* to the community of teachers and learners who need Moodle and quality open source Free software. Our core duty is to give away the software we develop. Our values are to support educators with respect, integrity, openness and innovation. See https://moodle.com/hq/ This is never going to change.

This is in contrast to multi-billion companies whose value is in increasing their EBITDA [earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization] before a sale, and whose mission is to expand by acquiring markets in other countries.

Phil: Could you comment on the deep penetration of Moodle worldwide into corporate learning (maybe equal to higher ed / K-12)?

Martin: Yes, Moodle is used a lot in corporate learning worldwide. In fact something like 40% of the many thousands of clients using Moodle Partners as service providers are using Moodle for company training, including some really huge ones. We have a few case studies on our website at moodle.com/stories if you’re interested.

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  1. Changing references to “Remote Learner” to follow the proper “Remote-Learner” usage []
  2. For example, replacing “BB” with “Blackboard”, “NS” with “Nivel Siete”, etc []

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About Phil Hill

Phil is a consultant and industry analyst covering the educational technology market primarily for higher education. He has written for e-Literate since Aug 2011. For a more complete biography, view his profile page.
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