In Phil’s last post, in which he explained our data gathering methods for our LMS analysis work, he started with a quote from Moodle leader Martin Dougiamas that suggested our numbers were primarily US-based. Because it captured a common misconception about our data (and was based on a fair question), it was a good launching point for the post. But there was more to Martin’s comments on the subject, and we’ve heard various objections from some Moodle advocates about why our numbers are either inaccurate or irrelevant.1
I’d like to review those arguments here. While Moodle is still by far the most widely adopted LMS in higher education globally and is no danger of disappearing any time soon, I believe that our data should give the Moodle community cause for considerable concern about their long-term future and should trigger some soul searching about how the community can ensure it continues to have the development resources necessary to continue to be relevant in the long term.
Let’s start by reminding ourselves of the data in question. It really boils down to this one chart:
Notice the scope of the chart: It does not include the US and Canada. This is data for Europe, Latin America, and Oceania. So this chart is not biased in any way by US-centric trends.
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There are two important caveats here. First, as Phil states in his post, our coverage of these areas of the world are not as complete as they are in the US and Canada, so trends we see in our data for these parts of the world should be considered directional and somewhat provisional rather than pinpoint accurate. That said, we only publish data for regions where we have enough coverage to be confident that our sample is representative. We don’t yet cover China or Africa for this reason. We believe the chart above is directionally correct, but there is a margin of error because we have a sample rather than a close-to-100% complete data set.
The second caveat is that the chart shows new adoptions. When we look at installed base, Moodle still looks formidable:
So the issue we’re talking about is not that Moodle is disappearing but rather that it is losing ground during new adoption cycles.
The three most common arguments we hear from Moodle advocates are the following:
- The e-Literate numbers aren’t global or aren’t accurate.
- e-Literate is using the wrong adoption measure.
- e-Literate’s numbers are irrelevant, because an open source project doesn’t need to worry about growth in the same way that a profit-motivated company does.
Phil’s earlier post addressed the first objection by describing the data we have, how we get it and validate it, and how we try to be transparent about its limitations.
I’d like to address the other two objections in this post.
The Wrong Measure?
We measure higher education institutional adoptions. That means there are Moodle adoptions that we don’t measure or don’t report. We don’t have counts K12 or corporate adoption at all; Moodle has significant uptake in both of these areas. While we have data on secondary higher education adoptions (e.g., adoption by a school of education at a university that uses a different LMS for the rest of the institution), we don’t report these numbers. Nor do we report adoption by individual faculty. All of these are meaningful numbers and we do not dismiss them.
But institutional higher education adoption is a particularly meaningful measure for Moodle’s long-term health. While Moodle is open source, Martin Dougiamas’ company Moodle Pty—more widely known within the Moodle community as Moodle HQ—does most of the development of the core Moodle code and maintains tight control over which code submitted by third parties gets accepted into the code base. This is what is sometimes known as the “benevolent dictator” model of open source, which was popularized by Linus Torvalds, the creator and development leader of the Linux kernel.
Under the current way of doing things, both the direction of Moodle development and velocity at which occurs are largely controlled by Moodle Pty. However much input the company may take from the community, the ultimate decisions and, perhaps more importantly for this post, the work of implementing those decisions, fall under the purview of Moodle Pty, a for-profit company that must generate revenue to pay the employees who actually write that code. Moodle Pty’s revenues mostly come from Moodle Partners, which are companies that are licensed to use the Moodle trademark by Moodle Pty in return for a percentage of their Moodle-related gross revenues.
If Moodle Partners lose paying customers, then Moodle Pty loses revenue. If Moodle Pty loses enough revenue, then at some point it would have to start laying off developers. If Moodle Pty starts laying off developers, then the pace of Moodle development will slow. If the pace of Moodle development slows, then the loss of Moodle-adopting schools may accelerate, creating a vicious cycle.
While we don’t know the percentage of Moodle’s revenues that come from higher education (as opposed to K12 and corporate), we know it’s significant. The anecdotes I have heard from various sources suggest that it may well be the substantial majority of the total financial resources that fund the development of Moodle’s core platform. So, while other kinds of adoption may be great and may bring in new participants to the Moodle community, Moodle advocates should be concerned with higher education institutional adoption if they are concerned with having development resources for the Moodle platform in the long term.
Another argument we hear sometimes is that the Moodle community doesn’t need to care about these numbers because, as an open source project, it will fulfill its purpose if meets the needs of its adopters and doesn’t need growth for its own sake the way that a for-profit project does. Martin himself made this argument in the comments referenced above:
Martin ended his comment on this topic by saying what makes our project different is that we are not driven by numbers. We are driven by the needs of our users and that he would be happy if there were only 100 universities using Moodle if we are following that approach.
From an abstract philosophical perspective, this is undeniably true (or was at the time the comment was made, at any rate). An open source project does not need to satisfy investors or meet revenue targets. It just needs to attract enough developer resources to keep the code base viable and up-to-date. But there are a few serious problems with this argument in Moodle’s specific case.
First, Moodle’s growth model was spectacularly successful in its first decade in part because it was a Robin Hood model. In richer countries, adopters could afford to pay hosting or management companies to run their mission-critical instances. A portion of this money would flow back to Moodle Pty and get invested in the salaries of developers who would improve Moodle and continue to release it under an open source license. In poorer countries, they could adopt Moodle themselves without paying a hosting or support vendor. Moodle has always been unusually easy to install and run on even modest hardware relative to its competition, so poorer schools could still manage to adopt it with the resources that they had. But if Moodle is losing ground in the richer countries (or, more accurately, the countries that can invest and are investing more dollars in educational technology), then it is also losing its development revenue base.
(I would add that the message, “Hey, it’s no big deal to us if we lose some adopters” is not a great one for members of the community who feel like their needs are not being met.)
But the problem is potentially worse for Moodle, because we’re beginning to see a pattern take hold in international markets as they reach a certain level of maturity, and it’s not good a good one for Moodle. In the US and Canada, the big hurdle to LMS migration was the move from self-hosted to cloud. Once institutions became comfortable with cloud hosting, the market changed rapidly, with Canvas in particular taking a strong lead and Moodle (among others) losing ground.
We are seeing early evidence that the same pattern may be beginning to take hold in Europe now. While the data we have are not definitive yet, they are suggestive and are supported by the qualitative research we are doing. And this pattern could easily take hold elsewhere as well. For example, my colleague O’Neal Spicer and I recently had the good fortune to visit Brazil, where Moodle is still very much dominant. But consider this: Seventy-five percent of Brazil’s college students go to for-profit universities, and those businesses are enormous and growing. For example, Kroton, the country’s largest university, has about 2 million students. Given that these organizations are companies with investors and profit motives, there is no particular reason to believe that they are ideologically inclined toward open source. The fact that both Instructure and D2L have offices in São Paolo suggest that they believe they have an opportunity to win over the Brazilian market now that it has gotten big enough to be profitable for them. In other words, Moodle’s Robin Hood model is under threat because whenever a market becomes rich enough to generate significant revenue for Moodle Pty, it also becomes rich enough for universities to consider switching to cloud hosting by one of Moodle’s commercial competitors.
Adding to this pressure is the fact that Moodle Pty just took $6 million in investment money. This is not a grant; it is an investment. However well-aligned and patient those investors may be, they still will eventually need to see a return on their $6 million. When investors do not see the return they expected, they eventually begin to put pressure on the company management to take steps that improve the finances. I don’t know enough about the terms of this particular investment relationship to know what kind of leverage Leclercq has to push for changes in Moodle Pty if they are not happy with its performance, but the fact of the matter is that Moodle Pty now has financial performance targets to meet.
Put all this together, and it strongly suggests that members of the Moodle community should be concerned about the adoption trends we are seeing, for both mission and strategic reasons.
I want to return to the example of Brazil for a moment to show why this matters not just to Moodle advocates but to anyone who cares about education. According to the 2016 Analytic Report of Distance Learning in Brazil published by Brazil’s premiere distance learning association, the Associação Brasileira de Educação a Distãncia (ABED), about three-quarters of a million Brazilians took online or blended courses in 2016. According to our analysis, Moodle has over 80% of Brazil’s higher education institutional LMS market share. It’s entirely possible that we would not have seen that kind of growth in access to education if Moodle had not existed. Yes, one or more other open source LMSs might have been adopted, but the existence of that Robin Hood sustainability engine built by Martin Dougiamas ensured that significant developer resources went to developing a high-quality globally adoptable LMS that could be deployed by even poor institutions. It has been an engine of educational growth.
If the data patterns we are observing hold, then that engine may be under long-term threat. While Moodle has far too broad an installed base to disappear any time soon and just received an infusion of investor money, the fact is that its sustainability model is now in question. That’s bad for everyone. It’s bad for Moodle advocates, it’s bad for people who care about improving educational access for the developing world and economically challenged people in general, and it’s bad for those educational technology companies that have depended on international maturation of markets that open up new commercial opportunities for them.
For everyone’s sake, I hope that the Moodle community—and particularly its leadership—owns up to this potential challenge to its sustainability model and confronts it head-on.
- The Moodle community is no more monolithic than any other; we have of course heard a wide range of opinions from Moodle advocates about the state of the union. [↩]