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[school-discuss] Interview with Martin Dougiamas, Creator of Moodle


If you look at the "stats" page for the Open Source program Moodle,
you will see the incredible growth taking place in the use of this
e-learning program. Martin Dougiamas, the creator of Moodle, spent an
hour with me talking about Moodle, what is is, where it is being used,
and how a large Open Source program like Moodle is sustained. Martin
is thoroughly engaging, and the interview goes by much too fast.

Some notes:

   * Martin grew up in the desert of Australia, and his own schooling
as a youth was from "The School of the Air." Through CB (Ham?) Radio,
he and four or five other youth talked with a teacher who was 600
miles away, and every other week an airplane would stop by with school
materials. Seems quite appropriate that someone with that background
would 1) of necessity become a self-learner (again, reference the Doc
Searl's interview and the "self-learner" aspect of the Open Source
world), 2) understand the value of e-learning, 2) understand the
nature of distance learning, and 3) see the value in
learner-participation that lies at the philosophical heart of Moodle.

   * It was a test of Martin's patience for me to ask him to explain
Moodle as though he were talking to a teacher who knew nothing about
it, but he did a very good job, and I hope it makes the interview a
better resource to the teacher community. There is a skill involved in
not only managing a project as complex as Moodle, but also being
willing and able to communicate its value in basic terms to new users.
This impresses me about Martin.

   * Moodle isn't just for distance-learning situations. It is also
built for and used in "face-to-face" learning or "blended" learning
environments, and he mentioned its value in homeschooling.

   * The Moodle community that works on the actual software project
is a model of the "community of practice" or "collaboration" that
Moodle strives to help create for learning environments. They are
their own best "customers" of the project, as they work to extend this
core value of participation. For several months I have been wrestling
with the two values of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) to
schools. The first is "FOSS in Education," which is essentially the
use of FOSS programs that, for the most part, are just replacing
proprietary programs which were already in use or which weren't in use
because of their financial cost. The second is "FOSS as Education,"
where the use of FOSS programs introduces the student to the Free and
Open Source world, and allows them to participate in collaborative
programming. Jeff Elkner's work teaching FOSS programs like Python to
students at Yorktown High School in Arlington, Virginia, is an example
of this. What makes FOSS more than just a "cheaper" replacement of
proprietary programs is this second opportunity--to engage students in
very real-life aspects of a world that is becoming more and more based
on collaborative work. The fascinating value that Moodle seems to
bring to this picture is the ability that Moodle has to bring these
collaborative opportunities into the regular classroom, bridging the
gap between the worlds of regular computer use and Jeff Elkner's
computer lab--because if "FOSS as Education" were only to take place
in the computer lab classes, it's impact would be limited only to
those technically-minded students. (Coming up for air now...)

   * Moodle is most definitely having a unique impact on the
awareness and understanding of Open Sources software in schools. This
is largely, I think, because it is viewed as "free" (as in cost)
competitor to very expensive proprietary programs. Our Moodle
demonstrations at the NECC and CUE shows have literally been
standing-room only. But Martin is quick to point out (as was also
clear about OpenOffice in my recent interview) that it is the
combination of features and the benefits of the Open Source community
that are driving the adoption of Moodle, and not the low cost.

   * The Moodle.org project is financially self-sustaining because of
the commercial partnerships that Moodle has under the Moodle.com
website. There are 40 Moodle partners who provide hosting, support,
consulting, training, and certification (and some 200 additional
applicants) who pay royalties into a Moodle trust. Funds from that
trust go to pay developers to work on Moodle.

   * There are some very large deployments of Moodle, including the
upcoming use of Moodle by the Open University of the UK, where they
anticipate it being used by 200,000 students. Large organizations that
use Moodle also help the project by devoting staff to maintain or
improve Moodle, and Martin said that the Open University will be
working on helping to maintain the "quiz" module, as well as funding
directly some upcoming developments.

   * Martin wasn't sure he wanted to get into the fray over "Free
Software" and "Open Source Software," but he admitted he uses the
phrase "Open Source" himself.

   * Maintaining a project with some 20,000 scripts is a big job, but
Martin still finds time each week to do some actual coding himself. He
loves his job, and wishes that everyone would have something exciting
to work on so that they want to jump out of bed each morning, like he

Steve Hargadon
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