Create. Share. Engage.

Martin Dougiamas: Open EdTech as a force for good

May 24, 2023 Mahara Project Season 1 Episode 19
Create. Share. Engage.
Martin Dougiamas: Open EdTech as a force for good
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Dr Martin Dougiamas is founder and CEO of Moodle, the open source learning management system, that is used by millions of learners around the world daily. Moodle has grown from Martin's university project to a 250-person company empowering educators to create and support learning activities.

In this episode, Martin shares his education philosophy, and why he is so passionate about open source. He also talks about the Open EdTech association that brings together educational open source companies and projects to offer an alternative to mega corporations and their lock-ins.

Not recorded are the three words he associates with portfolios: constructionism, collaboration, and curation.

Connect with Martin


Click through to the episode notes for the transcript. 

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Production information
Production: Catalyst IT
Host: Kristina Hoeppner
Artwork: Evonne Cheung
Music: The Mahara tune by Josh Woodward

Kristina Hoeppner 00:05

Welcome to 'Create. Share. Engage.' This is the podcast about portfolios for learning and more for educators, learning designers, and managers keen on integrating portfolios with their education and professional development practices. 

Kristina Hoeppner 00:21

'Create. Share. Engage.' is brought to you by the Mahara team at Catalyst IT. My name is Kristina Hoeppner. Today, it's not going to be much about portfolios, but the larger field of educational technology and open source. Who better to talk to with than Dr Martin Dougiamas? He is best known as founder and CEO of Moodle, the learning management system. He announced the first public lines of code in 2001. Since then, organisations in over 240 countries have been using Moodle to enhance their in-person and online learning. Thank you for making time, Martin, to talk with me today.

Martin Dougiamas 01:03

Thank you, Kristina, and it's really no trouble at all. I was looking forward to it.

Kristina Hoeppner 01:08

Martin, how did you actually get interested in educational technology and writing your own learning management system?

Martin Dougiamas 01:14

Like all good open source, it starts with an itch that you need to scratch. In this case, I was working at a university, good 20 to 23 years ago. My job was to help academics and the staff use new technologies, particularly the internet. I could really see so much potential for using the internet, which I had already been using myself in the 80s and 90s. All the interactive experiences that I knew, but you had to be quite technical to do, were suddenly all dumbed down by the web. I could see a path forward to use the web and make it more interactive and make it a space where you could have quality education occurring. The tools weren't there yet. So I started to write them. I started to make little things and experiment with my staff at the university, and those experiments turned into Moodle as an open source product, and it continues to this day.

Kristina Hoeppner 02:10

Why did you decide to publish Moodle open source?

Martin Dougiamas 02:13

So I had always been very interested in Unix and using it for everything. I just love the whole ethos. And I think it's very compatible with academia as well. Most people want to learn things and then share it with others. And that's the basis of all science. Obviously, publishing companies will pop up and put pay walls over things and that's commercial models that keep coming in, but underneath it all, we all just want to share what we've learned. Open source is the purest expression of that when you create software, you kind of hard code a lot of ideas into a machine that does work for you, and you want to share that and have that doing work as widely as possible. On top of that, it's just way more fun. The open source community is just really warm and embracing and everyone's cool. You know, I just love it. I love the whole feel of open source.

Kristina Hoeppner 03:05

With so many organisations using Moodle in over 240 countries over, I think, it was 165,000 different institutions, and that is just a guesstimate since not everybody needs to register their Moodle site, to what do you attribute its success?

Martin Dougiamas 03:22

Obviously, I didn't know that was going to happen when I was starting. I thought it would be a hobby project, and I'd be doing it in the evenings, and I'd be an academic or something, and that's what I thought in the beginning. But very rapidly because I think of its foundation and active research - so I was working with students while doing my Masters and then a PhD - real students in real classes, and I was building the system around them.

Martin Dougiamas 03:45

So every week I was getting feedback, how's this working? How's that working? And then I was modifying the software in real time. So they'd wake up the next morning, and there'd be all these new features that I'd added. And it was very, very rapid development, and it was very connected to a very engaged group of Master's level students at that time, who were studying education and studying constructionism and all these theories as well. So we were all working together to optimise our situation together. It was very exciting. That development style gave Moodle a core and a philosophy that resonates with many, many people.

Martin Dougiamas 04:20

So when they encounter it, I mean, my first presentation of it to the world was at an EdMedia conference in Hawai'i, which I somehow managed to get my university to send me to, I present it to it was probably 1,000 people from around the world in this sort of new field of ed tech, well, internet based ed tech. My talk was absolutely crammed, full of people. And then something happened which has I've never seen any other conference again. The conference organisers said, "there were many more people who wanted to come to your thing. Can you do the session again tomorrow?" And it was packed again the next day. All those people took it back and seeded stuff in their own countries because it was a very global conference, and things took off. 

Martin Dougiamas 05:02

There was this grass roots push people were aligned with it and say, "Yes, this actually works. I can see the philosophy behind it" and just jump on it and start sharing it, start building on top of it, start making it happen. And that's the power of open source communities. When something works, people will take it up. 

Martin Dougiamas 05:03

It's fairly embedded now. I mean, there's two thirds of the world's higher education use Moodle. It varies in different continents. Some are much higher and some are less. It's also a lot of schools, and it's used by a lot of companies. And it's used in all kinds of weird situations now. That's the wonder of it.

Kristina Hoeppner 05:36

You still do quite a bit of rapid development because you still involve the community heavily. And I think recently also hired students to help you with that because going back to 2019, there was an awesome presentation at the first global Moodle Moot, where the students presented new UX features. So how has that influenced your work then over the past few years?

Martin Dougiamas 06:00

That particular session you're remembering, I thought it'd be nice for one of the keynotes to be from students. And we asked a few classes of students in Barcelona to do some brainstorming around their perfect LMS, what they think it should look like and how it should work. And we gave them a couple of months advance notice. So they did it as assignments, and they produced some really beautiful presentations to show off their vision to everyone. And it was a lot of jaw dropping reaction. A lot of people were like, "Yes, we want that!" [laughs] 

Martin Dougiamas 06:28

One of the guys in particular, a 17-year old, was very confident, like a young Steve Jobs up on the stage presenting his group's solution. And we actually hired him as one of our UX developers for a couple of years. And then he went to university, and he's pursuing a different path. But it was very useful to have that input from younger people who have grown up with the internet. 

Martin Dougiamas 06:47

So yes, it's definitely built for collaboration. There's over 2,100 plugins that have been built for Moodle by the community and that extends the functionality. The M in Moodle stands for modular, and it is a modular system. It's like an operating system really, you can turn things off, you can turn things on, you can add features to it, and make it a good environment for nearly any situation, whether it be a very small primary school or home school, in some cases, all the way up to the U.S. Air Force or the U.S. Army both use Moodle, or the largest open university in the world in China uses Moodle for three and a half million students.

Kristina Hoeppner 07:27

You mentioned the plugins and there is also a plugin directly to Mahara to make it more comfortable submitting portfolios into Moodle because the portfolio submission is often times tied to assessment. And we developed the plugin in order to keep all the assessment data in one place. Moodle of course, is predestined to be that place so that you just have one grade book and the entire infrastructure is already there. So how are you regarding the integrations that are possible with a learning management system?

Martin Dougiamas 08:00

We try and keep it focused on the learning management system. It's an LMS or a virtual learning environment if you're from the UK. We do try and keep it focused there. And I do believe there is a whole ecosystem of products that need to work together. So we do love integrations. I've always regarded Mahara as a sister project to Moodle. When it started and Catalysts began Mahara, there was two programmers there who were involved, Penny Leach and Martin Langhoff who built Mahara in some way inspired by Moodle, I would say. Some of the structure is similar, some of the programming style is similar. So we have a relation that way. And the integration between the two was envisaged from the very start with that integration to assignments that you mentioned. And a lot of that whole class of integrations in Moodle was inspired and started by the Mahara need. 

Martin Dougiamas 08:48

I do feel a bit disappointed that our team has not really developed that much further in recent years, and I think because we've just spread too thin over too many things with all the activity that there is in the Moodle world and the number of integrations there are. We rely on the community to keep pushing those things and they have. If enough people want it, we can always find a way for those people to get together and make it happen. 

Kristina Hoeppner 09:09

So it comes down to again, defining the requirements and then ideally do some rapid prototyping to see what works, what doesn't work, how can we make it to work better in other contexts and as well?

Martin Dougiamas 09:20


Kristina Hoeppner 09:21

To most in the community, you are best known as Moodler, but in recent years, especially kind of starting in 2019 more publicly, you started Open EdTech. What do you want to achieve with that organisation? What is your dream there?

Martin Dougiamas 09:36

My whole life is orienting towards Open EdTech, this wider context. So there's an ecosystem around learning. I'm very concerned at the spread and the rise of very large commercial actors in the let's say the internet application space. The Google's and Microsoft's and Meta's and Apple's and so on who do produce great stuff to use, no question about that. But they are also very wired into our hardware, the only hardware we can buy, practically. They are also very cloud focused, and they like to control the data and rent services to you. So you never really truly own your stuff, your stuff is there. The worst part is that they are constructed in a way that their profit focused. Profit is first, and their boards don't sit around discussing how to improve humanity as the first topic of the agenda. They are discussing revenues and profits and growth, and there are these inherent models with these companies have exponential infinite growth. 

Martin Dougiamas 10:39

So in education technology, I really truly believe through my experience over the last 20 odd years is that it does work to - Moodle is an example, and there are many others - to build that in another way, which is, the purpose is first, the mission is first, the software is first, and it is co-developed, collaboratively developed, by the experts in the field, and the software is a medium for discussing and agreeing on what are the best ways forward.

Martin Dougiamas 10:39

This style, this sort of very capitalistic model of building software does produce some unwanted outcomes. I feel like that's a negative impact on educational software, in particular. Education is a basic human right. The goal should be how do we produce the very highest quality education systems we possibly can? And how do we make it free? And how do we involve everybody in this? Because education is literally our next generation. We're all sort of parenting the next generation together, and that it's the future of our whole species, right. So it's very critical. And it's too important to leave that to a capitalistic dog-eat-dog model out there of, you know, the best one will win and the one with the most profits wins, you know. You end up with the Jeff Bezo's of this world, and the, you know, the super concentration of wealth and greed and control. So that's the background philosophy. 

Kristina Hoeppner 12:02

That also then brings in the innovation that we want to see in the education because people can participate?

Martin Dougiamas 12:09

Yes, there's a mix of collaboration in particular, where it makes sense to save resources because we all want to do some things in the same way. But there's also a localisation and adaptation possible in a local context, you can completely make it your own. And that's necessary in education. As an Australian with European parents, I have a certain view on the world. I cannot pretend to say what education should be in Namibia, in Brazil, in Russia, you know, these different places in the world. That's what local educators should be doing. And the infrastructure should be there to support them, but they should have the control. 

Kristina Hoeppner 12:44

With Open EdTech, you're bringing together organisations like Moodle, like Catalyst for Mahara, like Big Blue Button, and also service providers for Moodle and other technologies to figure out what a sustainable future could look like then also for open source projects in the space and education, right?

Martin Dougiamas 13:02

Firstly, all the people who are interested in the things we're talking about and the projects and who people who demonstrate the ability to build the infrastructure in the open way, we need a way to work together to become a much larger force that we can counteract this other more capitalist based approach. Together we are stronger. The idea of working together led into the idea of building an association, the Open EdTech Association so that we have a formal body and that body can certify things, it can act as a vehicle for us to work together financially as well as practically, and it can support and stamp things like standards that we want to push and support, and just to provide that environment. 

Martin Dougiamas 13:45

The second thing is we need a focus for advertising this concept for being the flag bearer for this concept. And so open education technology as a brand as a name is something that I would love parents to say to a school, 'Do use Open EdTech?' It's not something that any Mahara or Moodle or any particular product can do on our own. It's something that we need to get down to together with. 

Martin Dougiamas 14:08

It's taken some time to formalise that. I decided to build the association somewhere sort of central to the world and influential and if I look around the world now, it's not going to be in the U.S. because the whole capitalism model I told you about is very strong there, and the whole philosophy is very strong. It's not going to be in lots of other places. Europe has shown, I think, the strongest political will to democratise technology and to make sure that it is done in a socially responsible and good way. You know, they've been pushing privacy. They're pushing the thumb screws on all the big companies to make sure that they, you know, build non proprietary connectors on phones and all of this good stuff. So Europe has a good history there. Now, of course, you know, it's a big place and it has its problems, too. But anyway, so the decision was made to make it in Brussels. I don't know if any of you have tried had to create an association in Brussels lately, but it does take a long time. So while juggling Moodle during a pandemic, I've been in the side getting the pushing that through, and we're like 99% done now. The very last step is for the King of Belgium to put a stamp on it, I believe, personally somehow. 

Martin Dougiamas 14:36

But in the meantime, we've been forging ahead with the planning and the building. And what we would like to have is an agreed infrastructure framework of standards and structure that we can say, 'that makes sense,' and that all our different projects can start fitting into and building around. And that's gonna be an infrastructure that is designed for the next 50 years. So it needs to really use the very latest thinking of how we build things in 2023 and in 2033 and beyond. It's exciting work. And I've been making a lot of progress lately on that as well.

Kristina Hoeppner 15:34

That's fantastic to hear. Do you have an overview of how many people or different organisations or different products are currently interested in joining or have already joined?

Martin Dougiamas 16:03

There's about 15 or 20 projects that I have on my short-list. Without the association existing, we can't actually sign up to anything, but that's going to happen very soon. Those are open source, let's say Open EdTech certified products that would meet the criteria. And there's four criteria: It must be based around open source; you must actively look for guidance from your educator community for your roadmap; you must actively support developers to work on your project, you know, some of the developer support; and finally, you must have some sustainable business model.

Martin Dougiamas 16:38

There are many, many dead open source projects out there because they didn't have that last thing worked out. I have 250 people working at Moodle headquarters now. That's 250 families that need to be supported. It's not possible to have that happening without a large business model of some kind that brings in a regular, consistent, predictable revenue. Things in the world need to survive and stand on their own two feet. There are just ethical and non ethical ways to do that, in my opinion. 

Martin Dougiamas 17:07

With those four criteria, you would be certified as an Open EdTech product, but there'll be other members as well. And that's I would say broadly more the users, the active users of the software. There are 90,000 higher education institutions in the world that I would love to see a significant proportion of join the group in some way.

Martin Dougiamas 17:09

Would they then be some sort of advisory board? 

Martin Dougiamas 17:33

Yes, there'll be advisory, and obviously, we will need to have constant interaction with the users of software. And there'll be also some funding aspect as well to build things that we all want to use. That's probably one of the most important things is, I think, if we want to build an Open EdTech platform that has the minimum risks, and there are lots of risks in the world. If you build your university on a rented server, if that company disappears, your system is gone, your educational system is gone. 

Martin Dougiamas 18:03

There are lots of companies that can disappear, lots of governments that can change policy, and everything's at risk. So to minimise that, there is an idea of every member of Open EdTech contributing a server. One server, using that to build a cloud, and that cloud is where you store all your data, where you run your apps. It's where your AI systems are running. And they're running in a way that everything's encrypted, everything is distributed across the network. So even if lots of servers disappear suddenly, you don't lose anything. And then we're able to start building lifelong storage of learner data and lifelong classrooms and proper systems for managing content and portfolios and all of that. You know, we can make it essentially free, and it would be something that all of the institutions in the world could contribute a little bit of their funding towards, and then we would all benefit. That's the big picture of Open EdTech.

Kristina Hoeppner 18:59

Yeah, and also bringing the organisations together because, yeah, everybody contributing a little bit and having lots of people doing that still gives that massive power rather than relying on two or three organisations to stem everything there.

Martin Dougiamas 19:15

Yes. Even Open EdTech is being designed in a way that it won't be a bottleneck or or a risk. Try to design this whole structure so that it's a platform that lasts a long time.

Kristina Hoeppner 19:26

What kind of excites you this year in particular about educational technology or maybe even just technology in general?

Martin Dougiamas 19:32

For the last 20 years. I think, as you said, why has Moodle lasted so long or whatever. A lot of it is ignoring little trends that have popped up that weren't really important. I think I have a pretty good feel for something that's over hyped. And it happens a lot in technology and there's a big wave of excitement over something, and then it ends up being used in a very tiny niche way. So it's it yes, it was useful, but it's only used in this industry or you know. I was very into CORBA 20 or 30 years ago, Common Object Request Broker Architecture. It was going to change the world. It's only used in like banking systems and a few things like that. 

Martin Dougiamas 20:10

But with AI, I've been following it since, you know, as computer science students, and last three decades or so. In the last few years, with the advent of deep learning, the neural networks, which have been around for decades, finally showing this promise, and they've popped through a barrier where we are experiencing this amazing abilities. We've actually created something that can think better than us in many ways. We've actually created artificial intelligence. And that has enormous repercussions. There is a lot of hype and a lot of excitement, but it is real. It is actually going to change everything. This is like as big as the internet. Again, this is as big as mobile phones. Everything will be affected. 

Martin Dougiamas 20:57

I'm absolutely, on a daily basis, amazed at the potential that is unfolding before us. We're creating a world where there will be many more intelligences than we have people, and they will be running inside computers, and they're going to be inside robots, walking around in our world. And they're going to be affecting everything. And as education also affects everything, it affects education deeply. We have to re-evaluate what is education, what are jobs, what is activity, what is creativity [laughs], what is value? Like it's so deep, and it's something I'm spending a good 80% of my time doing these days, and I mean, including weekends. 80% of my time, I am experimenting and building new exciting things here, as a lot of other people are doing, and thinking about the future of ed tech in that world.

Kristina Hoeppner 21:50

The learning management systems, I think, are particularly affected with all the assessments and now kind of every single week, there's a new test that ChatGPT solved. Yeah, lots of potential, I think. On the other hand, though, I believe also quite a bit of a danger of - because every system is biased, and since we don't know where the data is coming from or don't know everything and things aren't being referenced, it can be quite difficult to then distinguish between reality, not reality. And now with deep fakes becoming much, much easier that these critical thinking skills that of course, students have been taught over the ages and information literacy and digital ethics skills, that that becomes more and more important so that we really question things and don't just take everything that is spit out by an AI for granted.

Martin Dougiamas 22:43

AI is a baby right now. And it's, you know, GPT-4 - I've been playing with GPT since my first access on early GPT-3, and there was GPT-2 had promised as well. There will be a GPT-10. There'll be a GPT-100, right? We're on an exponential curve here, and we're just at a point in time - I was also extremely worried at what you're saying about truth. And I was speaking a lot about it last year. But I've shifted position on that. Well, there's some things that are happening, and some things I think will happen and should happen. 

Martin Dougiamas 23:15

So things that are happening is that the AI's rapidly gaining the ability to look up things and to go and find sources as any human would do, could do, better. And do a Google search or look in a research database or go back to the source materials or maybe only be special purpose AI in the first place that's trained on a very particular subject, and it's only for that subject. So it's just trained on Mahara docs, for example, and it's your Mahara docs bot. It's going to be fairly accurate because it's not being confused by a lot of information about celebrities and other junk. 

Martin Dougiamas 23:53

Another problem people say with AI is alignment, you know. Is it going to become super powerful and take over the world? Or is it going to act against our interests? Is it going to be so intelligent that we're just black ants being removed when we put down a highway? We don't think about them. There's a very good point of view to counter that is that are the big institutions in the world we have already created, are they aligned with our interests? Are the companies, the big companies I talked about, are they aligned with our interests, really? Are all governments aligned with our interests? You know, I've never seen a government that had 100% vote from anyone. A lot of people would say, well, that government is not aligned with me. And these API's are mostly being developed by those companies and those governments. There are already military AI's, you can already believe it being designed, you know, and being fitted into, right. So this stuff is already a problem in society. And I feel like that is a bigger problem we need to work out we still haven't worked out is how we get humans' fear working.

Martin Dougiamas 23:53

The training can matter a lot. And that we will have a lot of special purpose eyes, the look up ability matters a lot. And also having multiple a eyes checking each other's work. So when you have teams, you have teams of AI's. The redundancy starts removing errors from the process. And I'm experimenting now for Open EdTech in building a completely virtual team of programmers. So one AI is told, you know, 'you're an architect, a software architect' and other one's told 'you are a senior developer' and other one's a junior developer, maybe lots of junior developers, and you give them all tasks and roles in the team just like a human constructed team in the ideal world and you give them all those specialist jobs and roles and get them to work with each other. As they work with each other, error is removed, just like it is with us. You know, we make a lot of errors as well. There are a lot of solutions to this actually, and I feel like they're all being worked on and they're all coming actually fairly rapidly. 

Martin Dougiamas 25:59

I do have one suggestion, I hope happens is that I believe all AI's that are released should be - there should be regulation. Even the open source ones should have regulation to say it's inspectable. And this comes to your point was like, how did you get that answer? Explain it. They should be able to explain the reasoning. And I think that slows down AI development a little bit, and also lets us integrate it into things better. It's the same with us. I might wake up with a feeling I don't really know how I got that feeling because I'm a neural net, too. And there's a lot of random stuff of 53 years of activity going on in there that makes me think something, and you asked me, 'Oh why do you think that?' Well, I have to go through an introspection process to unpack it and explain it, and I might not even really be able to. But if I'm going to write in a journal, in an academic journal, then yes, you have to show your references. And we've already come up with that solution. I feel like that's the direction for AI as well. 

Martin Dougiamas 26:58

I'm really excited that the open source stuff is really happening now. So right now I have a GPT-3 running locally on my laptop. You can switch the internet off, and I still have what feels like the sum of human knowledge on my laptop. It is truly mind blowing. That is the trend. Those AI's are going to be running on our phones, on our laptops, on local servers, they'll be running in everything.

Kristina Hoeppner 27:23

In this rapidly changing world, what tips do you have for learning designers who create activities using educational technology or maybe test also non-specific educational technology?

Martin Dougiamas 27:34

The important thing with education is to get students building as much as they can in an authentic environment with peer exposure and feedback. You're making things in public. You're creating stuff. Nothing changes your own brain better than when you put something out there into the world that you've created, and you're now exposed, and you're getting feedback from people, and it could be positive feedback, which is obviously great. So you're probably going to do more of that stuff. And it could be negative feedback, in which case you'll modify and you'll actually learn. That's the fundamental if I had to, like think of the very fundamental process that we need to get more of. And that leads to social constructionism. That's essentially what I've just been mentioning. But it also leads to software design that we have to prioritize the creation of those experiences rather than read something and regurgitate into a quiz or even write an assignment. I mean, yes, there's some benefit in writing an assignment, but you might not get a very good feedback on that assignment. You might just get a grade, and you don't have to do the assignment again, so you just forget it. That's not effective. So these kind of authentic experiences are what we should be creating. That leads to portfolios, that leads to lots of Moodle activities, it leads to the way we facilitate our classes around those things.

Kristina Hoeppner 28:56

What tips do you have for learners?

Martin Dougiamas 28:58

Learn to use AI tools. Definitely! Absolutely, definitely! As they say, you won't be replaced by an AI necessarily, but you will be replaced by somebody using an AI [laughs] if you're not. So get into it, start to understand it because it's extremely nutritious for your learning, your own learning. The final product of learning is not your portfolio or an assignment or some content. It's yourself. You as a person as an operating entity in the world that's who people want to be with. That's who people want to talk to. That's who people want to be working with them. And collaboration and being part of the fabric of society, it's about you. So just remember that whatever you're doing, you're making yourself better.

Kristina Hoeppner 29:47

Thank you so much, Martin, for sharing your insight and also where you started from over 20 years ago and now what excites you at this stage.

Martin Dougiamas 29:57

Thank you. My last point is, I want us all working on SDGs, Sustainable Development Goals. So that's something I'm trying to push with Open EdTech as well.

Kristina Hoeppner 30:05

I'll make sure to link to the resources that you mentioned, including then also the SDGs in the episode notes. 

Martin Dougiamas 30:12

Thank you. 

Kristina Hoeppner 30:13

Now over to our listeners. What do you want to try in your own practice? This was 'Create. Share. Engage.' with Dr Martin Dougiamas. Head to our website where you can find links and the transcript for this episode. This podcast is produced by Catalyst IT, and I'm your host Kristina Hoeppner, project lead and product manager of the portfolio platform Mahara. Our next podcast will air in two weeks. I hope you'll listen again and tell a colleague about it so they can subscribe, to. Until then, create, share, and engage.

Martin's interest in educational technology
Why open source Moodle?
The success of Moodle
Moodle community involvement
Integration with other systems
What is the goal of Open EdTech?
Open EdTech to counteract capitalist / profit oriented approach
Who can join Open EdTech?
What excites you in technology right now?
More on artificial intelligence
Q&A: A tip for learning designers or instructors
Q&A: A tip for learners