There I was, learning about how people learn using the world’s most popular open-source learning management system, Moodle—directly from the learned developers and users of said platform.
That’s what I was up to last week as I rubbed elbows with 400 tech startup pros on the make, IT nerds, institutional coders, education wonks and other friendly geeks at the Canada Moodlemoot Vancouver 2013 (AKA CanadaMoot13) in the Coast Plaza Hotel & Suites.
Conference sponsors included local education orgs like BCcampus and Kwantlen Polytechnic University, as well as tech startups like Moodle Partner Lambda Solutions and web conferencing solution provider Big Blue Button. This wasn’t social media week, but it was “Tech” with a capital-T and they served excellent cookies, so I was into it. Plus, I did want to actually learn a thing or two about this little niche of tech that may not be sexy but underpins a lot of the learning we’re doing at school or at work.
Even if you have no idea what Moodle is, there’s a good chance you’ve already used it, particularly if you’ve taken a course at high school, university, community college or done corporate training online. It’s basically software to let you deliver education online, give quizzes, track results—all the stuff that teachers used to do manually back when I was still in school (back then, I would fight off saber-toothed tigers with my handy bone club after etching numbers into stone for math class).
University of Alberta, for instance, uses Moodle to serve up online learning to 39,000 students, and has a team of IT professionals essentially devoted to maintaining it. One hospital represented at the conference was using it to supply training to a small batch of internationally-trained nurses.
With over 60 million users and a bunch of other swagger-worthy market share metrics, Moodle is the biggest LMS on the block. It can integrate all the cool social stuff like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, or just be a straight-up un-social training tool. Either way, it’s being used to educate everyone from high school students to forklift operators to project management executives.
So there’s this big Moodle guy at the keynote—the biggest, really—Martin Dougiamas. And he’s giving the keynote on where Moodle’s been and where it’s going (technically, “Where We’ve Been and Where We’re Going” but it was a bit more focused than that). Martin is not quite a rockstar. More of an evangelist, really. He wrote the first Moodle code as open source (which is how it has stayed, critical to its relatively rapid expansion) and is now director of a 26-person company in Perth, Australia. A tall friendly Jason Segel look-alike with a trimmed beard, a ready smile and sometimes self-deprecating manner, Martin’s job description includes going around to Moodle conferences that happen in every corner of the world and engaging with his flock of techies, faculty and CEOs.
“Moodle has become mainstream,” Martin said. “Maybe it’s even a bit old hat. Why are people choosing it now? A few reasons. It’s free and that’s a big one. Free to experiment with. It’s flexible. Personal. Open. You can take it and make it your own. You build it, you own it. The data is yours. And the actual code is open. You can look at it and know what’s going on.”
So, Moodle seems to have the edge on other LMS’ because open source is hot. Makes sense. For colleges and companies that don’t want to pay licensing fees, open source is cheaper—plus they’re not held hostage to proprietary solutions that may not offer the functionality they need or the security of knowing that the solution will be around in five to 10 years. For bigger organizations that need to build out these systems years in advance, that’s a big advantage.
But Moodle has also been around long enough that Dougiamas can see where his LMS is not quite living up to its potential. Or, at least, its user base isn’t. “Moodle is not used well. We think 80% of teachers use 20% of the features. That’s just an educated guess… though I can tell you that probably 90% of my time is spent on the 80% you’re not using,” he adds with a little chuckle.
According to Dougiamas, the next phase for Moodle (and quite a few of the Moodlers in the room, I’d wager) is looking at learning outcomes. He’s big on conducting research on how these tools are being used now and how they actually contribute to learning, as opposed to old-school methods.
“Most of us didn’t learn online,” Dougiamas says, looking at his audience with a smirk and a shrug. “We had a more traditional education and we’re muddling through. In fact, we run the world. What are the things we’re losing sight of as we move online? What are we losing?”
Moodle will keep adding functionality to make offering courses and tracking outcomes easier, he says. “Whatever your reasons for education, one can always throw in efficiency. Why waste time? Why reinvent things when we don’t need to? There’s a lot we can do purely from that perspective. The best way to do that is by putting the best possible tools in front of people so they can decide what to do in a local situation.”
In other words, he wasn’t there to tell attendees what the future of e-learning would be like—because apparently, a lot of them would be creating it themselves. That’s a nice lesson and it shows how open-source LMS platforms are like the social media platforms that tend to grab the spotlight.
Sharing is caring. And educational, apparently.