In his recent post on why Moodle matters, Phil wrote,
For a large portion of our readers who deal mostly with US higher education, it could be easy to dismiss Moodle as an LMS and an idea past its prime.[…]And yet no other academic LMS solution comes close to Moodle in terms of worldwide deployments and learners enrolled.
Likewise, if you’re not embedded in the Moodle community, you may not know how central Moodle creator Martin Dougiamas is to that project, or even know who he is. And yet, he is huge. I can name maybe a handful of people who are relatively widely known and respected in educational technology. I can name only a few who are admired and even beloved. I can name very few indeed who are not working for universities (although that’s changing a little, now that Jim Groom and David Wiley have both joined commercial ventures). Within the circle that knows him, Martin’s many admirers have been fiercely loyal to and protective of him, trusting him absolutely to steer Moodle the product, Moodle the community, and Moodle the brand. When you add to that the size of Moodle’s adoption footprint, one can make the case that Martin Dougiamas is one of the most consequential figures in the history of educational technology.
Which is why it is so remarkable that Phil and I are hearing, for the first time ever, from a number of different, independent sources, the phrase, “Moodle is bigger than Martin now.” It is another indicator that Moodle is reaching an inflection point.
For starters, it is important to understand just how central Martin is to the Moodle ecosystem. Although Moodle is open source, all substantial development of Moodle core (as opposed to optional plugins) flows through Martin’s privately owned company, Moodle Pty (more commonly referred to in the Moodle community as “Moodle HQ” or just “HQ”). Here is a slide from Martin’s recent Moodle moot keynote:
(Sorry for the poor image quality; it’s a screen grab from the video.)
Moodle Partners sell support, services, and proprietary add-ons around the core open source platform. They then tithe about 10% of their Moodle-related gross revenues to Moodle Pty, which uses the money to hire developers, under Martin’s direction, to work on the next versions of Moodle. In Phil’s recent interview with him, Martin shied away from using the term “benevolent dictator,” but if you read his comments closely, he is more objecting to the connotations of the word “dictator” than he is to the characterization of him as the guy in charge. (In the past, Martin has used the term to describe his role.)
For people inside the Moodle community, this has been considered a feature, not a bug, because they trust Martin. Former Moodlerooms CEO Lou Pugliese recently told us,
Working with Martin Dougiamas has been one of the highlights of my career… he’s a brilliant, honest broker in global eLearning whose values remain steadfastly uncompromised in continuing to advance open source alternative in the market.1
In my experience, that is not an unusual statement. With minimal effort, I could string together a dozen similar quotes from both major and minor figures in the Moodle community. Phil and I heard a number of equally glowing statements in our recent spade work for this post series. In the eyes of many folks in the community, even now, Martin is Moodle. Moodle is Martin.
In fact, the personal loyalty to Martin has been so fierce that it has made reporting on Moodle difficult at times. For example, in the past I have tried to write about Moodle’s financial sustainability model. It is unprecedented in ed tech and has, up until now, been pretty wildly successful. But I couldn’t get much real information about it. It wasn’t a secret, exactly. Martin gave an overview of the way the ecosystem works in my 2010 interview with him. It just that the financial side of it wasn’t talked about, and certainly not in the level of detail that would enable me to do meaningful analysis. Martin himself doesn’t like to talk about finances, as he admits in the keynote from which the slide above comes. He tells us this, tells us he is going to talk about it anyway now, and then launches into a 45-minute keynote in which he…mostly doesn’t talk about finances. There’s a little more than that slide, but really, not that much. It wasn’t any different back when I was trying to write about the Moodle sustainability model the first time. When I went to the Moodle Partners to ask them about the details, none of them would say much. What I really wanted to know was exactly how much money was flowing through the system and where it was going. I couldn’t come close to getting those numbers. They all deferred to Martin. I would know whatever he was comfortable with me knowing. And yet when I asked whether I should approach Martin directly, I received more than one (friendly) suggestion that it would probably be a bad idea. Martin doesn’t like to talk about money, I was told.
I thought about writing a piece highlighting how the financial information wasn’t available. I shared this thought with somebody who was not a Moodle Partner but who I knew was a mutual friend of Martin’s and mine. I raised the point that here is a substantial amount of money flowing through an organizational structure that we don’t fully understand, supporting the world’s most widely adopted LMS, into a private company owned by one guy, and we have no visibility into how it works, how much money we are talking about, or where it’s going. He replied, “I can understand why that would be concerning from an American point of view.” [Subtext: I don’t share your concern.] “But I worry that if you write that piece, Martin will just clam up even more. You won’t get anywhere. He doesn’t like to talk about money.”
In the end, I never wrote that story. I had no reason to believe that anything shady was going on, no information that would shed new insights, and no desire to take a swing at a project and a person that both seemed to be doing net good in ed tech. In effect, the unity of the Moodle community behind Martin became the more important story for me, and although the lack of transparency bothered me, it didn’t bother me enough to feel like I needed to insert myself into that story.
Which is why, when members of the Moodle community, including but not limited to current and past Moodle Partners, are beginning to talk to us about their concerns regarding the direction of Moodle, and that the phrase “Moodle is bigger than Martin now” is popping up in different, independent conversations, I interpret them as indicators that something serious is afoot. They reinforce the sense of change we were already getting from seeing Totara fork from Moodle, Remote Learner leave the Partner Program and sell off its UK subsidiary as well, and regional Partners such as Nivel Siete sell themselves to Blackboard. The point of my focus on Martin in this post is not whether people think he’s a swell guy or not. (For the record, they still do. Even those folks who are saying that “Moodle is bigger than Martin” are careful to quickly follow that statement with a declaration that they know Martin has the best interests of the community at heart.) Rather, it speaks to Moodle’s sustainability model going forward. Right now, as the graphic above shows, the substantial majority of Moodle development resources flow through Moodle HQ. And Martin is Moodle HQ. Moodle HQ is Martin. When somebody says, “Moodle is bigger than Martin,” what they really mean is that Moodle is bigger than Moodle HQ. They are effectively questioning whether Moodle development resources should flow through Moodle HQ.
There is an interesting bifurcation in the Moodle sustainability model, in the sense that it depends on both a large grassroots community to drive interest and energy and a relatively small circle of commercial partners to generate revenue for development. In light of the above, that raises a few questions. Will commercial partners begin to move away from Moodle HQ in sufficient numbers to substantially impact the development resources available for Moodle core? And what are the forces that would drive this divergence? Also, if the commercial partners move away from Martin and Moodle HQ, will the Moodle-adopting schools be both willing and able vote with their feet and leave their commercial partners in sufficient numbers to impact those companies? And finally, if these tensions play out as actions, what will happen to Moodle? There are some hints and possibilities of alternative sustainability models and alternative futures that Phil will play out in a future post.