Interview: Alan Deans
Martin Dougiamas is possibly Australia’s least-known big-time tech entrepreneur. His creation, Moodle, is the world’s second largest software learning management system (LMS), used in universities, schools and private businesses to organise lessons. It is now in every country. Since its first release in 2002, the system has been translated into 100 languages and has more than 100 million registered users. That gives it 23% of the global market. All this, and Dougiamas still owns Moodle outright.
It is astounding that he isn’t known in a country where start-ups, incubators and tech whiz-kids are lauded for their talent. Yet Factiva’s extensive database of Australian media clips reveals just four mentions during the past five years in mainstream news outlets. The last was in November 2016 when the ABC ran an item saying he was a finalist for Western Australia’s 2017 Australian of the Year award. Andrew Forrest won the gong but one senses that it’s only a matter of time before Dougiamas is known just as far and just as wide.
LMSs such as Moodle are now essential tools for educators and students in nearly every learning environment. Put simply, they streamline the way that educators develop and manage their courses. Teachers can choose from numerous teaching tools that plug into the LMS to customise their own courses and distribute a variety of material. Students tap in to keep up with in-class studies, check their schedules and complete assignments. Long gone are overhead projectors and lecture notes written in ink on the back of students’ hands.
Dougiamas developed his passion when studying and working at Curtin University of Technology in Perth. Moodle evolved from an ambition to streamline the lectures he was giving. “I used my students like guinea pigs. I was prototyping [Moodle]. I had a version that was online. They would use it during the day, give me feedback and at night I would be furiously improving it. The next day, there would be a new version. I was working day after day like that. Trying a lot of new ideas to see what worked and what didn’t.
“No invention in this world is totally unique. There were bits and pieces around that were models but what Moodle did differently was to take a lot of ideas and bring them together into a system,” he explains. “Sometimes we
describe it as a Swiss Army knife or a toolbox for a teacher, online. Everything they need is in handy reach, and they can use that like Lego to put together their own course.”
His solo drive was forged, in part, by an upbringing in outback Western Australia. All his early learning came via radio from School of the Air. His teacher was 1000km away in Kalgoorlie. “I was very interested in how the short-wave radio worked,” says Dougiamas. “The radio waves bounced off the atmosphere. You had a box, and said ‘over’ after you had finished talking. That was only for a short part of the day, and the rest was doing worksheets and correspondence. As the only non-Aboriginal kid in that town, I had a lot of time reading when I wasn’t exploring in the bush. I read a lot of science fiction.” His favoured authors were Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov and Orson Scott Card.
Now Dougiamas works with 50 others who write Moodle’s open source software. He hired his first employee two years after the LMS was launched in 2002. Because he had a low-cost, open-source business model – as WordPress does for websites and Linux for computer operating systems – Moodle has had a powerful competitive advantage. Users can download it for nothing. But if they want assistance or an array of extra services, then Moodle’s 85 global partners can help. These companies pay 10% of gross revenues to Moodle, and that keeps the business fed.
It was a hit right from the time it went live. A day after its launch, Dougiamas was surprised to see it downloaded by someone in Canada. It has been global ever since. “The uptake was exponential right from the beginning as word spread,” he recalls. “There was a lot of
grassroots marketing going on, and people told other people.”
Moodle is now used by some 500,000 civil servants in the UK, numerous universities and armed forces, the United Nations, Shell Oil, Saudi Aramco, Google and Buckingham Palace, to name a few. When a maid is hired to serve the British royal family, they are trained on Moodle. A Queensland prison uses it to educate inmates because it works offline, making it private and secure. It is dominant in South America and in 70% of tertiary teaching bodies in Europe.
Dougiamas says he manages Moodle conservatively. “I have bootstrapped it the whole way and never had any debt. It is the way that my parents, Alec and Maria, always ran small businesses. They did many things. They ran a service station, a car workshop and worked for various government departments. They ran a campervan conversion business. They have always worked together and have always done well out of it. They aren’t rich by any means but they have never been in debt. That sustainable approach has always appealed to me.”
But times must change. “My job now is to channel all the energy of those users towards the sustainability of the project. A lot of people will take Moodle for free and use it, and they are happy with that. That’s great. It’s our
“I don’t want my children to grow up in a school controlled by Facebook or Google”
mission to provide that. But what I am trying to make happen is to have a lot more coming back to us through collaborative projects.”
That involves, for example, applying for grant funding. European institutions have deep pockets. New revenue streams are also being developed to extend the brand. There is now MoodleCloud, which offers smaller learning sites, a branded Moodle app and plans to extend its Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Driving all of this are concerns about being swamped by tech giants including Google, Apple and Microsoft. They are pouring big bucks into online learning, and Dougiamas fears they will take over education and lay waste to public schooling.
“I don’t know about you but I don’t want my children’s children to grow up in a Facebook- or Google-controlled school. The privacy, security and identity of who controls information, who controls education, who controls news is important. More than ever, we need open source software that focuses on educators. We don’t have an agenda other than that.
“To compete, we need to scale up. We need more velocity than we currently have. That’s why I am looking at investors right now but it has to be the right kind. We get a lot of venture capitalists who are purely about their exits. That does not interest me. I am not going to deal with those people. I need investors who believe in the project, who have the same goals that we do. It is proving difficult to find them. We have a lot of interesting conversations but I am taking my time, because I want to get it right. I am the steward of this project. I don’t see myself as the owner of the business so I have to do the right thing by everybody.”
He has received offers, including one of $20 million. But he said no. His view is that it would have destroyed the project. Others want a large cut. “That’s not going to work. We need to do this properly. I want to do it ethically. I want to do it as a conscious, social good. That is what our project is, and I want people who support that.”
Dougiamas doesn’t live in a swanky home on Perth’s Swan River, nor drive a fast car. He takes a salary and is still paying a mortgage. “I’m not focused on wealth creation for its own sake. If I’m going to create wealth, then I’m going to put it into what I’m already doing [with Moodle]. I will spend it on people to do something rather a gold-encrusted house to sit in. I grew up very simply. When I lived in the desert, I really appreciated a lot of the traditional Aboriginal way of life. The idea that we come from the land, that we are in balance with the land.”
What advice would he give to budding tech whiz-kids? “Get the ‘why’ right. Why are you doing it? If they just want money, that’s terrible. That cannot be the ‘why’. If they don’t know or can’t think of a why, they should look at the UN website and look at the top 10 problems in the world and try to find something that addresses them. Because what is what we all need to be doing.”
Focused on the right thing ... Dougiamas would rather spend money on his project than “a goldencrusted house to live in”.