In­ter­view: Alan Deans

Money Magazine Australia - - CONTENTS - 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”.

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