Q&A Martin Dougiamas
Q&A Martin Dougiamas
Martin Dougiamas – Founder and CEO of Moodle
Q. Can you tell us a little about your personal learning experience?
For the first twelve years of my life I grew up in central Australia. It’s a big desert, lots of sand, not many people and I was the only European descendant in this little town. My school was on the radio. We had a school system called “School of the Air”. Every morning I’d get on a shortwave radio and talk to my teacher, who was about a thousand kilometers away, and we’d have a half hour or so morning session. The other students were spread in an area about the size of Spain. After the session I’d be doing homework, worksheets, my parents would be helping. And every two weeks a little airplane would come and deliver papers and take my assignments back. And I did this until high school, basically.
When I got to high school I was a year ahead of the children my age, so I actually jumped ahead a year. It wasn’t until after I developed Moodle that I realized how influential that early period of my life was. I realized I was very interested in distance education — on improving the bandwidth for people to communicate through a technology medium.
Q. Which characteristics of your learning experience did you want to reinforce when you created Moodle?
There were two main things. One was the importance of the human connection. My teacher was really good at being a person on the radio. Once a year we would meet physically so we could get to know each other, and that really helped the online interactions. That’s true still today. That’s why I’m here in Israel.
The second is that there was structure and patterns in the online learning. It’s important to work within a structure so people know how to interact and you can build on prior experience. If it’s totally unstructured, it’s like browsing through YouTube — you see a lot, you don’t learn a lot. Learning is a process of building and constructivism in the brain — of constructing knowledge. I think School of the Air was very good at that.
Q. When you constructed Moodle, which ingredients did you want to bring to this new operating system? What was the structure you wanted to create?
I started Moodle because I was frustrated with the tools that existed at the time. I tried to use WebCT at the university where I worked. There were some good things about it, but it’s a propriety product. As a computer scientist, I couldn’t change the code. I couldn’t fix it. I couldn’t make it better. I thought, if I was going to build something, it would have to be something that a lot of people could participate in, a lot of people could help with. That’s really been a key thing with Moodle, the open source nature of it.
Second, from the very beginning I made it multilingual. We focused on the international aspects from the very beginning. My parents are Greek and German, and I grew up in Australia. I regarded myself as a world citizen; I’m not particularly Australian. The first person to use Moodle was in Canada, and the next person was in South America. So straight away, it was international. And that’s been really important because the amount of input the project’s had from people around the world is just incredible. It’s led to the flexibility of the fundamental platform. It’s used in very different ways around the world.
Third, if I had to add something, was the passion of the educators. I had passion from the beginning, and for a long time I was by myself. Once I released Moodle and other people started to join, it was just so much fun. And when something is fun, a lot of people get it and join, and it’s still like that.
Q. You mentioned three key elements: open source, community and enabling the user to be part of the process.
How important are these elements for the learner today?
I think the community and open nature of this project is very compatible with how educators think. Educators by nature are sharing people, they want to share their knowledge. If they have ideas about the software they use, they want to share them. A proprietary piece of software doesn’t have the same soul to it.
I use whatever’s best for the job, whatever works. For this particular case, for a learning platform, being open really works. It creates more value for everyone.
Q. If you were able to create the ideal environment for learners today, what would it be?
If I had to pick a single tool that was the best thing for a personal learning environment, it would be a computer. You cannot say one piece of software is going to be “the tool”. With a computer, you can make your own tools. I built Moodle just on a computer that was in front of me. Everyone has that ability. Not everyone wants to write software. But the potential to create tools, and learn about the world while you are doing it, is there in a computer. And you also have access to everything the world provides.
There are many, many, many tools of all different kinds. You need some of them at some times and some of them at other times. You need that kind of flexibility in your learning. On top of that, I believe learners do need a basic curriculum and I think we need to reevaluate that curriculum all the time.
There’s a real danger in what’s going on in the world today. People are reacting against technology, against globalization, often from a lack of understanding. They don’t understand “that new stuff” and its taking away jobs, it’s affecting their culture, and people are reacting against it. You can see it in the U.S. elections, in Brexit, in many things.
I think there’s a real need for us as educators to focus on what makes a good citizen. By “good”, I mean a citizen who helps the world be a better place. It takes a lot of understanding, which needs to be informed by facts, by science. People need to understand internationalism and how cultures vary around the world. They need to understand that different cultures can and should coexist, and people from different cultures can work together.
These kinds of big issues are really important, but to get there you need to give people a grounding in philosophy, in science in all kinds of studies. And you need to make it compulsory, in my opinion, so you can go out and be somebody who is able to vote. How can you choose anything if you don’t have the background?