MoodleMoot Global 23 Conference Notes

Moodle is becoming a product company

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July is typically the busiest month for Learning Management System (LMS) users conferences, and we've already shared notes from D2L Fusion in Anaheim (for Brightspace), Anthology Together in Nashville (for Blackboard Learn), and InstructureCon in Denver (for Canvas). Today we're going to add notes from MoodleMoot Global in Barcelona (for Moodle).

The conference was smaller (~700 attendees) than last year (~850), likely due to us no longer being in the peak of Covid-era interest. The conference was significant, however, as Moodle appears set to become a product company.

Martin Dougiamas Stepping Down as CEO

As I shared with premium subscribers last week, this year’s conference was the most significant one for Moodle in the past decade, partially because of the news that the founder and long-time leader of Moodle HQ Martin Dougiamas is stepping down as CEO.

For those not familiar with the relevant business model, Moodle the LMS product is open source and freely available at Moodle HQ is the for-profit company founded and run by Martin that manages the project (developing Moodle code and coordinating community code contributions, as well as select services) and holder of the trademark. The majority of Moodle HQ’s funding comes from a tithe of roughly 10% of Moodle-based revenue from Certified Service Partners that wrap hosting and services and custom plugins around the open source product and are allowed to use the name using a trademark license. Moodle HQ also runs Moodle Cloud and Moodle Workplace, which use different funding and partnership licensing models.

Martin shared a post on Friday describing his new role.

Throughout the last two decades, I’ve stayed passionate about research, innovation and experimentation, even while I had to learn how to run and manage our Moodle HQ company at the centre of the project to provide sustainability and management of the project. I feel Moodle HQ is mature enough now to allow me to focus my attention more fully in this area, concentrating on how the world of online learning technology can evolve. Freely available generative AI, robots and new devices are bringing a technology and education revolution that will disrupt these fields as much as the Internet itself did, if not more.

And so, I'm announcing that I'll soon be personally moving to a new role as Head of Research at Moodle, with my own research team, reporting directly to the Board (I'm also still Chairman of that board of course). This will allow me to focus on research and investigation of new open source education technologies helping to support the Moodle roadmap in the long term.

This departure as CEO means that the academic LMS community has only one founder / CEO remaining: John Baker of D2L (by “founder / CEO” I mean the key founders and primary CEOs who developed the company, not necessarily the first CEO).

All other founder / CEOs have stepped down from leading their companies, and all but Martin are no longer part of their former companies. Michael Chasen and Matthew Pittinsky from Blackboard, Murray Goldberg and Carol Vallone from WebCT, Robert Helmick and Oakleigh Thorne from eCollege, Ali Jafari and David Mills from Angel, Devlin Daley and Brian Whitmer and Josh Coates from Instructure, Jonathan Friedman from Schoology. Sakai never really had a CEO.

A Strategic Approach

Where I have a different view than that shared in Martin’s post was on this description.

Nothing will change for the Moodle community. Everyone at Moodle HQ remains committed to Moodle LMS as an open source platform and our certification as a B Corp recognises our ongoing dedication to using business as a force for good. It’s incredibly important to me and the Board that we take the time to find the right person for the job, so it's likely to be some time before we announce an appointment. We hope to have a new CEO in place in early 2024.

I believe that there are big changes coming, and that is a good thing.

It appears to me that Moodle is becoming a real product company. Yes, Moodle is and will continue to be an open source leader, but there has been a long-running issue that is now being addressed - the competitive status of the product based on user needs. This might sound strange as a way to position the world’s most-used LMS, but as Martin described to me last week, Moodle was more of a project (and a very successful one) where the business grew up around it out of necessity. That project has enabled a rich collaborative environment with Moodle enthusiasts around the world, but what Moodle HQ has not been is a company that treats the core LMS as a product, one with competitors and needing aggressive moves to meet evolving end-user needs.

To give a sense of what I mean, consider this description I shared at e-Literate back in 2016 that could just as easily describe 2023.

This view of consistent mission and “just expanding and improving” can be seen in the product roadmap priorities, or more specifically in the upcoming steps along that roadmap. [snip]

There was an interesting response from Martin during the Q&A after his keynote, when someone (from a long-time Moodle-using university) asked for his view on the competitive nature of Canvas. Martin replied (and I paraphrase; someone correct me if I’m wrong) that Moodle is not profit-driven and it doesn’t matter that much when schools move to Canvas. What? The community, at least in the US, cares quite a bit. Moodle Partners care about their business, Moodle advocates care about the adoption and health of the open source community, and the level of Moodle development staff depends on how many schools choose Moodle over Canvas or any other solution. I get the point that Moodle HQ may not care for the same reasons as a VC-backed profit-driven company, but they should care.

The need for a more streamlined and competitive user experience has been known for at least the past seven years, and Moodle 4 was positioned last year as yet another attempt to streamline the user experience. But the fundamental situation has not changed regarding that user experience. In North America and Europe education, Moodle is just not competitive in LMS evaluations, even with its large installed base in Europe and with its growing corporate / enterprise learning footprint. If a college or university enters an RFP or tender evaluation process, seldom does Moodle even have a competitive bid from one of its partners. We have tried several times to get consulting clients to evaluate Moodle, and the proposals are either so bad as to not even meet minimum requirements, or the demos are thoroughly underwhelming.

A large part of the underlying issue is that in setting a vision or roadmap, Moodle HQ would name a priority such as streamlined user experience or reduced administrative overhead, but then the open source community-driven process would inevitably water down that vision to a set of incremental product enhancements and not a significant redesign or product innovation.

Signs of a Product Company

Last year I noted the some early signs on direction.

On an indirect level, however, I did see signs of future change, and there are two worth mentioning.

One is the hiring of a few key executives that seem to recognize Moodle's challenges and the need to focus more on the institutional decision-making process. Marie Achour is the new head of product, and speaking to her was a breath of fresh air. No historical baggage or defensiveness, yet a keen understanding of the Moodle challenges and opportunities, and a desire to make improvements. Jonathan Moore is the head of Moodle US, and he showed a good understanding of where Moodle is competitive and where it is not. There are others, but the point is that I was more impressed with the changes to the Moodle HQ and Moodle US organizations than I was with the Moodle release. This should not be overlooked, as D2L had similar dynamics 5 - 7 years ago with their executive team helping to lead to fundamental changes to the LMS product line and its competitiveness.

Martin mentioned in his post Friday:

This is not sudden, and I've been preparing for this for over a year, making sure that everything will be smooth.

Whether by design or not, this transition in Martin’s role is enabling Marie’s product approach (with several new leadership hires in the product group) to start treating Moodle as a product, and one with competitors. For the first time, there is a coherent, centrally-led product vision with key elements in place to enable product redesign (and refactoring of code) within an open source framework, and a product leadership team to lead this effort

The product group at Moodle HQ is now willing to admit where Moodle is weak or strong, without excuses or ‘we’re not profit-driven’ explanations. When I saw this slide from the product roadmap, I think there is more than just marketing and slideware going on.

Although currently requiring specialised skills to fully utilise its potential, our future vision involves making a platform where anyone can create and share their knowledge with just a few clicks . . .

Some of the key deliverables for this vision include a new course experience.

What this means is improved user experience on the current interface while in parallel offering a redesigned course experience (Learn Ultra, anyone?). The initial New Course Experience slated for next year will be focused on corporate / enterprise learning, but there is a model for improved user experience that goes beyond incremental feature tweaks.

I in no way want to imply that it is given that Moodle will now be competitive for new evaluations. After all, Anthology (Blackboard) has been working on Learn Ultra for a decade now with less than 50% course adoption, and Moodle HQ does not have the same level of funding or staffing as do Instructure, D2L, and Anthology.

But what I see is that Moodle HQ is making the moves under Marie Achour’s product group to take the competitive nature of LMS evaluations seriously and run things like a product company. We do not yet have fundamental product redesigns at hand (outside of Moodle Workplace), rather we have new processes and the willingness and intention to set a revised course.

The reason that I’m excited about these ongoing and potential changes is that the LMS market needs more competition, especially from a globally-focused solution with a fundamentally different approach based on Moodle’s open source product and community.

What to Watch

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