The importance of education in Moodle – an interview with Moodle’s new Education Manager, Tom Murdock

Moodle TomMurdock BlogSocialPost April 18 2017 1

Moodle has been in the education and technology space now for close to 16 years now.

Over that period of time, we have seen Moodle being used in every country in the world, we have clocked over 100 million registered users and we have seen so many schools in K-12, universities and colleges and workplace organisations use Moodle for educational and learning purposes.

With a mission to empower educators, there is obviously an important place for education in the development, community engagement and business of Moodle.

To give us a better perspective of the role of education in Moodle, we talked to Tom Murdock, Moodle’s new Education Manager on the importance of education in and for Moodle.

Most of us might already (or most probably) know Tom, who has had an impressive career in teaching and edtech.

Tom started thinking about Moodle in 2002, when he started engaging as a teacher in discussions. In 2005, he left his classroom and co-founded Moodlerooms (one of our Moodle Partners), where he worked to introduce open source to business and business to open source (sometimes he also had to teach open source and business about classrooms).

Moodle HQ: Tom, thanks for taking the time to chat to us. We are excited to have you on board at Moodle HQ.

Let’s start with a bit of background about you. We’d love a summary of your involvement in education and technology, your work with Moodlerooms and your drive for the work you do.

Tom Murdock: When I was in high school and college, I studied literature, writing, and teaching. My parents were teachers and I grew up at a U.S. boarding school called Interlochen Arts Academy.

My earliest learning experiences involved my classmates spending hours, everyday, practicing their musical instruments, studying music theory, learning choreography, rehearsing for a play, or getting completely covered in clay while building sculptures.

I loved the messiness of learning this stuff.

I also loved how our work resolved into gallery exhibitions, performances, or readings where we got to think of each other as learners. I loved hearing pianists practice impossible concertos over and over in the basement of the dorm, then later seeing them on stage with an orchestra, nailing the difficult passages as if they were a breeze.

When I started teaching, I wanted to make my courses as exciting and loaded as an arts school curriculum. I wanted my students to practice and “fail loudly” as my choir conductor used to say, so that we could fix things and move on.

I believe that learning and creating is something that is really personal, but I have never thought it should be private. When you learn with other people, they want you to succeed. I taught for ten years with this intention and with really mixed results.

Then I stumbled across Moodle. Martin Dougiamas (Moodle’s Founder and CEO) turned a lot of teachers on to research around social constructionism (Moodle was part of his doctoral thesis in education) and I realized that Moodle was going to help me create the kind of shared, creative, and iterative workshop that I wanted for my students.

Some time after I started changing my teaching habits with Moodle, I also started supporting colleagues who wanted to do the same. Next, I started a business because I wanted to share Moodle with as many teachers as possible. Moodlerooms was a good vehicle to do that. Now, I couldn’t be happier to be working at the mothership itself.

Moodle HQ: You’ve recently just started at Moodle HQ as the Education Manager.

We all know Moodle has a mission to empower educators with powerful and flexible tools for collaborative, engaging learning. How does education fit into Moodle?

Tom Murdock: I sound like a reductionist saying this (the truth is probably more complicated), but putting part of your classroom into Moodle helps a teacher slow time down.

A million things happen in a brick and mortar classroom. A teacher is like a goalie with 20, 60 or 100 students all taking shots at the same time. Or maybe a teacher is like the photographer trying to catch each student in a moment of glory or instruction. When you move some discussions into Moodle, you have the chance to raise the stakes.

For example, you can require students to acknowledge each other in posts. You can ask them to summarize the points of others before they pivot and make their own assertions. You can require students to provide evidence and analysis from their text. You can basically give them the time, the space, the high expectations, the support of peers, and the opportunity to perform at a really high level.

If I had to go to an island with one teaching tool, I would take a Moodle forum. Many folks see texting, Twitter, and Facebook as terrible degradations of language, logic, and respect. But education teaches us about the integrity of our audience.

A Moodle post is a chance for a student who was sleepy in class to state something clearly.

A Moodle post is a chance for a non-native speaker to take the time to articulate something incredible.

During my favorite brick and mortar classroom moments, I’m projecting one of those posts on the board and celebrating something about it. Those ideal moments do happen on Twitter and Facebook, but a “like button” is our only tool to interrogate them and a timeline sweeps the ideas away like a river.

So, to summarise…how does an education manager fit into Moodle? I see my role as being a kind of teacher-in-residence at Moodle HQ. A kind of constant reminder in developer and business meetings that teachers are also at the table and how decisions impact them. I hope to resonate what I learn about Moodle from HQ to educators, and I hope to resonate what I learn about Moodle from educators to HQ.

Moodle HQ: From your experienced perspective of working in the education and edtech industry all your life, what do you think is the role or future of technology in education, and how can it help our teachers empower their learners?

Tom Murdock: Most of the teachers I know are pretty territorial of our spaces. We know what needs to get done, but often schools get in our way. For example, I may understand that 10 of my 30 students need to leave class 20 minutes early on Tuesday afternoon to catch a bus for basketball, but that’s a big chunk of my teaching time. What about the time that gets removed by standardized testing? Or the time that gets removed by a school assembly? What about the size of the class? What about the schedule? What about the weird gradebook tool or the clumsy attendance tool? All of those outside forces encroach on the genius of a classroom.

A lot of schools (and a lot of edtech companies) expect teachers to adopt tools and habits that don’t seem familiar. The future of classroom technology has to give time and control back to teachers.

Moodle, for example, has to make resources simple to find, peers easy to engage, calendars easy to manipulate, reports easy to generate, etc..

Now, all of these features exist in Moodle today, but they aren’t always configured optimally. We have some great documentation, but experience suggests that few people read the manual.

So the challenge for us, indeed perhaps for other edtech software, is how do we make the experience of getting to know, to use and to fall in love with the software simple?

How can Moodle HQ team and our community help deliver beautifully configured experience? How can we extend from being the architects and builders to also being the designers, so that teachers feel more at home in Moodle? So that the experience is more familiar, and so that they can start saving time with their students rather than losing it to encroaching demands?

Incidentally, these are the questions that my team and I at Moodle HQ are exploring and finding beautiful solutions for.

Moodle HQ: Lastly Tom, how can our Moodle community, users and anyone interested in Moodle get involved in your projects / work with education in Moodle?

Tom Murdock: I’m working with a small team on these issues everyday and would love people to reach out to me at has been the site of great instructional discussions for at least fifteen years, but the temptation is to dissolve into details about tech.

Our clear focus is to support teachers who could benefit greatly from Moodle by speaking their language and filling their needs. Our mandate for teachers promises lots of trial and error, but it is meaningful work that we can’t trust that schools or most edtech companies have resources, experience, or motivation to solve.
Thank you Tom for taking the time to chat to us today about the importance of education in Moodle.

We are excited by your passion for learning that “fails loudly” but we can learn from, and to have you on board Moodle HQ to further our mission to empower educators, to improve the world.

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