Looking back through 2016 & getting ready for 2017 with MUA’s Chair, Steve Powell

December 20, 2016

The Moodle Users Association Inc. is a not-for-profit incorporated association which helps to drive the Moodle project. It is a separate entity from Moodle Pty Ltd or any other entity involved in the Moodle open source project.

The Association extends the global Moodle community to complement the provision of services from Moodle Partners to their clients, Moodle project development by Moodle HQ, and existing various community engagement formats and forums, including individual developments for non-core installations.

Moodle HQ caught up with the new Chair of the Association, Steve Powell, who recently took up the post in October 2016, to talk about the Association – how it came about, achievements in 2016 and what are on the cards for the new year.

Steve is also the Learning Technology Team Leader at Lancaster University, and has been using Moodle as a learning platform for many years. He is passionate about providing world-class technology-enhanced learning that provides a personalised learning experience for students rich with content and functionality.

Q1: For those who are not familiar with Moodle Users Association or are hearing about it the first time, are you able to provide a brief history of how the Association came about?

SP: Moodle Users Association was actually Martin Dougiamas’ (Moodle Founder and CEO) brainchild.

Moodle was created from a close relationship between Martin and educators and was designed for pedagogy by teachers.

That was a big reason for its phenomenal success, but I think Martin recognised that as the Moodle community grew exponentially, it was becoming harder and harder to maintain that golden thread that linked educators with developers.

To continue to be a success, Moodle has to be founded on pedagogy, but it is hard to know what users want when they do not have a collective voice. This was where the Moodle Users Association came from.

The Committee was created from users across the globe in January 2016 and the committee has been working hard since then to come up with a working model that makes a positive change and listens to members as we move forward. From the start, and led by former Chair Nick Thompson, the Committee has been very open about what it is doing and why, and that ethos will continue. I think this openness is really important and reiterates Moodle’s open source project values.

Q2: The mission of the Moodle Users Association is to support the growth of Moodle by providing a strong and united voice to users, giving direction and resources for new development.

What are some of the highlights or key achievements for the Moodle Users Association in advancing this mission throughout the 2016 year?

SP: The Association started its work in January 2016 with no members and has already passed 150 members, some of whom are gold, silver and bronze members. I think this is a fantastic achievement because the Association was something innovative in the sector – to crowdfund the development of a major virtual learning environments (VLE) system. Budgets everywhere are tight and rightly we had to show why the Association was worth investing in. The inaugural committee led by former Chair Nick Thompson did a brilliant job of telling people what the Association was about; communicating the vision that this was an effective way for the global Moodle user community to bring about positive change. That it represents real value for money.

Nick and the others worked out the process for developing project proposals and have made good on that vision. Already the Association has had a positive impact upon the Moodle open source project. The recycle bin project was a proposal by the Association and is now in core and has been very well received by the Moodle community.

A large project to develop the Moodle dashboard is currently under development now by Moodle HQ. A project like this would be beyond the resources of an individual user or most organisations.

Even if an organisation that uses Moodle had the resources internally to develop this project, it would cost a lot more and there would be no guarantee that it would be incorporated into the core design of Moodle.

The Moodle Users Association can and is driving forward these kind of changes because approved projects represent the collective will of the membership and the Association has funding to make them happen.

Among the highlights for 2016 has to be the presence of the MUA at MoodleMoots and other events. The Association have hosted facilitated sessions at several Moots,  when committee members, current members and potential members come together and have the opportunity to discuss the work that the Association does. At the MoodleMoot in London, we talked about why the Association is a good thing to be part of and the project proposals in progress. What was really good about the session was how users talked together about ideas or concerns that they had regarding what is important for the future success of Moodle.

The ability for the Association to provide a platform for this kind of conversations between users, either face to face or through the website forums, is just as important as the more tangible benefits that it brings.

Personally, I really enjoyed a trip I made to Vic University in Spain with Martin. I got the chance to communicate what the Association is about, but I also saw first hand how passionately Martin believed in the Association. That is important to me because, whilst we are separate from Moodle, we want to work closely with them and we know that we are regarded by Martin and Moodle HQ as just as important, maybe even more important than the other channels through which their workflow and priorities come. I just want to reiterate that at the start of the year we only had some rules and a website.

Q3: With the year drawing to a close, what are some of the key areas of work for the Moodle Users Association for 2017?

SP: Well, there is what you could call the business as usual for the Association, that is progressing proposals through the development cycle from inception to development by Moodle HQ. The Committee also have to monitor progress on projects, such as the Dashboard, that are currently being developed by Moodle HQ.

It is important that members of the Association see project proposals regularly become part of Moodle.

What will be different about 2017 is that we have the main administrative process more or less complete, so the focus of the Association and of the committee will shift slightly to expanding membership and making this process work as efficiently as possible.

We, in the committee, will concentrate more energy on growing the number of members the Association has.  For the first time, we will have members who are considering whether to re-subscribe to the Association. So in 2017, the committee must work very hard on retaining these members. There is a subgroup of the committee that is looking at how we do this right now. If we can show a track record of delivering projects that really do improve Moodle, that meet the needs of the majority of the members, then I believe we will be in good shape.

We will continue to work on getting more Moodle users to join because the more members we have then the more we can do. We need to explain what we do whenever and wherever we can, face to face, through social media and events. We need to keep improving the process of joining the Association so that it is as simple as it can be, and we need to make the process of creating a proposal and voting on a proposal as simple as possible.

As the Association grows I believe that the Association should think beyond specific projects, and consider ways in which the collective voice of the members can influence the direction Moodle takes.

I would like to see the Association be proactive in encouraging and facilitating discussion among the users of Moodle, perhaps by hosting and facilitating sessions at Moots and webinars that focus on an area of pedagogy or technology enhanced learning, such as learning analytics or UI. The feedback from these sessions could be of great value to Moodle HQ.

Q4: What specific projects would the Association like to get off the ground to further enhance and support Moodle’s open source project? And what will be the benefits of those projects to teachers and Moodle users in delivering better education?

SP: Whatever projects get off the ground and are developed for Moodle will come from proposals that are made by members of the community and are then voted for by the community.

It is the projects that the membership think are worthy of progressing that will progress. We have had a lot of great projects submitted in this development cycle, and I think most of them would make Moodle a much better experience for educators and learners.

For example, in this phase, we have projects on: grade statistic reports; a read-only state option for courses or specific activities in a course; improvements to the calendar; combining enrolled users and participants lists and many others. Which ones get chosen to be part of Moodle will depend upon the votes of members and the resources available to the committee.

They are all great ideas and will deliver a better experience for Moodle users because they are changes that are driven by users – including teachers and educators worldwide.

Q5: One of the key things when you join the Moodle Users Association is that you will have a real say in deciding which Moodle features will get implemented next, even if you or your organisation are not developers or don’t have enough funds to hire developers.

How does that work? How can a Moodle user, for example, a teacher in a university or college, get involved and have a say in what Moodle features get implemented next?

SP: Every member of the Association can put forward a proposal, which they will manage during the development cycle. This is an amazing opportunity. So many organisations and a lot more  individuals often have great ideas for how Moodle can be improved, or perhaps there are things that frustrate them in their day-to-day use of Moodle, but for an awful lot of users it is very difficult, if not impossible, to get that great idea developed by Moodle HQ, or have that niggling problem fixed.

Many users of Moodle are educators or learning technologists. They are not developers or have the resources to employ developers to make changes that are important to them in their work.

Many users do not necessarily understand how to work with the open source platform community to affect change, and if they are working alone they may not realise that their idea could be of value to others, or that others may have the same frustrations.

Even large institutions with their own development teams struggle to get changes that they want for their institution accepted in core, which means a lot of resources and time is spent on maintaining forked activities or plugins.

For as little as AU$100, a member of the Association has the opportunity to put forward a proposal for a change to the Moodle open source project twice a year in January or July.

The proposal does not need to be too technical at that point, as it can be specified further during the development cycle.

The other key right that every member of the association has is a vote. Gold, silver and bronze members have more votes, but that does not necessarily mean that they will only vote for their own projects. In fact, we have seen that this is not the case during both development cycles.

Every member gets to vote on all the proposals and the proposals with the most votes go forward for further specification and review by the committee and Moodle HQ.

Moodle HQ can say if a project is already in development or not technically feasible and provide cost estimates for the work but they cannot disregard a project on the grounds that it is not what they would like to do.

Every member of the Association then gets the opportunity to vote again on the final shortlist of projects that will go to Moodle HQ to be developed. Resources are allocated to projects according to the number of votes they get, so the changes that the most members want to see are most likely to be developed.

I hope this shows how every member of the association can contribute to improving things for everyone at little cost to themselves. I should add that the Association website has a forum for every project and for general communication.

Any member of the Association can contribute to these forums and are encouraged to do so. This way every member can help to improve an individual’s original proposal. So the lone educator with the great idea but little development experience or resources is supported by the wider community of developers and technologists to bring that idea to fruition.

Q6: If someone is interested in becoming a member of the Moodle Users Association, what do they need to do?

SP: The committee invites and welcomes anyone interested in progressing Moodle’s open source project and its mission to provide powerful and flexible learning tools for educators.

Any person or organisation can be a member, except for organisations whose primary function is to provide or support commercial LMS services.

There are four membership levels – Individual or Bronze, Silver and Gold for organisations – and each level comes with various fees, voting points and membership numbers. You can view the membership levels on our website.

Joining the Association is an easy process:

  1. Click on the “Join Now” button on our website.
  2. Fill in the signup form. You will then receive an email with an invoice (and three payment methods: credit card, PayPal or bank transfer).
  3. Pay the invoice. You will receive an email to confirm your successful payment, following which you can log in and get active!

We look forward to having more members join the Association to work together and be part of supporting, advancing and enhancing Moodle’s open source project.