MoodleMoot Dublin 2013

I had the fortune of spending most of last week at MoodleMoot Dublin, with members of Moodle developer and user community from the UK, Ireland and across the world.

MOOC discussions

Throughout the plenary and panel sessions over the 2 days of the main conference, the conversions were often drawn to a common theme: the current hype around Massively Open Online Courses, or MOOCs.  Several high-profile institutions have begun offering free online courses through a MOOC platform, and the phenomenon has recently arrived in the UK with the announcement of FutureLearn.

The MOOC movement could be perceived as a significant threat to a system like Moodle, which is probably why it was such a hot topic for discussion.  If people can teach and learn through a MOOC, what place does an institutional system like Moodle have?

While there was some enthusiasm for the inclusiveness of MOOCs from panelists and audience members alike, if you ask a group like the Moodle community if MOOCs are the future, you’re only ever going to get one answer.

The strongest arguments in opposition to MOOCs becoming a significant threat to the traditional institutional teaching model, rather than a complement to it, was that a MOOC is primarily a package of content.

While MOOCs represent a valuable channel for delivering such content, the existence of such content for independent learning isn’t new.  As Moodle founder Martin Dougiamas put it during one panel discussion, “before MOOCs, we had books”.  Martin was keen to promote a view that MOOCs will augment established e-learning, not replace it.

Performance discussions

A common thread of several breakout sessions looked at the performance and scalability of Moodle.  One talk from Moodle partner Catalyst IT discussed a Moodle deployment with 2,000,000 user accounts, supporting 800,000 concurrent users1.

The technology used to achieve this implementation was entirely open source.  Beyond Moodle itself, the set-up described ran on Linux servers (Ubuntu), a PostgreSQL database server, various open source tools for caching data, and the nginx web server.

The PHP interpreter used was PHP-FPM, a special memory-efficient PHP implementation for web servers using FastCGI.

Of course, if you’re implementing a performant, scalable solution you need a way of proving that it works.  For this, the load testing tool JMeter came highly recommended, another open source tool that allows you to simulate traffic to your web server.

Set-ups like this are a prime example showing how open source software is suitable for large-scale deployments – not just in terms of application software but as a whole software stack in combination.

Keynote – Future of Moodle

In the morning of the Moot’s second day, everyone gathered to hear from Martin Dougiamas about the future of Moodle development.

A development trend Martin promoted during the keynote was the idea of “Plug-outs”.  Rather than building new features inside Moodle using plugin APIs, it’s becoming increasingly possible to build external systems that integrate with Moodle.

Moodle features web service APIs which can expose Moodle API functions externally over secure, authenticated services.  This allows you to tightly and securely integrate external applications on any platform with Moodle.

Beyond web services specific to Moodle, you can also use the Learning Tools Interoperability standard, or LTI.  The LTI standard allows Moodle to integrate with a variety of tools implementing the standard, providing single sign-on from Moodle to the external tool, and grades to be passed back and stored in Moodle’s gradebook.

However, the integration isn’t limited to Moodle.  LTI is implemented in Sakai, Blackboard, in fact all the major VLEs, open source and proprietary.  This means that any tool implementing LTI can be used with any VLE implementing LTI.

The most exciting and interesting development shown was the upcoming Moodle mobile app.  Unlike earlier developments of an iOS-only app, the new app will be cross-platform and open source.  As well as allowing Moodle content to be viewed on mobile devices, the app will use mobile hardware such as cameras and microphones to allow users to create and upload content.

Interestingly, the decision was made to release the mobile app under an Apache licence, rather than GPL like the rest of Moodle.  I took the opportunity to ask Martin why this decision was made.   The primary motivation was to allow institutions to modify the app to integrate tightly with local systems without requiring them to release the source code since they may want these integrations to remain private.  There was also a secondary motivation of avoiding app store restrictions.  As OSS Watch has discussed previously, some app store terms of service conflict with certain open source software licences, and the Apache licence has been chosen to avoid this.

I’d like to extend a big thank you to the organisers of MoodleMoot, and all of the event’s sponsors.

1 Where “concurrent users” refers to users accessing the site within a 15-minute window.