MoodleNet whitepaper

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Current version: 0.25

Discussion forum: https://moodle.org/mod/forum/view.php?id=8352

This white paper is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Please include the version number when citing.

To ensure the aims and objectives of MoodleNet are understood by all parts of the Moodle community, we are putting together a white paper that will serve as a touchstone as the project develops.

A white paper is an authoritative report or guide that informs readers concisely about a complex issue and presents the issuing body's philosophy on the matter. It is meant to help readers understand an issue, solve a problem, or make a decision. (Wikipedia)

The intended audience for this white paper includes, but is not limited to: developers, educators, analysts, site administrators, and instructional designers. It will be written by Doug Belshaw, MoodleNet Lead, with input from staff at HQ as well as community members.


Overview

MoodleNet is described by Martin Dougiamas, Founder and CEO of Moodle as, "a new open social media platform for educators, focused on professional development and open content". It will be an integral part of the Moodle ecosystem.

To ensure the aims and objectives of MoodleNet are understood by all parts of the Moodle community, this white paper will serve as a touchstone as the project develops.

“A white paper is an authoritative report or guide that informs readers concisely about a complex issue and presents the issuing body's philosophy on the matter. It is meant to help readers understand an issue, solve a problem, or make a decision.” (Wikipedia)

The primary audience for this white paper is the educators for whom MoodleNet is intended to help empower. It will also be of interest to content authors, instructional designers, learners, site administrators, analysts and developers. It is being put together by Doug Belshaw, MoodleNet Lead, with input from staff at HQ as well as community members.

MoodleNet: the what and the why

Introduction

Moodle is an award-winning international open source software project best known for a powerful online learning platform used by schools, higher education institutions and workplaces globally. The Moodle learning platform allows educators of any kind to create a private space online, filled with tools that easily creates courses and activities - all optimised for collaborative learning.

Moodle’s products are used by well-known organisations such as Cisco, The United Nations, and The Open University. They are also used in countless schools and smaller institutions who value the power and flexibility of open source software. Moodle’s products are managed by a dedicated team at Moodle HQ and international team members around the world. As an open source project it is supported by a strong global community of users and certified Partners.

Every instance of Moodle is a fully-featured, standalone learning platform. To date, the only Moodle-provided way for educators and other users to share content has been within their installation, backing up and importing activities, or by sharing entire courses. This white paper envisages ‘MoodleNet’, an upgrade to the latter connecting educators via a Moodle-provided open social media platform which focuses on professional development and open content.

This white paper is a non-technical introduction to MoodleNet, setting out the ‘why’ of the project: why it is needed, why it will be useful, and why it will be different from current systems used by educators.

Scenarios

To situate MoodleNet we will introduce some scenarios in which it might be used. The following personas are based on real users of Moodle and represent a variety of contexts for MoodleNet. We will revisit these scenarios towards the end of this white paper to demonstrate the value it may bring.

Scenario A: Teacher (K12)

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Estrella is an Spanish educator living in Madrid who is new to Moodle. She’s 32, teaches at a local ESO (secondary) school, and leads a busy life. Although she has experience in using tools with more basic functionality, she needs to get up-to-speed with the wealth of options and features available in Moodle. Estrella needs to get her classes ready for the new year, and has become frustrated that she can find neither the resources she needs, nor quick answers to questions she has about setting up courses.

Scenario B: Lecturer (university)

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Takeshi is a 37 year-old Japanese educator living in Kyoto who has been using Moodle for three years. During this time, he has collaborated with two other colleagues at his university to create course content. Takeshi has a strong desire to work collaboratively with other members of the wider Moodle community, creating things of value that are available to all. This is both because he believes in the value of this to society and his profession, but also because he is looking to build his career and sees this as positive way of bringing attention to his work.

Scenario C: Trainer (workplace)

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Bohdan is a naturalised Canadian trainer living in Vancouver and working for a large company who has an in-house elearning programme which makes use of Moodle. He’s 41 years of age and is new to Moodle, but experienced with other learning platforms. Bohdan seeks new innovative ways to enhance learning with Moodle tools and has found a small group of colleagues in the UK and India with whom he interacts via Twitter. Ideally, he’d like to extend and enhance this network in a way that wasn't mixed in with public spaces where people are talking about politics.

Scenario D: Learning Technologist (college)

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Seung is a 26 year-old Australian who is a Learning Technologist at a college in Melbourne. She is motivated to help her colleagues use Moodle more effectively, and wants to connect with other Learning Technologists to discover promising practices in this area. Seung feels a little isolated, although she has found some contacts via the Moodle forums and LinkedIn. Ideally, she would like to have a strong network of peers who are in a similar position to her in other institutions.

Scenario E: Teaching Assistant (K12)

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Lúcio is a Teaching Assistant with no technical background. He’s 21, and lives in Manaus, Brazil. Lúcio has been asked to help provide support to students on his school’s Moodle Cloud site and so needs to get up-to-speed on moderation and other features. He has scoured the Moodle discussion forums and read as much as he can, but he has only a basic grasp of English so could do with a helping hand. Lúcio’s school is poorly-funded, and he is not sure where to turn or what to do next.

Scenario F: Programme Co-ordinator (university)

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Ammaarah is a 52 year-old Programme Co-ordinator living in Soweto, South Africa and working in a university. She has a deep experience of Moodle and other open source software projects. Over the years, Ammaarah has created and sustained a successful local Moodle Hub which takes up much of her time. She has a vision of connecting her localised Moodle Hub to a worldwide resource sharing network for two-way resource discovery, but never quite has the time to figure out how to do this. Ammaarah is keen to reduce the burden of administration and custom development for both herself and her team, but does not want to compromise on her vision.

What is MoodleNet?

Moodle’s mission is to empower educators to improve our world. With MoodleNet, we intend to fulfil that mission by sustainably empowering communities of educators to share and learn from each other to improve the quality of education. MoodleNet is a new open social media platform for educators, focused on professional development and open content. It will be an integral part of the Moodle ecosystem.

MoodleNet will begin life as a place for educators to curate and share collections of resources. Our hypothesis is that the problem of discovery for educators cannot be solved by simply providing a more powerful search engine for the millions of resources already available. This is for at least three reasons:

  • Learning is a social activity - and likewise teaching should be something that is not done entirely on one's own
  • Search engines rely on already knowing what you're looking for - which is not always the case when planning a lesson, scheme of work, or course
  • Individual resources exist in a wider context - including their relation to other resources, the educator's approach to learning, and where the 'classroom' is located

Initially, then, MoodleNet will be a simple web-based application allowing educators to form communities that curate collections of resources. Most of these, we imagine, will be free and openly-licensed. From this base of providing something useful that educators will use on a regular basis, we envisage adding additional functionality:

  1. Identity and reputation: to empower educators to develop their public profile
  2. Messaging: to empower educators to connect with each other
  3. News feed: to empower educators to keep up-to-date
  4. Access to openly-licensed resources: to empower educators to share with one another
  5. Crowdfunding: to empower educators to be supported in their work

The following sections give more detail about these proposed core features of MoodleNet.

Curating and sharing resources

Copyright law began with the Statute of Anne in 1710, when the British government placed a restriction on who was allowed to print copies of books. Modern copyright law has grown exponentially from this basis, to cover almost every expression of human culture. Today, there is increasing harmonisation between territories and jurisdictions, and industry bodies work in conjunction with state agencies to strictly enforce the provision of copyright agreements.

While there are notable exceptions such as food recipes and some allowances under ‘Fair Use’, the balance of power is with the copyright owner. With the advent of the internet, this has caused a problem, as the author and activist Cory Doctorow explains:

“Copying stuff is natural. It’s how we learn (copying our parents and the people around us). My first story, written when I was six, was an excited re-telling of Star Wars, which I’d just seen in the theater. Now that the Internet — the world’s most efficient copying machine — is pretty much everywhere, our copying instinct is just going to play out more and more.”

As a result of this standoff between technologies which enable a blooming of human free expression versus restrictive copyright legislation, there has been innovation in copyright and licensing since the turn of the millennium. A good example of this is Creative Commons, a set of licenses stewarded by an organisation to enable creators to retain some rights over their work, while allowing it to be reused and remixed.

For educators, Open Educational Resources (OER) has been an important development, as sharing is what the Open Education Foundation call “probably the most basic characteristic of education”. Countless open access repositories have been created using a national and sector-based approach. These, however, can be precariously-funded, and are attacked by well-funded opponents to open access who may attempt to shut them down.

A more promising approach is to weave OER into wider Open Educational Practices (OEP) to enable educators to work collaboratively, rather than take a transactional approach to sharing resources with one another. There is no ‘canonical definition’ of OEP but most definitions reference OER and include a focus upon:

  • Collaboration
  • Innovation
  • Quality
  • Production
  • Reuse

In order for OEP to flourish, the right kind of technological tools and resources must be available to educators. For example, it is not enough to just have access to openly-licensed resources; those using them must be able to easily reuse and remix them, and (importantly) share these back under a compatible open license. A good example of this is OER Commons, which not only has a large repository of openly-licensed resources that can be easily searched, but also provides tools for educators to build their own resources, lessons, and modules. These can then be shared back with colleagues and peers.

More technical educators have been using a fork-merge-share approach to OEP. A fork-merge-share approach allows easy collaboration around OER and fosters OEP by contextualising and improving content. This, however, relies upon interfaces that are pleasurable to use by educators, rather than providing a barrier. Current examples and implementations tend to preclude mainstream educators due to technical and conceptual hurdles, but could prevent the content in OER repositories from becoming increasingly outdated.

The benefits for educators of using well-designed and easy-to-use systems are explored in the work of those who focus on usability and ‘delightful design’. Adam Procter, who is pursuing a PhD on the subject, claims that traditional digital managed learning environments “are built around features designed to support the administrative needs of an institution and designed to simulate paper”. He notes that interfaces must not only be functional, reliable, and useful, but pleasurable.

Recommendation #1: MoodleNet should respect copyright law while allowing educators to share their resources as freely and openly as possible.

Recommendation #2: Open Educational Practices should be supported in MoodleNet by providing educators with tools to find, create, remix, and share each other’s resources.

Recommendation #3: MoodleNet should provide educators with powerful functionality that is easy and pleasurable to use.

Identity and reputation

Educators are used to making do with a mixed-economy of tools and services with which to go about their job. On a day-to-day basis they may use some or all of the following:

  • Learning platform - to interact with students during the school day and for blended learning activities.
  • Email - to interact with their colleagues.
  • Social networks - to keep up to date with news and the latest developments in their sector.

The assumption when using these tools and services is that any difficulties or problems a user experiences are primarily technical in nature. However, although this may often be true, some of the issues a user may experience can be the result of one-size-fits-all design decisions around identity.

Identity

Identity is prismatic, which has an impact on how we express and share online. As humans, our online identity is less like looking in a mirror and more like the facets of a diamond. Who you share as makes a difference to the quality and nature of the kinds of interaction you can have online. Being able to choose the identity you share as therefore has an impact on the quality of professional discourse and debate.

“Complexity in identity is what defines our humanity.” (Chris Poole)

Social networks such Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn consider you to have a single identity that works in every context. Their platforms therefore insist on users creating a single account featuring their ‘real’ name. We know from everyday experience, however, that we act differently in various contexts. The way we act professionally as an employee or freelancer is different to the way we would act as a husband, daughter, brother, or friend.

“Identities are not fixed or static. As social theorists have been telling us for years, we are actively involved in constructing fluid, plural and hybrid identities by combining a range of different building materials, resources and representations that are available to us. Our identities constantly need to be assembled, something like IKEA flat-pack furniture or Lego construction kits.” (Ben Williamson)

Other social networks, such as Twitter and Instagram, allow users to run multiple accounts which go some way to satisfying our desire to share and express ourselves in different ways. For example, an educator may have a professional account where they share information about their courses, providing information to students, parents, and their colleagues. They may also have a personal account which is perhaps more locked down, where they express their political views. If they have access to a shared organisational account, they may be trusted to also share updates in the style and tone expected by that audience.

Despite this difference around multiple accounts, there are at least three things the major social networks have in common:

  • Paid for by attention and data - although ‘free’ at the point of access for users, proprietary, advertising-based social networks monetise the attention of users and their usage data.
  • Tend towards centralisation - whether for reasons of ease of use or to ensure maximum shareholder value, proprietary, advertising-based social networks limit the ability of third-parties to develop tools that add new functionality and features.
  • Privatisation of public spaces - while there is a veneer of proprietary, advertising-based social networks providing ‘public’ spaces for discourse, the amount of information available to the open web is shrinking, and the company that owns the network has absolute control over participation within it.

Pushing back against this is a range of decentralised social networks, such as Diaspora*, Mastodon, and Synereo which attempt to put control back into the hands of users. With Mastodon, for example, users choose to join a particular instance based on affinity group or serendipity. Their updates are shared with their instance but can also be ‘federated’ to the wider network of Mastodon servers and, indeed, any system based upon the protocol that underpins it.

The value of decentralised networks is that, while technical interoperability must be maintained for updates to be federated, connecting together instances allows for a flourishing of local context and colour. Mastodon provides options to the user to choose an instance based on, for example: the language(s) that you speak; the number of people on the instance; whether or not they allow advertising and/or NSFW content; and even whether you can co-own the instance.

Identity within decentralised networks depends upon the context in which an individual chooses to engage with the wider ‘fediverse’. Sending out an update to the wider network from an address at witches.town (“a nice place on Mastodon for queer, feminists, anarchists and stuff as well as their sympathizers”), for example, is likely to be composed, received and understood differently than a similar update sent from an address at scholar.social (“an instance for researchers, teachers and students at all levels, one that you can be proud to put on the last slide of a presentation at a conference.”). It is, of course, entirely conceivable in this example that the same individual may be actively posting from separate accounts on each instance.

Recommendation #4: MoodleNet should allow users to create and manage multiple accounts. Serious thought should be given as to the possibility of allowing some interactions to be anonymous, or pseudo-anonymous.

Recommendation #5: Although easy to join and use, MoodleNet should be a robust, decentralised, federated system that does not have a single point of failure.

Recommendation #6: MoodleNet should put the user in control of all of her data. All data held about a user should be compliant with the terms of the GDPR and be removable from the system. Users should be given fine-grained controls over who can see personal data and information they have added.

Reputation

A related and increasingly important role to identity which is managed by social networks is that of reputation:

“Reputation is known to be a ubiquitous, spontaneous, and highly efficient mechanism of social control in natural societies. It is a subject of study in social, management and technological sciences. Its influence ranges from competitive settings, like markets, to cooperative ones, like firms, organisations, institutions and communities. Furthermore, reputation acts on different levels of agency, individual and supra-individual. At the supra-individual level, it concerns groups, communities, collectives and abstract social entities (such as firms, corporations, organizations, countries, cultures and even civilizations). It affects phenomena of different scales, from everyday life to relationships between nations. Reputation is a fundamental instrument of social order, based upon distributed, spontaneous social control.” (Wikipedia)

Twitter is a service built around brevity. Tweets, originally limited to 140 characters, are sent and received in a way that makes the service fast-paced. Profiles on Twitter are similarly short, comprising little more than a tweet-sized overview, coupled with an avatar and hyperlink for more information. In this kind of environment, a prominent symbol such as a blue tick signalling that a user has undergone a verification process, can serve as a proxy for ‘importance’.

Other social networks give users more space to indicate their accomplishments. LinkedIn, for example, is built upon reputation and emphasises professional networking. Although it has expanded in recent years, the core of a user’s LinkedIn profile is her job history and list of credentials. The latter are usually academic or professional in nature. As a result, a LinkedIn profile serves as a relatively-quick way to discover the background of a potential employee, freelancer, or business partner.

Along with the ability to write a reference for another user of the service, LinkedIn features the ability to ‘endorse’ other users. This is based on a number of areas of expertise and interest identified by individuals when creating their account. No evidence is required for these endorsements, and it is unclear what role they play, other than as a kind of ‘social proof’.

Developers and more technical users can ‘show their work’ through platforms such as GitHub, while educators tend to rely on the tools provided to them by social networks to demonstrate their knowledge, skills, and abilities. Certificates may provide educators with a certain level of verification, but these suffer from a number of problems:

  • Analogue - traditional, paper-based certificates don’t work like the web, and cannot be verified in a meaningful way online.
  • Siloed - certificates can be placed together, but not in any way that demonstrates their combined value.
  • Lacking data - as they can only be taken at face value, certificates cannot be verified, nor do they give the viewer any further useful contextual information.

Since 2011, a number of systems have begun to answer this need for trusted, portable, digital credentials. Perhaps the best-known of these is Open Badges, a web-native credentialing system and standard incubated by the Mozilla Foundation. Now under the stewardship of IMS Global Learning Consortium, the Open Badges specification is used by thousands of organisations around the world to issue millions of digital credentials each year. For example, companies like IBM have issued badges with great impact on employee engagement and are now using them to certify new, in-demand skills.

Like certificates, Open Badges (and compatible systems such as Blockcerts) allow anyone to issue a credential for anything. The value of a digital credential provided through the system comes through the reputation of the issuing body, and the perceived difficulty of the knowledge or skill achieved. The latter can be ascertained by the viewer having access to the metadata which is hard-coded into the badge, including details such as as the criteria for the credential to be issued, relevant standards, and any related evidence.

For credentials to be valued by educators, they should provide contextual information to the viewer of an individual’s profile and/or portfolio. As digital credentials are, in effect, mini-portfolios themselves, providing something valued to educators may be achievable in a more lightweight way than traditional e-portfolio systems.

Recommendation #7: MoodleNet should allow for digital credentials to be created, exchanged, and displayed. These should reflect the diverse and wide-ranging interests of users.

Recommendation #8: The aim should be for MoodleNet portfolios to become the default place for educators to tell the story of their professional lives.

Messaging

Although instant messaging actually pre-dates the internet it grew in popularity in the 1980s and early 1990s through the use of Internet Relay Chat (IRC) and Bulletin Board Services (BBS). More mainstream use of instant messaging began with services such as ICQ, AOL Messenger, and MSN Messenger in the mid-1990s, which all required their own proprietary software to connect to the network. Users, particularly teenagers, became used to juggling multiple tabbed conversations in several different chat client windows.

The early 2000s saw the introduction of a protocol called Jabber, which is both open source and based on an open standards-based protocol. The protocol became known as XMPP and allowed greater interoperability between chat clients. In turn, this enabled multi-protocol clients such as GAIM to appear, allowing users to communicate with contacts using one application.

Private messaging is an important part of social networks, with the ability to send one-to-one and small group messages a feature of all the dominant platforms and services. Some social networks such as Facebook and Path have split off this messaging feature into separate applications which can be used in addition to the main social networking app.

Facebook Messenger is a particularly interesting use case in this regard as it has become a new platform for business interactions; users able to interact with ‘bots’ to purchase items, book tickets, and receive support.

In addition to messaging for social reasons, it increasingly used within businesses. Moodle HQ, for example, uses Telegram for most quick-fire communication on a daily basis, along with email for those items that require an audit trail. Other companies use specific ‘workplace chat’ apps such as Slack, which allow integrations with third-party products and services through its API. These communications are end-to-end encrypted, meaning that messages are readable only by the intended recipient(s).

The rise of messaging in businesses through workplace chat apps can be attributed to many things, including the expectations of ‘Millennials’ - defined as those reaching young adulthood in the early 21st century. This approach can lead to a more informal and collaborative work culture, with remote workers feeling more connected to the office, and the feeling of work being more democratic and conversational.

There are downsides to messaging, however, particularly around feeling bombarded with notifications on both computers and mobile devices. Some have called this the 'attention war', blurring the boundary of work and leisure, and affecting productivity and focus. Newer applications, such as Stride from Atlassian, not only allow you to mute notifications, but do so in a way that communicates to your team workers what you are working on and when you are likely to become available. In return, they have the option of indicating when action items are created and decisions made.

Although active users of messaging apps and social networks, educators are often forced to co-opt existing consumer or business products and services. While there is much talk about Twitter for professional development it was up to users to invent the hashtag, around which many ‘tweetchats’ and related activities take place. Existing proprietary and advertising-based social networks are not places designed for educators, but instead appropriated by them for specific purposes.

Designing a social platform for educators requires a holistic, intentional approach often discussed in academic circles as forging ‘Communities of Practice’. The co-founder of the approach, Etienne Wenger, outlines a Community of Practice as being made up of three interrelated components:

  1. Mutual Engagement: Members of the community participate in establishing norms and building collaborative relationships that leads to the community being bound together as a social entity.
  2. Joint Enterprise: Community members create a shared understanding of what they have in common through their regular interactions. This is known as the learning ‘domain’.
  3. Shared Repertoire: The community produces a set of shared resources or ‘repertoire’ in pursuit of their joint enterprise. These have both literal and symbolic meanings.

Communities of Practice differ from ‘Communities of Interest’ in that they are focused on practitioners rather than those who are simply interested in the subject or area of focus. It is possible to have a multi-layered approach, with a wider Community of Interest having within it a core of practitioners who form their own Community of Practice.

In addition, social networks and messaging services can help communities of practice by adding features that serve as a call-to-action. For example, Ello, which positions itself as ‘The Creators Network’ allows users to add two buttons to their profile: ‘Collab’ and ‘Hire’. These serve to make explicit the joint enterprise of many users of the platform, namely to collaborate with other users and/or to be hired for projects. Likewise, when looking for community-approved and vetted ideas, the upvoting features offered by platforms such as Product Hunt, Reddit, and Stack Overflow provide additional value. This is a dynamic example of the shared repertoire mentioned by Wenger as one of the three components of a Community of Practice.

Communities often coalesce around factors such as job role, language(s) spoken, and specific interests. Some of these are ‘pull’ factors and some are ‘push’. An affinity group that might form around teaching in a blended learning environment is based around ‘pull’ factors as it attracts individuals and small groups who choose to join in to find out more. Other factors, such as the language(s) spoken by an individual serve as ‘push’ factors, as they depend on existing knowledge, skills, and understanding.

Context is particularly important in Communities of Practice, as push and pull factors are not mutually exclusive. Twitter and the Google Chrome web browser are both examples of software which will offer to auto-translate text in a language other than your stated default. However, word-for-word machine translation does not automatically mean that an individual would understand the wider context within that conversation may be taking place, which may limit the ‘mutual engagement’ required for a true Community of Practice.

Recommendation #9: MoodleNet should employ end-to-end encryption on all messages sent through the system. It should also be clear to users who will be able to see their communications (e.g. public / group / one-to-one)

Recommendation #10: To the greatest extent possible, MoodleNet should be interoperable with open standards, including the import and export of data to and from other social networks. It should have an API that allows others to build upon the core functionality it offers.

Recommendation #11: MoodleNet should aim at helping educators create Communities of Practice, adding features and taking UX decisions that help with this (e.g through ‘call to action’ buttons).

News feed

Online, there has been a shift in recent years towards blending:

  • News - trusted sources of information
  • Status updates - letting everyone within a network those idea(s) which currently have the attention of an individual or group
  • Messaging - co-ordinating thinking and activity around an idea or topic

Like television channels or radio stations, these three elements were initially presented separately online. However, just as there has been a shift towards vendors selling their goods within Amazon, rather than on separate websites, so we have seen a move towards news being accessed within Facebook. These two platforms have incredible power.

While the Amazon example is problematic from an economic and monopoly perspective, the Facebook example is deeply concerning for [democracy and social justice. Aggressive, Silicon Valley-based, shareholder-focused companies providing ‘free’ services that mine user data are increasingly the places we go to be informed about the world around us.

As humans, we may be used to the idea of living in an ‘echo chamber’ of like-minded people. However, these similarities are visible and (mostly) conscious choices: we choose to purchase newspapers that align with our political views; we choose friends who like the same things as us; we opt for schools that reflect our view of society. The problem with consuming news via a social network like Twitter or Facebook is that instead of echo chambers we get ‘filter bubbles’. In this situation, we are not even aware of being in an online echo chamber.

Google Reader shut down in 2013, marking the end of many people’s use of ‘feed readers’. This confirmed a trend for mainstream users towards the algorithmic news feeds on offer via social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. Even some of the most avid curators of their own information environment succumbed to these services that were based on bite-sized status updates rather than fully-fledged articles and blog posts.

The problem with this picture is that the proprietary algorithms used by social networks are ‘black boxes’ and jealously guarded as part of the intellectual property that provides their shareholder value. Apart from in a very rudimentary way, users themselves cannot control the timeline they see. In addition, advertising-based social networks such as Facebook provide a way for users to pay for a greater number of views of their content. As a result, some believe we are beginning to live in an age of ‘algorithmic democracy’.

In response, many users have begun to consume digital media in different ways. A smartphone in every pocket means a resurgence in longer-form content such as podcasts and email newsletters that can be consumed on-the-move. This is now the age of the curator, an individual or organisation that we can trust to tell us about an area of speciality in a way that fits in with our lives. Sometimes, these curators specialise in serendipity, such Brain Pickings, a “cross-disciplinary LEGO treasure chest, full of pieces spanning art, science, psychology, design, philosophy, history, politics, anthropology, and more”.

The difficulty consuming the news through social networks is that it is pre-filtered by the political, social, religious, and other beliefs of those sharing the content. Sensationalist, ‘clickbait’ headlines fuel this approach, driven by a financial incentive from advertisers to maximise web page views. In the face of this, some news outlets, such as The Guardian have successfully established paid membership programmes to fund their work. Other services, such as Nuzzel, enable users to see what stories are widely-shared by people they follow, and read them without being ‘emotionally primed’ by their network.

Recommendation #12: The three elements of news, status updates, and messaging should be controlled by users in MoodleNet. They should be separate if the user wishes, and combined if they prefer an approach more like other social networks.

Recommendation #13: MoodleNet should provide a raw, unfiltered feed to users, and make this available via an API that developers can build upon. Any other views or types of feed should be in addition to this.

Recommendation #14: To provide a disincentive for ‘clickbait’ headlines and sensationalist content, MoodleNet should provide mechanisms to collaboratively rate the content shared in the network.

Crowdfunding

The dominant model of paying for content and resources on the web is advertising. More specifically, the basic model is to provide products and services at no initial financial cost to the user (i.e. ‘free’ like ‘free beer’) and monetise the data they generate. This has a number of downsides and side effects, not least that it skews the kinds of things products and services that can be built.

Advertising-funded products and services require a large user base to generate the amount of data they can then package up and sell. Companies often raise the money to get to scale through rounds of funding from the type of venture capitalists whose main interest is a large ‘exit’, or payday, at some point in the future. The idea is to fund a range of potentially-scalable startup companies in the hope that one of them turns out to be a ‘unicorn’, defined as a company that is valued at more than $1 billion.

There are many kinds of projects and initiatives that, for a range of reasons, are neither good prospects for venture capital funding, nor do they suit an advertising-supported model. For example, community projects may make sense to a particular group of people who would be willing to pay for a particular product, service, or resource, but not to a wider audience. There may also be a time-limited aspect to the idea, which again does not necessarily suit venture capital funding or an advertising-based model.

Kickstarter was not the first crowdfunding platform, but has quickly became the most popular. Since it launched in 2009, there has been plenty of innovation in crowdfunding, with there now being two main types:

  • Reward-based - products or services are pre-sold to customers (‘backers’) in a way that avoids the individual or organisation responsible incurring debt or sacrificing equity. The ‘reward’ offered by this type of crowdfunding includes the satisfaction of backing an individual or group who aim to complete a challenge for charity.
  • Equity - backers receive shares of a company in exchange for the money pledged, sometimes in addition to receiving a product or service.

Crowdfunding is an increasingly complex and nuanced activity, as evidenced by a Pew Research Center report from 2016. It found that 22% of Americans have contributed to a crowdfunding project, with the demographics skewed slightly towards young, female college graduates. Most backers surveyed in the report have given $50 or less to a project, despite significant media coverage to technology inventions who have raised millions of dollars via crowdfunding platforms.

In fact, the most common form of crowdfunding is to individuals in need:

These contributions to help someone in need are more often directed toward a person whom the donor already knows, as opposed to a stranger or a public figure. Among those who have contributed to this type of online project to help someone in need, 63% say they have given to help a friend of a friend or an acquaintance, while 62% have contributed to help a close friend or family member. By contrast, just 7% of these donors have given to a campaign to assist a public figure, while 28% have given to help someone who was not a public figure, but whom they did not know personally.

The report found that backers find crowdfunding platforms a good way to "foster personal connections between donors and causes, and offer a space to highlight businesses of projects are not widely known."

If Kickstarter is the most recognisable crowdfunding platform, then Patreon is the best-known subscription service for individuals. Rather than directly backing a project that provides a specific product or service, the subscription instead allows individuals to support the creative work of individuals. In return, backers get ‘exclusives’ and a stronger relationship with the artist or content provider.

There are many examples of Patreon-style models, covering a plethora of different niches and use cases:

  • BountySource - a funding platform for open-source bugs and features.
  • Flattr - a social micropayments service.
  • Ko-fi - a way for content creators to get paid for their work through one-off donations.
  • Liberapay - a recurrent donations platform, created by a non-profit.
  • Open Collective - recurring funding for groups, providing full transparency.

Over and above any product received or service rendered, backing a project is a way of an individual ‘putting their money where their mouth is’ to demonstrate support and solidarity. It shows that the work of the people they are backing is valuable within their community and that they would like to recognise the time and effort involved.

Crowdfunding, membership, and subscription options allow for a different approach to the transactional nature of sites such as Teachers Pay Teachers and TES Resources. These sites provide a paywall to resources that may either never have been created, or else may have existed as OERs. The situation can be complicated, particularly when when educators are suffering real-term pay cuts to their salary due to austerity following the 2008 global financial crash.

As a 2016 article in The Atlantic by high-school English teacher Abigail Walthausen notes:

As educators continue sharing with wider audiences, it will be important to figure out how teacher-generated resources will be received into the world of Open Educational Resources (OERs). According to the Department of Education, all OERs must be three things: digitized, free, and editable. Many commercially produced digital textbooks and resources are licenced for use in only one classroom, school, or district at a time. Digitized historical documents are wonderful assets to the open curriculum, but are rarely editable and therefore hard to loop into a classroom-friendly curriculum. The Google Drive scenario of sharing between colleagues represents an OER ideal on a small scale, but both effectiveness and ethics are become more complicated as teachers try to replicate similar exchanges with a larger district, the wider world, and otherwise for-profit technology giants. When suddenly laboratories of ideas need to take the form of finished products, both personalization and collaboration can get subsumed by ideas like intellectual property and compensation.

Walthausen concludes that there is no ‘right answer’ as to when and where educators should be paid for their materials. Instead, she states, “whether a teacher decides to share on a micro or a macro level, the choice should be open and judgement free”. What is important is that those who contribute valuable thoughts, ideas, and energy to a community feel supported to be able to do so. This could take the form of ‘moral support’ or be the kind of financial support that allows an educator, or group of educators, to spend time and effort on new content that does not currently exist.

Recommendation #15: MoodleNet should provide a way for educators to be recognised for the contributions they make to the community, including in financial ways.

Recommendation #16: To avoid advertising within MoodleNet, members should be able to support the development of new features through membership and/or subscription options.

Recommendation #17: MoodleNet should encourage the development of OER by educators through easy-to-use crowdfunding options.

Scenarios revisited

MoodleNet will come to life during 2018. Let us imagine that is the year 2020, and MoodleNet is being used by millions of educators around the world. In that context, if all 17 recommendations outlined above came into being, how would life be different for the six educators we were introduced to earlier?

Estrella is now 34 and has been promoted to Head of Department. She found a great deal of support through the local Madrid-based Community of Practice she discovered via MoodleNet, and now has a support network both online and offline. Although she still would not consider herself a ‘techie’, Estrella has found discovering and interacting with other like-minded educators from around the world a simple and straightforward process. She is also active in rating useful news, resources, and content in areas where she has expertise, and flagging those that she considers misleading and problematic.

We met Takeshi two years ago at a time when wanted to author educational content and share it with the wider Moodle community. He now has a strong portfolio on MoodleNet telling the story of how he has led a community of educators in developing and sharing Japanese-language content. His community was able to do this through the financial support of educators around the world who contributed to the crowdfunded project he set up. They can use the resources with confidence due to MoodleNet’s clear labelling and guidance around open licenses.

Bohdan is now 43 and has moved to a different company, where he has taken a more senior role. He managed to secure this new job, in part, due to the network he built up through MoodleNet which attracts a wider user base than just those educators who use the Moodle learning platform. By using multiple accounts, Bohdan shares a wide range of content, news, thoughts, and opinions in ways that allow him to look ‘professional’ in the eyes of his employer. He appreciates the fact that the end-to-end encryption in MoodleNet ensures that the direct and group messages he sends through the decentralised system remain private.

No longer feeling so isolated, Seung has found her niche via MoodleNet in creating resources that other people find valuable. She began this process by remixing content, helping the community both in terms of translation and localisation, and also by keeping the information within resources up-to-date. She finds the fork-merge-share approach intuitive, as it means that she can not only discover and remix great resources, but see who has remixed hers! Although she also uses other social networks, Seung likes the fact that MoodleNet separates out news, status updates, and messaging and that she does not have to pay to ‘boost’ the visibility of the resources she shares.

Lúcio is now 23 and has moved out of his parents house. Part of the reason he was able to do so was by augmenting his meagre salary as a teaching assistant by being paid to create resources via MoodleNet, releasing them as OER. This includes content around Moodle Cloud, upon which he is seen as somewhat of an expert in Brazil. Lúcio is building a portfolio of credentials, and has been issued Open Badges by both Moodle HQ, a South American partner with whom he has done some work, and members of the MoodleNet community.

The Moodle Hub that Ammaarah had created and sustained is now part of MoodleNet. This came about after her boss saw a feature in an education publication and ensured Ammaarah and her team had time to connect the local hub to MoodleNet. While previously the hub was solely focused on OER it is now much more than that, offering interoperability with systems worldwide, messaging, collaboration features, and full data import/export. Due to the decentralised way MoodleNet operates, Ammaarah’s instance complies with her university’s regulations around self-hosting, while allowing users access to a worldwide network of educators.

What's next?

This first MoodleNet white paper paints the first steps towards a system that goes well beyond a repository for openly-licensed resources. Once fully up-and-running, and after extensive consultation with new and established Moodlers, it will offer features currently missing from proprietary, advertising-supported social networks.

Building upon what we know about identity, reputation, and trust, the system created through MoodleNet will become a place where educators can discuss the latest news in their sector, engage in professional development, discover, share and remix resources, be paid for their contributions where appropriate, and build a professional profile they are proud to share.

Following this white paper we will focus on the approach Moodle will take to the design and build of MoodleNet, and begin to outline a high-level technical specification. Development of this project will occur entirely in the open, with significant input from the Moodle community, without whom this open source initiative cannot succeed. You are encouraged to get involved!

Acknowledgements

The following have provided valuable feedback during the writing of this white paper:

  • Mary Cooch
  • Elizabeth Dalton
  • Debashish Datta
  • Martin Dougiamas
  • Pablo Javier Etcheverry
  • Wayne Gibbons
  • Gavin Henrick
  • John Hunter
  • Adam Jenkins
  • Christopher Kenniburg
  • Lilian Low
  • Dan McGuire
  • Dirk Meyer
  • Tom Murdock
  • Ian O’Byrne
  • Brent Parkin
  • Adam Procter
  • Serge Ravet
  • Verena Roberts
  • Luiggi Sansonetti
  • Petra Vanessie
  • Joe Wilson