Online education pioneer Dr Martin Dougiamas is best known for a noble act: his rejection of a $20-million offer for his open-source education platform which he wanted to keep freely available.
Dougiamas, 47, who runs the learning management system Moodle, which is used by the UN and Google, downplays his sacrifice. “It just happens to be a little thing that seems to capture people’s attention,” he says.
On whether he regrets shunning the money, he says: “No, absolutely not.” Had he taken the cash, Moodle would have been destroyed – taken out of the equation, he says.
“So, Moodle – it’s my life’s work. It’s what I’m passionate about,” he says, describing education as “super-important”.
His enterprise operates in a spirit of iteration rather than disruption. “Sometimes it’s about refining what you’ve got – making it solid and making it really work,” he says, adding that he is still tweaking the initial ideas for Moodle that date back 15 years, because the basics remain the same.
“In education you’re dealing with human brains, and human brains don’t change a lot – we still learn the same way as we have for thousands of years,” he says.
The hardest challenge that the deep thinker faces is letting people go, after arduous negotiation.
“I’m about giving people second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth chances. And I’m always like, ‘You know, we can make this work.’ ” When dialogue fails, it is tough. All you can say is that the loss will be for the best – end pervasive unhappiness. “So, yeah, I haven’t done that very often to be honest, but when I do it’s really definitely my least favourite part of the job. That’s for sure.”
Raised by parents who worked in fields including nursing and mining, he grew up in the deserts of Western Australia: Warburton, Wingellina and Kalgoorlie.
Inspired by science fiction, young Dougiamas yearned to play a part in building the future. The curiosity he felt about the interface between computer science and learning was spurred by tuition he received from the distance learning college, Kalgoorlie School of the Air.
Later, as a web master at a WA university in the 1990s, he built experimental tools designed to help educators and students use the internet collaboratively. Cue the first version of Moodle, which was released in 2002. Now, his academic invention serves thousands of institutions globally.
Originally, Dougiamas worked 16-hour days, but he has crunched his weekly workload to 40 hours spread around the clock “because we are so international”. On paper, he manages about50 staff but deals with a huge team spread across the community. Hundreds of developers, thousands of active translators, documenters, testers and supporters contribute to Moodle’s development.
His qualifications include a master’s degree in science education and work on a doctorate, which he stopped when Moodle took off. Mind you, in March 2016 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Spanish university, Universitat de Vic. Plus, he is on the Western Australian of the Year shortlist, alongside an anti-alcohol activist, a gospel singer, and a Formula One driver.
His key influences are his old PhD tutor Peter Taylor [profiles.murdoch.edu.au/myprofile/peter-taylor] – a master of clarity – and mega-magnate Elon Musk.
“I think Elon Musk is an inspiration. It’s a guy who has taken money he’s made and just kept pouring it into endeavours that make sense for the planet – really good things. And he just has so much energy and so much engagement with everything that’s happening. He’s pretty amazing.”
On a self-described modest wage for a chief executive, Dougiamas recounts meeting other Silicon Valley luminaries who made him wonder about their motivations. Many appeared to have none, except money.
“And that saddens me,” he says. “And I felt it was my job to go round, give them a little bit of social conscience. Sometimes people get blinded by money, but what’s the point of money, if you’re not spending it on something worthwhile?”