Successful by traffic, user satisfaction and school IT administration measures, and one of the most popular Moodle contributions of recent years, gamification plugin Level Up! risks an evolution halt, as its developer looks for greener pastures.
Not to imply Frédéric Massart’s commitment to Moodle, the community and ideals, is any less fervent. Born on the Walloon side of Belgium and today an Australian citizen, the self-taught coder and Moodle HQ alumnus has big plans for Branch Up, the startup Level Up! made possible, which he founded and leads in the role of Chief Collaborator.
What is unclear is how much of a priority Moodle is going to be for Branch Up going forward.
In fairness, Massart’s introduction to the EdTech world was reluctant. As a 16 year-old high school dropout, he found himself working for NOW.be, a surprisingly agreeable tech-based skill acquisition company based in Brussels. Not entirely aware of the field, some ideas about refining learning experiences might have seeped into, as he was gaining confidence about his problem solving skills.
Intellectual restlessness, a factor that would turn him off school, and into an expat later on, also kept them grounded in the EdTech space. The Open Source faction was an easy choice for him, if for nothing else the quick pace of interaction and building up off good ideas.
Bureaucracy never really stayed on Massart’s good side. It explains why the open vibe at Moodle HQ felt so appealing. Recruited in 2013 through a talent company, he recalls a swirl of contrasting experiences with his “more properly” educated colleagues. With under 20 employees at the time (today’s reported figure is 126), Moodle was the largest company he’d been with. He even had an opportunity to give back in terms of young encouragement, by being a mentor to student projects in Google Summer of Code.
Massart was a witness of some of Moodle’s highest years of growth, right before the $6 million AUD capital infusion from Education for the Many. The release schedule of newer Moodle versions allows for “Project Weeks” throughout the year, where the team can work on ideas of their own. An “Idea Man,” inspiration for Level Up! would only strike mid 2014, as it often does, during a MoodleMoot.
Level Up! quickly became a Moodleverse favorite, thrusting Massart into the promising world of game-based learning and behavioral cues. His excitement, however, started to feel at odds with a full-time employment. The restlessness was kicking in again. Some reflection helped remind him how being a developer did not have to feel like a burden. “I had always been doing it for the fun of it.” In 2016, Massart branched out. Or rather, he “Branched Up.”
Success and Moodle part ways
What follows is a heartwarming entrepreneurial story. High-level skills leading to name recognition. Key collaborators help underline a message of mastery and professionalism. Technology partners working together to deliver complete solutions. Level Up! evolves, adding new features and better understanding of the user and how they respond to the right stimuli. “Gamification works,” Massart knows, but as science and practice advances it is clear the term is too broad, and we’re only scratching the surface.
Massart launched Level Up! Plus in 2017 in the hopes to raise enough to support experimentation and further development of both free and premium versions of the plugin. Over a year in, and the results have been underwhelming. Level Up! Plus pays for itself and just enough to keep the lights on for both offerings. Meanwhile, custom development and consulting, including a contract with Moodle HQ to take part of the implementation of key Privacy API components in the context of the introduction of GDPR, have been surprisingly prosperous avenues.
Moodle monetization platform? Not anytime soon
Moodle has overall been an ally of Massart and Branch Up. But few solo or indie learning developers can say the same. The hurdles of monetizing plugins are known, and can always be verified by taking a look at the Moodle Plugin Directory, where those that still thrive are the product of an academic environments, or contracted works from benevolent clients. Level Up! is still the glaring exception that confirms the trend. After the 100 or 200 most popular plugins, the Directory is a cemetery of ideas that failed to meet sustainability.
Even if Moodle does not show concern about offering viable ways for developers to make a living through plugin development, Massart does not believe Level Up! will meet such a fate. The free version of Level Up! is available to paying customers of MoodleCloud. “I was not involved” notes Massart, who remains grateful for the opportunities Moodle has given to him, and pleased that his development has been chosen, as everyone can for their benefit in the case of Free and Open Source Software.
Among the broad list of exciting new ideas, many of which materialized, Moodle has not revealed any plans for a monetizable app store, marketplace of similar platform. The MoodleNet project scrapped any references to monetization early on. Moodle Workplace, another promising launch, only emphasizes once again that the Certified Partners Program is the company’s main profit-seeking priority.
As for Massart, his future agenda is increasingly being populated with high-level consulting, enterprise partnerships, deeper gamification, and cryptocurrencies. Just this week, he’s releasing his new project, UpMost, a Moodle-free, mobile, team-based gamified competition management system for bouldering competitors.
If it’s up to him, FOSS will keep on climbing.