Jonathan Moore is a well-versed and reflective man. He has played “many if not all of the roles you see in the LMS ecosystem” in the U.S., on every side of the table. A B.S. in Information Technology, his CV shows a respectable track record in the planning, design, development, procurement and management of online learning, and of course Moodle administration. This would be another sharp profile of an industry thought leader, if it wasn’t for a unique, dare I say “unfair advantage” Moore has. A source of enlightenment on learners, inspiration and drive.
For two decades now, Michelle Moore has been Jonathan’s partner, in learning, business and life. Longtime teacher, PhD candidate on Learning Technologies, and Lead Instructional Designer at My Learning Consultants, which they both own, Michelle has also built an impressive resume. In her case, it began in the classroom and has kept learners front and center ever since. She has built an understanding and a practice of what works throughout the student lifecycle since early age —she used to teach math to middle schoolers—, and what does not. Unsurprisingly, technology does, a fact that has guided her since 2003 when she first learned about Moodle; and one they continue to prove year after year.
After becoming a certified Moodle Partner in 2018, Kansas City-based My Learning Consultant‘s path of milestones, challenges, and new solutions made possible with Moodle continues. In an exclusive interview, Michelle and Jonathan discuss their open value proposition, which hinges on the concept of “unHosting” and the intricate, yet elegant technology that fuels it. One people might be likely to realize they have been wanting it all along. It was introduced by Michelle to the Moodleverse at large, first at MountainMoot, and then to the world at large in Philly’s MoodleMoot.
Education meeting technology every which way
Jonathan: When we got started, we were working with in-house, self-hosted Moodle. I was a Technology Director for a public school in Kansas. Michelle was an educator, working on her Masters degree. She was interested in online learning, so we started looking into different platforms. We tried all kinds of different software until we settled on Moodle. So we started as users of the platform. Then we worked as vendors, when we became partners in Remote-Learner. When we became independent consultants we assisted clients in the evaluation and procurement of LMS, so we became purchasers.
Michelle: I come from the teaching side. While I was a teacher I became involved in educational technology and started to support fellow teachers. I started my Masters in educational technology which was heavily focused on Moodle, which I continued when I joined Remote-Learner as a trainer for organizations on how to use Moodle.
My teaching was technical at first: I’d tell people which button to push to make a given thing happen. Over time, I became more and more interested in the philosophy and pedagogy behind Moodle. Eventually I decided that I wanted to look into these topics, including Social Constructivism Theory, at a much deeper level. This is what led to beginning my doctoral studies in learning technologies. Ultimately, I want to support organizations on online learning, starting with the basic: Design and quality of the learner experience. Then put this into practice and learn from users, to create exceptional learning experiences. It has been a very enjoyable role.
‘We build tools to make Michelle happy’
What makes you unique in the marketplace?
Jonathan: For us, it’s always been clear. The teacher should drive the technology. Effective learning rather than “checking off the boxes.”
Michelle: I met many of the instructional designers working with us during my doctoral studies. I think we are really strong there. But I also think part of what makes us different is our commitment to the open source model. Since the beginning we were looking at alternatives to the dominating proprietary systems. We were working with schools with limited budgets, but also wanted the ability to be flexible so each one could modify it and personalize it.
Over the years, however, we found that it was very difficult to find one provider that could cater to all of them and honor that open source philosophy. That is why we started My Learning Consultants. We became the provider who was able to do what we wanted.
Jonathan: We like to think of our role as empowering. We want to respect their knowledge, their skills and their assessments of what they need. In my experience, most other companies have a pitch that sounds, more or less: “This is why you should do it our way.”
We like to think of customer projects as collaborations. We synthesize customers requests and expectations, to come up with a solution that falls within their parameters. As vendors, we have to strike a delicate balance: Aim for a groundbreaking new tool that will make things more efficient and “pop,” but one that does not end up limiting customer potential, or neglect their ability to leverage the power that they already have.
How did your past experiences (Remote-Learner, etc) influence your current EdTech consulting focus?
Jonathan: For the time with Remote-Learner in the UK, we did a lot of reflecting about what the next step will be.
One day I went on a run while listening to The Barefoot Executive. Carrie (Wilkerson, the author of the book) is a teacher who adopted 2 kids with special needs. Over the summer she has an epiphany: She won’t be able to go back to her classroom before she figures out how to take care of her own kids. Over the course of the book (and the run) she tells about how she learned to “swim downstream.” I got a good feeling about what our next chapter would be.
It made a lot of sense to have a consulting focus. We were already accustomed to being a part of our customers’ journeys. As soon as we announced My Learning Consultants, 5 clients came on board. MLC has been really enjoyable, and has reignited my passion for the work that we are doing. Consulting became important in the DNA of the company.
Michelle: The consulting focus came from my original idea. As part of a large company, you kind of get “boxed in.” Sometimes it is clear by sitting down with a customer that they don’t really see themselves fitting into the offerings and packages. I thought if we just sit down with them and use the tools at our disposal and our experience, and do something really cool. In sum, the consulting focus comes from our desire to listen and to be creative in the way we help companies meet their goals.
How is your message about consulting and customization resonating with your users?
Michelle: I was introducing our concept of “unHosting” to the audience at MoodleMoot US, possibly the most tangible representation of our work. After our presentation we had some people interested in talking with us. “So you mean we can do this and not be locked in?” Many actually seemed to “get” what we do: The flexibility, the ownership, the customization. We realized they actually heard and understand that our mission is to honor the open source nature of Moodle.
Jonathan: One of our challenges was the development itself. We thought, overly hopefully, that after 3 months we would be ready to market. Instead, to really have tools ready that really spoke about our 15 years of experience took about 10 months of development. We continued since then to continue to add tools.
In hindsight, it felt like the right thing to do. You realize your mission is to build things that haven’t been built before.
Technology deep dive
Can you tell us about the technology, and explain what “unHosting” means?
Jonathan: At its core, our technology is a Web Services API that can connect with the Moodle Plugins repository. It makes it easy for non-tech savvy people to perform, even during demonstrations or onboarding, installations or upgrades.
In a matter of seconds, the tool finds the right plugin, the right version and install it. It will handle all the technical bits and it will continue to make sure the right version is installed and up to date over time. We’re hiding everything happening behind the scenes.
We used to take a long time building our demonstrations, often building sites specific to clients just as a showcase. Now, thanks to our “unHosting,” we still deliver custom demos but with much higher efficiency.
Michelle: The power of our technology is that it does not take a technical expert to use it. Our “unHosting” platform is designed to provide people with the benefits that already come with Moodle. We are really able to set up a platform that honors the spirit of openness, flexibility and control.
Within a matter of minutes a customer can see the plugin in action and check if it falls within their expectations. We built to respond to one of our most common concerns. Before it would take us a few days to install a plugin. Now we can do it in an instant, or customers can do it themselves without dealing without having to be aware of any technicalities.
Jonathan: We stand on the shoulders of our technology. Given that all of our services are a la carte, it helps us attend any volume of requests from our customers. Once they get to know our “unHosting” technology, they really appreciate it, both the experts and the not so tech savvy.
But do you actually need to host it somewhere?
Jonathan: Yes. The “unHosting” name comes from our ability to choose any server and easily migrate it onto another. We offer AWS hosting, or we can work with instances our customers already own. We can also create copies of a site for security backup or testing. It’s a matter of minute processes.
Michelle: We are an Amazon Web Services partner. In the future, however, our goal is to provide several alternatives in addition to Amazon. Our next target is to add the ability to make deployments using Microsoft Azure.
Another benefit is ownership. The technology lets users see where their site is and move it anywhere they want. There is no vendor lock-in with us.
Jonathan: Currently on AWS the system can easily resize and load balance, automate backups, etc. We don’t really know of any other provider who does this.
Making you understand how impressive ‘unHosting’ is
I imagine many people are interested in this kind of solution. What are your successes and challenges making people understand what you are solving for them?
Jonathan: As we came up with the concept of ‘unHosting’ in 2017, we realized the need to become Moodle Partners and leverage this in our marketing. Since we became Moodle Partners in May 2018, MLC has grown 5X. At the same time, we believe we are only touching the tip of the iceberg. But we want to grow in a way that is responsible. We would not accept customers before knowing that we could support them properly.
Now we feel in a good place to get the word out and service a larger number of clients. We often hear from people, “Oh my god, this is what I wanted, I didn’t know it existed;” or in conversation we hear their frustrations about how difficult it can be to set up their cloud, and we know we can help.
Does this mean the cloud is not being properly utilized, particularly when it comes to Moodle?
Jonathan: There is credibility in the market about cloud services. But people don’t know how to properly implement it to the maximum expression. We feel confident in our ability to show anyone a Moodle-specific tool that is well thought out.
As soon as our announcement as a Moodle Partner went out, our volume of daily leads shot up and it has been steady ever since. It’s a little bit scary, but ultimately we want to be clear in our values and how we present Moodle. We are aware our product is not for everybody, but we constantly think about how to evolve our approach.
Michelle: It is also a way for us to continue to support Moodle. We are passionate about Moodle and for what Martin (Dougiamas, Moodle CEO) has accomplished.
Jonathan: We continue to work on our solution. On the development side we have been focusing on a sophisticated auto scalability method. Many of our customers want a system that easily scales up and down. One of our customers services nearly 2 million active students with thousands of course completions every day. By helping them easily manage and scale their site, we can learn a lot of lessons and leverage new cool features for everyone else.
Going forward, what are the reasons why people should be excited about Moodle?
Jonathan: MoodleMoot Global in Barcelona was very exciting. H5P is an interesting technology and we’re thrilled for its announced inclusion in the Moodle core. We have also witnessed an interesting uptake on the mobile app in the past year, with great enhancements on the experience and functionality.
Michelle: Many of our clients are increasingly interested in developing unique learning experiences. Traditionally it’s been mostly “tick in the boxes” and call it a day. We receive growing interest in figuring out better ways to address learner engagement. They want to work on creative and innovative ways which I believe are a true testament to what only Moodle is capable of.
In line with pushing the boundaries of what Moodle can do, we have also started a few development projects with enhanced functionality. The challenge of putting it all together is exciting to me.