AirTree Ventures

The business of distance education

by Brad Howarth via

The world market for eLearning is booming: the Australian market is estimated by IBISWorld to be worth A$5.9 billion, with an annual growth rate of 14.4 per cent between 2009 and 2014. 

Among the Australians leading the field is Martin Dougiamas, the brains behind the open source online learning platform Moodle. 

“Moodle is the default learning platform in many countries, with more than 90 per cent penetration in a lot of South American countries,” Dougiamas says. “The highest usage of Moodle is in Spain, where it is pretty much the default package.”

The platform has been translated into more than 110 languages, with users ranging from educators from the world’s top universities to giant oil and gas companies, and even Google, which uses it to train new workers.

Dougiamas was an early entrant to the market and given his upbringing, that’s not surprising. He grew up in the Australian Outback, where his early learning was via the School of the Air, using short wave radio telephones. 

Dougiamas first connected to the Internet in 1987.  

“When the World Wide Web came to the Internet in 1993 it was very much a broadcast medium, and I felt there was a lot of potential there for it to be more interactive,” Dougiamas says.

Armed with that belief, Dougiamas undertook a Masters and PhD at Western Australia’s Curtin University in education and built his own online learning platform. By late 2001 the first Moodle prototype was released online, and within 24 hours had been downloaded by a school in Canada.

Word spread quickly, and soon the platform had 70 clients, including the California-based investment firm Silicon Valley Bank, as well as numerous universities.

“I had a very supportive community from the beginning, with people encouraging me and helping with testing and translating,” Dougiamas says. “And soon people were writing modules and helping to build it.”

 “It was designed from the beginning to be something that was easy to use and get going. People can modify it and change it, they can make it what they need. And they can fit it into any niche that they need to.”

Dougiamas developed Moodle using an open source licensing model, meaning it is free to use. The Moodle development team earns money by licencing the Moodle trademark and right to provide official service.

Dougiamas says there are currently more than 60,000 registered sites, but may be as little as 10 per cent of all the active users worldwide.

Content is critical

Critical to the success of any eLearning platform is having the right content, and that was the philosophy behind the online learning resource service Edrolo, founded by Australian Jeremy Cox and his business partners in 2010.

“We wanted to work with master teachers in their specific subject areas, and help them build curriculum-specific video based content,” Cox says.

In 2011 Edrolo launched rich content to support 10 subjects from the Victorian final year VCE school program, providing instructional content from expert teachers delivered online in video format. 

Edrolo soon started receiving calls from schools. 

“They were trying to build their own digital resources, and teachers were finding that enormously painful,” Cox says. “We don’t ask teachers to write text books, so why are we expecting them to build online video content? That’s where the niche was found.”

Today Edrolo is used by 145 Australian schools and plans to double that next year. It has also launched ExamMaster, which helps students pinpoint their weaknesses. That product has been adapted for the US market, where it is helping students prepare for their SAT exams.

 “I would say in 12 months we would be looking to additional international opportunities in Asia or the UK,” Cox says.


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