Focusing on our mission – an open source “fork” of Moodle

By Richard Wyles

awardSome of you in our partner network will be aware that my history with Moodle (and Mahara) goes back over a decade. It began for me in 2003 when leading a large government funded consortium project that ended up involving 20 universities, polytechnics, and institutes of technology. This represented a large section of New Zealand’s education system making a major shift to open source. Outcomes included the very first enterprise scale deployment of Moodle in November 2004. I worked with a great team and good things followed… my eyes were firmly opened to the benefits of collaborative networks and open source licensing as major enablers to accelerate innovation. I am, along with many others in the team, very privileged and grateful to have been part of the Moodle community for a large part of my career. I am proud of the small part I played towards the success of the Moodle project.

Fast-forward a few years to 2011 when we released version 1.0 of Totara LMS as a custom distribution of Moodle designed for the enterprise. Our vision for Totara is specifically focused on the requirements of corporate, industry and vocational training in contrast to Moodle's educational orientation. Totara came about because of the repeated problems we had trying to customize Moodle for government and corporate clients. Our investment in Totara LMS made it possible to quickly set up a complex site for corporates in fewer steps than installing and configuring elements individually or repeating similar customizations on Moodle.

A distribution in this context meant an extended version of the standard product, and continuing collaboration and code exchange with the originating Moodle community. As well as building on top of Moodle our ethos has been to contribute wherever possible; patches, security fixes and entire features. The upcoming Moodle 3.0 is an example of the diffusion of innovation, with Moodle HQ incorporating Totara developed features; Learning Plans and Competencies.


Why are we forking?


From 2016 onwards we will no longer be in lockstep. Totara LMS will progressively diverge from its Moodle foundations.

Why have we made this decision? There are several factors;


  1. Innovation. A benefit of open source software is the ability to extend the code base of an application and develop it in a new direction. Over the past few years we have added more than 450,000 lines of code comprising a series of modular, interwoven extensions layered on top of a standard Moodle. All the additional features reflect the different needs of our user community and Totara LMS is now almost unrecognisable from a standard Moodle installation. We’ve taken a lot of care to achieve these results with minimal alterations to Moodle’s core codebase. That policy has been beneficial to both projects. However it also comes with constraints, particularly with some feature requests such as multi-tenancy. To do this well requires deep architectural changes. Overall, to continue, and accelerate our rate of innovation we need to start diverging the base platforms.
  2. Modernising the platform. It is our view, and we know it is a shared view with many Totara Partners, that the current product needs a significant investment in the overall UX. Due to the following point regarding collaboration we are unable to make this investment without diverging from Moodle. We are committed to doing the best by our Totara Partners, key stakeholders in our open source ecosystem, and our growing (collective) customer base. Our 2016 release (which will be tagged as Totara LMS version 9.0) will have a major focus on improving the UX design and overall quality assurance.
  3. Collaboration. When there are areas of common interest (of which there are between Moodle and Totara) it is beneficial for both parties to collaborate. We believe collaborative innovation networks are the future of software development. Open source, collaborative software development reduces costs while providing the foundations for more targeted innovative development specific to a company or situation. Everyone benefits from the synergies and economies of wider input. That’s our ethos, that’s what we do within the Totara community and that’s what we’ve endeavoured to do with Moodle. In the wider open source community, forking or uncoordinated development effort often leads to inefficient, duplicated effort, and all the waste that this implies. However, without both parties’ commitment to collaborate it becomes progressively more difficult to stay in alignment. We have been unable to establish any formal collaborative arrangement between Totara Learning and Moodle Pty Ltd.
  4. Who’s forking who? The leadership of Moodle Pty Ltd has made it clear to us that it is their intent to clone recent Totara LMS versions to offer the market ‘Moodle for Workplace.’ In contrast to the millions of dollars of investment and hundreds of thousands of lines of code that we’ve developed to create Totara LMS, cloning in itself does not add further value and does not present a sustainable strategy. Conversely, if Moodle HQ forks Totara LMS to create an ongoing Moodle variant for workplace learning, and they invest in that branch and support it, then this provides customers with more options from which to select. It is my view that the team at Totara Learning are more closely focused on the needs of corporate users, and that our partnership and support models are more aligned to successful outcomes for partners and customers alike.  

There are those in the Moodle community who don’t understand why Moodle isn’t just as great in the corporate context as it is in the educational setting, why Totara is separate, or why Totara has a different business model. They won’t understand the decision to fork and we expect some criticism from some within the Moodle community. We have closely considered this decision over the past few months. The primary reasons are points 1. Innovation and 2. Modernisation noted above. It has not being driven by any desire to compete with or detract from Moodle. We’re firmly focused on disrupting enterprise vendors - such as Saba, NetDimensions, SuccessFactors, and Cornerstone onDemand - through offering software freedom and delivering superior value to users of enterprise learning technologies. The decision to forge a new direction is simply based on the need to deliver the best product we’re able – fit for purpose for modern workplace learning, guided by the needs of our partners and customers. 

As we look ahead, it’s incredibly exciting to see the collective impact that arises from fully charting our own direction - bringing together the talented team at Totara Learning and our extended innovation network of Totara Partners and customers. 

We do appreciate that you’ll have further questions, so please get in touch through your Channel Partner Manager, post in the partner forums, or contact me directly at [email protected]

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