Friday, July 28, 2006

The Moodle Muddle - a message from DfES

This post is pretty much a word-for-word reprint of what's just arrived in the Naace Members' Newsletter... written by Colin Hurd, quotes from whom appear elsewhere in this blog (find them yourself!)

DfES colleague Colin Hurd writes:

"The Moodle Muddle
It's been suggested by some that the DfES is against Moodle. This is most definitely not the case. Let's start with the big picture. UK Government studies have previously suggested that the use of open source software (OSS) within the UK public sector can provide a viable and credible alternative to propriety software and lead to significant cost savings. The Cabinet Office eGovernment Unit took the lead on OSS from October 2004. Further information can be found on its website at . In particular you will find the policy for OSS available in a pdf document. Key points are that the:

  • UK government will consider OSS solutions alongside proprietary ones in IT procurements. Contracts will be awarded on value for money basis
  • UK government will only use products for interoperability that support open standards and specifications in all future IT developments

So Moodle is fine provided that it's the right and value for money solution taking into account the total cost of ownership (TCO) e.g. the software might be free but support isn't. You can find out more about TCO and OSS in schools on Becta's website at

DfES recognises that there is a strong following for OSS and for Moodle in particular, supported in its development by both the Open University and the University of Lancaster. But there is an issue around the development of the learning platforms framework agreement, due to be announced by Becta in early January 2007, and OSS. Since OSS products do not originate from an industry supplier's product they are unlikely to be included on the framework.

The framework agreement covers a set of quality assured functions including, for example, training and reliable first-line telephone support that conform to agreed functional and technical specifications and standards. Together these create a full service that will enable coherence across education, allowing mobility of learners and their data, as well as a stable and consistent arena for content developers and providers. Part of Becta's role is to assess suppliers and monitor their performance throughout the period of the agreement.

DfES supports fully Becta's framework strategy because schools must have a mechanism that enables them to install learning platforms that can exchange information and provide a robust, reliable and cost effective service. Without these schools will not get the full benefits.

One key aim is to reduce the technical burden on schools. Schools' self-development of any OSS product has a cost (not least time and effort) and is not, contrary to popular belief, free. The framework agreement will support interoperability and economies of scale through aggregation as provision will ideally be contracted as a fully supported (one-stop-shop) service to schools from local authority or regional broadband consortium providers. This does not preclude other collaborative groupings provided they serve strategic needs and deliver best value for money solutions.

OSS products are unlikely to be included on the framework proper. But if they meet the functional and technical specifications requirements and are selected as the tool of delivery by any fully supported service provider, then a school is free to choose an OSS, including Moodle-based, service."

Colin Hurd []
DfES Head of Strategic Technologies
27 July 2006

Thanks Colin! Can I say a few things?

  • To my knowledge there isn't a popular belief that open source means free in terms of Learning Platforms - if you have read carefully what the Open Source movement says about "free" then anyone who can appreciate the difference between free beer and free speech will get this straight away. People who think it's free (in cash money terms) need to look up the difference between gratis and libre - which is the same difference between freeware and free software - I know that they look the same, but they aren't
  • As far as I know the only proponents of the view of "it's free (gratis) software/freeware" are those who use this position as a straw man which they use purely so they can knock it down with the "the price will bite you" (and then quote ludicrous figures in terms of projects involving Open Source software, in which the numbers (if they're true) say more about the management of the projects rather than the license of the software involved). Sorry about the number of brackets there.
  • Can I challenge the DfES and Becta to do something? If it's recognised that there's a strong following for Moodle (and not just Moodle but viable Open Source Software in general across education) - then why not take it seriously, and guide and inform the development and adoption of it so that it becomes a viable option without being demonised (as has happened in a number of situations recently). Why not ask people who are using it strategically to work together with Becta (some with considerable recognised success), so that schools / LAs / anyone who's considering using OSS has an authoritative source of information rather than the (mis?)information, fear, uncertainty & doubt and disparaging comments that have been doing the rounds recently (and admit that there have been times when the DfES angle has been at best inconsistent, and at worst hostile, to the idea of Open Source - and even if it wasn't that's how it's been interpreted by a number of authorities, which probably says something). Some advice or guidance from Becta about using OSS with specific reference to the arena of Learning Platforms would be invaluable - it would serve the purpose of both the advocates of something like Moodle and its detractors - namely allowing people to make informed, authoritative decisions based on case studies, experience and fact rather than simply reading blog posts or increasingly polarised discussions on mailing lists and forums. Knowing when not to use Moodle is as important as knowing that you might be able to use it at all - I'm sure that it'd be possible for Becta to furnish their audience with this information, or at least the resources to make an informed decision, in a very short space of time.

There are a whole group of people that would love to hear from you, but thanks for saying what you've said, it's very timely.


  1. You might not be aware but BECTA has an on-going dialogue with the Open Source community (I am the point of contact) on these issues. There is a well-researched paper at that was presented to BECTA on May 31st spelling out how Open Source software is related to government policy and why there is a need for strategic leadership in these issues from the DfES. I will reiterate this to BECTA on behalf of the community using Colin Hurd's comments. Until senior civil servants make a real effort to understand what is happening in the global world of IT development they are going to make bad decisions. Entrenching themselves in the methods of the past is not setting a very good example with regard to management of change in what should be a forward looking approach to technology in education.