Principles underpinning the MoodleNet project

MoodleNet principles

Bryan Mathers has put together the above images to represent the six principles underpinning the MoodleNet project. We’ve gone back and added these fantastic illustrations to the previous posts we’ve published on each of these principles:

  1. Open
  2. Safe
  3. Private
  4. Ethical
  5. Transparent
  6. Connecte​d

This week, we’re in Barcelona for MoodleMoot Spain, where we’ll be using these images as part of presentation which we will share next week!

Principles underpinning Project MoodleNet: 6. ‘Connected’

Connected (CC BY-ND Bryan Mathers)

The principles underpinning Project MoodleNet are:

  1. Open
  2. Safe
  3. Private
  4. Ethical
  5. Transparent
  6. Connecte​d

But what do these mean in practice? In this sixth (and final) in a series of posts, we explore what ‘connected’ means as regards this project.

Project MoodleNet is described by Martin Dougiamas, CEO of Moodle as, “a new open social media platform for educators, focused on professional development and open content”. Therefore, when we talk about one of the principles underpinning the project being ‘connected’ it is obvious that we are connecting people with people. We have grown used to these platforms over the last decade, discussing a whole range of things on social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

What is different about Project MoodleNet is that it will have an explicit focus on educators, connecting them together to share openly-licensed resources and provide professional development.  We will design the system to respond to their needs, ensuring that they are not limited by the constraints of more generic social networks, and can help shape its future direction.

When we connect with other people, we are connecting as something or someone: perhaps a daughter, a husband, or a teacher. In the Project MoodleNet white paper we explore the ways in which identity plays an important role online as well as offline, so we want to ensure that when an educator uses Project MoodleNet, they have a choice of how to portray themselves. We will experiment with a number of ways of doing this.

In addition to connecting people to people, Project MoodleNet will also connect people with resources, news, and members of our partner network. We will provide a lightweight, contextually-focused dashboard which can be curated by users to provide, amongst other things:

  • Up-to-date information about openly-licensed content they may be interested in
  • Questions from the community that they may be able to answer (and answers in which they may be interested)
  • News from accounts they have chosen to follow

In an age of algorithmic curation and fake news, we want to empower educators to quickly and easily ‘tune their feeds’ in ways that help them teach and help others learn.

Project MoodleNet will be API-based. In layperson’s terms that means ‘Application Programming Interface’ and is a “set of subroutine definitions, protocols, and tools for building application software” (Wikipedia). They are a powerful way of building applications and services:

“On the Web, APIs make it possible for big services like Google Maps or Facebook to let other apps “piggyback” on their offerings. Think about the way Yelp, for instance, displays nearby restaurants on a Google Map in its app, or the way some video games now let players chat, post high scores and invite friends to play via Facebook, right there in the middle of a game.


APIs simplify [things] by limiting outside program access to a specific set of features—often enough, requests for data of one sort or another. Feel free to think of them as doors, windows or levers if you like. Whatever the metaphor, APIs clearly define exactly how a program will interact with the rest of the software world—saving time, resources and potentially nasty legal entanglements along the way.” (ReadWrite)

It will be simple and straightforward for users to both put information into Project MoodleNet, and to get it out. We will be building upon open standards and protocols, and using well-documented APIs to make this seamless. Moving between different elements of Project MoodleNet, for example search, user profiles, the OER repository, help forum, and crowdfunding area, will be seamless due to the APIs we both use and write.

Moodle’s learning platform uses APIs provided by Google Drive, Dropbox, and Microsoft OneDrive so that users can bring in files they have stored on those services. In turn, Moodle provides a number of APIs meaning that there are thousands of plugins available to extend the learning platform’s core functionality. Well-documented, open APIs encourage greater connection between people, resources, and other web services, so Project MoodleNet will build upon these.

By connecting users with other users, by connecting them with openly-licensed content, and by leveraging the power of APIs, Project MoodleNet will, we believe, empower educators to improve our world.

Principles underpinning Project MoodleNet: 5. ‘Transparent’

Transparent (CC BY-ND Bryan Mathers)

The principles underpinning Project MoodleNet are:

  1. Open
  2. Safe
  3. Private
  4. Ethical
  5. Transparent
  6. Connecte​d

But what do these mean in practice? In this fifth of a series of posts, we explore what ‘transparent’ means as regards this project.

Whether in the media or in our own organisations, we’ve all experienced calls for ‘greater transparency’. This is usually an encouragement for those with the necessary power to increase the frequency or quality of communication with those to whom they’re accountable.

As Wikipedia puts it:

“Transparency is operating in such a way that it is easy for others to see what actions are performed. It has been defined simply as “the perceived quality of intentionally shared information from a sender”.”

In the first post of this series on the principle of openness, we explored open as an ‘attitude’. When it comes to the transparency of Project MoodleNet, this involves two factors:

  1. Sharing information about the status and decision-making of the project while it is being built
  2. Being open and honest with users about the ways their data is being used once the project is up-and-running

Right now, we’re being as open and transparent as possible about the project as it’s being scoped out. There are some things (for example project risks) which we may choose to limit to Moodle HQ, but we are defaulting to sharing everything as quickly and openly as possible.

The canonical URL for this project is By this we mean that this is the project’s home, and that you should be able to navigate to every part of it from that link. In addition, we are endeavouring to make this project as ‘legible’ as possible, in the sense that we want it to be easy to keep up-to-date with progress. There are a number of ways of doing this, including this blog, a Telegram channel, and a discussion forum, all linked to from the web address given above.

Ultimately, the success of Project MoodleNet depends on Moodle’s competitive advantage around working closely with partners and community members in an open, transparent trusted way. We are confident that doing so will build trust and increase the chances of project success.

Principles underpinning Project MoodleNet: 4. ‘Ethical’

Ethical (CC BY-ND Bryan Mathers)

The principles underpinning Project MoodleNet are:

  1. Open
  2. Safe
  3. Private
  4. Ethical
  5. Transparent
  6. Connecte​d

But what do these mean in practice? In this fourth of a series of posts, we explore what ‘ethical’ means as regards this project.

Ethics is the study of right and wrong conduct. It follows, then, that an individual or organisation being ‘ethical’ is acting in the right way. We might say that we use an ethical bank, or food store, or that we’re being ethical by not eating animals.

Some ethics are contested, while others are more universal. Killing other human beings seems to be something most cultures frown upon, while a code of behaviour stemming from religious beliefs might vary significantly from place to place and group to group.

With Project MoodleNet, by ‘ethical’ we mean that we respect users and put their interests first. This aligns with Moodle’s mission to empower educators to improve our world. It’s a principle that underpins everything we do, from open-sourcing our code, to working in the most transparent way possible.

Sometimes it is easier to see what is meant by a term or position by considering its opposite. What would it mean to be unethical with this kind of project? How would users respond in that scenario? Perhaps users would be:

  • unsure about how their data was being used
  • unclear about the terms and conditions by which they are bound
  • untrusting of the organisation behind the project

Moodle is a trusted partner for organisations and individuals worldwide. This partnership is sometimes formal, for example through our partner network or much less formal in that we are a brand that educators trust with their student data.

As outlined in the post about privacy, with Project MoodleNet we will seek to hold and process on the data required to provide the service that users have requested. We will make it clear what they are signing up for and why, and we will not ‘pivot’ towards a business model opposed to Moodle’s mission.

Being ethical is closely tied to reputation, and Moodle has an excellent one as the world’s most popular learning platform. We seek to build on that base with Project MoodleNet, and look forward to helping empowering educators long into the future.

Principles underpinning Project MoodleNet: 3. ‘Private’

Private (CC BY-ND Bryan Mathers)

The principles underpinning Project MoodleNet are:

  1. Open
  2. Safe
  3. Private
  4. Ethical
  5. Transparent
  6. Connecte​d

But what do these mean in practice? In this third of a series of posts, we explore what ‘privacy’ means as regards this project.

3. What ‘Private’ means in practice

User data is a valuable commodity to those who want to sell and market products. It is not a surprise, therefore, that advertising-fuelled companies such as Facebook and Google would want their users to share more of it.

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook is widely quoted as saying back in 2010 that “privacy is no longer the social norm”. Likewise, Eric Schmidt said in 2009 while Google’s Chief Executive that, “if you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

Privacy is important to society, even if people choose not to exercise that right. As Edward Snowden, activist and whistleblower, neatly puts it:

“Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.”

Privacy offline is different to privacy online, primarily because of the data trails we leave behind us. Tim Lott, until recently a columnist in The Guardian newspaper, summed up the difference that the internet makes:

“Unwittingly (as the internet was hardly a thing when I started) my entire life is now online; not a consequence I planned for. When I started journalism, you told a story and it was forgotten the next day. Now, those stories are immortal.”

What is true of journalism is true of everything we share publicly via social networks. It is all available to anyone who can use a search engine.

As the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) point out:

“[I]t doesn’t take much forethought to realize that there are countless privacy pitfalls in a world where a near-endless stream of personal bits is indiscriminately posted indefinitely stored and quietly collected and analyzed by marketers, identity thieves, and professional government snoops in America and abroad. The public controversies that have erupted to date — Facebook’s drastic terms of service changes and Google Buzz’s forced sharing of email contacts — are only the first snares in a rapidly growing thicket of social networking privacy issues.”

Privacy matters because it allows us to be autonomous individuals while protecting us from harm. It gives us space to try out new opinions and identities without fear of recrimination. We can think out loud.

Examples of this abound in courses created within instances of Moodle’s learning platform. Resources, thoughts, and ideas can be shared with and between learners, with the contents of those courses remaining private by default.

While any social network should have strong and robust options and safeguards around privacy, this is particularly important for Project MoodleNet. As stated in the white paper, we believe with Chris Poole that “complexity in identity is what defines our humanity.” Our online identities are not singular, nor are they simply a mirror of a unified self that we present offline.

With Project MoodleNet, therefore, we will collect only the personally identifying information that individuals wish to share, and which is necessary to provide the service. We will allow users to control multiple identities. We will not sell user data. Users will be given fine-grained controls over who can see personal data and information they have added to the system, and have the option to export and/or remove it under the terms of the GDPR.

Conversations and user activity within Project MoodleNet will be encrypted and assumed to be private unless it sharing it has been agreed by all those involved. We envisage most educators will wish to share their resources openly using an appropriate license, but we will also facilitate private sharing. Privacy, we believe, is a right, not a privilege.

As with safety, privacy has many elements, some of which are technical, and some of which are cultural. An example of the difference can be seen with Signal, the messaging app. It can prevent screenshots being taken of messages to improve user privacy. This does not prevent, however, copying and pasting, nor does it stop someone using a different device to a photo of those messages.

To sum up, unlike Facebook’s often wilful obfuscation and confusion around privacy controls over the last decade, Project MoodleNet will empower educators by giving them granular control over every aspect of their privacy settings. In doing this, we believe that they will be in a better position to connect with one another and improve our world.

Principles underpinning Project MoodleNet: 2. ‘Safe’

Safe (CC BY-ND Bryan Mathers)

The principles underpinning Project MoodleNet are:

  1. Open
  2. Safe
  3. Private
  4. Ethical
  5. Transparent
  6. Connecte​d

But what do these mean in practice? In this second of a series of posts, we explore what ‘safety’ means as regards this project.

2. What ‘Safe’ means in practice

The Oxford English Dictionary lists five definitions for ‘safe’:

  1. (predicative) Protected from or not exposed to danger or risk; not likely to be harmed or lost.
    1. Not likely to cause or lead to harm or injury; not involving danger or risk.
    2. (of a place) Affording security or protection.
  2. (derogatory) Cautious and unenterprising.
  3. Based on good reasons or evidence and not likely to be proved wrong.
  4. Uninjured; with no harm done.
  5. (informal) Excellent (used to express approval or enthusiasm)

The first, third, and fourth seem most applicable to Project MoodleNet.

In addition, Wikipedia lists three different types of safety:

  • Normative safety: “when a product or design meets applicable standards and practices for design and construction or manufacture, regardless of the product’s actual safety history.”
  • Substantive safety: “when the real-world safety history is favorable, whether or not standards are met.”
  • Perceived safety: “the users’ level of comfort and perception of risk, without consideration of standards or safety history.”

Like every organisation that operates in the EU, Moodle is subject to the new GDPR. So, the ‘normative’ safety practices to which Project MoodleNet must adhere are reasonably prescriptive. Over and above this, we will adopt practices to prevent users being exposed to malware, phishing, and other security risks.

As GDPR focuses mainly on user data, there remain ‘substantive’ and ‘perceived’ safety practices. These might include, for example, content moderation and privacy controls which users have come to expect from other platforms that they use. No realtime democratic social network used at scale can completely prevent danger, harm, and risk, but they can be designed to minimise, to the greatest extent possible, the impact of these three things.

Working towards some sub-principles for Project MoodleNet, then, by creating a ‘safe’ social network for educators we mean:

  1. Protecting user data in line with GDPR and other relevant legislation (including copyright).
  2. Minimising educators exposure to danger, harm, and risk.
  3. Basing technical and design decisions on good reasoning and evidence.

Moodle is open-source software used around the world in many different languages and contexts. We know from experience that what works in one country or community doesn’t work in another, which is why one of the core strengths of Moodle is the way it can be customised and tailored for every environment.

We will discuss ‘privacy’ in the next post in this series, but it’s worth saying here that an important element of safety within a social network involves users having granular control over who can see what is shared.  What is appropriate in one place may not appropriate in another, and this applies even to the way that user updates are displayed. A contribution to a comment thread that might seem innocuous and unproblematic could be understood very differently when displayed by itself without the surrounding context. Part of making users feel ‘safe’ is therefore ensuring that the original context is preserved.

Likewise, copyright legislation is often local in jurisdiction, but global in interpretation and impact. Given that a key component of Project MoodleNet is the sharing and re-use of open content, we must ensure that licensing information follows shared content around the system. This licensing must cascade to the remixed content, ensuring that it is properly licensed. For example, it should not be possible in Project MoodleNet to remix a work that is licensed Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives.

There are many elements to online safety, with there being a balance between:

  • The security of technical standards and protocols on which the system is based
  • The system itself
  • How users understand and use the system

Project MoodleNet will use established and well-documented standards and protocols that have proven to be robust and secure. We will build the system to respect user data, flagging up (for example in testing, prototype, and beta builds) when user data may be more at risk. Moodle will also engage in user education around best practices, building resources ourselves or directing users towards the best the web has to offer, such as Security Planner.

Ultimately, safety is an emergent property of a system, as it is made up of more than just its technical implementation. We will ensure, to the best of our ability, that the culture of Project MoodleNet is one that allows users to feel safe. There are numerous design decisions and iterations based on feedback to enable this to happen. By committing to Project MoodleNet being a safe place, Moodle is empowering educators to improve our world.

Principles underpinning Project MoodleNet: 1. ‘Open’

Open (CC BY-ND Bryan Mathers)

The principles underpinning Project MoodleNet are:

  1. Open
  2. Safe
  3. Private
  4. Ethical
  5. Transparent
  6. Connecte​d

But what do these mean in practice? In this first of a series of posts, we explore what ‘openness’ means as regards this project.

1. What ‘Open’ means in practice

There are many meanings of ‘open’. In fact, as the authors of a seminal article from 2016 entitled Fifty shades of open found, their witty title is almost true!

“Open” has been applied to a wide variety of words to create new terms, some of which make sense, and some not so much. When we started writing this essay, we thought our working title was simply amusing. But the working title became the actual title, as we found that there are at least 50 different terms in which the word “open” is used, encompassing nearly as many different criteria for openness.

The authors outline the following elements of openness:

  • Open means rights
  • Open means access
  • Open means use
  • Open means transparent
  • Open means participatory
  • Open means enabling openness
  • Open means philosophically aligned with open principles

One way to sum up all of this is to describe open as an attitude. As Clint Lalonde puts it:

Open is a  willingness to share, not only resources, but processes, ideas, thoughts, ways of thinking and operating. Open means working in spaces and places that are transparent and allow others to see what you are doing and how you are doing it, giving rise to opportunities for people who could help you to connect with you, jump in and offer that help. And where you can reciprocate and do the same.

We will discuss ‘transparency’ in a later post, but as Laura Hilliger notes, open is more than just providing people with tools:

Open is an attitude, not a set of processes and procedures. Holding on to it despite potential repercussions is an act of courage because most people hold on to the cultural and social norms they’re used to.

Moodle is an open source organisation that publishes code under the GPL, accessible on the open web via GitHub. Issues can be tracked, added, and commented upon via Moodle’s tracking system based on JIRA. Ideas for the development of new features come from Moodle’s partners, via the community forums, and from interacting with participants at regular MoodleMoots around the world.

By committing to openness with Project MoodleNet, we seek to build upon the ways of working that have helped Moodle’s learning platform become the world’s most popular. Our community and commitment to open source principles provide a competitive advantage in a world where others look to monetise user data at every opportunity.

Moodle exists to empower educators to improve our world. A key part of that is our open attitude, which we see as a magnet to attract educators who also believe that, together, we can build a better future. Project MoodleNet will allow educators to discuss, share, and work together to make that come true.

Image by Bryan Mathers used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license