Nearly 20 years ago, Aotearoa – and Catalyst – were at the forefront of an e-learning revolution. Now, with the creation of Te Pūkenga, we have the opportunity to be pioneers once again, writes Don Christie | Content Partnership
The world in 2003 was a different place.
Here in Aotearoa, the average wage was $34,600, and our population had just hit 4 million. Sixty percent of people had internet connections at home, but only eight percent of our businesses were online. Email accounts were provided by your ISP or work, and creating web content was the realm of a far more select, technically-adept few.
The tertiary education sector was going through digital growing pains. In 2003, it was only universities using e-learning tools to support online student learning. Vocational education – administered by 19 polytechs, 41 industry training organisations, 266 private training enterprises, and three wānanga – did not have the budget to invest in early builds of Blackboard and WebCT. They were expensive – prohibitively so.
Seeing that the e-learning landscape in Aotearoa was slanting towards academia and away from our economic backbone of agricultural exports, the Government decided to test the waters and create the e-Learning Collaborative Development Fund (eCDF), which was designed to build e-learning capability in vocational education. Tertiary education on the whole was changing, and our vocational institutions had to change with it.
Like any good infrastructure project, a consortium was formed, with 20 education providers around the table. The New Zealand Open Source Virtual Learning Environment project focused on delivering open-source application software for education.
Catalyst – a bit younger and scrappier – was there, too. Our role was as delivery partner – the team in charge of technical rollout. The programme was managed by Richard Wyles, who, alongside Catalyst, went on to co-found Tōtara, a learning management system (LMS) focused on education in the workplace. As a group, we compared solutions, shared goals, addressed challenges, and chose the now-ubiquitous Moodle. We were the first company – and therefore country – to adopt Moodle at a large scale.
Moodle had launched its 1.0 build only the previous year, in August 2002. It began as a PhD project by Martin Dougiamas. who, having grown up in a remote area of Western Australia, gained his school education through shortwave radio. A free and open-source LMS, Moodle allows educators to set up online courses and build learning environments for students at any distance. With no costs attached, Moodle only requires a server and technical team to get up and running.
What did delivery look like? Once we were rolling, Catalyst built a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) – where the polytechs could sell their industry specialisations to other institutions. Otago Polytechnic could sell its winemaking course to the Eastern Institute of Technology, who would rebrand and offer it to students in Tairāwhiti. Moodle meant sharing knowledge, resources, and learning environments across the motu, and quickly, too.
The $34 million spent in 2003 (of which only a relatively small sum was earmarked for e-learning tools) was a springboard for online learning in New Zealand. Of the money spent, a large amount of capability went back into the core project, and from Moodle’s headquarters in Western Australia, back to the world. In the nearly two decades since then, Moodle has grown to accommodate more than 300 million users, and is the most widely used LMS worldwide.
For Catalyst, achieving scale was the next big challenge. In 2005, the Open University in the UK was looking to build a comprehensive, 21st century online learning environment. At this juncture, the largest, oldest practitioner of distance education in the world also chose Moodle to deliver its courses. Catalyst drew on its expertise in delivering e-learning to a projected 60,000 vocational education students in Aotearoa — to help the Open University roll out Moodle to 200,000 learners across an incredibly broad curriculum.
This work with the OU pushed the Moodle platform further than we could’ve imagined, and changed the e-learning landscape irrevocably. Around the world over the next few years, thousands of universities made the shift to open-source e-learning. In the early years, tech leader Intel worked with a dozen governments to help education departments in the UK, U.S, France, Portugal, and Israel build Moodle capability, and Catalyst was there to help them do it.
Globally, Catalyst became a company that took on blue chip clients. We’ve used the lessons we learned in New Zealand to deliver e-learning for Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), Cambridge University, and through Tōtara, helping UNICEF with learning capability and training in remote parts of the world. We’ve expanded our horizons from the early days of the eCDF into institutions larger than the entire vocational education sector in New Zealand. There are now hundreds of Catalyst clients using Moodle, supported by eight offices and five Catalyst businesses spanning Australia, Canada, the UK, and Europe.
The project which began in 2003 was an incredible success – not just for Moodle and Catalyst, but also as a result of well-placed government investment. The e-learning landscape is much more competitive now, but the payback from this investment just keeps building.
In 2022, New Zealand’s vocational education system is set to go through another massive transformation. When the Government announced that all 16 of our Institutes of Technology and Polytechnics would merge to form Te Pūkenga, the sheer size of the new institution gave some pause. Te Pūkenga represents a fresh challenge – to offer a smoothly integrated learning experience to more than a quarter of a million students.
Since 2003, we have repeatedly demonstrated the possibilities of open-source learning platforms – whether that means scaling to meet the demands of three million users in the Middle East or facilitating thousands of simultaneous examination submissions for universities in the UK. Open-source technology offers proven capability to meet that demand.
Two decades ago, Aotearoa – and Catalyst – were pioneers in e-learning, and we are still pioneers today. Moodle, Mahara and open-source technology has gone from strength to strength. Now with the formation of Te Pūkenga, we have the opportunity to pick up that mantle and again transform the digital learning environment in Aotearoa.
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