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Sakai 3: Mix-and-Match Tools

Earlier, I covered some interesting new characteristics of Sakai 3, but want here to add another. Existing LMSes are hamstrung by a number of assumptions and limitations. To sum them up, today’s LMS tends to be both course-centric and tool-centric. If, for example, students that share two or three related courses want to setup a group, they can’t do it; the LMS assumes students are part of courses (or in some cases, non-course sites). Similarly, the LMS experience is constrained by a focus on discrete tools. If you want students to reflect on some ideas, and then host a discussion on them, you need them to go to two separate places: some webpage-like thing that describes the ideas, and then a separate forum where the discussion may happen. If the student wants to refer back-and-forth between the two areas, they need to do awkward things like open two windows or tabs, or do the browser back-and-forward button thing. This is a totally artificial limitation that has real consequences.

Thankfully, Sakai 3 does away with these limitations. Groups, for example, may exist independently of course and sites, and so will allow more flexible sorts of online sociability and collaboration among students, researchers, and so forth. On the tools front, Sakai 3 breaks down the walls that have previously divided them. If you want to host a discussion on some content, you can simply create your page, add the content, and then at the bottom of the page add a “discussion” widget. Upon doing so, a discussion thread will be available at the bottom of the page for students to view and contribute to.

The current UI has widgets for a variety of common features: polls (complete with a nice instant-view graph of the results), comments, quizzes, etc. But it also has some clever new ones, such as a Google Maps widget that allows you to embed a live Google Map (though as I geographer, I have to say that I’d really like to see more here, like the ability to ask for a country, and have it understand what I mean; this might be more a limitation of Google Maps though).

Here’s an example of what this looks like with the polling widget. First, we decide to add a poll to our page. We go to the “insert more” drop-down on the right side of our editor …

the insert more drop-down

Once we select “poll” we get a dialog to set it up.

widget configuration

Note that this dialog pops up in place; no need to go to some separate page to manage this. Once we have it all ready and click “insert widget”, and save the page, we then see this, which is also what students will see …

poll widget student widget

When a student comes across this, again, they don’t have to go to some separate place to take the poll; they simply click their choice in place. Even more cool, once they’re done, the live widget presents the results of the survey in a graph view.

poll widget results

In turn, this graph will continuously update as other students take the poll!

A couple of months ago, Lance Speelmon at Indiana University presented a demo of this at a Sakai conference in Japan. You can see that starting at about the 23 minute mark or so of this video:

So let’s pause for a second and ponder the implications of this: I will be able to create a page for some topic in a class. I can add some text to present the issues for the topic and link to some background readings. I can then embed any other widget I want right there in the page! Bigger picture, this widget architecture is designed to be easy to work with for developers. So if I have some idea for a great new widget, any on-campus developer with basic web development skills could hypothetically help me create that widget.

When I started pondering what I want in a next-generation LMS, this is exactly the sort of thing I was imagining!

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