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Archive for June, 2010

Sakai 2 and/or 3?

Posted in Teaching, Technology on June 22nd, 2010 by darcusb – 3 Comments

My institution is entering the Sakai community at a time that is both awkward and exciting. Sakai is now a two-product world. Sakai 2 is well-developed and stable: the LMS we have now. Sakai 3, on the other hand, is the emergent next-generation LMS: incredibly promising, but not yet ready for wide-scale deployment.

Given our roadmap to transition over the next year or so and have Sakai fully deployed in the Fall of 2011, the obvious question all of us that attended the Sakai 2010 conference were asking was: should we just look to jump straight to 3? Ultimately, after all the discussions, we ended up with about four different possibilities:

  1. do Sakai 2, and effectively ignore Sakai 3
  2. do Sakai 3, and ignore Sakai 2
  3. run Sakai 3 for the nice new social-networking features to act as a kind of portal with Facebook-like features, but run Sakai 2 in “hybrid mode” for the more traditional LMS functionality that may not be ready when we need it
  4. similar to the above, but run the two instances completely separately
Each approach has its trade-offs. The first ensures a longer transition to Sakai 3, where I think many of our faculty and students would really like to at least experiment with it ASAP. It would also insure another, somewhat abrupt, transition. The second is probably not realistic in our time-frame; some LMS functionality that some faculty will need will likely not be ready by Fall of 2011.

I got the feeling that our group was more attracted to the last two options, both of which would present faculty and students with the new face and the unique features of Sakai 3, and allow a more incremental and seamless transition to the next-generation LMS functionality as it became available. I also personally gathered that the ultimate decision will have to come down to facts on the ground, as they evolve. In short, we probably ought to concentrate on Sakai 2 now, but monitor the progress of Sakai 3. If the project moves at the pace projected in the roadmap then running 2 and 3 together in hybrid mode may well be a viable option. If not, running them separately initially might make more sense.

Another related important question will be what we use for portal functionality. Sakai 3 could hypothetically serve as a nice, flexible, portal interface. It is substantially more ambitious than the traditional LMS model. Certainly some of our people were thinking about this idea. And other institutions have as well. UC Berkeley, for example, is deploying Sakai 3 as its portal system for the coming Fall. But such a move at my campus would likely require a rethink of what our portal functionality should provide, and unlike Berkeley, we already have a portal constituency on campus. So I can imagine some political challenges as well.

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Sakai 2010 Conference: Impressions

Posted in Teaching, Technology on June 18th, 2010 by darcusb – Comments Off

Having just recently been involved in Miami’s decision to move from Blackboard to Sakai, I was asked to attend the annual Sakai conference along with our some of our IT and instructional design staff. I just got back last night. Here’s some thoughts and impressions.

For some background, I’m an academic whose focus has nothing to do with technology. Nevertheless, I have years of experience in working with open source communities on issues related to academic (mostly research) authoring (see, for example, my work on CSL, which is an outgrowth of work for OpenOffice). But because this work is not central to my academic position, I have tended to avoid investing cash and time resources in attending related technology conferences. With Sakai, though, it’s a little easier to justify my involvement, since it has direct impact on my teaching, and on the broader teaching and learning community at my institution. Aside from a talk I gave at a Code4Lib conference a few years ago, then, this is my first edu technology conference.

So what did I think in a nutshell? I was deeply impressed. The Sakai community is diverse, smart, passionate, and energetic. The sense of mission the community has is almost palpable. It is clear that there is a lot of deep thinking that happens in this world, and that there is a lot of discussion and community engagement around that. At the same time, this seems to be a quite pragmatic community as well. They know what they want to do, and they seem to know how to get there.

In particular, my respect for the Sakai 3 effort continues to grow. Before we made the decision to go with Sakai, I had already spent a lot of time looking at the project: downloading and running the current code, looking at the technical design, reading through the more user-oriented design documents, and talking to the Sakai product manager (Clay Fenlason) about the process by which they were realizing this ambitious vision for a next-generation LMS and collaboration system. So I was already really impressed with Sakai 3 before the conference. But at the conference, you can see how all this works is materialized.

I watched a demo of the NYU pilot project (see, for example, this session description), for example, that will be going live in the coming months. Because the lead Sakai 3 UI designer was in the room as well, we could have a collective discussion about details of the work, both now and in the future. What became clear in these and other discussion is that there are some really sharp people working on this project. At no time did a question come up where I got the impression that these people had anything but an absolutely clear focus on what they were doing.

I also went to a session that explained all the work and thinking behind this diagram.

Sakai 3

This diagram represents a year of intense work of pedagogical experts from around the world, trying to imagine (and re-imagine) the core principles that should drive the design of a next-generation LMS. The idea is that nothing concrete moves forward with Sakai 3 without justification in these principles.

Here’s an image from the session:

Sakai design lens discussion

The session drew broad participation. It wasn’t just instructional designers or pedagogy people in the room. The guy you see in the right foreground with the dark blue shirt is Clay, the product manager. There were also a number of programmers in the room involved in the discussion as well. This is really good to see, as there are sometimes obvious disconnects between more user-focused design people, and programmers. There were even a number of faculty participating in the session as well. This is what the Sakai world means when they say that Sakai is by educators for educators.

I was also struck that the design principles noted above, and the way that Sakai 3 is proceeding more concretely, is fully consistent with the educational mission of Miami. This is software that should beautifully enable more student-centered, integrative, learning and research collaboration in ways that are simply not possible in current generation LMSs. So my hope is that my institution fully embraces these possibilities, and contributes what it can to realizing them. Now is the time to think big!

Bye Bye Blackboard, Hello Sakai

Posted in Teaching, Technology on June 2nd, 2010 by darcusb – 4 Comments

Last week, I was part of a meeting that decided on a recommendation for Miami University’s LMS transition over the next year or so. We ultimately chose among four options:

  1. Blackboard 9 (stay with Blackboard, but move to next version)
  2. Desire2Learn
  3. Moodle
  4. Sakai
Interestingly, there was very little support, if any, for continuing with Blackboard. There’s just been too much frustration with both the software and the company. It’s hard to justify spending so much money on such a mediocre solution, particularly given current budget issues.

Our ultimate choice was Sakai. I can’t say exactly what it was that ultimately organized the consensus around the choice, but my own argument in the meeting was roughly as follows:

  1. all of the current LMSs are more alike than not
  2. the open source options (both Moodle and Sakai) give the institution greater control over our own destiny going forward, with more options for support, for influencing the direction of the software, and for deciding when we want to transition to new versions
  3. Sakai in particular has a really smart forward-looking roadmap in v3 which is shaped by the right, pedagogically-oriented, vision

For me personally the plans for Sakai 3 were a primary differentiator. The tight coupling of a new architecture placed at the service of a shiny new interface that is easy-to-use and flexible, and which is designed based on user-testing from the beginning, is, I think, the right direction. The widget and template-based approach has the potential to make it easier and quicker for new users to get going. The devil will be in the details of exactly how well they implement these ideas, but I am looking forward to seeing how Sakai 3 evolves.

Now the real work will start for the IT staff here. They’ll have to figure out the best way to transition course content from Blackboard, to train faculty and students in how to best make use of Sakai, and set up some kind of governance structure to manage our relationship with this new technology. I’m hoping this can include some mechanism to get IT services staff and interested faculty involved in the Sakai community, and contributing in different ways to its future evolution.