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Sakai 2010 Conference: Impressions

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!

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