Sakai and the Four Cs of Open Source
The 2003 Campus Computing Survey reveals that about one-third of all college
courses make some use of a CMS, up from 15 percent in 2000. Equally significant
in tracking the rise of CMS: fully four-fifths (82 percent) of the colleges
and universities participating in the 2003 Campus Computing Survey report that
their institution has established a “single product standard” for
the campus CMS—typically Blackboard or WebCT.
CMS emerged in response to an institutional need: how do we “make it
easy” for faculty to use the Web in instruction? While CMS may not be
the mythical “killer app” of the Internet, CMS products—from
Blackboard, eCollege, WebCT and other providers—have certainly become
an integral component of campus IT offerings.
In the language of business school profs, CMS looks like a mature market with
immature products. From the market side, more than 80 percent of the potential
buyers—in this case colleges and universities—have made a commitment
to a single product standard. But the products are young, the product category
less than a decade old. Consequently, it is not surprising, given the relative
youth of the product category and the corporate providers, that campus conversations,
chat rooms, and articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education document concerns
about upgrades software bugs, and, of course, the rising cost of the CMS license.
Enter The Sakai Project. On 22 January 2004, four universities—Indiana,
Michigan, MIT, and Stanford—announced the Sakai Project (www.sakaiproject.org).
Sakai’s goal: to develop and distribute a “complete course management
system that incorporates the best features of the participants’ existing
systems and experiences.” The project received seed funding by way of
a $2.4 million grant from the Mellon Foundation. Additionally, the four founding
institutions “will contribute services worth at least an additional $4
million over the next two years.”
Eighteen days later, on February 9th, Sakai announced a $300K grant from the
Hewlett Foundation to create the Sakai Educational Partner’s Program (SEEP).
The SEEP “will provide the staff and services to ensure a long-term community
for sustaining and evolving Sakai-based software.” Eighteen research universities
plus one community college district signed on as founding SEEP partners. Each
founding partner has made a three year/$30K commitment to Sakai.
My old math says that the two Sakai announcements represent $7.27 million
in academic venture capital for the development of an Open Source CMS that is
intended to be “better” than current or future commercial products.
My market math says that these 23 institutions—four founders and 19 founding
partners—intend to change the structure of the campus CMS market.
What drives Sakai? Four factors appear to fuel the Open Source CMS activity—indeed
the Open Source movement—in higher education.
The first factor is code. Implicit in the Sakai announcement is a statement
from the founders that “we can do it better”—provide better
code, better product, and better services than currently provided by commercial
Second is the control factor. The 23 Sakai founder and partner institutions,
along with many other colleges and universities, want control over CMS, as well
as the accompanying and supplemental applications. In this context, control
can be interpreted in two ways: first, product control over the development
and direction of CMS products and resources, including the increasing important
CMS “supplements” such as assessment modules and ePortfolio functionality;
and second, local control that permits the institutions to customize the core
Cash is the significant third factor in the campus conversation about Open
Source. Not surprisingly, the rising cost of CMS licenses is a major concern
for many institutions. While an Open Source CMS may not be truly free, the annual
$10K campus commitment from the SEEK partners is probably significantly less
than their current CMS license fee. In this context, an Open Source CMS reflects
a response to the mantra of college presidents in times of financial duress:
do more with less, and do it better.
Finally there is community. Higher education really d'es view itself as a
community. Colleges and universities share information and collaborate on projects
in ways are unimaginable in the corporate sector. Sakai is another example of
collaboration as community, collaboration that has been integral to the development
and success of the Internet, Internet2, and other technology-based initiatives.
Will Sakai succeed? And what’s the appropriate measure of success: 50
or 500 institutions adopting Sakai as their official campus CMS?
As I indicated in my January Digital Tweed column (“The Penguins Are
Coming”), I remain an agnostic about Open Source: I don’t know if
it can make the leap from specific, discrete “back-room” applications
(think Apache server software) to complex, applications intended for those of
us who do not have computer science degrees.
Moreover, I strongly agree with Annie Stunden, CIO at the University of Wisconsin,
who accurately articulates a large part of the agnostic’s dilemma. Writing
in the November 2003 EDUCAUSE Review, Stunden expresses concern that the campus
community has yet to develop an effective model to support shared Open Source
solutions: “We need to develop creative, collaborative solutions to the
dilemma of maintenance and support in our shared software development initiatives.”
The “code it and they will come” strategy is not an effective dissemination
Although I’ve identified four C factors as drivers for the Sakai and
Open Source movement, I wonder if there may be a fifth: confidence. Perhaps
a key measure of success for if and when Open Source moves from the back room
to the desktop is confidence in Open Source—among both IT leaders and
Good code—as well as user confidence—take time to develop. Consequently,
patience, feedback, and user support are key factors that will determine if,
when, and how Open Source migrates from back room services to complex user applications.