More Than Open Source: A Second Look at Sakai

Sure you have been hearing about Sakai, the open source collaboration and learning environment, but you've probably also heard that campuses that have implemented Sakai have huge IT budget and lots of staff. So you haven't tried it yet, and you wonder why you should. Why go through the hassle and expense? After all, it's just an "open-source" version of the CMS you already use, right?


Because it often gets the most press for being "open source" software, you may not know that Sakai has unique features--many not found in other course management systems--that have attracted schools all over the world, from small liberal arts colleges to large Ivy League institutions to online universities--campuses with and without enormous IT resources. And one or more of these unique features may solve a particular problem on your campus.

So when you consider Sakai with your colleagues, it may be best to examine both the advantages of open source and the unique features the Sakai community has fostered in this remarkable collaboration and learning environment. Below are just a few of the reasons to take another look at Sakai--everything from features you may not know about; to the truth about the resources it takes to run an open source course management system; to information about the benefits of the way Sakai is built and governed.

Collaborative Tools
Sakai has all the course management system functionality you expect and need. But one of Sakai's most powerful features is its ability to offer group collaboration sites--so easy to set up you can let faculty serve themselves. On many campuses, collaboration sites have taken off like wildfire and have become so popular with faculty and students that they increase adoption rates and decrease resistance to course management system change. Collaboration sites can be used by researchers who need to work with their colleagues around the world, faculty engaged in governance committee work, and students working with study groups or activity clubs.

Integrated Portfolios
Sakai also offers a deep and robust suite of portfolio tools that enable students and faculty to create portfolios of their best work in the same place they do the majority of their work--their collaboration and learning environment. Students creating learning portfolios in Sakai's integrated environment feel like they are engaged in an organic process rather than just another assignment or checklist. For faculty and administrators, Sakai's portfolio suite also doubles as a powerful assessment tool--from student learning, to program assessment, to accreditation. Universities have also found other uses for Sakai's portfolio suite, including faculty promotion and tenure portfolios and student advising systems.

Diverse Features
In addition, Sakai's list of features includes a number of tools not available in other systems. Sakai has wiki and blog functionality within the secure environment of the collaboration and learning environment, thus protecting student privacy while incorporating cutting-edge tools. Sakai is leading the way in integrating library database content inside the collaboration and learning environment, increasing ease of student access to peer-reviewed sources. Sakai includes a tool for graduate students, their advisors, and their departments to track progress. Unlike systems brought to you by remote coding teams, Sakai tools are designed by educators for educators: for example, the Sakai assignment tool enables instructors to grade and comment within a student assignment without downloading it, and at the same time keep an unmarked copy of the assignment for the student to revise. And since Sakai is open source and uses open standards, tools external to Sakai can be integrated: tools like TurnItIn, the plagiarism detection service; TILE, The Inclusive Learning Exchange that creates learning objects for various learning styles and abilities; and LAMS, the highly intuitive visual environment for creating sequences of learning activities; just to name a few. From podcasting and student evaluations to clickers and outcomes management, the list of tools you can use or add within Sakai continues to grow and diversify with new tools being added all the time.

Open Source Advantages
As open source software, Sakai brings several advantages to campuses that are considering it. In the wake of Blackboard's purchase of WebCT, Sakai emerges as an alternative for schools concerned about the risks of proprietary systems, including uncertain licensing costs, unresolved product roadmaps, and continued instability due to patent lawsuits. In today's technology landscape, open source applications are becoming a "safe haven" compared to the uncertainties and turmoil in the proprietary software marketplace.

Controlling Your Technology Destiny
A great advantage open/community source systems offer over commercial systems is the ability to have greater influence and control over the technologies that become essential components of your enterprise. Because these technologies are truly "open" and typically conform more closely to common standards, schools have the ability to modify, extend, and integrate them more easily than proprietary systems. Because schools can also take part in the governance of community source projects like Sakai and Open Source Portfolio (OSP), you can help set directions for their future development and use. Taking control of your technology destiny can let you disengage your future from vendor business plans, and the ultimate result can provide better tools and give more flexibility to meet your changing technology needs.

Building Experts vs. Buying Licenses
Choosing an open/community source software application over a proprietary commercial package does not guarantee cost savings. While the base cost for open/community source software is low, making this choice can require greater local technical resources. However, rather than spending money on commercial software licenses and support contracts, choosing an open/community source system can allow a school to redirect resources toward building in-house expertise. Building experts also enables a school to achieve their technology goals through practices that support their educational mission. Should a school need extra technical assistance, commercial vendors exist that offer reasonably priced support for open/community source systems. So there are a number of approaches you can take if you are interested in Sakai. Some schools choose to run Sakai locally, providing all their own staff, with no external support--either technically or for implementation. Other schools run Sakai locally and provide most of the staff, but purchase support externally--either just for implementation help or for ongoing technical assistance. Still other schools choose to have Sakai eternally hosted, outsourcing all technical and implementation staffing, hardware, etc.

Building Tools to Change Education
Even if your school outsources all technical tasks, you and your educators can still engage and help direct Sakai's future development and use. By using open/community source technology, schools gain even greater opportunities to help shape the tools they use to better support their educational and research programs. And your innovation--be it technical or pedagogical--can then be shared with the wider community, building your institution's reputation in practice and innovation.

Open Source...Community Source
For some, the words "open source" are as much a warning sign as a possible solution. Visions of anonymous coders working in foreign basements don't sit well in calculating your IT total cost of ownership. While still open source, Sakai builds on a "community source" model, supported by world-class institutions and governed by a board of directors at the non-profit Sakai Foundation. The current board includes nine representatives from educational institutions, both national and international--including Foothill College (CA), Indiana University, Stanford University (CA), University of California at Berkeley, University of Cambridge (UK), University of Hull (UK), University of Michigan, and University of Toronto (Canada)--as well as a representative from a Sakai commercial affiliate. With such diverse representation across types of colleges and institutions, Sakai's leadership guides the vibrant Sakai community in areas like managing contributions to future Sakai requirements, quality assurance, and tool and project coordination. As universities choose a course management system, it is a welcome change to have an option that is not only designed by fellow educators, but also governed by your peers.
As the governance of Sakai continues to mature, it prioritizes needs common to the entire Sakai community. Sakai has evolved from a coders' project to a full-fledged course management system that brings both innovation and a pedagogical orientation to the field. Recently, the Sakai board has turned its attention to improving the user experience in Sakai, with its ultimate goal being outstanding accessibility and "user delight."

Regardless of your IT budget or staff, you can adopt Sakai. There is a large community of pioneering faculty, instructional technologists, librarians, administrators, and developers ready to collaborate with you and your campus. And, there’s a growing group of Sakai commercial affiliates (see box) who can help you when you need it. So whether you have faculty who need a collaboration space, administrators who need an advising system, assessment professionals who need a suite of portfolio tools, or you just need a course management system, take another look at Sakai.

[Editor’s note: Wende Morgaine will moderate a panel on leading open source portfolio initiatives at Campus Technology 2007, July 30-August 2, in Washington DC.]

Vendor Support for Sakai
A number of vendors provide hosting, technical support, and implementation support for Sakai, including:

(the rSmart Sakai CLE)

The Longsight Group

The rSmart Group


SingleMind Consulting Inc.

(the rSmart Sakai CLE)

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