Monday, July 02, 2007

All aboard? Reflections on the 7th Sakai conference, Amsterdam

Note: This article was originally posted in the Connect section on the Educause Web site, at: 
However, this address has since become inaccessible, so the post has been reproduced here as an archive with the same date and approximately the same time.

Oxford made a decision in Autumn 2006 to migrate to the Sakai VLE with the announcement of the Tetra collaboration. Since the completion of the academic year, we've been able to focus more on the task in hand. For myself, I decided the best way to quickly gain a feel for Sakai was to attend a Sakai gathering and conveniently the 7th Sakai Conference was recently held in Amsterdam, the first time the conference had been held outside the United States. I was primarily interested in sessions that addressed system migration, deployment and support, but also keen to hear about pedagogy and usability, leaving it to my colleagues to cover the more technical development aspects. I wanted to know what approaches were adopted to move to Sakai: organisation, resources, timescales, etc.

So was it a case of all aboard...?

Silver Shadow in port at Amsterdam

Above is the luxury cruise liner, Silver Shadow, which was waiting for passengers to board. It was right next to the Moevenpick Hotel, the conference venue. In fact, it's designed to accommodate a little under 400 guests, about the number of participants at the conference, which rather suggests a dream future venue ... :-)

It's taken two or three weeks for my impressions to settle - I found the three days of the conference quite intense and took copious notes. I can say straightaway, however, that I felt there was generally a good sense of community, with a very constructive outlook across the various constituent communities, ranging from development through to pedagogy and research. Sessions were usually informative and presented well; there was a real sense of purpose and commitment It was consistent with what I've observed on the Tetra developers mailing list: although I'm not been involved in any Java coding myself, I have been seen how the Sakai developers have provided very helpful responses to the various queries raised by Bodington developers seeking to incorporate key functionality in Sakai. Furthermore, when some of these ideas were presented by my colleagues, Adam and Matthew, in their presentation on importing Bodington tool, they were greeted very positively - there is a willingness to learn. So I broadly concur with the encouraging sentiments expressed by Michael Feldsteain in his 'State of the Union' blog post.

There remain many questionmarks as expressed Ian Reid, whose responses were not so rosy: in wrapping it up, he perceived a number of weaknesses and for him fundamental questions remained unanswered. I can at least answer his first point about the product: there are certainly large scale deployments - e.g. at Indiana and Michigan. Further, many of the other points, such as the technical bias, are well known and as far as I can tell they are being actively addressed.

I have quite a number of concerns myself and among my colleagues may be the one who is most reluctant to migrate from our present WebLearn, based on Bodington, perhaps largely because I have spent so much time with it and naturally can get attached. My first query is what kind of system is Sakai? Is it largely an open source replacement for Blackboard or WebCT? At the culmination of the procurement process at Oxford in 2001/2002, we were left with a head-to-head between Blackboard and Bodington. There was a free vote and Bodington won very easily, largely because Bodington offered flexibility: in the use of terminology, in how it allowed areas to be set up, in who could do what in these areas, and in how users could navigate freely around the system. One could use it to augment existing teaching or research arrangements with little effort. WebLearn has subsequently grown organically - from the handful of resources in December 2002 to its present state of about 60,000 resources manually created and managed by thousands of users (staff and students) in the various colleges and departments. At the same time, Bodington also has many weaknesses - it's rather long in the tooth and has often been described as "clunky" - many of the tools are looking very dated and making changes can be very laborious.

Sakai was felt to be the most promising way forward, but as it stands there are serious limitations in its design. The name of Michigan's deployment itself hints at one of these 'CTools,' rather indicating a technical focus: indeed much of the talk at the conference was 'tools' oriented, but during the past year or two, in WebLearn, we've deliberately tried to move away from 'how does tool X work' to 'how to carry out activity Y [using the tools available]' with a recent project looking at activity-based use cases for WebLearn. Also, the course subscription model in Sakai will not be not sufficient (in theory, Oxford's undergraduates are at liberty to attend any lecture at the University); the role-based access control is more coarse-grained (in fact, Bodington doesn't have any fixed roles - they can be defined via group memberships), and the overall organisation of materials lacks hierachy. There are many other smaller issues - e.g. what about those horrible Sakai URLs?

There are many concerns, but there is reassuringly intense activity to address them and this is leading to mutual enrichment. So, a lot of discussion has flowed on the topic of groups; a new hierarchy service for Sakai might have a name component that will enable nice URLs etc. I also saw some good examples of how requirements are driving the development; how development goes through a proper processes of evaluation and many other encouraging signs, such as the use of the term of Collaborative Learning Environment (CLE), getting away from the systems-oriented language.

So, largely reassured, at this stage my biggest concern is more in terms of timescales and resources regarding a full deployment of Sakai: it's a question of when than if. Looking around, it seems fitting then to note Stanford's announcement on 21 June:

After a year-long pilot, Sakai went into full production at Stanford today, fully replacing our legacy home-grown system. We've taken a long, careful path toward deployment to assure a seamless transition to the new system. It is localized, integrated and well tested, and today we flipped the switch. This is a big achievement for us, fulfilling the commitment we made to ourselves, and to our collaborators at Indiana, Michigan and MIT three years ago when we started this project.

So it can be done, but a long road lies ahead and if we are to achieve this at Oxford for everyone's benefit, we really shall need all aboard!

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