First, a bit of background: Sakai OAE has been a project for several years to develop a next generation learning management system. It started out as 3akai (pronounced [trwakai]) and then became just Sakai 3, but at some point it became clear that what was really needed was a system that was completely different than the current 2.x version of Sakai. So, Sakai re-envisioned 2.x to be called the Collaborative Learning Environment (CLE) and the next generation to be a completely separate product called Open Academic Environment (OAE). In addition, instead of taking the previous open community approach to development, it would be a “managed project”, run by the Sakai Foundation and several contributor schools [correction: in a comment below, Ian Dolphin, Executive Director of the Sakai Foundation, points out that it is the schools that run the managed project, while the Sakai Foundation provides infrastructure]. While I am grossly simplifying this whole process (there is more at http://www.sakaiproject.org/ and http://confluence.sakaiproject.org/) it boiled down to a few universities – New York University, Indiana University, University of Michigan, UC Berkeley, Georgia Tech, Cambridge University, and Charles Sturt University – which were part of the Steering Committee, guiding development, and the American Academy of Religion and rSmart joined them on the User Reference Group (URG), guiding the user experience efforts. These institutions had all contributed at least $200,000 or two full time employees to the project. I do not know the financial details, but it was clear that New York University was effectively the lead on this project, and they were running a pilot with real students.
The big news this summer at the Sakai Conference in Atlanta was that the University of Michigan and the University of Indiana had dropped out the project. This news got out before the conference, and it definitely put somewhat of a pall over the whole thing, but the others vowed to press ahead. Michigan and Indiana are massive universities and they brought a huge amount of momentum and expertise to the project. They still use CLE but the unspoken question on many people’s minds was whether or not they were going to ditch Sakai altogether. And ultimately, the big question was why they chose to quit on OAE … maybe they were going another direction, but maybe they just didn’t have confidence in the project. On the ground at the conference, I definitely got the feeling that many people at the conference (other than the ones working on OAE) were ignoring it, preferring to focus on CLE in discussions, because it was not even close to being a viable product. OAE had their sessions, but it did not seem that they were very different from the OAE sessions we saw last year in Los Angeles.
And then, earlier this month, David Ackerman, the Sakai Board Chair, posted a message to the Sakai Announcements list, informing the community that Charles Sturt University had dropped out, mainly because UCBerkeley had dropped out two weeks earlier. He reiterated the stability of the project, but proposed that a discussion take place on the general Open Forum list. Several people immediately jumped in and it quickly became clear that there was no shortage of bad feelings about the managed project, OAE. There are comments about technical details that imply that they project was doomed from the start, and people who tried to speak up were asked to remain quiet. There is finger-pointing about the the management style of the project. And there is even a link to a page at Indiana University detailing how they are considering other learning management system vendors. There is some optimism, but for the most part, there are many calls to bring the focus back to CLE.
I tried to be as much a part of the Sakai 3 effort as I could, participating in the months building a list of desired learning capabilities in conference calls and on a massive google spreadsheet. It was a great feeling, being part of an international effort by teachers and technical people, trying to point a direction for the future of instructional technology. We distilled these down to 7 design lenses which we were told would be the guiding principles of Sakai OAE. But the irony was that most of the people who worked on the lenses could not be part of the Sakai OAE, because our universities were not contributing money or people. No one was more hopeful about the future of Sakai in general, but it was just very frustrating that participation in the actual work was not possible. However, as the project unfolded, it became less clear that those design lenses, not to mention the learning capabilities we collected, were actually being referenced in the project. Granted, the whole idea of the managed project was to get the thing off the ground by not trying to satisfy every little request from what was now a very broad community. But to me, despite the beautiful user interface, OAE really couldn’t do anything but share documents. It was kind of difficult to understand how NYU, who was also one of the early adopters of Google Apps for Education, could justify pumping so much money into what looked like, well, googledocs. The ultimate irony for me was seeing a presentation in Atlanta touting the ability of OAE to embed a googledoc into a page. It was like, why?
But more importantly, OAE just didn’t have the ability to do what I want an LMS to do: assessment. Maybe I am not seeing this right because I teach a language, and my curriculum is not about higher level “collaboration” and “knowledge construction”. And maybe I have a backward idea of pedagogy which relies too much on lower level tasks like submitting evidence of being able to do stuff, rather than just know about it. But maybe not …. I think there is still a large portion of higher ed, not to mention K12, where turning in work by a deadline is a very important part of the curriculum. OAE had no calendar, and there was no way to set deadlines for submissions or relinquish control from a document that had been shared. There was always talk of filling this vast need, that was indeed one of the 7 design lenses, but it never really got off the ground. In fact, a working group was formed around improving the CLE tool Samigo, which was built here at Stanford, perhaps in recognition that many schools would be using it well into the future. In the spring of this year, as the 2012 Sakai Conference dates approached, Sam Peck got in touch with Teaching and Learning group with questions about assessment, and we briefly returned to some of the personas that had been created as part of the UX effort some time ago. I thought that we might possibly see some new work released in Atlanta, but as I sat in the audience at Sam Peck’s presentation, it became very clear that all he had was a bunch of slides talking about how tasks, assignments, grading, and unstructured feedback might lookin OAE. Not a beta, not a mockup, no wireframes, just some PowerPoint (or Keynote, I don’t know which). This, I thought, has to be at least one of the big reasons why Michigan and Indiana left. The project was going nowhere.
We have to admit that we live in very interesting times for instructional technology. The landscape is changing very quickly, and it is very challenging trying to keep up. Everyone, especially teachers, is looking forward to a day when technology can really change education, instead of just facilitate the mechanics of it. I still think that education, with all of its egalitarian goals, is well-suited to an open source/community component. By implication, I am saying that providers that have profit as their primary motive are not particularly suited to the education world. We have textbook publishers as our best, but not only, evidence of that. Hopefully Sakai will be able to weather this storm, but in any case, I am confident that as long as there are market forces like Blackboard, Desire2Learn, and Instructure, there will always be someone out there trying to do it for free, appealing to an open community to work together.