I was inspired to propose and deliver a session titled "Sakai vs the World Wide Web 2.0: To Facebook or Not to Facebook?" for the recent Sakai 2011 conference in Los Angeles by the question below. While I write specifically of higher education here, I think the same questions—and perhaps answers—might be applied to any educational level or sector.
How is Sakai—or any online platform supported by an educational institution—relevant in an environment full of compelling web activities that engage our everyday lives? Does Sakai matter in the Age of Facebook, and if yes, then why and how?
But before we answer that question, I think we must first ask another, more important question: how is education itself relevant, not only in the Age of Facebook, but in a time when the legitimacy and economics of the current educational paradigm are in crisis. Does college itself matter, and if yes, then why and how?
I will leave answers to the question of EDU's legitimacy to another day, and instead focus on the question of EDU's economics. How will your institution remain solvent (the minimum requirement for relevancy) in a time when public funding for education is dwindling, costs are rising, and competition for students and resources is increasing?
The common answer for many is a turn to online education: online classes are expected to attract new students, generate revenue, and reduce brick and mortar infrastructure costs. This answer suggests that Sakai—or some other LMS—will in fact save EDU from its economic crisis.
Yet I think online education as a solution to EDU economic woes is fast—if not already—becoming a hopelessly naive proposition.
In today's flatter marketplace of online education, will your institution's online offering really compete effectively in quality, brand, and/or price with the offerings of every other player, from the Ivy League to the for-profits to the disruptive web applications and open educational resources to the corporate training institutes? There's still some way to go, but the online education marketplace will likely be saturated before too long and if you think online education will save your bottom line, you'd best consider carefully how your institution will be a significant player among the early entrants, established brands, and bargain basements. If Harvard and the University of Phoenix both offered classes on your campus, how would your courses fare?
While a few select institutions may ride online education to success in this environment, most will see only moderate success with some programs. So, if online education will not save EDU, what will?
I believe that the bulk of institutions that will truly succeed going forward will not be those that win online, but on the contrary, those that do a good job establishing, maintaining, and conveying unique local experiences. Schools must reach inward to provide rich, meaningful, lasting, engaged experiences for their constituencies so people come, stay, and come back. Online, we call this "stickiness" and that will be EDU's new metric for success: how sticky are you?
Make sure you take into account all the ways your institution is sticky: Why do people come? What do they do when they get there? What connections criss-cross your institution from from the surrounding community? What kind of experiences does your institution offer that people seek out because the can't find them elsewhere?
If you don't understand and work to augment the basic qualities that make your institution sticky, offering online education is unlikely to resolve your economic pressures and ensure your relevance in the coming years.
So what roles do Sakai and online learning play in supporting the sticky institution?
First and foremost, online platforms must support and encourage the same local qualities and activities that make an institution sticky. Exactly opposite to the current tendency to try to offer generic "marketplace" courses, institutions should see their online platforms as a powerful channel to augment their truly local experience and convey that local experience outward through space and time.
In an age where any institution may offer a more compelling, convenient, or cost-effective experience than yours, use your online platform to extend your distinction, and provide a place where that distinction lives, first and foremost for your existing constituents. Once your "captive audience" is truly captivated, they will be your best channel to expand your reach.
Think of Sakai as you would your campus. Make it a place that people want to come to and stay, or at least a place where, if people have to be there, they have a pleasant and rewarding experience. Then take advantage of what an online platform can offer that a physical campus can not: 24/7 global access, personalization, analytics, different, powerful ways for connecting to people and information, and more.
At its most basic level, Sakai can provide the container to hold everything that makes your institution sticky. As a start, let people already stuck to you stay stuck: offer lifetime access and a home for people's online identities. Second, give them shelter: allow people to create their own experiences and unsupervised spaces in your online campus so they feel a sense of belonging and ownership. Third, make connections: help people make connections to the other people, information, and experiences at your institution that will give them compelling value. Last, but not least, give guidance: provide good signposts on the boundaries and inside of your online campus to help people find their way in and out, safely and securely.
Then, and only then, offer online courses: sticky courses in a sticky platform from a sticky institution.