More? Or Less? Google CloudCourse

Google Cloud CourseAfter the announcement of Google’s CloudCourse being open-sourced, I decided to give it a try and see exactly what’s under the hood…at the very least, it would give me a chance to try out a Django app via Google App Engine, which alone is worth the time.

Long story short: I got CloudCourse up and running in a matter of minutes.

Any hullabaloo that CloudCourse as it stands now is a serious contender to existing full-featured online learning systems like Sakai, Moodle, Blackboard, or Desire2Learn is premature. CloudCourse is at its root a scheduling and rostering application, clearly designed for the internal training needs it was apparently developed to serve. No educational institution will be migrating from their current LMS to CloudCourse any time soon.

On the other hand, CloudCourse comes very close to serving a large chunk of the needs of commercial training: an application that enables various training opportunities to be scheduled, attendees to register, and attendance to be recorded. As long as training and assessment materials are developed and delivered externally, CloudCourse’s open source Django foundation would allow relatively easy integration with any remaining missing pieces, such as ecommerce integration, certification, etc. A small commercial training firm with some technical expertise or a larger firm with sizable internal training needs might pick up CloudCourse and extend it to their needs without huge effort.

The larger, subterranean story here is that with CloudCourse, Google adds one more (little) tool into its suite of not-yet-fully-integrated applications that together do indeed approximate—and in some cases far outstrip (eg, Google Wave)—current LMS capabilities. If Google decided to focus on this area and integrate its various offerings—probably not so much for profit as for mindshare—the capabilities they could offer at a price that would blow proprietary systems out of the water would radically transform the educational technology space.

People complain about Blackboard’s near monopoly now, but in a couple of years, Google could make Blackboard cease to matter—if Google decided to bother. Open source communities like Sakai and Moodle should also take heed: we offer deep value neither Google nor any of the proprietary LMS platforms offer, but where, when, and how do we add value in an environment where the cost of the educational technology infrastructure approaches zero?

For Google, one huge issue remains: how to gain trust in the storage and use of educational data. After all, we’re talking about our children here, and as any student of history knows, nothing is more sacred than our children.

Sakai 3’s Commonplace Destiny

I’ve recently been enjoying some (possibly) healthy, irreverent debate with colleagues at Blackboard and beyond about some of the differences between such proprietary regimes and the open-source community of Sakai. While the Twitter channel we’ve been using generates plenty of pithy ripostes, at times a tweet calls out for more sustained thought and response.

A recent tweet from @georgekroner—one of my favorite Blackboarders—set me thinking and led to some longer—if not deeper—reflections, likely to be far less entertaining than the short salvos in our ongoing snarkument on Twitter.

The tweet that set me off was George sharing his concern that Sakai 3’s planned capabilities might be “commonplace” by the time it is ready for widespread use.

I’m not entirely convinced George’s concern is for real, given that Sakai is one of the most significant challenges to Blackboard’s market dominance in learning technologies and it would seem any failure on Sakai’s part would be cause for celebration rather concern over at Blackboard. But maybe George is just the kind of guy who wishes the best for everyone. Or maybe it’s part of Blackboard’s continued posture that having a near monopoly in the proprietary market is fine as long as there is at least one viable open-source alternative like Sakai, even while Blackboard itself acts like open source can’t really compete.

But I’m not inspired here just to wipe away Blackboard’s crocodile tears. George’s tweet started me thinking: if he is right, and the kind of experience Sakai 3 will offer becomes commonplace, we should all celebrate rather than wring our hands.

If Sakai 3 ends up fitting within the broader scope of contemporary online experience, that means Sakai 3’s open, social, user-centered, integrative paradigm shares in broader understandings of what online experience should be—both within education and beyond. It wouldn’t just mean Sakai 3 “guessed right,” it would also mean a very healthy, widespread vision of what the web can and should be has won out. Far from a concern, I would count Sakai 3’s capabilities becoming “commonplace” as a major success, not only for Sakai, but for the web in general.

George was so kind as to provide some examples that illustrate his observation that technology is headed in the same general direction as Sakai 3. Here’s George’s short list:

The question I asked myself after reading George’s list is whether the widespread use of any of these tools (or others like them) would really make Sakai—or other integrated learning platforms—obsolete or unnecessary or uninteresting—in other words, “commonplace.” I and others have taken up this point before and in the end, I still land in the same place. I think educational institutions will want and need to supply a local platform that enables things like a common user experience, integration, authentication, identity management, and more. I would assume Blackboard also holds this view. At the same time, I agree with George’s thinking (but not his concern) that the best of these local platforms will follow Sakai 3’s model, and often integrate other tools, enable collaboration and social networking, open their APIs, be delivered via devices not yet invented, and so on. Last but not least, I still think the educational community itself is the best engine for the development of the tools specific to its core mission, like teaching, learning, and research.

In the first category from George’s list, Google’s Sidewiki stands alone as an example of what we might call an independent, “web 2.0” tool that provides some specific functionality that might be used in conjunction with a variety of other tools. There are way too many great examples of such tools to list here, from social bookmarking tools like Delicious to web conferencing tools like DimDim. I don’t think any of these tools alone could stand in for a full learning platform, but any might be used to extend a learning platform, or be cobbled together with a number of complementary tools to approximate an integrated learning platform (earlier, I attempted an instructive, but ultimately unsatisfying, experiment of this nature using Ning at EDU Next).

Sakai 3 will provide the perfect platform to integrate these kinds of tools, from user treats like Sidewiki all the way down the stack to important glue like Apache Jackrabbit. The community designing Sakai 3 is highly conscious of where the boundaries should be drawn: where Sakai should provide native functionality, where it should leverage already existing tools, and where it should leave things open for integration (ie, pretty much everywhere).

The second category in George’s list includes Atlassian’s Confluence wiki and Jive’s social business suite (headquartered right here in our own PDX!). Both are examples of more fulsome systems designed primarily for business that one might see as approximating the capabilities of a learning platform (along with similar examples like Microsoft Sharepoint). Yet one crucial difference separates these business systems from learning platforms like Sakai, Moodle, Desire2Learn, a host of others, and—one would hope, Blackboard itself: namely, none of these systems is designed primarily for education.

One could argue (and I would agree) that education is a lifelong process and that all these systems are tending toward worthy common practices to support it that incorporate capabilities such as user-centered experience, collaboration, integrative mash-ups, and social networking. However in the Sakai community, we believe strongly that our work benefits from our clear, primary focus on education. It may be that from Blackboard’s proprietary, corporate viewpoint, it is harder to tell the difference between their products and these systems designed primarily for business use. We don’t have that concern about our work within Sakai.

The last category in George’s examples is represented by OpenSocial. Not just a tool or platform, OpenSocial represents a more general technology, standard or protocol which any or all of the other examples above might incorporate. We expect to see Sakai 3 integrate OpenSocial along with other such standards and protocols that make sense, just as we have seen in Sakai 2. Examples would include other parts of the open stack (eg, OpenID, OAuth, PoCo, etc), JSR, IMS, and others too. The existence of something like OpenSocial doesn’t obviate the value of an integrated, open source learning platform like Sakai, built by education, for education, any more than it suggests the obsolescence of a proprietary system like Blackboard. Quite the opposite: Sakai’s open platform and community provide an ideal use case for technologies like OpenSocial that cut across systems, opening up, rather than closing down possibilities for integration and creative use.

I thank George for the inspiring tweet and thoughtful list. It helped me turn concern into even greater assurance that Sakai 3 is headed in the right direction.

Addendum: for the full context of the tweets that inspired this post, see below:

@nicolamj tweeted:
@georgekroner I think the idea is that Sakai 3 will be a generation beyond *any* LMS…

@georgekroner tweeted:
@nicolamj Sakai 3 looks great, but my concern is that by the time it is launched what now seems beyond will then be commonplace

@xolotl (that’s me) tweeted:
@georgekroner you suggest planned Sakai 3 capabilities will soon be commonplace. Examples? (cc @nicolamj)

@georgekroner tweeted:
@xolotl @nicolamj re: Sakai 3 concepts http://bit.ly/2LVDnf http://bit.ly/19vzgi http://bit.ly/xwlY http://bit.ly/DE98 http://bit.ly/1HQW5u

Why Sakai Now

The Sakai community is in a special moment. We are celebrating our continued development of a full-featured, world-class, enterprise collaborative learning environment with the release of Sakai 2.6. At the same time, we are extending our early work on a next-generation Sakai 3 platform that will take us to new levels of sophistication in teaching, learning, collaboration, research, and technology.

Simultaneously, outside the community, big events have had profound effects on us. New paradigms of open education and new political winds provide different opportunities and challenges. Continued litigation and consolidation in the proprietary learning technology ecosystem and drastic budget cuts combine to force us to rethink basic assumptions and well-laid plans.

Many inside and outside Sakai are thinking about how best to meet their needs and plan for the future in this special time. How should we support education online? What learning environment should we adopt? How should we allocate resources between maintenance and innovation? How will we manage transitions from one system to another?

I came away from recent Sakai Boston conference thinking that there are two basic facts now more true than ever:

First, our current circumstances prove that technology decisions are best made following long-term strategic vision, not short-term expedience or purely functional and technical criteria.

And second, the best place to work out the answers to our hard questions is as a part of the Sakai community, that is, within Sakai’s practice that follows a community, open source model.

I come to these conclusions based on the following points that I think any institution considering how to balance their resources and ambitions in this special time should carefully consider.

Sakai is Unique

Unlike any other proprietary or open source learning platform, only Sakai provides structured, open and transparent community and governance, powered by a substantial and growing number of institutions of every shape and size from around the world, coordinated by a formal, nonprofit entity, and including a strong and varied commercial ecosystem. We call this combination “community source” and it is open source, only much more.

There is a lot of depth behind that statement, but the upshot is simple. This unique combination of characteristics means that when you choose Sakai, you choose the path with the least long-term risk for change outside your control.

Spending on Sakai Makes More Sense

Institutions around the world are lowering and/or reallocating costs with open source solutions even while they buy guaranteed commercial support to lower their risk. The best part about the open source model is the new control it gives you over where you spend your money. Build in-house support or buy commercial support with vendor independence. Shift costs from proprietary license fees to staffing and activities that have direct effects on the teaching, learning and research that is your core, educational mission.

Any open source technology with a healthy commercial ecosystem gives you these cost advantages, but when I look at the open source online learning landscape right now, I think Sakai has the most robust and varied commercial support offerings, following a model that will enable the healthiest growth.

Sakai Aligns with Your Core Educational Mission

The Sakai community often uses the phrase “by educators, for educators.” It can come across as a marketing slogan, but it conveys a basic truth at the heart of Sakai. When you join the Sakai community, you are taking a huge step toward practices that should be a top priority at every educational organization: aligning your technology strategy with your educational mission. Proprietary technologies may serve educational needs, but their development and distribution are always refracted through the lens of corporate control and profit. Fully aligning your technology strategy with your educational mission is a bigger project than adopting Sakai, but Sakai can be a great first step in the right direction.

Your Work on Sakai Is (Y)Ours

After participating in Sakai Boston and watching the next week’s tweetstream from the Blackboard World 2009 conference, I was struck by how much the activities of these two—sometimes overlapping—communities look the same. But in the end there is a simple, but very important difference: the energy and resources you put into the Sakai community are not owned or controlled by anyone else. I kept finding myself wishing the vibrant Blackboard community was putting all their energy into work that is not only open to all (much of their work is open), but is also not tied to the destiny and control of Blackboard’s proprietary core. Everything you contribute within the Sakai community stays with you, even as you share it freely with other educators working for the same goals.

Are You Ready for Sakai?

Maybe you think your institution does not have sufficient resources to engage in an open source strategy. Stated plainly: there is no institution that is not ready for Sakai.

First, to clear away the most basic concern: quality commercial providers exist for every service you are used to buying from your proprietary provider, usually at lower costs. Need support? Need hosting? Need services? Get three or more bids from commercial firms with strong track records and pick the best fit. Going open source does not mean going it alone.

Second, if you think your institution won’t have the time or energy to engage in an open source community and glean its benefits, think again. Like what I witnessed around the Blackboard conference, consider your engagement with the communities around your proprietary solutions. Do you attend conferences? Exchange best practices and collaborate with other institutions? Engage with support communities? Give feedback on bugs and functional enhancements? Create training and documentation? Integrate with other technologies? You probably participate more than you think.

Your engagement in an open source community will look much the same as your participation in any proprietary community. In both cases, you decide your level of engagement. The only difference is in open source communities, you share full ownership of the value you help generate. Stop paying to give your energy to someone else’s project!

What Should We Do with Sakai Right Now?

Even though Sakai stands now as a fully-capable enterprise collaboration and learning environment, the primary reasons to choose Sakai have always been strategic rather than purely functional or technical. Right now, at this “special moment,” Sakai’s strategic advantages are even more clear.

If you are considering adopting a new online learning system soon, Sakai 2 is your best choice. Adopting Sakai 2 now brings you all of Sakai’s strategic advantages right away, and enables you to better position your institution to follow Sakai’s future and have real effects on what that future will be. You can upgrade to Sakai 3 in a deliberate way when there is a good match between your institutional readiness and Sakai 3’s development.

If you are already using Sakai 2, you are in good company! The large community that has also adopted Sakai 2 is already outlining a variety of transitional upgrade paths. A common pattern for rolling out Sakai 3 capabilities early is the idea of cohabitation with Sakai 2. For example, you might move to a Sakai 3 instance sooner rather than later, integrated with some Sakai 2 tools that provide capabilities not fully developed in Sakai 3. In other scenarios, you might roll out Sakai 3 functionality first for only select uses, like web-enhanced courses, collaboration, or portfolios. At the same time, there is still a lot of room for innovation on both the Sakai 2 and 3 platforms. For example, take a look at what Sakai developer Zach Thomas says about extensibility in Sakai.

If you are concerned about the overhead of working with both Sakai 2 and 3 at the same time, evaluate where your resources will be most effective and farm out the rest. Maybe you’d like to devote your team to addressing online pedagogy or innovating on Sakai 3’s next-generation technology. Hire out the maintenance of your Sakai 2 implementation. Maybe you’re already stabilized on Sakai 2, but want to provide some Sakai 3 capabilities. Hire out the deployment and integration of Sakai 3 or fund the speedy development of Sakai 3 capabilities you must have. Even working with both versions of Sakai with commercial support, you’re still likely to save money over the cost of an enterprise proprietary system.

Whatever your situation, you will be in the best position by joining the community now and moving from Sakai 2 to 3 later rather than waiting on the sidelines until a full Sakai 3 rollout is feasible at your institution.

Where is Sakai headed? Or: I want my user-centered mash-up with extra gravy!

Hearing Chuck Severance’s presentation at JA-SIG St Paul 2008 about work on the IMS Learning Tools Interoperability 2.0 (LTI) standard restarted some thinking I’d already been doing about where online learning technology is (should be?) headed.

Severance sketched out a model enabled by IMS LTI in which the online learning environment has evolved into a kind of personal workspace, where the user makes choices about what tools appear. Some tools could appear automatically, chosen by the user’s institution, instructor or group organizer. Other tools would be chosen only by the user and could come from either a trusted local service or a wide variety of external sources.

Later in St Paul, the Sakai team at Cambridge University showcased the work they’ve been doing to repackage and deliver Sakai content and tools outside the Sakai framework via JSON into a user-centered dashboard that can also consume and display other similar tools, widgets or services.

At the same time, I’ve been watching what seems like the leading wave of online application design—mostly outside higher education in that space that I’ll call “social media” and “Web 2.0” for lack of a better terms. That wave is headed toward or has in many ways already arrived at a place that matches the user-centered, distributed toolset scenario that Severance gestured toward and Cambridge has enacted.

Sakai ED Michael Korcuska asked Severance the obvious question: Will Sakai—or other learning environments—disappear in the individualized, distributed world he described? I found myself agreeing with Severance’s answer that Sakai or other online learning systems will not disappear. Institutions will continue to want and need an environment where they supply and control some of—or even most of—the user experience.

But where does that leave Sakai as a project?

First, Sakai can and should tell a true story in which it has been moving down this very path toward the user-centered mash-up with extra gravy at a fast clip. Starting out with its web content tool, feed aggregation and consumers for web services, Sakai is now leagues ahead with Cambridge’s working code, Severance’s groundwork, and probably other things as well.

But next Sakai must fully adopt this trajectory as its future. Sakai should evolve toward a well-made, flexible and receptive user-centered container and a collection of first-rate tools for teaching, learning and collaboration that can appear here, there and everywhere.

What will be important in this future? For starters, the Sakai container should be optimzed for education and innovation: usable, accessible, quality-assured and easy to fill with the widest possible variety of other functionality. Key tools for education like tests and quizzes and gradebooks, developed by educators, for educators will continue to have high priority.

Next, Sakai should focus on delivering tools that provide standards-aware interoperability—the glue that will stick all these various tools together, for the user, for the institution, and for the larger conversations and purposes that cross and combine users and institutions. These tools should provide common services—like gradability, testability, tagability, commentability, shareability—that can be applied to items generated by any source.

By fully embracing this model, Sakai can further differentiate itself from proprietary systems like Blackboard, Angel and Desire2Learn, which may also see this future emerging, but have little financial incentive to embrace such a loss of central control, and even if they do are less likely to be able to deliver it anytime soon.