Taking the High Value Road: Innovation in Open Practices

Mountain road

Used by (cc) from nicmcphee.

I’ve long believed the open practices we follow in the Sakai community result in more, better, faster functionality, code, security, accessibility, standards-compliance, and innovation generally. But lately, evidence has been mounting to demonstrate the high value and wide acceptance of the open path more clearly than ever.

Today’s announcement of a new partnership between rSmart and SunGard Higher Education (SGHE) to deliver and support Sakai is the latest manifestation of the huge body of valuable work being generated by those of us following the open path: commercial vendors, educational institutions, nonprofit organizations, government entities, and individuals. Valuable work that is having real, positive effects on education.

A key part of rSmart and SGHE’s work together is to extend Sakai’s integration with SGHE’s Banner Student Information System (SIS) platform to follow the latest IMS Learning Information System (LIS) standard. On the face of it, this sounds like a typical outcome of two technology firms working together, but that integration rests on a far larger body of work, produced collaboratively in our open community.

Without even going in to the work of many that went into establishing the IMS LIS standard, rSmart and SGHE’s work with Sakai, Banner, and LIS extends the open-source work initiated by our fellow Sakai commercial affiliates Unicon and Oracle, under the leadership of my fellow Sakai Product councillors John Lewis and Michael Feldstein. This growing body of work promises to simplify and enrich Sakai’s SIS integration not just with SGHE’s Banner and Oracle’s Peoplesoft, but with every SIS platform that supports IMS LIS. Once we have this richer integration between our learning and administrative systems, we can start to explore all the ways shared information can have a real impact on our core mission of education.

Another example of open-source innovation centers around Sakai’s support for another worthy IMS standard: Basic Learning Tools Interoperability (BLTI), which makes it easy to tie different educational technology tools together. Sakai’s BLTI support was an early reference implementation and now ships in Sakai’s core codebase thanks in a large part to the work of long-time Sakai community member Chuck Severance. We are already seeing a wide variety of other open-source and proprietary tools support BLTI, making it easier for us to give users an integrated experience with a richer, varied toolset—and that exactly is the future of all learning platforms.

And while the Sakai community is working together on important standards support like IMS LIS and BLTI, we are also innovating actively on all sorts of other capabilities in both the mature Sakai 2 and the next-generation Sakai 3 platforms. Both Sakai platforms are under development by international, multi-institutional teams, coordinated by formal groups that conduct their business openly and transparently. Just this month we saw the Sakai 2.8 code freeze for the next release and the Sakai 3 0.7 release, both of which demonstrate rich innovation for technologies at very different points in their lifecycles.

What’s more: open innovation is not for code alone. Sakai’s Teaching and Learning working group recently released one of our most valuable artifacts: Sakai Learning Capabilities 1.0 (SLC 1.0).

Representing a full year of collaborative work, SLC 1.0 defines seven general areas of functionality that support teaching, learning, and collaboration. Of course we’ve seen functional checklists before—like Edutools or insert your own list here—and we continue to try to use such checklists to evaluate different learning platforms. That practice is akin to counting the spokes on buggy wheels while ignoring the changing paths we seek to travel, or the fact that not only are horse-drawn carriages obsolete, but even the internal combustion engine has evolved from solution to problem.

SLC 1.0 is an entirely different kind of list. Instead of a mere catalog of isolated tool functions, SLC 1.0 presents seven “lenses,” or perspectives through which a learning platform can and should be viewed. Each of these lenses is not exclusive, but rather views the platform as a whole, in light of a specific group of cross-cutting concerns. Going further, SLC 1.0 is not a vision of what we will settle for—limited by an interpretation of what incremental changes are possible in the technologies we already use—but is instead a vision built by actual practitioners, guided by what we really want to accomplish in real educational situations, with real people who have goals not organized by the buttons already on their toolbars.

I hope to see SLC 1.0 and its subsequent elaborations and extensions forever change the way we judge—and build—not just Sakai, but all educational technologies.

I’ve just begun to scratch the surface of what’s brewing in the growing critical mass of the Sakai community, but one thing is clear: the open road ahead promises to be crowded with new collaborators, good ideas, and real results.

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

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.