Why I’m Running for the Sakai Board

Used by (cc) from http://www.flickr.com/photos/davidfarrant/2512424842/

Used by (cc) from davidfarrant.

Recently, I was honored to accept nomination to stand for the Board of Directors of the Sakai Foundation, the nonprofit organization that coordinates the larger collaboration of the Sakai community.

Some people are confused about the role of the Sakai Board, which stewards the Foundation itself, not Sakai the community or Sakai the product. Our community and product both have a variety of other leadership and governance mechanisms: all open, transparent, and drawing their membership from the community based on merit and contribution rather than election. In short: the Board does not “lead” Sakai, but rather ensures that the Foundation is healthy so it in turn can coordinate—not lead—the real engine of Sakai: our community.

So before running for the Board, I had to stop and ask what I would want to accomplish in joining this body whose work might be seen as once—or even twice—removed from direct engagement with Sakai. My answer revolves around Sakai’s characteristics as an open source project, and the role the Sakai Foundation and its Board play in maintaining Sakai’s health and progress.

My thinking goes back to my earlier answers to the question “why Sakai now?” where I wrote:

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.

I still hold by that statement, but recognize that it describes a very organic situation, constantly changing, filled with different forces pulling not always in the same directions. All the ingredients in Sakai’s healthy mix are absolutely necessary for its continued success, but there is one crucial element that all the others depend on and can not do without—that central, shared entity that exists only to support everything else: the Sakai Foundation.

In addition to all the important work the Foundation does to coordinate community activity, perhaps its most important function is to serve as a conduit through which part of the community’s growing resources circle back to empower common needs and goals. It is precisely this “virtuous cycle” that I would seek to strengthen if I were elected to the Sakai Board.

You can read my full platform statement on the Sakai Project website, and if you have not yet cast your ballot in the Sakai Board elections, I welcome your support.

Sakai Meets Google

I’m excited to preview the integration we’ve been working on at rSmart between Sakai and Google Docs. We expect to release this integration in the upcoming 2.7.1 version of our rSmart Sakai CLE distribution, and once we see it in action, contribute the integration to the broader Sakai community. Embedded here is a 7.5 minute demo of the integration that covers the basic functionality. I’ve also attached an early case study rSmart produced in collaboration with Google on this functionality.

What makes this integration so cool is now Sakai users can harness the rich authoring and collaboration capabilities of Google Docs, and use Sakai to distribute their documents to other Sakai users, like students, classmates, or other collaborators. The integraton works with your personal Google user account, or if your institution uses Google Apps, your institutional Google identity.

This is a stellar example of all the new integrations we’re seeing with the Sakai platform. Look to try out the integration yourself soon on rSmart’s mySakai environment, where we’ll turn it on once our 2.7.1 version is released.

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 Fellow, Well Met

Black Ninja SakaigerI was deeply honored to be named a 2010 Sakai Fellow—mostly because fellowship bestows a coveted black “ninja” sakaiger (pictured)—but also because I read my fellowship as evidence that the Sakai community recognizes and values all forms of contribution to our collaborative work.

Three out of 2010’s six Sakai fellows have made their substantial contributions primarily in areas of actual technology development: Oxford‘s Matthew Buckett, Cape Town‘s David Horwitz, and Michigan‘s Gonzalo Silverio. I can’t stress enough the high value and significance of these three fellows’ work.

The other three 2010 Sakai fellows—Indiana‘s David Goodrum, Michigan‘s Steve Lonn, and myself—have made our primary contributions in what might seem “softer” areas of Sakai: coordination, communication, thought-work, and research. The very tangible outcomes of David’s leadership in the formulation of the Sakai Learning Capabilities and Steve’s continued focus on the invaluable research of Sakai’s Multi-Institutional Survey Initiative are far better evidence than any of my own contributions of the value of work outside the Sakai codebase.

Unlike others who suggest a strong difference between what might be called the “write” and “read” communities within Sakai, I see this year’s Sakai fellowships as testimony to my view that such a dichotomy is not so useful. Instead I see read/write activities in open communities as a continuum that generates a virtuous circle of outcomes: new reading generating new writing and vice versa, until the distinction between reading and writing becomes robustly fuzzy.

All of us in the Sakai community are readers and writers at different times, of different texts, inspiring and supporting our whole collaborative endeavor.

Thank you Sakai!

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.

Happy Birthday, Sakai Product Council!

After almost a year in existence, the Sakai Product Council that I was honored to join is completing a planned review of its configuration and activities. My answers to the common questions posed to Councilors and community reviewers are below, but before you dig in to those details—or maybe instead, if you’re pressed for time or interest—let me sum up my review here as briefly as I can.

First, let me stress again that the formation of the Council is a very important step in Sakai’s evolution and is part of what makes Sakai different from every other enterprise online learning platform available today. The Council represents a process for open, transparent, formal product governance by the community, for the community. This model is important both within the Sakai community, where we will benefit from the increased structure and governance, and externally, where potential adopters can see a community that truly controls its own destiny.

Second, I think the Council’s form and function are largely correct, but need some adjustment. Read on for further details.

Third, I am not satisfied with my own participation on the Council or the Council’s accomplishments generally. I think we can and should do better. I have made some suggestions below that may help make this happen, and have read other suggestions from other reviewers that may also help. This review is an appropriate and constructive step in the Council’s evolution.

State of Community Product Management Functions

What do you think of the product development lifecycle (have you looked at it)?

The product development lifecycle currently described for Sakai seems better tailored to Sakai 2 development than Sakai 3. If we are not going to make large interventions in the way Sakai 2 is developed, maintained, and released, than the lifecycle is probably adequate for Sakai 2. My hope is that Sakai 3 will follow a different path.

My main concerns around the lifecycle have always been around boundaries: I believe only a smaller, core Sakai release (which may be more than the kernel) should end up with “maintenance” status. I don’t think the community can or should assume full maintenance for all projects that reach a certain level of maturity and usage, but instead many ancillary tools/capabilities should follow their own independent lifecycles, living and dying according to the resources they attract on their own. The community might provide some guides to help adopters evaluate ancillary projects. Shepherding boundary definitions and stewarding boundary crossings should be part of the Product Council’s charge.

I also think we should change the name of the “maintenance” phase to something that conveys its true nature. Things in “maintenance” sound dead to me, but the maintenance phase comes across as our ultimate, living, production phase. Perhaps David Horwitz’s idea of differentiating “maintenance” from “production ready” is the right distinction. There has got to be a better name.

What are the critical functions that the community needs in the context of managing the product?

  • Coherence: Sakai should demonstrate overall coherence, including coherence across the Sakai 2 > 3 boundary.
  • Roadmap: Sakai should develop and work towards a roadmap that reflects aspirations as well as deeds.
  • Quality/standards: Sakai should publish and adhere to clear standards and standard practices for a wide variety of characteristics, including accessibility, documentation, internationalization, maintenance, security, technologies, and user experience.
  • Product governance: Sakai should have open, transparent, and effective governance processes.
  • Communication: Sakai as a community should clearly and regularly communicate on open channels about its qualities, activities, processes, and plans.
  • Distribution: Sakai should provide distribution mechanisms that make it easy to find and consume our products.
  • Security: Sakai should provide vigilant, credible, obvious processes to collect, review, address, and disseminate security issues.

For which of those critical functions, if any, do you think a product council is needed?

The Product Council should participate in shepherding the development and stewarding the maintenance of all the activities listed above. Yet the Council should understand itself to be most highly engaged in product governance, where it should be the most visible and active group. The Council should also be highly engaged in the stewardship of Sakai’s roadmap and the product’s coherence and quality as it travels along that path. While the bulk of communication in the Sakai community should not be the Council’s responsibility, it should take extra care to communicate its processes and activities clearly and regularly.

How does the product council relate to other groups working on these critical functions?

(the Maintenance Team, Release Management, i18n, and the kernel team, for example)

I do not believe the Council should direct the activities of these other key groups. These groups are filled with expert, dedicated professionals who are best positioned to direct their own work. The Council should be more aware of and engaged in the work of these other teams, perhaps even assigning its own members to serve tours of duty with these other groups, or incorporating representatives from other groups into itself. The Council itself and each of these groups continues to work out their identities and practices, as well as how and when they intersect. The interrelationships of these groups will probably always be in creative evolution. Ideally, the Council will assist these other groups by doing its own job and helping them resolve issues that call for product governance.

Which of those functions are missing from current activity or processes?

With the exception of Sakai’s distribution mechanisms and security, the Council engaged with every other category above during its first year, though sometimes in only very small ways. To be effective, the Council should be more active and more timely.

The Mission and Charter of the Product Council

When you heard about the product council, what did you hope the product council might achieve?

How close to your hopes did the product council charter come (have you read it)?

What would you change about the charter?

To be absolutely clear, the charter outlined here pertains almost exclusively the Product Council’s configuration, rather than to its mission/responsibilities.

I think the Council’s configuration is very close to exactly right, representing broad perspectives and allowing for continuity and change. Given that the Council’s configuration to date has been successful, I would not rush to make changes. If I were to suggest any changes to the current Council configuration it would be as follows:

  • Ensure that there is representation of critical viewpoints (eg, maintenance team, internationalization). The Council itself might identify missing viewpoints and recommend adjustments to its membership. There might be more flexible mechanisms for such adjustments than currently provisioned.
  • Establish the role of the Product Manager as the Council’s chair to ensure Council engagement and timeliness.

As for the Council’s mission—which is more directly addressed here—I also think it is largely correct as laid out. I think of the Council’s primary role as crystalizing community scrutiny of the Sakai roadmap, and the coherence and quality of the product. Secondarily, the Council should foster the formation of community standards and practices, and help guide projects toward meeting those goals for coherence and quality. In essence, the Council should act and appear as if it were a microcosm of the larger community, but with the ability to make final decisions where community consensus has not brought closure.

What impression, if any, do you think the product council has on people looking at Sakai from outside the community?

While the Council’s role inside the Sakai community is crucial, its external role is perhaps even more important. One of the fundamental differences between Sakai and alternative platforms is Sakai’s transparent, structured governance. The Council is the clearest expression of Sakai’s different model. Community members who do not regularly communicate with the Sakai curious may underestimate the powerful signal the mere existence of the Council sends. Accordingly, the Council’s effective fulfillment of its internal role in turn demonstrates to the outside world that Sakai is produced under a different model. While the Council’s focus should be primarily internal on the Sakai product and community, it should always act with full recognition of the importance of its role to external audiences.


Have we got the membership right? What constitutes the right mix of people on the Council? How should members be selected?

It is crucial that the Council have balanced representation from key constituencies and reflect skills appropriate to its mission. Accordingly, I don’t think the Council should be elected. Given that the current Council seems to have the right balance, albeit not the right intensity, I don’t see a great reason to change the selection process.

Should Board members be on the Council?

Given that the Board’s focus should be on the legal requirements of the Foundation, I see no conflict of interest in Board members serving on the Council. It might send the wrong signal if the membership of the Board and the Council had significant overlap. Council selection should take balance with the Board into account and potential Board/Council candidates should consider which body might best enable them to realize their goals.

What expectations should there be on council members?

As a Council member, I was underwhelmed by my own ability to participate more actively in Council activities. I strongly doubt that any current Council member has been consistently able to participate the 4-8 hours/week envisioned in the charter. While I think the Council could have accomplished much more of its mandate with such a commitment, I question whether appropriate Councillors can really be expected to commit large amounts of time given their other likely responsibilities. Accordingly, to balance the diversity and stature of the Council with its expected activities, I think the Sakai Foundation staff (Product Manager, Executive Director) should take a more active role in ensuring the progress of Council activities. If a very active Council chair is not available, perhaps it would be more effective if the Product Manager chaired the Council. The Council might set up some more tangible expectations of its members and those who could not fulfill them step down. Councilors might also convene and lead workgroups with other community members to fulfill specific tasks.

What the Product Council Has Done

What do you think the product has focused its attention and energy on?

Given that the Council has had to feel its way as a new body with a somewhat vague charter, following a newly defined development cycle, in the context of a complex, evolving community working on two product lines, and given all the other pressures on its members, I’m sometimes impressed it has produced anything of value at all.

Given the very different development lifecycle stages of Sakai 2 and 3, the Council has unsurprisingly focused most of its attention on Sakai 2. As the Sakai 3 project continues to emerge, the Council will accordingly adjust its focus to incorporate greater attention to Sakai 3.

What do you see as the successes of the product council so far? What are the disappointments?

The greatest success of the Council was its formal evaluation and stewardship of major additions to the 2.7 release. Although incomplete and tardy, this process means that for the first time, the projects in the release were held accountable to formal product governance by the community. Now that it is established, the Council should work to make this pattern more fulsome, timely, and effective for both Sakai 2 and Sakai 3 releases.

Like many, I’m disappointed by the overall amount and depth of the Council’s activity. There are clear tasks for the Council to undertake—we need to focus on making more of them happen, inside and outside the Council.

What has been the net pay-off of the product council thus far. Is the Sakai 2 product better off? Sakai 3?

Both Sakai 2 and 3 are better off for the existence of the Product Council. For Sakai 2, there is now modest, but formal, tangible, open, and transparent governance of its release. For Sakai 3, the Council represents a body formed far earlier in the product’s history that can work to formalize better practices in its development and release. For both products, we can point to an evolving model for product governance that reflects the values and interests of the Sakai community.