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.