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.

Posted by Nate Angell

Wandering IQ. Raised by wolves. Friend to cheese. Working to bend the arc of justice. Learn more about my professional and educational history on LinkedIn and on this blog, or if you really want to get to know me, follow me on Twitter.

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