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

4 thoughts on “Sakai 3’s Commonplace Destiny”

  1. Hey Nate,

    The point I was trying to make is that by the time any product is launched, several other similar products will have already popped up with similar capabilities, and more still will launch shortly after with new and totally game-changing capabilities – one entire step ahead on the innovation curve. To me, your post sounds like “When we launch Sakai 3, we want to be mediocre and just like everyone else.” I know this is not the case, and the rest of the Sakai community knows this not to be the case. You are part of a tremendous community that cares deeply about enabling instructors & students to be successful. I’d argue that so am I, although we differ in our opinions of how to get there. If I were to recommend something to you as an evangelist, it’s to highlight the special sauce that makes Sakai 3 different – what is going to take this platform truly a leap forward beyond what other similar products have to offer. Collaborative wiki editing, embedded widgets, and private social networks are becoming increasingly common, so I’m not totally convinced here. Your arguments around cost are in my opinion headed down a slippery slope. There are more costs to running an LMS than just the license alone. But as you state, maybe I have a different viewpoint given my past experience and background.

    As for the technology stack, JSR-170 & 283 are great. Blackboard’s Xythos Content System has had JSR-170 support for years. In fact, Xythos actually integrates with Sakai: Similarly, OpenSocial is also a very exciting API framework. This past weekend I wrote a prototype plugin (Building Block) for Blackboard that can both embed OpenSocial-enabled widgets into Blackboard courses and enable external widgets to consume Blackboard content. I did this using our SDK without having to overhaul Blackboard’s entire architecture in support of this end-goal. Perhaps, though, it is necessary to give the Sakai technology stack some love & care. This is one area that received special attention in Blackboard 9. Every application of this nature eventually outgrows itself.

    Again, my personal non-Blackboard-sanctioned opinion is that the work the community is undertaking on Sakai 3 is phenomenal. Clay’s post just last night with the image of the Sakai Matrix is admittedly a pretty cool vision. I’m actually somewhat jealous of his newfound role in making this all happen. :) But as I’ve said before, as both of our platforms become more interoperable and standards-compliant, our paths will be crossing more often – particularly around pluggable learning tools that allow students and teachers and researchers to collaborate in ways we’ve never seen before. This is something that I look forward to – in addition to our regular Twitter debates.


    • Thanks for your comment George…and your game commitment to continued repartée.

      I’m not sure how you’re able to project sentiments of mediocrity into my post…especially given that it’s not clear to me how Blackboard 9’s innovation in fundamentally different than Sakai 3’s. Maybe you can explain, or perhaps you have the same anxious view about Blackboard’s product as well.

      It seems a fundamental misunderstanding between our two efforts is that the Sakai community as a whole is not focused on innovation as a differentiator for its own sake. We have clearly already seen and will continue to see rapid and diverse innovation in Sakai, but it’s not the central pillar of the value that Sakai offers. And in case you fear I’m waxing mediocre yet again, let me be clear: Sakai supports and seeks innovation—in fact I would argue that Sakai’s open framework enables innovation far better than Blackboard’s proprietary model, and Sakai 3 will do so even more. Our work just has other qualities that we value more than continually trying to make a product seem “new” in order to sell more.

      Above all, the “special sauce” Sakai offers its adopters is clear ownership and stake in the destiny of their technology and practices…something the proprietary model can never offer. There are certainly many in the Sakai community who adopt primarily based on functional comparisons, but the larger, strategic reasons to choose Sakai will always be more compelling.

      As for price’s slippery slope, I fear it tilts toward thee. I keep hearing these same, tired reminders from certain interested quarters about how open source isn’t without cost. I think few people don’t get that fairly obvious truism nowadays and no one worth listening to would claim differently. The fact is, Blackboard and other proprietary products don’t run all by themselves either. Blackboard clients devote not insignificant local technical resources to implementation and maintenance as well. I don’t think there’s any question that an institution will pay less for Sakai with full commercial support, hosting, and necessary services than an equivalent Blackboard implementation, without requiring any more local technical resources than Blackboard would. If you want to compare notes, rSmart’s pricing is published for all to see and many fully-hosted Sakai implementations are managed by not-deeply technical teaching and learning staff without adding FTE or calling on dedicated local developers or system administrators. Is Blackboard’s pricing public? If Blackboard is truly less expensive, why not make your pricing public too?

      Since you were so kind as to offer professional advice from one evangelist to another, I’ll return the favor. In case you haven’t noticed, Blackboard has a sizable public relations problem, most deeply among the constituency that buys your products. Addressing your PR issue will require real changes in Blackboard’s practices. I think until you guys fix that PR problem for real, trumpeting innovation and sowing seeds of uncertainty for open source sidestep what you really need to do.

      Agreed: our paths are crossing more, and I welcome the opportunity to hang out with smart colleagues like you who are so willing to engage in wider debate. See you in Denver at EDUCAUSE.

  2. The OpenSocial example makes the most trenchant point. Guess what? Sakai3 has an OpenSocial container – these are not competitive insights. The aim is not to find a new magnificent walled garden, it’s to find a better equilibrium with the rest of people’s digital lives. Commonplace indeed.

  3. Great post, Nate. I’m not worried about the techniques we’re using in Sakai 3 being commonplace. A layer on top of pervasive (another way of saying commonplace) technology sounds good to me. The more we can borrow from the mainstream means we can put more our energy into knitting those capabilities together to create education-specific functionality.


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