Sakai vs the World Wide Web 2.0: To Facebook or Not to Facebook?

I was inspired to propose and deliver a session titled “Sakai vs the World Wide Web 2.0: To Facebook or Not to Facebook?” for the recent Sakai 2011 conference in Los Angeles by the question below. While I write specifically of higher education here, I think the same questions—and perhaps answers—might be applied to any educational level or sector.

How is Sakai—or any online platform supported by an educational institution—relevant in an environment full of compelling web activities that engage our everyday lives? Does Sakai matter in the Age of Facebook, and if yes, then why and how?

Does College Matter?

But before we answer that question, I think we must first ask another, more important question: how is education itself relevant, not only in the Age of Facebook, but in a time when the legitimacy and economics of the current educational paradigm are in crisis. Does college itself matter, and if yes, then why and how?

I will leave answers to the question of EDU’s legitimacy to another day, and instead focus on the question of EDU’s economics. How will your institution remain solvent (the minimum requirement for relevancy) in a time when public funding for education is dwindling, costs are rising, and competition for students and resources is increasing?

The common answer for many is a turn to online education: online classes are expected to attract new students, generate revenue, and reduce brick and mortar infrastructure costs. This answer suggests that Sakai—or some other LMS—will in fact save EDU from its economic crisis.

Yet I think online education as a solution to EDU economic woes is fast—if not already—becoming a hopelessly naive proposition.

In today’s flatter marketplace of online education, will your institution’s online offering really compete effectively in quality, brand, and/or price with the offerings of every other player, from the Ivy League to the for-profits to the disruptive web applications and open educational resources to the corporate training institutes? There’s still some way to go, but the online education marketplace will likely be saturated before too long and if you think online education will save your bottom line, you’d best consider carefully how your institution will be a significant player among the early entrants, established brands, and bargain basements. If Harvard and the University of Phoenix both offered classes on your campus, how would your courses fare?

While a few select institutions may ride online education to success in this environment, most will see only moderate success with some programs. So, if online education will not save EDU, what will?

How Sticky Are You?

I believe that the bulk of institutions that will truly succeed going forward will not be those that win online, but on the contrary, those that do a good job establishing, maintaining, and conveying unique local experiences. Schools must reach inward to provide rich, meaningful, lasting, engaged experiences for their constituencies so people come, stay, and come back. Online, we call this “stickiness” and that will be EDU’s new metric for success: how sticky are you?

Make sure you take into account all the ways your institution is sticky: Why do people come? What do they do when they get there? What connections criss-cross your institution from the surrounding community? What kind of experiences does your institution offer that people seek out because the can’t find them elsewhere?

If you don’t understand and work to augment the basic qualities that make your institution sticky, offering online education is unlikely to resolve your economic pressures and ensure your relevance in the coming years.

Making Sakai Sticky

So what roles do Sakai and online learning play in supporting the sticky institution?

First and foremost, online platforms must support and encourage the same local qualities and activities that make an institution sticky. Exactly opposite to the current tendency to try to offer generic “marketplace” courses, institutions should see their online platforms as a powerful channel to augment their truly local experience and convey that local experience outward through space and time.

In an age where any institution may offer a more compelling, convenient, or cost-effective experience than yours, use your online platform to extend your distinction, and provide a place where that distinction lives, first and foremost for your existing constituents. Once your “captive audience” is truly captivated, they will be your best channel to expand your reach.

Think of Sakai as you would your campus. Make it a place that people want to come to and stay, or at least a place where, if people have to be there, they have a pleasant and rewarding experience. Then take advantage of what an online platform can offer that a physical campus can not: 24/7 global access, personalization, analytics, different, powerful ways for connecting to people and information, and more.

At its most basic level, Sakai can provide the container to hold everything that makes your institution sticky. As a start, let people already stuck to you stay stuck: offer lifetime access and a home for people’s online identities. Second, give them shelter: allow people to create their own experiences and unsupervised spaces in your online campus so they feel a sense of belonging and ownership. Third, make connections: help people make connections to the other people, information, and experiences at your institution that will give them compelling value. Last, but not least, give guidance: provide good signposts on the boundaries and inside of your online campus to help people find their way in and out, safely and securely.

Then, and only then, offer online courses: sticky courses in a sticky platform from a sticky institution.

8 thoughts on “Sakai vs the World Wide Web 2.0: To Facebook or Not to Facebook?”

  1. I like your emphasis on “stickiness” it’s a great way to frame conversations about the possibilities in an LMS/CLE. In spite of the value of “stickiness” it’s worth noting that some students profess to be interested in things that might be at odds with that quality. Some want an LMS (and a course) that they can quickly “get into” and then quickly “get out of.” This, at least, was what a professor I was working with a few years ago said was the chief virtue in his mashup course that didn’t require a login and whose resources were really easy to get to. Maybe this “quickly get into and quickly get out of” attitude is just a facet of our commuter campus. Commuter students also want a campus they can drive and park at easily and then leave quickly from. This isn’t to challenge the virtues of “stickiness” or all that you attribute to it. And if “stickiness” might not be what one is seeking when it comes to driving and parking that doesn’t mean these same attitudes translate seamlessly to digital environments (or to more residential campuses). But it’s worth noting that there are alternative ways to look at this. Nice essay.

    • Thanks for your (as always) thoughtful comments Luke.

      The qualities of usability you emphasize may in fact be part of an overall “sticky” strategy. It may not be that we are trying to make an online experience sticky for every visit, but that we are trying to make the overall experience of engaging with our online experience sticky. Perhaps that means enabling users to have very quick interactions so they come back often, not unlike the way a business that offers convenient parking may be more sticky (have greater customer loyalty) than one that is hard to get to.

      In another example, offering offline/mobile access may appear to reduce stickiness, when it really may support an overall stickiness between an institution and its constituents.

      • Luke, Nate:

        I think that subscriptions and notifications are key to the kind of stickiness expressed in this thread. Letting users decide what is important to them and monitor them (while making sure faculty have the ability to force-feed some notifications to students as well) are key processes to this in-and-out interaction with the system and peers that the LMS can deliver.

        • Agreed. Notification channel flexibility is key. Let me decide how often I want to come back. Stickiness can seep out from the platform to other areas…

    • Thanks Mathieu! For those that are interested, there is an interesting comment thread about this topic going on over at Mathieu’s post as well.

  2. Hi Nate,

    I caught a part of your speech, but got distracted by hungry Ustreams. I like your approach. If you can’t fight globally, be as local as you can. Social media is all about niches and local engagement, and should be a part of the tool portfolio an institution leverages, both on the business side (colleges services) and on the teaching and learning side. Consistency across centrally supported and outsourced services is key to a successful college experience. Jonathan Mott refers to this as the Open Learning Network, the mix of the LMS and the personal learning environment.


    • “Speech” it was ;)

      Thanks for the link to Mott’s OLN piece…I like his OLN approach and couldn’t help but think “Sakai OAE” while I was reading it ;)


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