Chapter 1. Why Sakai?

Sakai Open Academic Environment is an open source collaboration software system supporting teaching and learning at higher education institutions around the world. It is free for anyone to download, install, configure, and use. Sakai OAE brings together teachers, researchers, and students online to talk, write, and share, with the aim of enhancing the educational endeavor everywhere for everyone.

Putting Course Materials Online

The usefulness of an online analog to in-classroom instruction is now well established. The 1990 idea Tim Berners-Lee proposed for solving a problem of knowledge transfer among scientist cycling in and out of the European Organization for Nuclear Research has become so ubiquitous, it’s easy to forget it started somewhere. Almost as soon as Berners-Lee had a prototype of the World Wide Web working, the Fermilab Theoretical Physics Department was linking and sharing seminars on it. Individual instructors all over the world created their own web pages to support their research and teaching; pages of great effectiveness that were no more complicated than an HREF and a center tag could make them.

Twenty years later, a healthy majority of instructors use some kind of learning management system to support teaching and learning in the classroom, whether it is homegrown, open source, or proprietary. It can be as simple as posting the syllabus, and updating it as the term proceeds in order to reflect the pace of this particular semester’s group of students, or it can be as complicated as weekly automated quizzes, drawn from a pool of hundreds of potential questions, graded entirely by the machinery in order to monitor the level of mastery and shape the instructor’s ensuing lectures. The many tools and ancillary systems are well known now and used to great effect by instructors, from in-class clickers to web-based grade books, SCORM modules with adaptive release features, blog post assignments with required peer response.

What could be automated in the drudgery of the educational process, has been. The departmental photocopier lies largely quiet. Administrative assistants have been trimmed from the budget, and student workers are sent on ever more creative errands to earn their stipends. Much like word-processing software, the field of learning management software has matured, the market has saturated. It is a “solved problem,” as computer scientists say.

Relying on old tools, Sakai OAE does something new. It does not lead with tools to automate the administrative tasks around learning. There is no grade book yet written. Assignment creation and receipt functionality is in development but it doesn’t appear in the 1.2 version of OAE covered here. The heart of OAE is simple collaboration around the materials students study.


OAE is built for sharing. Every element of the system focuses back on the questions of engagement: who are students studying with? What’s the newest material a researcher has shared? Who is watching it? Who is commenting on it? From the student’s perspective the questions are yet more personal: what do I have to get done tonight? Who’s figured out number five on this week’s problem set? Is anyone around to meet up for a study group? Where is that brilliant anthropology reading from last year, which is exactly the source I would need for this term’s business course, if I could only dig it out from all the things I read online last year?

Students spend years interacting: across classes, across departments, across instructors. They go abroad and return home. They spend days in part-time jobs and unpaid internships. OAE always ties them back to where they’ve been before. The university education builds one experience upon another, expanding students’ understanding of the world, then bringing them back to campus to reflect, to look inside and see how it has changed their understanding of themselves. Every experience builds on the last, inflecting, enlarging their comprehension of specific skills, of bodies of knowledge, of themselves.

College, at its best, provides a framework for youngsters to become adults. A difficult task of identity formation takes place in the extraordinary years from age 17 to 22. Kids try on ideas and dispense with them just as fast. A hundred extracurricular clubs encourage passing commitments en route to discovering deep interests and pursuing them. She tries out psychology and cognitive science before realizing she wants to be an actor after all. He delves into nineteenth century Victorian mores before resolving on the more intelligible area of combinatorics.

In the fleeting window between youth and responsibility, students try on a million different selves. When they do this on the public Internet it becomes, all unwitting, a part of their permanent record. The impact is sufficiently real that Germany has legislated against considering information on social media sites like Facebook in employment decisions, and the United States is now considering similar rules. Where it may not be possible to draw a straight line between a moment of misspent youth and a lifetime of employment discrimination, there is a chilling effect of knowing everyone will know everything, in perpetuity. Do students get locked in to an identity they would otherwise shed because to be seen to flip-flop, to flim-flam, is too terrifying to their social selves?

A Protected Space

In this context, OAE is an ivory-towered social network. Here is a space where students can learn the risks and benefits of sharing themselves electronically, while not being permanently burdened by errors made in the process. Learning involves failure first. OAE can be a place to fail safely, a social network still inside the supportive structure of the university.

Everyone, even grandparents, are online socially. Connecting to Facebook or to Twitter, taking just a quick peek at Orkut, is both extraordinarily gratifying and wildly distracting. Old friends, left behind, are still there, fresh and eager to hang out. There too are parents, former teachers, ex-boyfriends, grandpa, that kid from the show you did in tenth grade. Public social networks provide bright easy access to current peers and present teachers, but they also bring forward everyone a student has ever known. What was meant as a quick check-in with a classmate before recitation swiftly veers off into an instant message marathon with the girl back home. Much like the campus quad or the student center, OAE provides the immediacy of a social network, but partitions it to permit students to focus on their current studies. Home will always be a click away, but when they want to turn their attention to their present schooling, OAE provides a wall to protect them. Distractions can be quieted while they focus on their work.

Faculty are accessible to their students in OAE without having to commingle their private and professional lives. Teaching is highly personal. To know where to prod a student is to know where they are, how they are, what motivates them, what is just on the edge of their current understanding. The intensity of that engagement can be exhausting to maintain at all times in all environments. Marking OAE as a designated place to be available to students, like posting office hours, presents an opportunity for the best engagement, balancing accessibility with boundaries. Public social networks can be where faculty visit with friends and far flung colleagues. OAE then is the online equivalent of campus—when you arrive there, you are present to teach and to learn.

The Open Source Orientation

OAE, the open academic environment, is an open source system issued under the Apache license, version 2.0. It has been built by a consortium of higher education institutions across the globe, under the auspices of the Sakai Foundation. None of the people working on building OAE know what it will be when it is done. Everyone reading this book will become a contributor. By asking questions, testing scenarios, by simply deploying the software, and seeing how your students use it, you will be changing the shape of the software to come.

In a direct way, this book will show you how to customize OAE. You’ll get a tour of the skinning infrastructure, changing the look and feel of the system. You’ll install a few sample widgets, expanding the functionality of OAE to suit your local needs. Widgets can be written by anyone. They can stay highly customized and very local, or they can be abstracted and contributed back to the OAE community of schools via the Widget Library. A widget can be a small static tool, greeting each person by name when they log in. It can be an institutionally important workflow such as a widget being built at NYU to seamlessly take in video content in OAE, pass it off to a separate video repository where it is compressed and encoded, and return a permanent link in the OAE environment, without ever distracting the person who is preoccupied with uploading film of their cat.


Cats on the Internet are an area of valuable study, as evinced by Ethan Zuckerman’s 2008 Cute Cat Theory presented at the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference.

The source code for OAE is public. If you find a bug, you can fix it. For people who have worked in open source before, this is not such exciting news, for those accustomed to proprietary vendor code it is a sea change. The code is managed on Github, with a team of core programmers committing changes on a daily basis. You can issue a pull request and know someone will look at it and give you feedback.

Running an open source system does not mean being out on your own. The Sakai community has a large number of commercial affiliates, ranging from cloud source service providers to custom development teams. Longtime service providers like Longsight, Unicon, rSmart, and Sungard Higher Education provide a deep technical bench for schools starting new with Sakai products. Aeroplane Software and Hallway Technologies have established practices extending and customizing OAE for particular situations. Wiley Higher Education, IBM, Oracle, and Blackboard all contribute to Sakai, demonstrating a belief in the value and viability of this open source academic environment.

The Sakai community of educators, programmers, and administrators provide a wealth of freely available insight. The mailing lists are active day and night. As an international community, it’s always daytime somewhere, and programmers never sleep.

Sakai OAE is not a revolution in education technology. The groundbreaking innovations of the 1990s are now all familiar. Rather, OAE builds on two decades of web experience to reduce the complexity presented in an LMS. In repackaging familiar tools, it makes them into something else. The strict top-down hierarchy of the traditional LMS is shed. OAE is only just what it needs to be in order to serve its community of teachers, students, and scholars. It is a framework for sharing, collecting, and remembering. It is a system in which many voices can work on an idea, until it becomes a single shared concept. It can be a series of private islands, or a pangaea connecting everything. As Antoine de St. Exupery observed about airplane engineering—great design is “not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.”

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