Charles Severance’s “Sakai: Free as in Freedom:” A Review

This is a guest post by Jim Farmer, instructional media + magic inc. Jim has been Treasurer of the Sakai Foundation since December.

When building a complex software system developers want to use the latest technology. Users want business processes and data presentations that serve them and their “customers.” Management focuses on the allocation of resources and schedules. Sakai is an enterprise open-source learning system developed in 2004-2005 by a team from Indiana and Stanford Universities, University of Michigan and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Other colleges and universities joined the follow-on Sakai Foundation development. All encountered conflicting priorities for functionality, schedule, and new features. Open source is even more difficult because there is no central control over the contributors.

Author Charles Severance was Chief Architect of the project from 2004 through 2005. He became a Foundation Board member in January 2006 named Executive Director of the Foundation in May. He writes from the perspective of a technologist. Severence had differences with the project Advisory Board and the Foundation Board—strategy, allocation of resources, and priorities for development. As a “Retrospective Diary” both the technical choices and the differences with the Boards are described chronologically. This assists the reader to interpret the differences of perceived priorities, technology choices, and commitments. The Sakai project was committed to deliver a working system to Michigan and Indiana in fall 2005 to replace their then current systems and to satisfy the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant conditions. Then a new organization needed to be created to sustain the community that began separately and provided significant funding and contributions. There are few precedents though Severance acknowledges the earlier uPortal project—similarly funded by the Mellon Foundation—was successful with a different development approach and business plan.

Other perspectives can be read in Severance’s writings or inferred from the information he provides.

Severance was also interested in deploying Sakai as a virtual research environment aided by JISC (UK’s. Joint Information Systems Committee)-funded research projects. This expanded scope was not enthusiastically received by those wanting to focus on teaching and learning to the uPortal community. Blackboard Inc., the then-leading learning management system, sued Desire2Learn—a new Canadian startup—for patent infringement. In Severance’s view this presented a threat to all similar software developments. It also violated the values of the larger academic community even though research universities were being encouraged to file patents on their innovations.

Severance observes: “Teaching and learning software is always evolving and in a state of flux, good ideas can literally come from any part of the world and an idea can come as easily from a student as from a professional instructional designer. So I felt that it would be wrong to let design and priority decisions rest in the hands of a select few”—specifically the Sakai Boards populated by users. The Sakai Boards tended toward more traditional design, build, and deploy to meet agreed objectives.

Australia-based Moodle was another learning system that chose different technologies and a different business model. Severance comments about Moodle in his description of his meeting with UK’s Open University, which made a major investment in the open source system under Jason Cole, adapting it to their procedures.

Severance’s book also reveals him as a thoughtful and supportive parent—largely unknown in the community—as well as a passionate executive. He returned to teaching at the University of Michigan Fall 2007. He is a member of the Sakai Board.

It would be informative if a member of the Sakai Boards authored a similar chronology from their perspective. This would provide another perspective and let readers better understand choices needed to be made for open-source software development, support, and enhancement.

Anyone embarking on a complex open-source software system in higher education should read Severance’s book to learn the results of alternatives suggested and taken. Severance identifies what didn’t work as well as what did. Instructors should read the book to better understand how they can contribute in designing the functionality that they believe should be available for their students. Business officers should read about the licensing and patent issues in Chapter 17 through 21 to learn about yet-unresolved intellectual property issues before receiving cease and desist letters.

We—the readers—should appreciate Chuck giving us an opportunity to better understand his experience and his views.

The publish-on-demand book is available at Amazon. The URL is Freedom-Alpha-Retrospective-Diary/dp/1461166292.

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Jim Farmer is an engineering economist at instructional media + magic inc. His interests include educational technology, academic research, and information standards. He also writes for Intellectual Property Magazine. For more information, see his profile page.
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3 Responses to Charles Severance’s “Sakai: Free as in Freedom:” A Review

  1. Pingback: instructional media + magic » Sakai: Free as in Freedom. A review.

  2. As per your suggestion I too would definitely like to see a compilation of retrospective diaries about the Sakai effort! I found Chuck’s book also very interesting although I highlight different things:

  3. Pingback: Dr. Chucks Blog » Blog Archive » Educause: Openness Discussion Session

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