Given that Sakai 1.5 was a feature-impoverished, unusable wreck, I fully expected 2.0 to be unusable as well. After spending half a day with it, I think it’s safe to say that I was wrong. While 2.0 is certainly not nearly as mature as other FOSS LMS’s such as dotLRN and Moodle, I think it may just be roughly competitive with entry-level Blackboard or WebCT Campus Edition. That’s an impressive leap to make in 6 months.As one of my colleagues observed, Sakai feels very “Blackboardish”. That can be good or bad, depending on how you feel about Blackboard. The upside is that it is, on the whole, reasonably intuitive to get around in. The downside is that it’s not exactly ground-breaking in how it organizes pedagogical experiences. We haven’t been able to try out Melete, Sakai’s course content presentation system (its release was delayed by a week or two), and that’s an important area I’ll want to look at. And I’m still poking around; the devil is in the details with these things. But so far most of the parts seem to be there and they seem to be mostly usable. If the Sakai community can maintain the same pace of improvement through the next two releases, this platform could be solidly competitive by this time next year. (Sakai releases a new version every six months.)
This is not to say it’s without its holes and problems. Let me start with the two most revealing ones regarding the blind spots of the Sakai community:
- The discussion board is unusably bad. As I noted in a previous rant, Sakai’s discussion board makes all the classic UI mistakes in discussion board design. That hasn’t changed from 1.0 to 2.0; in fact, unless my memory is playing tricks on me, it’s possible that the interface has gotten worse. I seem to recall that there was a way to view the text of all posts in a thread via a pop-up window. That option is nowhere to be found in the 2.0 interface. In addition, there is no way at all to sort the threads. Not by date, not by author.
- There is no support for groupwork within a class. None at all. Really.
To me, what this says is that (a) distance learning teachers have not played a significant role in the interface design and (b) the four big institutions at the core of the Sakai project aren’t giving a whole lot of thought to using Sakai beyond basic web-enhancement of F2F classes. Because nobody who had any serious intentions to teach hybrid or fully online class would let these two problems persist. They are both deal-breakers. And since other areas of the UI have clearly gotten some work, it leads me to worry that the folks driving Sakai are really just that clueless about what makes for a great distance learning platform. (Or, alternatively, they don’t care that much. My experience is that the degree to which a school is committed to fully online learning is inversely proportional to the popularity of their sports teams. If campus life is a big part of the school’s brand value, then selling distance learning just doesn’t appeal that much.)
Two more shortcomings and annoyances:
- Sakai breaks the browser “Back” button from time to time and doesn’t tell the user. You have to figure out for yourself that you can only move on from a screen with “Submit” or “Cancel” button by clicking on either “Submit” or “Cancel”. You also have to figure out for yourself that sometimes (but not always), the only way to back up to a previous screen within an individual portlet is to click on the small upward-pointing arrow at the top edge of each portlet window. I’m told that session management is challenging to do right in a portalized environment, and apparently Sakai 2.0 takes the cheap way out, at the cost of some usability.
- While Sakai has very nice, fine-grained permissions for a number of applications, including discussion boards, file sharing, and a few others, the interface for setting those permissions is pretty bad. It’s a bunch of check boxes that look like they were named after the Java classes the programmer happened to be using.
These are annoyances, but they’ll have a material negative impact on both utilization of the system and number of calls you get to your help desk (assuming you have one).
OK, so what would I like to see by Sakai 3.0? There are a million small to medium-sized features I could list, but playing the bullet point game doesn’t tend to yield excellence in learning environments. Instead, I’d concentrate on a few big things:
- Fully integrate Sakai with uPortal, including their session management. This would both solve the “Back” button problem and go most of the way toward solving the lack of support for groups within courses. It would also allow for the creation of sharable, re-usable content containers that float free of any given course instance but can be easily pulled into any given course instance. (uPortal has very powerful and flexible groups, roles, and permissions structures. My experience with LMS’s is that the designers always get these three pieces wrong because they have too narrow a sense of how they might be useful in a learning environment.) And also, uPortal is a great integration framework, supporting WSRP and JSR-168 for the hard stuff and iframes and RSS for the easy stuff.
- Integrate Sakai with Moodle on an application-by-application basis. The Moodle community would never make the discussion board and group work mistakes that the Sakai community made. They’re a very teaching-centric development community. At the same time, Sakai’s plumbing is undeniably impressive. I think Moodle’s chocolate would taste great with Sakai’s peanutbutter.
- Integrate support for IMS Learning Design. As I said, Sakai isn’t exactly ground-breaking as a learning environment. But best-in-class LD support could change that by allowing instructors to call tools into an interface that scaffolds the course by pedagogical experiences rather than by software function. The best example I’ve seen of this potential in action is LAMS, though Moodle, ANGEL, and SUNY’s SLN all do this to some degree (and I haven’t yet seen the LD integration into dotLRN).
The good news is that the Sakai community is working with the uPortal and Moodle communities, respectively, on achieving the first two of these goals. I’d like to see those efforts put on the front burner and I’d also like to see a commitment to LD. With those three big changes plus incremental improvements across the rest of the toolset, Sakai 3.0 could be very impressive.