Sakai Is Probably Healthier Than You Think

These days, most people don’t hear much about Sakai, and when they do, it’s usually bad news. Most recently there was the horrible outage at UC Davis and some other Sakai schools using a support vendor called Scriba. Before that, the last thing you may have heard was the departure of Sakai founders such as Indiana University and University of Michigan for Canvas.

But there’s more than one way to measure the health of a software project, particularly if it is open source. As it turns out, three of the LMSs with significant US and Canadian market share—Canvas, Moodle, and Sakai—are hosted on Github, where the actual development work is publicly visible. We analyzed the activity for these three projects with the help of our friends at LISTedTECH. What we discovered may surprise you. Sakai development is actually accelerating.

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Online Program Management: A view of the market landscape

One of the fastest-growing market segments in ed tech, and one of the least-understood, is that of Online Program Management (OPM). It doesn’t help that the terms OPM, Online Enablers, Online Service Providers are used interchangeably, although OPM is the most common now.

OPM providers are organizations (mostly for-profit companies, but with at least one non-profit variation) that help non-profit schools develop online programs, most often for Master’s level programs. These providers provide various services for which traditional institutions historically have not had the experience or culture to support. Some examples of the services include marketing & recruitment, enrollment management, curriculum development, online course design, student retention support, technology hosting, and student and faculty support.

It would be useful to go beyond the label and get a broader view. Continue reading

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SRI’s Study on Gates Personalized Learning Grants Is Out

This is almost old news now, but we just haven’t been able to dig into it yet. As part of its Adaptive Learning Market Acceleration Program (ALMAP) program, the Gates Foundation funded SRI to do a study of the results of the grants after two years. I hope to finally clear some time to parse through it this week, but two high-level points jump out at me at first glance (neither of which is a big surprise):

  1. There are no conclusive wins here. This is not a robot-tutor-in-the-sky moment. A few programs did well here and there. A handful produced promising incremental gains. But this is not a report that screams, “Wow, adaptive courseware works!” The most you can say is that adaptive learning looks like it could be another arrow in the quiver that helps out in some situations—like developmental math courses at two-year colleges, for example.
  2. Large-scale educational research is incredibly hard and may actually be impossible to do rigorously for certain kinds of questions. I’ll probably get into this more when I’m ready to really write about the report, but one reason the conclusions are murky is because there so many variables in each class—not just each course subject, not just each course at one university, but even with each section of each class taught by one teacher—that really matter, some of which are impossible to control and others of which are unethical to control. It would be a mistake to overinterpret the study as showing that adaptive learning doesn’t help much. I’ve seen studies with narrower focus that have gotten clearer gains. This brings us back to the arrow-in-the-quiver theory. The wider the scope of the research focus, the more that pockets of real benefit will be obscured by noise and uncontrolled variables.

The report is here.

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UC Davis, Sakai, and Open Source

Phil has been a busy boy, putting out two pieces about some Blackboard research that had gotten some negative responses and two more on a horrifically bad LMS outage for UC Davis and other universities using support vendor Scriba.

Our main schtick here at e-Literate is to get beyond the headlines. We try to explain what is actually happening and why it is important. Often, this involves puncturing hype like “robot tutors in the sky,” not by heaping them with scorn but by showing the gap between the hype and reality. But there are also times when we do the same for anti-hype. For example, there is a popular narrative that Blackboard is evil and bad and stupid, partly based on the massive brand damage the company did to itself a decade ago (and two CEOs ago). As a result, when they do…well…anything, it tends to be interpreted in the worst possible light. Personally, I’m glad that Blackboard is sharing the findings of their product research. I don’t know of many ed tech companies that are doing that. This is different than putting out a white paper about some study the company did showing how awesome their product is. Rather, it shows us how they are trying to understand their customers’ needs. Sharing that back with the world helps us, in turn, understand how Blackboard thinks. It is an important kind of transparency. As Phil’s second post on the topic highlights, we do have to understand that this kind of study is different than an academic study in order to draw the right conclusions from it. But that’s fine.

Likewise, the Scriba outage story plays into a “Sakai is dying” narrative. As it happens, I was at conference for the foundation that hosts Sakai last week and got something of a rundown on what was going on, including a preview of the release scheduled to come out this summer. (Oddly, nobody mentioned the outage, which must have been in its early stages at that point.) The Sakai sustainability story is complicated enough to merit a separate post, which I will get to later this week. In the meantime, I’d like to put the Scriba outage in context of how open source works in general and how the Sakai ecosystem works in particular. Because it is very easy for this story to reinforce preconceptions rather than looking at it carefully on its own merits.

Phil wrote,

There is an interesting angle here in that Sakai is open source yet data is not easily recoverable.

Right. Open source can help with problems like the Scriba outage. As far as I can tell, it did help UC Davis. But it’s not that simple. There is a lesson to be learned here for all LMS-using schools, but it’s not “open source doesn’t provide the flexibility that it is supposed to provide”; nor is it “Sakai is dying.”

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UC Davis LMS Back Online: Update on what we know about Scriba Sakai outage

I’ve been told by two sources that the UC Davis LMS outage I described in this post may be over, and the SmartSite LMS is back online (SmartSite is UC Davis’ implementation of Sakai, hosted by Scriba). I would like to update what we know about the overall situation while we wait for additional confirmation. The following is based on my conversations with a Scriba inside source who asked to remain anonymous, a student at UC Davis, the LISTedTECH team whose database powers our new LMS subscription service, some commenters from the blog post, and a more thorough review of the UC Davis IT status site. And I should point out that UC Davis team has done an excellent job in communications – timely messages with no defensiveness, and full transparency.

The Outage

On Thursday, May 19, Scriba notified UC Davis and several other schools that it would perform emergency maintenance starting Friday, May 20 at 9pm PDT and ending Monday, May 23 at 11am PDT. The outage was not caused by software applications but data center issues. I’ve asked what this means, and I’ve been told that Scriba will describe the outage in the next week. Continue reading

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