Review: Sakai Courseware Management

I’ve been meaning to get to this for a while. I promised Michael Korcuska that I would review the new Sakai book that he co-wrote with Alan Berg. This is a particularly important milestone for the Sakai community because it is the first one published about the LMS. When you have only one book on a system, it needs to cover a lot of ground to satisfy the different audiences. In contrast, because there are at least ten books written about Moodle, it is possible to have one written just about using it to teach 7- to 14-year-olds. Can the new Sakai book be all things to all audiences? Does it meet the challenge? The short answer is “mostly”.

The book starts out with a chapter called “What is Sakai?”. This is more than just a description of what an LMS is. It provides an overview of the open source community, governance, and even some basics of the development process that schools looking to deploy Sakai would want to know. In other words, it gives the reader a good basic grounding in Sakai as an open source project as well as in Sakai as an LMS. This will be particularly useful to readers who are used to dealing with a proprietary platform and who need to reset their expectations regarding how the software gets improved and what their involvement could be with the people who develop it.

This theme of Sakai as a community is woven throughout the book. For example, one chapter provides case studies of how various adopting institutions are using Sakai, while another includes pictures and short biographies of many prominent members of the Sakai community—something that would have been very helpful to me at the first couple of Sakai conferences I attended. The approach is light in some of these sections, occasionally crossing over into the frivolous. For example, the “Rogues Gallery” chapter starts with a section called “If the Sakai community were a person”:

If the community were a person then she would always be on time for planned events such as meetings, meals, and secret rendezvous at bars and sending in her work to her boss. She always meets her deadlines even if it means workin in the weekends or late into the nights. Her friends call her Sakaigeress after the famed mythical stuffed toy (the Sakaiger) that she once received as an award for all her hard work.

Sakaigeress is fluent in many languages and is a renowned karaoke singer and chili eater. She likes to collect photos on her travels and share them through social networks with many dubious associates. She has flashes of inspiration that mean she is constantly discussing ways of changing the businesses she is involved in.

Sakaigeress is still young; however, she is growing up fast. She has travelled the world and is constantly looking for new challenges.

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Cheesy? Without a doubt. Whether it’s too much or not really depends on who is reading it. And that’s the trouble with trying to write one book for all audiences; you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

But don’t worry; the authors do manage to please all of the people some of the time. The lighter portions are balanced with some hard-core sections on topics ranging from how to set up a course site to how to write Sakai web services. The sections are well organized, clearly titled, and cleanly separated, so that different types of readers (teachers, administrators, programmers, etc.) can find what they need and skip what they don’t. The book is a little thin on the pedagogical side of things, but that weakness is somewhat counterbalanced by the high quality of the writing. For the teaching and virtual classroom management tasks that were covered, I found them easier to follow and apply than analogous content in either of the two Moodle books I own (both also published by Packt). Sakai Courseware Management is suffused with a very practical, hands-on approach. It is very good for getting the reader started. More advanced topics, whether on teaching, administration, or development, will have to be taken up in other, more specialized books.

There are a few minor blemishes that you typically find with a book from a publishing house that expects the authors to self-edit (e.g., Chapter 4 is called “My First Project Site” while Chapter 5 is called “Your First Course Site”), but overall this is an excellent first book for Sakai. In fact, I would say it’s one of the better books that I’ve read in this genre. If you are looking to get a sense of what Sakai is, how it works, what it’s like to adopt the platform and participate in the community, and how to get started on installing, running, and using the software, then this book will do the job.

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About Michael Feldstein

Michael Feldstein is co-Publisher of e-Literate, co-Producer of e-Literate TV, and Partner in MindWires Consulting. For more information, see his profile page.
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2 Responses to Review: Sakai Courseware Management

  1. Josh Baron says:

    WARNING: This is an egotistical self-serving posting that is strongly biased by my involvement in helping to author this chapter.

    I would love to hear your thoughts on some of the conclusions that were drawn from the 2009 Teaching with Sakai Innovation Award winners who were highlighted in chapter 15. As I worked with the winners on that chapter I was surprised by some of the underlying teaching and learning themes that seemed present in both projects. These same themes “active and student-centered learning” were also present in the 2010 winners projects.


  2. For me, Josh, these points are somewhat axiomatic. Traditional teaching as evolved over hundreds (maybe thousands) of years of experience teaching in an empty box that we call a “classroom”. Many teachers can’t count on having anything to work with other than their own persuasive skills and captive audience. So, naturally, the front of the classroom evolved into something of a stage. Not that it’s impossible to do student-centered active learning in a traditional classroom, but it’s more work because you don’t have a lot to work with. So a lot of teachers just don’t put the work in to figure out how it can be done or, worse, they never get the experience to see the value of it.

    Teaching online is completely different. There is no stage. You have no captive audience. You have no ability to lean on your physical presence and stagecraft as a teacher. What you do have is the wide world that the student is immersed in, and the student’s imagination and initiative. So that’s what you use. One of the reasons that I love working in this field is that it forces teachers to try better pedagogical practices that they then often bring back to the physical classroom.