I have decided to hold off posting about individual presentations at the Sakai Amsterdam conference until the podcasts of those presentations are available. In the meantime, I thought it might be helpful to provide my general impressions of the state of the Sakai community. It’s always difficult to get a sense of the likely evolution of an open source project. Historic performance is not necessarily predictive of future performance. So what I’m going to talk about here is not so much Sakai the software as Sakai the community. How is it evolving? How is that evolution likely to impact the software in the future?
After spending a rather full week of long days talking to many community members, I can honestly say that I have never been more hopeful about the future of Sakai than I am today.
Long-time readers of this blog know that, while I have been a believer in the idea of the modular learning environment that Sakai aspires to be, I have been skeptical about whether the community was going to be able to achieve that ideal (or even become a leader among the current-generation LMSs)–not because of technical barriers, but because of cultural and political ones. Growing an open source community is hard, and growing a “community source” community is even harder in some respects. It wasn’t clear to me that the necessary alchemy was present in the Sakai community.
I was somewhat encouraged to see signs of growth six months ago at the Sakai conference in Atlanta. By comparison, though, I was downright astonished to see a very significant acceleration in this growth at the Amsterdam conference. In fact, my perceptions were so different from the past that I didn’t quite trust my judgment. So I spoke with other members of the community whose judgment I trust and who have proven themselves to be skeptics as well. They agreed that the Sakai community seems to have suddenly shifted into a different gear. It’s hard to quantify exactly what’s changed, but I’ll do my best to give my impressions across a number of dimensions.
Commitment to transparency: Historically, the Sakai project hasn’t been particularly good at communicating events, decisions, and direction, either to participating community members or to interested outside parties. Some of this was by design, as the leadership tried out early models of “community source” that were a little too far removed from the ideals of “open source”. Much of it was due to a combination of inexperience running an open source project and the challenges of priority juggling, as the institutions driving the project early on focused on the time-sensitive priorities of meeting the conditions and time line of the original grant, along with satisfying their own stakeholders (which was necessary in order for them to be able to meet the conditions of the grant). Sakai has been making slow progress on the transparency front for a while now. For example, there is nothing that non-paying stakeholders can’t access at this point (although, ironically, I’m not sure how many people outside the community know that). But this goal appears to have taken on a new sense of urgency, and there are indications that resources will be committed to, for example, improving the public web site.
Increasing sense of ownership from non-developer stakeholders: During the Q&A session with the Foundation Board, there was strong pressure from a number of people in the crowd to develop and execute a clearer vision for Sakai’s educational value proposition. What particularly impressed me was the frequent use of the pronoun “we.” These people had a sense of ownership. That was new to me. I haven’t seen educators as a cohesive and vocal inter-institutional stakeholder group in the Sakai community before now. This development more than any other gives me hope, since I don’t believe that any educational software can become truly excellent without strong direct participation from educators as a group.
Openness to change: As pleased as I was to see the educators press the Board, I was equally pleased to see the Board members respond thoughtfully and non-defensively. They didn’t always have the answers that the audience wanted to hear, but I thought they handled the hard and sometimes paradoxical job of leading a community source project very well. John Norman, Mara Hancock, Chris Coppola, and Jutta Treviranus gave particularly strong performances. Michael Korcuska, the Foundation’s new Executive Director, also shows great promise. I will add that the openness reflected in the Board’s performance was equally evident up and down the line at all levels of the community throughout many conversations. The thirst for new ideas was palpable and exciting. In the past, the Sakai community has felt insular to me. In Amsterdam last week, I had the opposite feeling.
Commitment to usability: This is an area where I feel that Sakai could go from trailing the competition to a position of leadership in just a couple of releases. To begin with, the level of urgency is extremely high. You couldn’t go more than 30 minutes without somebody bringing it up. There appears to be a lot of energy focused on this, to the point where Michael Korcuska, who generally avoided making declarations until he has had at least a few months on the job, declared it to be an obvious priority. In addition, I am very impressed with the approach and resources being brought to bear via the Fluid project.
Commitment to release quality: There was quite a bit of talk about improved testing (QA testing, unit testing, etc.) and results of these efforts. This is not my area, so I don’t have much to say about the specific changes being made. But I do know that solid testing is both a requirement for widespread adoption and a sign of a maturing open source community.
Commitment to standards support: Regular readers know this is something of a hobby horse for me. I am a strong believer that the next generation of learning environments will require creation of and adherence to a broad array of interoperability standards to support much more flexibility than we have today. Sakai has always been modular, but only if you are willing to use Sakai APIs and follow the Sakai way of doing things. Suddenly work is blossoming for support of a variety of standards, ranging from RSS to IMS Enterprise, IMS Tool Interoperability, JSR 168, WSRP, JSR 170, and SAML (among others). Some of this work has been incubating for a while, but for the first time there is a critical mass of standards-compliant integration points that are nearing production quality. I believe that adoption of these standards is likely to significantly accelerate the pace of innovation in Sakai, in part by blurring the boundaries between “inside” Sakai and “outside” Sakai. More on this in future posts.
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As I said at the beginning of this post, I’m writing today about the state of the Sakai community as opposed to the state of the software or even the state of the project. There is an enormous amount of work still to be done if the software is to fulfill its potential. That said, I would not bet against Sakai. This community is just getting started.