This is a guest post by Dr. Ian Boston for the On the Horizon series on distributed learning environments. Dr Boston holds a first degree in Engineering and a PhD in parallel computing. During the early 1990’s he parallelized grand challenge applications in science and engineering. After a frenetic period of multiple startups in Silicon Fen, as a founder, angel investor and board member he returned to the University of Cambridge to become CTO at CARET. The University of Cambridge joined the Sakai Project and over recent years has contributed greatly to its development. Ian was honored to be awarded one of the first Sakai Fellowships and speaks regularly at Opensource meetings in the US, Europe and Australia.
The online world has realized that connections and communications are capable of leveraging greater efficiencies and delivery than application silos. This movement started with the scaling requirements driven by the growth curves of the large internet startups like Amazon and Google. Strangely web technology has not changed much for 10 years but we have all started to realise that the web is a simple place where bytes on the wire is all that we are communicating.
Distributed web applications became possible in the late 1990’s, informed by the numerous parallel distributed applications in science and engineering. Although there are challenges in employing wide scale parallelism and distributed architectures, the discipline leads to loose coupling. The loose coupling allows development teams to communicate with one another through standards and interfaces, and allows the skills mix within those teams to compliment each other rather than being in conflict. The absolute key to success with this style of application and development is sophistication through simplicity; as there is plenty of complexity available to overwhelm all stakeholders.
These dreams are not just dreams, over the past 8 months we, at Cambridge, have been practicing this approach and seen the benefits.
The trigger was the announcement in November 07 of the OpenSocial API by Google and a few key phrases from that announcement that opened from our eyes to the possibilities. Web development is simple, there are 100s of 1000s of web developers out there developing applications using whatever works for them. If we, in delivering applications for education create barriers to entry that prevent that army of developers from engaging we will lose the benefit of the powerhouse that is represented by the open source development community. We were working on Sakai, the development teams were largely populated by hard core Java developers, often with only a passing interest in the UI. Every new team member with a passion for UI soon became disillusioned and unproductive.
Underneath, it is Sakai, operating as a data server, but ontop it is Gadgets, Widgets and Ajax applications delivered in HTML. We call this SData, where many of the concepts are borrowed from GData and other Google API’s.
Meanwhile the OpenSocial specification is evolving; version 0.8 has introduced the idea of Groups. The focus of protocol development has moved away from ATOM and towards a simpler, and more browser efficient REST based JSON API. Our development path is on a parallel but converging track with OpenSocial. Networks within academia will become embedded into the applications delivered from academia. Just as Facebook grew though the academic community out to the masses, there will be a class of applications, with detailed knowledge of the needs of education, hosted within Universities, supporting teaching and learning and research, but integrating with distributed services from applications all over the internet. The monolithic application in teaching and learning and research has died. We cannot afford to develop and maintain it; in the process replicating the work of so many others. We have an opportunity to leverage global services provisioned by others, paid for by advertising, but with this approach we can maintain control over the information and services that are dear to teaching and learning and research.