University of Michigan and Indiana University pause investment in Sakai OAE

In news that seems to be well understood in the Sakai community but not elsewhere, Sakai founding members the University of Michigan and Indiana University have collectively decided to pause investment in the Sakai Open Academic Environment (OAE) project - formerly known as Sakai 3.

Most institutions working with Sakai are using the  Collaboration and Learning Environment (CLE), formerly known as Sakai 2 - think of CLE as an enterprise LMS like Blackboard or Desire2Learn. Sakai OAE is a next-generation learning platform based on learner-center, collaboration design originally released as version 1.0 in September 2011.  I cannot think of a direct comparison to OAE in a commercial offering, but that is part of the difference. CLE is essentially an evolutionary approach to the LMS, whereas OAE is a revolutionary approach to a learning platform based on different use cases. The Michigan and Indiana decision affects their participation in OAE but does not change their participation in CLE.

Ian Dolphin, executive director of the Sakai foundation, made an announcement dated June 7th:

I wanted to appraise you of a recent development in the Sakai OAE project. Indiana University and the University of Michigan recently decided, for a variety of local factors, to pause their investment in the project effective July 1st in order to re-assess institutional direction. We are all aware of the challenging environment facing higher education and understand that local priorities sometimes change institutional involvement in collaborative ventures such as ours.

The remaining project partners have met to effect planning in this new circumstance. They remain committed to the success of OAE, are heartened by the substantive advances made in recent months, and are confident of a sustainable future path.

In an earlier email, representatives from the University of Michigan and Indiana University notified several peer institutions, stating that “the last six months appear to signal some important shifts that merit a fresh lens on all options for LMS successors”. Although specific examples were not included, the decision appears to have been partially driven by rapid changes in the LMS market and the emerging market for alternative educational delivery models.

So what effect will the Michigan and Indiana decision have on the LMS or broader learning platform market? From what I can tell, the answer at the surface level is not much. The real implications are at the deeper, hidden level of perceptions and insight into organizational models and politics.

Surface Level of Investment and Resources

Based on discussions with various stakeholders with the Sakai OAE community and feedback from the Jasig / Sakai conference, the Michigan and Indiana announcement has not by itself weakened the resolve of those institutions and organizations that have already planned to invest in and use the new platform. Other Sakai schools may have similar needs to evaluate market changes, but to my knowledge not directly based on the Michigan and Indiana decision. Even Michigan and Indiana indicated in their email that “there is much to like in the person- and content-centric paradigm of OAE”. People and organizations already deploying OAE tend to support and endorse the concept, as the platform helps “move teaching into a collaborative endeavor” and “designs a learning space, with specific tools [living] in the background”.

It is worth pointing out that while the University of Michigan and Indiana University were two of the driving forces behind Sakai CLE, they were not playing the same lead roles with Sakai OAE – Cambridge University, New York University and others seem to have the lead roles in this project.

The more direct question is whether the specific resources that are being pulled back (in terms of financial investment and development resources) will directly impact Sakai OAE direction or development schedules. While I have not been able to talk directly with representatives from University of Michigan or Indiana University, they did agree to provide a statement.

The review conducted by the Sakai OAE partners at the recent Jasig Sakai Conference in Atlanta has reassured them that the project remains healthy and viable, and that the IU and Michigan investment pause does not have any near or medium term effect on the velocity of the project.

Ian Dolphin gave similar feedback, stating that we should not see much reduction in velocity of the project in the next 6 – 8 months, and that ”I’m very comfortable with the level of staffing moving forward”.

Despite such assurances, the core questions remain whether Sakai has the common vision and adequate resources to support both CLE and OAE moving forward, and whether Sakai platforms can keep up with broader market changes. The LMS and learning platform markets are not standing by with the same slow pace of innovation that marked the 2000s. Taking too long to come out with platform innovation and improvements will cause Sakai to become less relevant to the broader higher education community considering their future paths in educational technology.

Hidden Level of Organizational Model and Politics

I believe that one of the biggest impacts of the decision will be to raise further questions about the sustainability of the community source model as practiced by Sakai. One major challenge of the community source model is that the model can have too much top-down control, which removes one of the strengths of open source. By having implied or actual “control” over real contributors, it replaces the personal relationships and commitments that  make the “Bazaar” function in the more organic forms of Open Source and relies too much on institutional politics and management structures.

The Michigan and Indiana decision has many indications of organizational politics, given the listserv announcement to peer institutions occurring before Sakai board members appear to have learned the details, given the timing of the announcement just two weeks prior to the Jasig Sakai conference, and given the timing just before an upcoming vote from members of both communities about the proposed merger of Jasig and Sakai.. While I do not have direct evidence, the impression I have is that the method and timing of the announcement were intended to influence others in the Sakai community and were not purely based on internal decisions at the two schools.

Furthermore, open source typically follows an evolutionary model, providing freer, higher quality solutions to existing categories. Sakai OAE is a revolutionary technology, attempting to leapfrog other platforms. This puts Sakai into uncharted territory, seeking to define a new product or platform vision. To do so, the Sakai OAE project needs a cohesive vision with more buy-in from key contributing institutions. The University of Michigan and Indiana University announcement provides fresh evidence that there is not a unified vision within the community.

The question moving forward, therefore, is whether Sakai OAE can take the opportunity of this announcement to coalesce behind a unified vision and leverage the community source model to execute on that vision in a timely manner.

Hidden Level of Perception

Based on a conversation with Ian Dolphin, the goal of Sakai in terms of adoption is not pure market share growth. The goal is to have the right balance between adoption and contribution to deliver CLE and OAE. The challenge, however, is that with too little adoption, there will be inadequate contribution. The perception of the higher education community is quite relevant, and either a potential increase in Sakai institutions moving to other systems, or a lack of new adoption will cause further risk to the Sakai projects.

Final Thoughts

All told, it is hard to fault the University of Michigan or Indiana University for understanding the significance of the market changes and the need to review all options moving forward. While it appears that the decision will not directly have a major impact on Sakai OAE direction or development, the decision does expose organizational and perception issues that Sakai must overcome to remain relevant in the educational technology market.

Disclosure: Michael Feldstein, creator of the e-Literate site, sits on the Sakai board. He has neither previewed nor edited this post.

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About Phil Hill

Phil is a consultant and industry analyst covering the educational technology market primarily for higher education. He has written for e-Literate since Aug 2011. For a more complete biography, view his profile page.
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4 Responses to University of Michigan and Indiana University pause investment in Sakai OAE

  1. Peter Hess says:

    You’ve done well to explore the underlying causes of the CLE/OAE schism. One could, I think, go even one or two levels deeper with the exploration.

    At the next level down, the dichotomy reveals a long-standing conflict at the heart of academia. That is the tension between the values of academic freedom, ongoing dialog, free expression, and unfettered exploration, and the demands, particularly incumbent on the modern university, to maintain student privacy, uphold standards, attain or preserve accreditation, and protect intellectual property. It probably goes without saying that OAE’s philosophy serves the former, and CLE’s walled garden approach represents the latter.

    At a deeper level, perhaps, one could see an eternal struggle between order and change that goes on in the human psyche.

    The work of balancing, controlling and nurturing these conflicting tendencies, pressures and aspirations is a central and ongoing proposition in the academic and human enterprise. So a lot is at stake here. And by the way, based on a concerted but not very expert look at both CLE and OAE, the Sakai group has not so far done a very good job of achieving a significant degree of reconciliation.

  2. Phil Hill says:

    Peter, well stated and interesting take on the apparent dilemma faced by Sakai as well as higher ed in general.

    Do you think that others (particularly those in Sakai community) think of CLE and OAE split in these terms?

  3. Bruce D'Arcus says:

    I think Peter raises an interesting point that’s probably part of the explanation. But I wouldn’t take it too far. By the standards of 2012, I don’t think CLE actually does serve many of the institutional priorities he identifies very well, for example (nor does Moodle, or Blackboard, etc.).

    I actually read the tension as much more general and basic: there’s a whole lot of costs sunk in CLE that present institutional and organizational inertia; from programming code, to documentation and training knowledge, to an ecosystem of consultants. A radical rewrite and reimagination like OAE will only succeed to the degree it breaks free of those constraints, and (re)create its own infrastructure of code, knowledge, and support.

    So for Sakai to succeed more broadly into the future, it will have to go through some painful creative destruction.

    Michael once compared this to Apple’s task migrating to OS X, which is probably a good metaphor. Perhaps Python 3 is another, more recently.

    I think your point on community source is a good one, BTW, and is also part of the story.

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