Sakai: Helping UB Get to the 'Ultimate Course'
By Chris Hart
A few months ago, a buzz started around campus: Sakai is coming. What is it? Not sure, but it's going to improve our online courses.
Then, a little more: Sakai is an open-sourced platform. Pass it on.
Now it's nearly the end of the academic year, and the buzz has gotten quite a bit louder: Sakai is coming. It's going to change everything for the better.
It's true: Sakai, a community-sourced approach to delivering an effective e-learning environment, will be introduced to the University of Baltimore community beginning with the summer semester. UB's instance of Sakai replaces WebTycho, which has been used for the last five years in both online and on-campus courses. Professors, and soon students, who will be in class starting this summer are receiving the first round of training. "Go-live" for the platform is slated for mid-May.
Ordinarily, the introduction of a new hub for delivering online courses would be relatively low-key. Faculty who teach online would know about it, and certainly those who procured the tool and those who got it up and running would be closely involved. But there's a reason why this event is important for the entire UB community: Sakai is a game-changer. It puts UB in a global partnership, a marketplace of colleges and universities that demand first-rate capabilities to empower teaching and learning. It's open-sourced, meaning it is constantly undergoing improvements by and for its users. Most importantly, it has the potential to become a superior way of communicating across all segments of the campus—a virtual town square to serve the needs of our growing, evolving institution.
First, a quick primer on Sakai (and some local history for context): The platform, currently being configured by the Longsight Group and Unicon (both Sakai commercial affiliates and vetted by the Sakai community), will expand UB's capabilities as a leader in providing online courses for thousands of students. It will host all of UB's online offerings, as well as support both "blended" and "hybrid" (some online, some face-to-face) learning as well as traditional brick-and-mortar classes. Through a single sign-on, it will give students access to their class schedules, course details, assignments, due dates, etc.; for faculty, the tools will include a message center to remind students about assignments, and provide supplemental materials, e.g., a link to scholarly articles tied to a class topic. In addition, all student papers can be submitted through an integrated software package called "Turnitin," which checks for authenticity against a massive database and lets the professor know privately if it encounters problems.
UB was among the country's first universities to offer significant e-learning opportunities, introducing its webMBA program (the first AACSB-accredited fully online M.B.A. program) in 1999, its webBachelor's program in 2001, and its webMPA (accredited by the National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration) in 2003. In that time, obviously, much has changed. In fact, there are now more face-to-face courses using e-learning tools than fully online courses.
The University selected Sakai based on a recommendation by a faculty-led taskforce that included represention from the entire UB community. This taskforce was tasked with comparing leading providers' learning-platform products (Blackboard, Moodle and Sakai). This consensus-building effort ensured that UB's specific needs for its online toolkit are met at the outset, and that the platform is essentially a "known quantity" to a number of its key users from its first day in operation.
"The selection of Sakai as UB's new learning-management system resulted from a thorough review process in which faculty and staff devoted a good amount of time and consideration," said Joseph S. Wood, provost and senior vice president of academic affairs. "To all of those who participated in the review, I offer my sincere thanks. But this is only the beginning. Sakai now offers us new and creative opportunities for instructional innovation and course and curriculum management tied to our enterprise systems—opportunities we are only just coming to grasp."
For example—and it's a big one—there's UB 21: Under this rubric, the University is exploring how it can evolve in the new century to meet increased demand for courses, and, along with that, what courses should be offered and how they should be taught. Pedagogy, solid academic programming, retention, career preparation, campus culture—all of these top-of-mind issues will be considered within the UB 21 regime. To drive the campus forward, it's going to require a lot of communication. That's where Sakai comes in.
Let's say a Merrick School of Business faculty member gets a middle-of-the-night idea: UB could host a conference on the future of e-commerce. Instead of just sharing that idea around the coffee table at the office and hoping it takes off, she posts it in Sakai's discussion forum, a virtual whiteboard for group discussion. A number of educators from across all of UB's schools sign in and find it there, and they start exchanging information.
Pretty soon it's not only a UB-wide initiative encompassing e-commerce, simulation, commercialism in social media, intellectual property and a raft of other related topics, it's also being considered for integration into a number of courses across campus. From there, could the conference morph into a free-standing class? Who knows? The point is, the hard work of shopping an idea from door to door is made simple by the platform, and new, wholly unexpected outcomes are the result of just this one part of the toolkit.
"UB 21 is about finding out what works for our campus," said Regina Bento, senior assistant to the provost for academic planning for UB 21 and professor of management in the business school. "Sakai will help us develop an empirical base of knowledge, not only individually but in collaboration. It's completely flexible, and we're going to learn a lot about ourselves from it."
Paul Walsh, director of instructional technology for the Office of Technology Services and facilitator of the search for WebTycho's replacement, agrees.
"This tool will help us pivot and leverage things in UB 21 from a pedagogical point of view," he said. "It gives us a certain presence in the 'marketplace' of e-learning that we didn't have before."
Some experts see Sakai as the driver of what they call "the ultimate course"—that class that both professors and students point to as an all-time highlight of the college-going experience.
"For the ultimate course, teachers certainly need more than course materials. They need course software enabling students to interact with the content, supporting small group discussions, facilitating testing, and so on. Such software can be developed
using the tried-and-true techniques and tools of the open-source software movement," wrote authors Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams in their January/February 2010 article in Educause, entitled "It's Time!: Innovating the 21st Century University."
"If thousands of people can develop the most sophisticated computer operating system in the world (Linux), they can certainly develop tools for individual courses. There are many well-known open-source software projects under way in the academic community. One of the most popular is Sakai. Built by educators for educators, Sakai facilitates collaboration in and across courses, research, projects, administrative processes, and multi-disciplinary and multi-institution efforts. Creation of the software itself is a product of content co-innovation, and the product in turn helps co-innovate content that can be taught to students. More such projects are needed."
Beyond the platform's support in the creation of cool courses, Bento said she is especially happy with its capabilities in capturing data on teaching and learning, information vital to mapping and managing change but previously unavailable via WebTycho.
Simply put, Merrick Dean Darlene Smith wants everyone in her school to use the platform every day:
"Teaching and learning how business works can't be limited to two or three hours of your day," she said. "The concept of the pure face-to-face class is outdated. All of us should be actively involved in this virtual world, because it has so much to offer: great discussions, big ideas, new perspectives. This really is the future."
Several of those involved in bringing Sakai to campus stress that while the new tool is superior, WebTycho was not bad in its day.
"There's been an evolution going on in online learning for a long time now—think about how much has changed since the first time a person sat down at a desk to work with a computer," Walsh said. "WebTycho was a good solution for us, but things change and an open-source solution shows great promise for longevity and the opportunity to be a part of that continual evolution."
In a time of budget austerity, UB saved funds by not purchasing a proprietary platform, he noted. And it also saved money and time by not trying to purchase the servers on which the platform is housed, and not hiring additional staff to keep it running and accessible. That expertise, he explained, is less expensive and guarantees a level of reliability and redundancy in the form of full-time assistance provided by Longsight. The company is thoroughly versed in the platform's ins and outs, and is part of the worldwide network of developers who are punching up the tool to maintain its effectiveness.
As part of this community, Walsh said, the University has embraced the collaborative spirit of open source, receiving some customizations via Sakai developers at the University of Capetown in South Africa. Walsh said he expects that as UB's familiarity with the tool grows, the number of suggestions from students and faculty users will grow too.
"We simply could not get that level of service from a platform available for sale," he said. "It's too much to ask a vendor to do."
The Sakai Collaboration and Learning Environment received its original funding from a Mellon Foundation grant in 2004. The early versions of the software were based on existing tools created by the founding institutions, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Indiana University, Stanford University and the University of Michigan, with the largest piece coming from the latter's "CHEF" (Comprehensive Collaborative Framework) course-management system. Sakai, in a play on that acronym, refers to Iron Chef Hiroyuki Sakai.
Since then, more than 200 education providers have joined the collaborative effort. Sakai has become a serious competitor to industry leader Blackboard and continues to evolve as a robust e-learning provider as the Web becomes more integral as a toolkit for learning at all levels.
Out of UB's current student population of 6,500 undergraduates and graduates, approximately 5,000 students are taking fully online, hybrid or blended courses, according to Walsh. That number is expected to climb as the University grows and more students experience at least some portion of their education in an online setting.
Look for more news in the coming days about UB's launch of Sakai. And be thinking about the many ways that collaboration can support the UB of the 21st century.
Fitzgerald Welcomes Plug-In Electric Cars
Maryland's first public electric-vehicle charging stations in a residential community opened March 31 at the Fitzgerald at UB Midtown. Officials from the Fitzgerald's development firm, the Bozzuto Group, were joined by UB President Robert L. Bogomolny and others to mark the debut of the charging stations, which are located on the ground floor of the Fitzgerald parking garage behind UB's Barnes & Noble bookstore.
According to Bozzuto, the 1,245-space parking garage will be a hub for recharging plug-in vehicles. Two dedicated parking spaces are marked for plug-ins. Cars like the Chevrolet Volt, the Nissan Leaf and the next-generation Toyota Prius have plug-in capabilities, meaning that they can receive power for their batteries via an electrical connection. The garage has the capability to support two additional stations as demand increases and as area residents acquire electric cars.
"As a developer, builder, owner and manager, we recognize that we have the opportunity to be a leader in the sustainable use of the Earth's resources," said Toby Bozzuto, president of the Bozzuto Development Company. "We also realize that, over the long term, we can actually create more value with less environmental impact. We look forward to helping recharge current—and future—electric vehicle owners at the Fitzgerald."
"These charging stations encourage investment in electric cars, and they are a perfect complement to our UBGreen campaign as we work to reduce our campus carbon footprint," Bogomolny said.