Sakai is alive and well and on the move

Like Sakai, this tiger is alive, staring directly at you, and ready to spring

Sakai is open source. So yeah, many open source softwares come and go.

But other open source softwares embed into your infrastructure, are constantly maintained and improved and evolving. Examples: Apache webserver, Central Auth Service, Git, Linux, and Sakai.

Don’t believe me? Monitor the commits on github. Look at contributions from Western Ontario, University of Virginia and Longsight (a commercial affiliate). Oh, and globally? Check out Flying Kite of Australia (busy enough that they don’t bother with a website but use LinkedIN ( ) and Entornos de Formación of Spain (big enough to have an English language website: ).

So let’s see where Sakai compares with overall caveats proposed by Sam Saltis in his recent blogpost on Core dna:

#1. Cost. Sam says, “Open software providers are also increasingly charging for extras like add-ons, integration, and additional services, which can negate any cost-saving advantages in some cases. In the end, rather than being free, you are still paying for a service with open source software.”

And he’s right. This is happening. But not with Sakai. Sakai is community-based and community maintained. It can be hosted anywhere you like, including by a commercial hosting provider or in your own institutional AWS, Google or Azure cloud. It can also be multi-tenanted, so that you could share costs of an instance. With Sakai you control the cost by controlling your choices.

#2. Service. Sam says, “Open source software relies on a loyal and engaged online user community to deliver support via forums and blogs, but this support often fails to deliver the high level of response that many consumers expect (and can receive with proprietary software).”

And he’s right. But it’s also a strength. Sakai has a loyal and engaged online user community which is highly responsive. I dare you to engage with us on our lists. You’ll get an answer within 24 hours for sure, but often within minutes(!)

#3. Innovation. Sam says, “Open source software provides a large amount of flexibility and freedom to change the software without restriction. This innovation, however, may not be passed on to all users and it is debated whether customized changes to the original source code can limit the future support and growth of the software. Once more, open source software providers often struggle to attract large-scale research and development.”

I have to answer this one for the Sakai community in parts: a) Yes, you are able to change Sakai without restriction. Truthfully, we like that control. b) Don’t do it in a vacuum. Engage with the community to innovate in a direction we all can use. That’s what we do. c) The Sakai community is a member of a larger open source umbrella organization, Apereo. This has been a good move for us spurring even more innovation. The Apereo Foundation is like a ‘braintrust’ for higher ed open source software projects. Check it out. 

#4. Usability. Sam says, “Usability is often a major area of criticism for open source software because the technology is generally not reviewed by usability experts and caters to developers rather than the vast majority of layperson users. User guides are not required by law and are therefore often ignored. When manuals are written, they are often filled with jargon that is difficult to follow.”

And he’s right. And admittedly, in the past this has plagued Sakai software as well. We reached a tipping point in community involvement about 3 years ago when we held a little “Sakai Camp” for the first time and discovered those who came were about half developers and half instructional designers, LMS Admins, and those representing accessibility and usability concerns. More and more instructional designers and faculty are being heard from on the lists. Even the formerly predominantly developer list, , now has regular members who are NOT developers but again are peoople who care about usability.

Sakai is now reviewed by usability and accessibility experts.

Sakai has robust user guides created by users, not developers.

#5. Security. And finally, Sam says, “With individual users all around the world developing the software, there is a lack of continuity and common direction that prevents effective communication. Once more, the software is not always peer-reviewed or validated, meaning that a programmer can embed a backdoor Trojan into the software while the user is none the wiser.”

This is just plain bogus. This is not how many of the most popular open source softwares are maintained. Maybe it was back in the days of the wild west, but today I think the majority of open source software has nailed this one. I’d like to think Sakai was among the first.

I’m not a developer. But I care about the software I am administering for Notre Dame. So I know those who run Sakai and develop Sakai keep current on exploits and test Sakai for those. I know when an exploit is identified, a patch comes out very quickly. It becomes part of the main branch from which anyone who implements Sakai can pull.

Finally, “continuity and common direction” – well, let’s let the comment section by my Sakai peers speak to this.

Sam Saltis’ full article.



All the Connecting Dots

We’re planning an upgrade of our LMS. Consider these “dots” and their connections:

  • The old gradebook is out. No further development. When do we take it away from our instructors? How many times do we notify them first?
  • We’re in the middle of changing video on demand (VOD) providers. The old one was to have been available ’til Jan. 2019, but the old one does not provide a standard LTI integration and therefore isn’t ready for the upgraded LMS version.
  • Also, there is no straight migration of content between the old VOD and the new one. Our instructors want to take their content with them. There are 576 sites which have media that needs to be migrated. This needs to be decoupled from any and all LMS upgrades. I wish.
  • We’ve been running this LMS since 2011 with that aforementioned gradebook. There is no archival method for old sites in this LMS, nor in any other LMS I’m aware of. Nor should anyone ever expect that an LMS is a system of record. But instructors do. So when we upgrade to the new version without the old gradebook, none of their old sites will have grades. Just a blank screen. Can we live with that?
  • There’s one best time frame for an LMS upgrade, even one that mostly streamlines performance and usability without adding new features or seriously changing workflows. That time is Commencement weekend, a mere 5 and a half weeks from now.


Instead of focusing on the technical details, all the splotches that need to be corralled, tested, organized, cleaned up and formed into a pleasing whole… let’s see if it helps to imagine this from our constituents’ point of view. What do they need to know and when?

  • Their current gradebook is going away. Even in old course sites they haven’t seen in a long time. Now would be a good time to check their records and export gradebooks from long ago since instructors are responsible for these things, not the LMS, nor those who run it.
    • From Fall 2018 course sites on, the old gradebook will no longer be available.
    • From that same time, old course sites also won’t have grades records.
    • We’re working on a copy of all those sites to run on the old server software version, so that we can take requests for anyone who missed these messages, and get them spreadsheet exports of those old gradebooks. But that old server software won’t be able to be up for ever. We’re thinking may another year?
  • They’re going to like the new gradebook. And we’ll help. In fact, we’ve been offering it as an alternative since last May, so even if it wasn’t in use by any given instructor, LMS support staff already knows a good deal about it and the kinds of questions  people have.
  • The upgrade to the LMS? Not really of consequence this time. People will care more about their gradebooks and their embedded video service.
  • How fast can we migrate their content from the old (“K”) to the new (“P”) video on demand/playback service? Because of course we can’t take away K without delivering on an alternative!

Sometime in August I hope to deliver on a cohesive orchestrated totality.



Innovation in the Business of HigherEd


business-561387_640Innovation in higher ed? Are you kidding? The business of higher education is so not innovative. To suggest that higher education is innovative is like suggesting that ham sandwiches can fly.

Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration. Take me to task: what is my definition of innovation?To be clear, when I’m talking about innovation in higher education, I’m talking about “a new idea, method, or device.” Or, to offer a synonym: “novelty.”

Sure, in higher education we teach classes on entrepreneurship and innovation. Some of our institutions may even have a program or two that we consider to be novel in the way they sequence the learning or in their formative methods such as hands-on apprenticeships, internships, student-led research, and so on. But we must not fool ourselves: such innovation is not applied to the business of higher education.

Sadly, if we don’t change how we do business, many of our institutions won’t be here in another five years. I’m not talking about Clay Christensen’s disruptive innovation, in which “disruption is a predictable pattern across many industries in which fledgling companies use new technology to offer cheaper and inferior alternatives to products sold by established players.”1 If I were talking about that (and I’m not), I would be talking about how our established institutions would be put out of business by others offering cheap and inferior product. Instead, I want to focus on those of us in higher education and on what we do to continuously improve—to repeatedly make new—the product we offer to our customers: our students. I believe the colleges and universities that are no longer here in five to ten years will be gone not because they failed to compete with cheap and inferior offerings but, rather, because they failed to distinguish themselves in a saturated marketplace. They failed to renew their product offerings. They failed to deliver to hopeful graduates the career-readiness those students expected, using methods those students could best absorb, respond to, and learn from—learn from!

Getting back to higher education’s failure to innovate. . . . What about online learning? Wasn’t that an innovation? Not really. For one thing, it didn’t originate with higher education: we borrowed it from the corporate world. We can’t claim it as our own business model. Nor did it fundamentally change the way we do business. Call it a bolt-on to the “same ole, same ole.” Higher education is exceptionally slow to adopt new methods, devices, and practices. In general, something new has to be proven in the corporate world and at one or two colleges/universities that we consider peers before a case can be made to try it out at our own institution. That’s because the case will involve assessing risk to the institution, and we can’t do that until we have the data borrowed from those first adopters.

I’m involved in educational technology—in facilitating and building awareness, among my faculty, of technology that enables new methods of teaching and learning. Yet sadly, even the innovations in that slice of the business cannot be said to originate within higher education, with the one exception of student-led startups. If the students themselves can gain traction with an idea, then the risk footprint to the institution is already small in terms of cost, damage to reputation, and failure to launch, since those are all borne by the student principals of the startup.

Within our institutions, even our research institutions, we have no incentive, and certainly no straightforward process, for entrepreneurial research that can become the new de facto “business” of higher education.

Every generalization has its exceptions, of course. In this case, one exists at Georgetown University. Under Vice Provost Randy Bass, the Designing the Future(s) initiative is an incubator seeking to answer the question, “What should a Georgetown education look like in the next ten or fifteen years?” This effort fits my definition of innovation because it is a novelty: it begins with the current business fundamentals and deconstructs them all to see if they are still serving teaching and learning. No rule is sacrosanct, be it the 16-week semester or the credit hour or the 9-month calendar. The innovation that Georgetown hopes to foster is being created by higher education, to be applied to higher education business. And that is true innovation by any definition of the word.

Are there other examples of ham sandwiches that can fly? I came across a promising one when I attended the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI) Annual Meeting in January 2018. I was introduced through Kristen Eshleman, director of digital innovation at Davidson College, who led a session. At Davidson, Kristen leads efforts to define and pilot discrete manageable experiments in change. The experiments are mission-aligned, have accountability and metrics built in, and are designed to manage risk while finding the change points that Davidson’s traditional liberal arts mission can use. It’s a different approach from Georgetown’s but does create the requisite siloed “R&D” department that can lead to transforming the way Davidson does the business of higher education. In addition, Eshleman is involved in the 2018 version of an event called the Harvesting Academic Innovation for Learners (HAIL) Storm. Georgetown will be represented at the gathering as well. This small but powerful event is held annually by invitation only. And that’s probably because such a small number of us have begun to think the way they are thinking.

Would you be one of them if you could? Do their stated goals below scare you? Or invigorate you? Do you have other ideas for effective innovation in the business of higher education?

Share learnings from across our community on successes—and more importantly, failures—within experimentation efforts for the purpose of institutional transformation.

Establish communities of practice around the most pressing opportunities and challenges facing innovation leaders within higher education (e.g., new business models; culture change; moving from pilot to scale; innovation accounting; etc.).

Address external disruption by building the case for advancing institution-led innovation, both within our individual institutions and across the sector.


  1. Disruption as defined in the New York Times “Innovation” report, March 24, 2014, p. 16. 

Laura Gekeler is LMS Administrator at the University of Notre Dame.

© 2018 Laura Gekeler. The text of this work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Originally published in EDUCAUSE Review 53, no. 2 (March/April 2018)

Educause Review March/April 2018.

Notre Dame wants to get to know a Sakai developer – is that you?

Shameless plug for a Learning Management Developer (One Year Limited Term) …

Sunrise over St. Mary's lake, late summer...Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame

Sunrise over St. Mary’s lake, late summer…Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame

You should come work for the Office of Information Technologies. And here’s why –

The University of Notre Dame ranks 9th among “Best Places to Work in IT” for the third year running. 

We were cool before that, but lately it’s official.

We have a one year contract position open for a senior developer for Sakai. Are you scared to apply?

If you’re experienced, you could be married, you could have children. You’re probably comfortable where you are. A one year contract? Are you kidding?

No. I’m not kidding. Come to Notre Dame. Plan on staying. I did. I’ve been here 17 years. That initial one year contract was an opportunity for Notre Dame to get to know the values I hold, the work ethic I bring, my extraordinary creativity, not to mention that I always think strategically. (Like this post – we have great talent at Notre Dame, but we want to add to our talent pool, to seek out and convince the best talent).

They say if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life. That’s me. Is it you too?

Apply. Check it out. What’ve you got to lose? The posting:

OpEd on Next Gen Online Learning: The tail wags the dog

I read this morning in InsideHigherEd

The critical difference between replication (with enhancements) of the classroom experience and the potential for the transformation of the classroom experience lies not necessarily in technology, but in four aspirations: A learner focus, an emphasis on interactivity, scalability, and a quest to reduce costs while maintaining quality. We see transformation happen when faculty members don’t see themselves as mere instructors, but as designers, coaches, and members of a learning development team with particular goals in mind.

– Steve Minz, InsideHigherEd, “Next Generation Online Learning,” Nov. 19, 2014.

Honestly, this statement is right on the money. So often the motivation for changing our pedagogy is to chase some bright and shiny technology. Of course, in the chase we realize one person can’t know it all (technology, that is), which is all we needed in the first place – gather a team of complementary disciplines and focus on the learner.

Steve Minz goes one further – change the role of the student: not a consumer but a participant creator contributor.


I am doing that in a small way in a course I’m teaching right now. I have 3 extra credit assignments for students to provide content in the form of assignments which might more simply teach a concept than those I use already, or already existing YouTube videos with high explanatory value. Thr0ughout the course I emphasize the need to learn from the course activities which kinds of activities are best for the way the individual student learns. I want to help in the formation of students who take charge of their own learning. For a lifetime.

Learning Analytics from DLAMOOC

we’ll turn to a definition of learning analytics
that was first used by the Society for Learning Analytics Research in the inaugural conference in 2011, and that is essentially that learning analytics are the measurement, collection,and analysis of reporting of data, specifically we want to look at learners and the context of learners,  because we want to better understand what’s happening with learners, the environment they’re involved in, and how can we improve that to make a better impact on the individual students, but also to help learners in, or the teachers themselves improve their teaching practices, and ultimately, of course, to give institutions the data, the feedback, that they need in order to improve their practices and how they support students, and how they support teachers or faculty as well.

There’s a significant upside to the use of data in the educational experience. Art Graesser, from the University of Memphis, made a statement that through the use of analytics, there is an escalation of the speed of research on many of the problems that exist in education.

Ultimately then, we can do analytics work around everything from social interactions to the types of space that individuals are a part of, to their use of systems such as a learning management system.
Also, to start adapting and improving the content and the learning experience for each individual learner.
Digital Learning Analytics MOOC. U of Texas, Arlington.

Open Source Software Explained via Legos

Thank you Bit Blueprint , engaging, explanatory, and fun!