Stalking Sakai

I’m new to the open source model. To supporting it. To participating in the community. To seeing how it’s built and how features are added. But I’ve been watching for nigh unto 15 years. And I’m here to tell you: higher ed is generally bullish on software derived from this open source model.

It’s almost as if open source were the answer to all the budgetary , visionary, and advocacy issues we all face. From Community Jr. College to State School to Private – we’ve summoned open source to give us more freedom, more features, more revenue, more integration points, more responsiveness to our constituencies,  and more control of our destinies.

Software derived from and supported by the open source model is more and more under investigation by more and more institutions of higher ed. Cautiously under investigation in some cases, but under investigation nevertheless.

Sakai began around 2004 initially as a collaboration between University of Michigan, Indiana University, MIT and Stanford. By 2005 Foundation Staff on the Sakai CLE were 5 people- salaries based mostly on contributions from higher ed IT.

Institutions joined up. Commercial affiliates formed. Synergies developed. The coalition worked diligently. Advocated. Listened. Built. Deployed. Software developed by higher ed for higher ed and ‘owned’ by all.

Very cool.

Except when too many institutions want to take and not give back.

That was the message I was shocked to internalize last week when one of the chief Sakai advocates and architects this past 8 years, Dr. Chuck Severance, defended his decision to take employment from – Blackboard. He took a position at Blackboard that furthers his goals (shared by the Sakai community) of making learning technologies interoperable. Below, website by website, is a visual of his considerable breadth of reach. From development acknowledgements at Moodlerooms, and Blackboard’s Edugarage , to standards work at IMS Global and thought leadership published by Gilfus, Delta Initiatives, Campus Technology, edu1World and InsideHigher Ed. (As well as a frequently referenced though ‘unpublished’ work…!).

dr chuck severance internet presence

But today, according to Dr. Chuck, since about 4 months ago,  Sakai Foundation Staff actively working on the Sakai CLE (version 2.9 now) is zero.  Instead, the only remaining +dedicated+ release management resources moving the release forward come from commercial affiliates, NOT higher ed.

In Dr. Chuck’s call to action posting last week, he says, “Does it bother you that about 40 higher educations stopped supporting the Sakai Foundation over the past five years?” We remember the past five years- In budgetary terms, everyone ran for the hills, dug in where we could. The difficulty is that if higher ed doesn’t sustain this effort, who will?

He goes on to ask,  “Are you uncomfortable that for-profit companies already provide all of the long-term committed resources for the Sakai CLE product?”

I am. I am very uncomfortable. Are you?

8 thoughts on “Stalking Sakai

  1. Great post, Laura. Painful, but very important.

    I think a question we should ask is whether the community source, as opposed to the open source, model really can work in higher ed in the long term. This is very important, especially with Kuali ramping up. I hope the answer is yes, but your distillation of the challenges (coming through Dr. Chuck) demands an honest evaluation. I could see the answer being A) yes, and higher ed institutions need to re-engage, B) yes, but commercial affiliates are the key, C) maybe, but we need to change the governance model, or D) no, true open source is more promising. Or E) . . .

  2. It is funny. While I wrote those words and read them many times before I hit the “Publish” button, they seem somehow even more stark and scary when you quote them and comment on them. I think that it is very premature to give up on any of the forms of community/open source. But it is pretty easy to have 2-3 buoyant start-up years followed by 2-3 years where things are pretty easy where a community cruise using only inertia. The problem is when it seems like the “golden years” will last forever with no need to replenish the sources of success. In 2004, when I dove head-first into Sakai I was completely unconcerned about sustainability – I just wanted to survive and deliver a decent product (i.e. Sakai 2.1). I left building structures for sustainability to others. This time, in 2012, I am again jumping head-first, but this time I have sustainability (real and long-term) always in my mind. My first goal is to restart forward progress with my effort and Blackboard funds. But my long term goal is to build structures so we never have to “rescue” Sakai again. My sustainability plan is not yet fully formed and will adapt to changing conditions and input from the community – but I think about it a lot.

  3. Phil,
    On first blush I’m just idealistic enough to believe in Option A. Community source with higher ed, commercial affiliates, standards bodies and anyone else who wants to play will, in the end, develop a better solution than one orchestrated or governed with a”By the people, for the people, oh …but not you guys” attitude. And so, yes, given the economic climate in which so many higher ed institutions slashed budget for Sakai development, we need to re-engage.
    But I know I’m idealistic. I reject B. I think D. is unsustainable. I don’t know enough about C. to know whether it might be the coveted ‘middle way.’
    What can you tell us about changes to the governance model that might make the community source model more protective towards higher ed, yet still palatable for all players?

  4. Phil, this is a great question. I personally think that it is premature to discard the notion that somehow we can create something that is “better” than pure Apache-style open source for higher education. I am sure that some gathering of central funds to provide care and feeding of a community is a better solution than leaving everything to chance. For me where the failure begins is when those who might contribute ask for a quid pro quo. When you switch from a philanthropic view of gifts to a quid pro quo view of gifts, the net natural response is to “see how much one can get” for their money. Taken to the extreme, you end up with the movie “The Producers” (1968).

  5. So Ayn Rand is not popular here :}

    I do think there is a spectrum between philanthropy and quid pro quo, but I’m not sure of how that looks in open / community source software. But, I do believe that contribution to community source needs to clearly be in the self-interest of institutions and partners, even if not explicitly quid pro quo. Philanthropy is hard to maintain in tough budget times, particularly by institutions.

    Early on, I would argue that prestige and recognition served this role (self-interest if not qpq).

    1. I agree. Perhaps a better part of the spectrum to explore is the range between “enlightened self-interest” and “self-interest”.

  6. From my seat as a member of the Project Council for the Sakai Open Academic Environment (OAE) project, and as a leader at the University of Michigan responsible for running and supporting Sakai CLE, I would characterize the situation in the Sakai community as one of transition. Certainly we need others in the community to step up during this time of transition but I am confident that will happen. CLE has been a big win for many institutions. Collectively, we need to determine the level of investment needed to keep 2.x CLE relevant and viable while we increase our investment in OAE. I expect the Sakai community to address this strategic issue in earnest at our conference in June. Part of that discussion should include the appropriate version most of the community will use to launch from CLE to OAE.

    Sakai was founded on the premise that resources are at the edge (i.e., higher education institutions and our corporate partners) rather than aggregated at the center (i.e., Sakai Foundation). Sakai’s design for resources at the edge mostly leaves control of those resources to balance the inevitable tensions between local imperatives for success and collective imperatives. As Sakai looks to keep the 2.x CLE strong in its performance, some of that healthy prioritization is looking to the future for strengthening OAE as a path for the present and future community as well.

    The University of Michigan continues to support Sakai CLE but it is true that we are slowly and purposefully transitioning our support from CLE to OAE. Indiana University, for example, is investing heavily in addressing a gap in the CLE assessment tool while also investing in OAE. I suspect the churn around the current version is related to the transition of key resources moving to the Sakai OAE project and some bumps as the community works to backfill those key resources. I expect the Sakai community will step up to support the 2.9 version as necessary.

    To be specific, one key Foundation position was allocated to the OAE project last fall. Recognizing the gap this left in the CLE community, the OAE Project Council recently agreed to fully fund the Foundation position on OAE so the CLE resource could be restored. Effort to replace that position is underway. Having said that, the important point is that the higher education community does need to continue to support these community source efforts. I, for one, am positive we will respond.

    John Gohsman

  7. Readers who want a full view of the dialogue concerning open source governance and the relationship between higher ed and commercial affiliates would do well to visit Michael Feldstein’s e-Literate blog where Phil (@PhilOnEdTech) Hill as a guest writer has aggregated the substantial and thoughtful conversation generated as a result of Blackboard’s March 26th press releases concerning their stance toward open source and the LMS marketplace.

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