Association for Learning Technology Online Newsletter
Issue 1   Friday, August 5, 2005

ISSN 1748-3603

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More than just e-Learning: Sakai so far …
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More than just e-Learning: Sakai so far …
by Ian Dolphin

The Sakai Project passes several significant milestones this summer. June 2005 saw the release of the second version of the Sakai Collaboration and Learning Environment, a substantial growth in the Sakai community and a highly successful conference in Baltimore. The institutions currently deploying the Sakai software in production or large-scale pilot (the Universities of Michigan, Indiana and a consortium around Foothill College in California) will be joined in the Autumn by a number of further pilot and production deployments. Therefore, this seems an appropriate point to reflect on progress and assess the implications for the community in the United Kingdom (UK).

The Sakai Project
The Sakai Project began in January 2004 when four universities (the University of Michigan, Stanford University, Indiana University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) started development of a collaborative learning environment to replace systems developed separately by each institution. Joining these universities at the outset of the project were the Java Architectures Special Interest Group, the parent body of the widely adopted uPortal framework, and the Open Knowledge Initiative (OKI) which is developing a range of interoperability specifications describing how the components of a virtual learning environment communicate with each other and other systems. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation supplemented $4.4m of institutional funding commitment with a grant of $2.4m. Early in the project the initial partners were joined by UC Berkeley and Foothill College, both of which have contributed significant resources to Sakai development activities. Foothill received a $600,000 grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to support the development of Sakai tools to meet the needs of Community Colleges which provide a similar role to further education colleges in the UK.

Sakai tools
Sakai already provides many of the tools typically available in a Virtual Learning Environment or Learning Management System (see Tables 1 and 2 and screenshots). However, the objectives of Sakai go beyond this to meet more of the needs of higher and further education in research, administration and social collaboration. For example, the Sakai software framework is designed to enable tools to “plug in” which significantly increases its flexibility. Such flexibility ensures that although Sakai is designed for large-scale enterprise deployment, it can be adapted to meet local or discipline-based needs as well as overcoming the problems associated with the “one size fits all” learning environment. In order to accomplish these objectives, Sakai works with others in the IMS Tool Portability Working Group, and with the OKI, to provide standard methods for tool and data integration. Of course, this work has to be balanced with the requirements of grant funding to deliver production systems at grant recipient institutions. Sakai’s support for common specifications and standards, like the software itself, remains a work in progress.




Threaded Discussion

Drop Box

Email Archive


Message of the day




Site Browser

Web Content


 Table 1 Sakai version 1 tools


Developed by:

Sakai Assessment (Samigo)




Context Sensitive Help


SCORM Presentation

UC Davis


Open Source Portfolio Initiative (OSPI)

Melete Lesson Authoring

Foothill College

Grade Book

UC Berkeley

Twin Peaks Library Resource Access


Flow Talk


Table 2 Additional tools available in Sakai version 2, or in development as add-ons

The Sakai Community and the Sakai Educational Partners Programme (SEPP)
Perhaps one of the greatest strengths of Sakai is the community which is emerging around the project and which will continue to maintain and develop the software when grant funding has expired. The Sakai Educational Partners Programme (SEPP) currently has 74 members, with each making an annual contribution for three years of either $5,000 or $10,000 dependent on the size of the institution. Since the software is available at no cost to any potential user, this participation shows a commitment to the larger goals of the project and the community. The Sakai community is diverse, drawing membership from both research-led and learning and teaching-led higher educational institutions and community colleges.

SEPP is loosely structured into a series of discussion and working groups. These are organised by SEPP members with particular common interests and range from groups charting research or pedagogical practice through to those concerned with the future governance of Sakai. The groups operate largely through email and discussion within the Sakai Collaboration and Learning Environment, supplemented by face-to-face “birds of a feather” sessions at the bi-annual Sakai conferences.

Community Source and commercial affiliates
Sakai defines itself as a, “Community Source” project. Community Source is based around a liberal open source licence, the Educational Community Licence (ECL), which is designed to encourage commercial, in addition to community use. Community Source implies far more than the simple ability to see and access source code, however. It is based around educational institutions pooling effort and direction to meet defined community needs, and ultimately exercising greater control over their collective destinies. This is not to say that there is no role for commercial partnerships within Sakai – quite the reverse. A licensing model facilitating commercial use, which has proved so successful for uPortal, is helping to generate considerable commercial interest in Sakai. To date, the Sakai Commercial Affiliates Programme has attracted both large and small software and consulting companies including IBM, Sun, SunGard/SCT, Unicon, rSmart and HarvestRoad, a hosting company, Embanet, and a major publisher of educational content, Pearson. With each addition to the Sakai Commercial Affiliates programme, the range of support options for community adoption increases. In a world where many are still uncomfortable with the idea of supporting open-source software deployment, this offers institutions a significant safety net by providing a range of options for support.

Sakai and uPortal
A number of universities in the UK have deployed uPortal either as an open-source product or as part of the SunGard/SCT Luminis suite. uPortal development receives funding through Sakai to develop the next generation of the product – uPortal 3 – due later this year. With the release of version 3 of Sakai Collaboration and Learning Environment (also later this year) it will be possible to integrate Sakai and uPortal using a variety of standards-based methods. Again, the emphasis here is on flexibility; Sakai will run without uPortal but the objective is to enable Sakai tools to be provided in a portal, either as part of a course or module or for other purposes. This modularity not only provides flexibility for the educator but also through portal-based customisation, potentially enables learners to combine and juxtapose tools, services and content in ways which suit their personal learning styles.

Sakai in the United Kingdom
The UK has seen growing interest in, and take-up of, open source collaboration and learning systems over the last eighteen months. Early releases of the Sakai software are being used for research collaboration purposes in a small number of JISC Virtual Research Environment projects, and a number of other institutions are evaluating the Sakai software, or software from the closely related Open Source Portfolio Initiative. OSPI software is built using the Sakai Architecture and Framework, and OSPI works closely with the Sakai Project.

Finally, ………

It would take considerably more space than this article allows to articulate the architectural considerations behind the JISC e-Learning Programme. A point worth emphasising, however, is the intention of the programme to help restore innovation in an e-Learning space, in part by plugging often specialist tools into existing and developing environments. As Sakai continues to develop support for practical tool interoperability, the approach taken by the JISC and Sakai could be seen as naturally complementary. Closer international collaboration, alongside e-Learning Framework partners and other open-source initiatives, can only be good for the future of e-Learning and eResearch collaboration.

Sidebar: What’s in a name?
Deep in the mists of time (around 20 months ago) someone tried to come up with an acronym base for Sakai. That’s why you sometimes see Sakai in all caps. The acronym was so convoluted that it was wisely abandoned. So Sakai (pronounced suh-kai) is actually a reference to a Japanese chef, Hiroyuki Sakai who featured in a popular television show in the United States and Japan.
Further information about Sakai can be found at the Sakai Project website

Ian Dolphin
Sakai Project Board
Head of eStrategy and eServices Integration

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