Abstract: The Next Generation of Teaching and Learning Tools

The phrase “learning management system” and the first commercial products in the marketplace emerged from a number of higher education institutions. As these early products were commercialized it was very clear that the LMS market was very lucrative. For the past fifteen years, the ideal product strategy arc seemed to start with higher education, and then expand into corporate education, and later into K12 education. With so much churn due to new entrants, shifts in market share, and market change through acquisition, the mainstream LMS vendors have never succeeded beyond higher education in a serious way. While the LMS market players were distracted fighting for market share, vendors like Edmodo (55 Million users) and Schoology quietly evolved very successful K12 offerings. The structure of K12 market is quite different than higher education, so these vendors developed completely different business models and software architectures. Is there a way forward that takes the best of these two independently developed approaches and blends them together? What can the two halves of the marketplace learn from each other? If we were to develop a ground-up learning environment, could it be built to satisfy both sub-markets? Could open source products, open content, and open communities, be a significant part of the founding vision of this next generation market for next generation software to help teachers and learners?

Abstract: Standards to Enable an Open Learning Ecosystem

This is an abstract for an upcoming talk I will be giving this Fall at NERCOMP. It is just a draft.

The concept of a Learning Management System is nearly 20 years old. For the most part, modern-day Learning Management Systems are simply well-developed versions of those first learning systems developed at universities and commercialized through companies like Blackboard, WebCT, and Angel. Since the early LMS systems were developed for a single organization and developed as a single application, it was natural for them to keep adding more functionality to that single application. Vendors like WebCT and Blackboard added proprietary formal expansion points to their LMS systems like Building Blocks and PowerLinks. In 2010, the IMS Learning Tools Interoperability Specification was introduced and provided a basic expansion point across the whole industry. LTI greatly expanded the number of applications that could be integrated into an LMS – but those integrations were naturally limited because of the simplicity of LTI 1.1. In this talk we will look at the standards activities over the past five years that have been laying the groundwork to move from simple plug-in integrations to a learning ecosystem where the LMS is just one part of that ecosystem. We will look at the work that has been done and what is left to do to deliver an open learning ecosystem.

How much Freon does a General Motors 3800 AC system hold

Since I Googled for a very long time and could not find the answer to this super simple question I figured I would help owners of Chevrolet, Buick, Oldsmobie cars with the venerable 3.8 litre engine when they are recharging their AC.

Most of the systems take 2.2 pounds of freon. There is a nice little sticker on your car that tells you how much freon to add. So make sure to check the sticker – it will probably say 2.2 pounds.

How is Sakai faring in the face of competition from Canvas?

(This was originally an email sent to the Sakai developer list)

A member of an institution that uses Sakai recently heard an interesting comment from a Canvas LMS representative:

“Sakai is such a cool concept but I do wonder where it will end up in the future as most its founding schools (and the schools putting resources into developing it) have now left and come to Canvas (for example, University of Indiana, University of Michigan, Stanford University).”

I thought this deserved a public reply.

My first observation is that a salesperson spreading FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) about Sakai suggests to me that they may not have a strong positive feeling about their own product. Most salespeople will tell you that the best thing to do is focus on what makes your product strong without even talking about other products.

That aside, let me give my response to your question. Each year I do some analytics on the developer list activity:

This chart shows a trend that at this point is about five years old. In the beginning early adopters such as Michigan, Indiana, Stanford, and Cambridge were pulling a lot of load as the product was literally being built and rebuilt. Also in the earliest years, new schools were adopting Sakai continuously so a lot of the e-mail activity was helping new schools.

The early lead schools dropped in activity in 2009. In 2009 Michigan was still the #1 participant in the dev list but a lot of increased participation was also coming from companies like LongSight and Unicon; participation from the other commercial affiliates (often using gmail.com addresses) was increasing as well.

In some ways, 2009-2011 was Sakai’s period of greatest risk as a community. A lot of things were trending downward and near the end of 2011 there was a very good chance that Sakai 2.9 would never see the light of day and it would be “last one out turn off the lights”.

The future of Sakai was originally planned to be a ground-up rewrite known as Sakai 3, however, this didn’t work out as planned and instead a brand new product known as Apereo Open Academic Environment (OAE) was developed. (OAE became a new type of learning platform based on social networking principles: sharing, co-editing, discovery and commenting upon content.)

But in 2012-13, there was a big turnaround with a redesigned Sakai 2.9 which included the brand new Lesson Builder tool.

Following that came consolidation with the tool-rich and innovative Sakai 10. Those who were still in the community put in a lot of effort – Michigan and Longsight were in really strong leadership positions. Other schools like Rutgers, NYU, Columbia, Duke, UNC, and others don’t show up in this dev list graph but they provided much of the money and developer talent to get us through Sakai 2.9 and Sakai 10.

Interestingly in the 2013-14 timeframe we see a couple of factors at work. First the 2102-13 sprint was over – we had Sakai 10. Here is a SlideShare I did that celebrated that moment:

The upcoming Sakai 11 release is the most important release for several years, however, aside from the addition of a responsive design, it is unique in that we are not expanding functionality as much as in the past: we are actually removing more code than we are adding and doing a bunch of UI rework in tools like Lessons, Gradebook and Portal. These more design-oriented activities tend not to cause lots of traffic on the dev lists.

Another interesting trend is that now that we have weekly developer team and teaching and learning meetings with up to 20 people regularly attending: the community is coordinating verbally and collectively in these meetings therefore less email is needed.

As we emerge into 2015, activity and commitment is very strong. The commercial affiliates (large and small) are a very important part of the community. Indiana and Stanford are quite low compared to earlier levels of participation. But something interesting is happening – some of the code that was traditionally the exclusive domain of Stanford or Indiana is now being maintained by the whole community. The interesting result is that the pace of development in those areas of the code base is increasing because now the whole community can move the code forward.

More community members are stepping forward to help because they know that they no longer assume that Indiana, Stanford and Co. will pick up the slack.

During 2011-2014 as the founding institutions slowly backed away, patches and bug fixes started to pile up. Now that the community has inherited the code-base and collective responsibility, the outstanding issues are rapidly being addressed. This is not meant as a criticism of the original partners, they built the core codebase that we all have and without them, we would have nothing. We are very much in their debt.

Looking forward, our community is solid and making lots of progress every single week. We have the luxury of putting a lot of effort into the UI and catching up with applying a backlog of local improvements from places like Oxford, Dayton, Columbia, NYU, Duke, Notre Dame, and UNC. These improvements are enriching our product. In addition, schools like Valencia, Murcia, Rutgers, and UCT are continuing to make strong direct contributions to the code base.

As we see Sakai 11 coming out with its new Morpheus responsive mobile-friendly portal and all of the user interface and performance improvements, I can see why Canvas sales people might be getting a little nervous and use a bit of FUD to try to scare you to switch now.

Thanks to Adam Marshall of Oxford for his editing help on rewording this from an email to a blog post.

Annoucing the (very early) Sakai – Tsugi Bridge

In my previous post, I announced a Java implementation of my Tsugi library. Java Tsugi has as its goal to allow externally hosted LTI applications to be quickly developed and hosted.

But there is more….

I have been long positing that Tsugi would be a way to build portable applications that ran in any Java framework. Take a look at this slide set starting at slide 24 through the end. Pay particular attention to slide 28.

I claim that the same Tsugi application can run standalone in a Tomcat or in a Sakai-provisioned Tomcat as a Sakai tool with zero code changes. I see Tsugi as a great way to build the next generation of Sakai tools like XWiki – we can build an LTI capable XWiki to plug into Sakai or any other LMS.

I have made some really initial steps in this repo:


This is contains a Sakai implementation of the Tsugi APIs so that the Tsugi Java Servlet can be provisioned run in a Sakai Tomcat. The implementation is currently empty – but I have worked out the class loader issues that allow me to provision a Tsugi servlet with a different implementation without changing the servlet.

So this is very much a start – the README.md has a lot of steps – and at the end all you get is a 500 error as shown below – but it does show how we can eventually connect the Tsugi and Sakai worlds.


Annoucing the Tsugi Java Library for Building Interoperable Learning Applications

I have been focused on laying the technical groundwork for interoperable learning applications for the past ten years. Through my work on Sakai and IMS I have tried to help move the entire industry forward to enable innovative teaching and learning applications. While we have made great progress, there is much to do. My recent “State of Sakai” talk at the Apereo Conference alludes to the kind of work we still need to do.

I have been exploring the space where applications are both portable and interoperable through my Tsugi. Over the past year I have spent more time on Tsugi than I have on Sakai because I think that exploring future architecture is a very high priority task.

Last week I gave a workshop at the Apereo 2015 conference on Building Applications using IMS Learning Tools Interoperability using my PHP Tsugi. While the workshop went very well, it was clear that the folks that needed to build interoperable applications *right now* were not interested in programming in PHP. Also, I am well into my Summer of Sakai 2015 effort working with a number of students over the summer and it is clear that it is simply too difficult to teach new developers how to write Sakai applications.

All of this was a “perfect storm” that motivated me to drop everything and put in an all-out effort to port my Tsugi library to Java in the past week.

Announcing Tsugi Java 0.0.1

It has been a pretty crazy week – I coded day and night and pretty much ignored my inbox – but I am pretty pleased with the results. While Java Tsugi still needs some work – it is already quite competent to build LTI 1.0 applications in Java – and they feel very clean and elegant. Here are some documents:

This will continue to move and evolve but it is in good enough shape to share with others to start getting broader input.

I also recorded a short introductory video about Tsugi Java:


This is a great start and there is much still to do for Java Tsugi. I am hoping that others will help move this effort forwards and contribute to the project. For the next few weeks, I now need to sprint on finishing up a bunch of things for the Sakai 11 code freeze.

Please feel free to let me know if you have any questions or comments.

Notes from my Tsugi Workshop at Apereo15

These are my notes for my LTI/Tsugi Workshop May 31, 2015 at Open Apereo 2015.

If you want to get a head start on the workshop (and save some bandwidth) follow these instructions:


You will install git, a PHP/MySQL environment, and then check out Tsugi, and install Tsugi.

If you were only going to do one thing before the workshop, download MAMP or XAMPP so we don’t wait too long for downloads according to this:


I will bring pre-downloaded files for both pieces of software in the morning if you don’t get to it.

After we play with the PHP version, we can play with the emerging Java Tsugi version. Make sure you have Java 8 installed on your computer and take a look at these two github sites:



See you in the morning.

Travel, TripIt, and Concur, Oh MY!

I recently was quite surprised when we were reconciling my University of Michigan Corporate Credit Card (a.k.a PCard) charges – when a bunch of charges from my personal card when I went on a personal trip started showing up as charges that needed to be cleared on my corporate account. It turns out that TripIt was sending my personal transactions to my corporate Concur – because I asked it to apparently :)

I have used TripIt to track all my travel for a long time. TripIt used to be an independent business but was recently purchased by Concur. Sometime after the purchase, I went into Concur and was given the option to link my TripIT and Concur accounts – which I did. I think a positive effect of this was instant free TripIt Pro. Nice.

But it turns out that a convenient feature of this linkage is that the University of Michigan Concur would scan my TripIt trips regardless of whether they were paid for by the UM corporate credit card or not. Concur would import the items for the trip like flight and hotel receipts from Concur from non-UM trips – and they show up as “Receipts to deal with” in Concur even though they were charged to my personal card.

When the person who helps me reconcile my card saw these non-business receipts in Concur, her first reaction was “Who will be paying for these?” My first reaction was “Did I use the wrong credit card for every charge during a personal trip?” Which would have been bad because it was a vacation and my wife’s ticket was showing up in Concur. Thinking I messed up in a most profound way, I dug through all the receipts and sent them in. But as I gathered the receipts, they all were clearly charged to my personal card – so we started investigating.

We called Concur tech support and received pretty much completely wrong information (If we saw a cat walk by twice – it was often due to a glitch in the Matrix). I used Google and TripIt forums and found that this was 100% normal behavior when you link the two accounts.

tripit_appsIf you have linked your accounts and do not want this flow to happen, just log into TripIt and remove the permission of Concur to access your TripIt account.

Go to “Your Name” -> Settings -> Applications

And remove Concur as one of the authorized applications.

There is no harm to this – your corporate card transactions will still flow to Concur via the credit card charges – but these “ghost receipts” that you only put into TripIt will not flow. So far even though I have unlinked the accounts – I seem to be still getting “TripIt Pro” services for free. Shhh – don’t tell anyone.

Hope this saves someone a little panic.

Will the College Professor Profession Still Exist in 20 Years

On our University of Michigan School of Information faculty mailing list someone said they heard the statement that MOOCs may lead to the end of the notion of Professor in 20 years and wondered if the statement was true. The setup was so delightful that I took the bait. Here is a reworded version of my answer.

The statement made by your colleague is pretty typical of someone primary input material is articles in the news media. The reality is much more subtle.

So far there are four kinds of educational experiences that are often labeled as “MOOCs”.

(1) The original massive free course with tens to hundreds of thousands of students that take a “course” for free or perhaps get a verified certificate of completion for about $50.00. These MOOCs do not confer college credit and while they are great learning experiences for motivated learners, because students only pay if they finished and liked the course – the rigor and pace of these large MOOCs is lower than for a typical on-campus course to maintain student engagement to the end of the courses. These MOOCs are not a substitute for college – but they are great preparation for someone coming back to college, exploring a new topic area, or learning for enrichment.

(2) There is another “form” where a set of MOOCs (1) are bundled into a “Specialization” where an overall certificate is awarded in a topic area like “Data Science” from Johns Hopkins. These about $1000 to complete. There scope is generally smaller than what we would call a minor on campus – they are focused on a single topic and deliver a coordinated set of essential classes to advance knowledge on that topic. These are becoming quite popular with people that already have one or more degrees and want a tangible credential to help them move into a new line of work.

(3) The “MOOC Degrees” – like the Masters In Computer Science from Georgia Tech and the recently announced iMBA from University of Illinois. These award real credit at a discounted rate and award a real degree at the end of the program of study. Some have complained that there is no indication whether the degree is awarded as the on campus or online variant. These courses enroll students in the hundreds or perhaps reaching a thousand per course. But these courses do award credit and a traditional degree. I prefer to call these “scaled online programs” (SOPs) that use MOOC technology and pedagogy to reduce cost and increase scale. In these SOPs, the instructional and assessment patterns are far more like an online degree than the original super-large MOOC(1). The Illinois degree is just starting but Georgia Tech has admitted several thousand students into their program since it started.

(4) Another recent variation is the ASU / Edx Global Freshman Experience – where they want to provide a scalable online experience covering the general education requirements typically covering the freshman year at many universities. Students will earn ASU credit at a reduced rate with the hope of completing an inexpensive Freshman year and transferring into a traditional program with sophomore standing.

We can better understand the doomsday scenarios if we look at each of these in detail.

So far the “Real MOOCs” (1) have only made things better. Our incoming students who take these classes are stronger and the rest of the students taking these classes were not likely to enroll in any formal degree programs.

The specializations (2) are a really interesting growth area and have the potential to be profitable in the small. A department or a few faculty can be paid off well, but it is not likely to make a dent in the overall budget of a department or university. As these become more successful (and I think they will), they have the potential to reduce the demand for professional masters (like our MSI degree) in some fields. I am pretty confident that in 3-4 years people who already have an undergraduate degree will have a wide range of highly applicable specializations they can enroll in if they want to supplement their knowledge at relatively low-cost and without having to quit their job to come back to school for two years and go into debt – so this is something to watch.

We shall see if the MOOC Degrees (3) grow. In reality these are not all that much different from online degrees that we have had for over a decade except that they are cheaper. If ten-year-old online MBA programs have not significantly displaced on campus education, these new MOOC-styled online degrees are not likely to have any different effect. These degrees still need faculty and a university and the money goes to the university. The question in these is one of brand value.

If Georgia Tech graduates 10,000 masters degree students per year and only 10 of them are on-campus – what will the value of the GT brand really be? There are already lots of places where you can get a low-cost quickie masters – I think that if GT is successful at delivering big numbers, they will soon be seen as the “Community College of Computer Science Masters Degrees” and badly devalue their overall brand. If they can’t scale it up – what was the point? If the reality is somewhere in between – then it won’t be a profit windfall. Ultimately I think that the GT Masters and Illinois iMBA will either be copied everywhere or stay relatively small. In either scenario, the net is no real change.

One interesting thing reported about the GT program is the fact that >70% of the students in the scalable online masters are US students and >70% of the student in the on-campus masters are international students. There are a lot of ways to look at that data. One way is to think that the online masters is reaching students that are unlikely to ever come to any campus for a residential masters. So they have an education available to them that they would not otherwise be able to take – so that is a good thing. When you make revenue from populations that were previously unserved, it does not harm your old lines of revenue.

But the profits in these “Online Degrees using MOOC Pedagogies” (3) are not likely to be to “windfall” levels. From what I hear about old-style online programs is that they do not make significantly more profit than on-campus programs if done well. And sometimes they are more expensive to produce. They increase revenue and increase expenses and lead to a little more profit – but they are not a windfall. And these new MOOC degrees(3) are specifically designed to keep the marginal cost per student low. Lower costs mean you need to scale to make profit – but how much profit? If a lot of schools enter the space and compete revenue will move towards cost – and “poof” no more windfall.

The programs that try to sell low-cost credits to freshman and sophomores (4) are also nothing new. Students can take on campus or online courses from community colleges right now. It is hard to see how the ASU/edX program will be much different other than the fact that unimaginative New York Times writers will fetishize it for a while. And yes – this will be a cash cow for ASU – they will charge a little more than community college and give students a slightly “more transferable” brand of credit. In some ways, this ASU/edX effort might be seen as re-launch of the out-of-vogue “for profit” universities – except now it hides itself within in an old-line brand and will be more international.

In the long run, this too will not be substantially different except that ASU will be lining its pockets at the expense of the students, parents and federal government instead of the for-profits. And if ASU produces 100K sophomores, schools will start to devalue their transfer credits without telling the students – so the students will be triply screwed and ASU will laugh all the way to the bank. If ASU sells a “US Freshman Experience” to a large number of international students who are very unlikely to get student visas as sophomores, it will be very profitable but also very misleading and sad. It will be fun while the NYT writes about it and ASU reports exciting numbers – but then it will crash on its own weight and traditional education will not be changed.

The fallacy is that somehow these “rebranded” old ideas will lead to windfall profits and cause a seismic shift where the students get their education. The problem is that the market, and the relationship between cost to produce an education and the price we charge for an education, the scarcity of education and the value of scarce degrees, and the natural intrinsic value of an in-person residential experience means that the current way we do higher education is really hard to displace. Things are the way they are because of the value that everyone is getting from the current system.

While it is unlikely that the MOOCization of old ideas will topple any existing structures, the MOOC movement will enhance some brands and harm others. universities and faculty members will gain from participation if they make wise choices and investments.

The right strategy is to actively engage in all of it and find what makes higher education better – and do more of that. Because making education better is what makes universities more valuable and ensures the long-term survival of higher education.

Summer of Sakai@UMSI (Designers/Developers wanted)

This summer I have so much work I want to do on the Sakai Open Source Learning Management System (LMS) that I could use some help. I am hoping to find a few designers and/or developers to help me so I can make even more progress. These are unpaid positions – kind of like an unpaid internship. If all goes well, at the end of the summer you will have made real contributions to an open source project and your contributions will be in GitHub. My preference is students in the Ann Arbor or mid-Michigan area this summer so we can spend some time together.

We will meet weekly over the summer and I will buy lunch or dinner. It is not essential that everyone is in North Quad all the time – but I would like to work co-located “startup-style” at least one day per week over the Summer. While I do not have any funding at all – if things go well, we might find some way to get one or more of the students in this program to come to Open Apereo 2015 in early June.

The real goal is for everyone in the group to make real contributions to the trunk source code of Sakai. I will act as your Mentor, review your code and make sure it is committed into the trunk:


If we move quickly your code will make the Sakai-11 code freeze in late June.

I have a wide range of tasks that include:

– Adding new small features to existing tools
– Rewriting several of the smaller tools (we call these synoptic tools)
– Improving the UI/UX across all of the tools to align with our new responsive UI (code named Morpheus)
– Building whole new prototype proof-of-concept UI/UX designs
– Improving the performance of Sakai hosted in the cloud

I will adapt the tasks to the each of the skill sets of the people who are selected for the program. These are the skill sets that I need:

– JavaScript
– Java

Some of the projects are mostly CSS/JavaScript while others require back-end code in Java/SQL. One way or another I want to come up with something that you will produce that will be production quality and part of Sakai going forward.

I want folks who can commit a significant amount of time to this effort to make it worthwhile. The work will be done in the open and the Sakai developer and user list will be informed of progress – so you do not have to join the group just to be informed.

Here is a form to apply to my Summer of Sakai.


Depending on the level of interest, I may adjust my ideas as to how to do this. If we get a lot of talented folks interested that cannot make it to Ann Arbor – I may to try to find more mentors. After all Sakai is an open project and I should be open to better ways of doing what I want to do this summer.