Monthly Archives: July 2012

Insider’s Guide to Ann Arbor and the August IMS Quarterly Meeting

This is the Dr. Chuck Insider’s Guide to Ann Arbor for the upcoming IMS Meeting – August 6-9, 2012. I am really looking forward to you all coming to Ann Arbor. With a meeting in North Quad (where I have my office and teach) and hotels with a 1 block radius and plenty of great eating and fun within a short distance – it should be a meeting to remember. North Quad has a few nicknames to help in asking for directions: NQ and Quadworts are the most prevalent nicknames for the building.

Thanks to Matt Jones and Anthony Whyte for their help with this guide and thanks to Heidi S for all her help in setting up the meeting logistics.

For hotel and other details for the IMS meeting see the IMS web page.


We of course start with the most important thing of all – Karaoke. There are two box Karaoke within walking distance:

Blue Karaoke (Box)
404 W. Liberty St.

Friends Karaoke (Box)
621 Church St
This is a 10 minute walk diagonally across campus to the south east corner of campus.

Good Time Charley’s
1140 S University Ave
There’s club-style Karaoke from 10PM-2AM on Tuesday night.

WiFi and Coffee

University buildings have free WiFi with the SSID of MGuest – you might need a VPN for some ports but it should be super-fast, support tons of simultaneous connections (students are gone for the summer), and be reliable. Go ahead and run Apple’s Software Update during the meeting and watch the download speed.

The Starbucks at 222 South State (1/2 block south) has free Wifi. Search for “Espresso Royale Cafe” (a.k.a. ERC) if you want a less “franchised feel” for your coffee shop and free WiFi. Panera’s is at 777 North University is a block south.


Zingerman’s Deli
422 Detroit Street
Zingermann’s needs its own category. This may be the best deli in the world. There may be great deli’s in New York City – but Zingermanns is also very nice to you and the staff are always willing to talk to you or give you a sample. They make all their own bread. Insider trick – When they ask you if you want an old pickle or new pickle – say “both”. It is a four block walk (northwest) from NQ. It is near a terrific shopping center called Kerrytown. This is an event on Wednesday evening


338 South State Street
The best beer selection in Ann Arbor. Two blocks south of NQ. Ashley’s does Trivia on Mondays and it is pretty intense.

Arbor Brewing Company (a.k.a. ABC)
114 East Washington Street
Sidewalk dining if you get there early enough. Three blocks west of NQ.

Blue Tractor (Microbrewery)
207 East Washington Street

Grizzly Peak (Microbrewery)
120 W. Washington

Jolly Pumpkin (Microbrewery)
311 South Main Street

812 Monroe Street
Dominik’s requires a nice walk to the south side of campus. But there is nothing like it on a warm summer’s evening.

Hole-In-The-Wall Restaurants

Jamaican Jerk Pit
314 S. Thayer
This is 1/2 block south of NQ. I would forgive you if you ate every meal here. When you leave – you might fly back just to eat here. My fav is the pork entree – go ahead and get spicy. I eat there so often I have a “Frequent Jerk” card. You can take it when you go so I get to 10 punches and free food more quickly.

Ray’s Red Hots
629 East University Avenue
This is a 10 minute walk diagonally across campus to the south east corner of campus. The cheese fries are the stuff of legend – don’t get chili – just cheese – trust me. If they wrote a fifth Lord of the Rings book – these cheese fries would be featured in the book for sure – they are that epic.

Blimpy Burger
551 South Division Street
This is a seven block walk from NQ – but the burgers are legendary. And they insist that you make your selections in the right order: (1) fried side items, (2) how many patties and what bun (3) additional items on the burger. Just watch the people ahead of you in line and you should be OK. Don’t get ahead of yourself. Listen to what they ask you and answer their question instead of blurting out your whole order. If you make a mistake they won’t punch you – they will just correct you. It is a mark of being a “honorary native Ann Arborite” when you can order at Blimpy Burger without being corrected. And yes you can open the pop and drink it while you are in line.

Tijo’s (Mexican)
401 East Liberty Street
About 2 blocks from NQ. We like the wet burrito. It is no longer technically a hole-in-the-wall – but before it was moved downtown, it was a hole-in-the wall – so it is still given the honorary hole-in-the-wall designation. They have an item called “Mount Nacheesmo” that is not on the menu and was featured in Man v. Food. If you eat one by yourself you get a picture on the wall.


Pizza House
618 Church Street

Cottage Inn
512 E William St

Fancy Food

Main Street is the place for fancy food. Just Google Street View up and down. Legal Seafood, a fondue restaurant, fancy german food, fancy italian, too many to list. Here are a few you might miss and want to check out.

The Earle Restaurant
121 West Washington Street
Underground – dark, fancy and classy – nice place for dinner with some red wine.

Gandy Dancer
401 Depot Street
This is in an old train station and about 6 blocks north of NQ (not on Main Street). It is fine dining and where we take people being interviewed for lunch or dinner.

Blue Nile – Ethiopian Restaurant
221 East Washington Street
A unique Ann Arbor experience. Closed Mondays.

Interesting Collegey Things to Do

Pinball Pete’s
1214 South University Avenue
There are very few remaining places full of pinball machines. Pete’s is a throwback and in a basement. I prefer the one in East Lansing as it is darker and dingier – but the Ann Arbor Pete’s is a short diagonal walk through campus to the South U area.

Michigan Theater
603 East Liberty Street
This theater plays an interesting assortment of films.

The Ark
Music venue for acoustic and the like.

Blind Pig
208 S. First St.
Music venue.

IEEE Interview: Teaching the World – Daphne Koller and Coursera

IEEE Interview: Teaching the World – Daphne Koller and Coursera

In my August installment of my IEEE Computer magazine Computing Conversations column, I interview Daphne Koller, Stanford Computer Science professor and Coursera cofounder. The other cofounder of Coursera is Andrew Ng, also a Stanford professor. This interview was filmed May 25, 2012 during a visit to Coursera headquarters in Mountain View, CA.

I think that it is particularly interesting that the Coursera, Udacity, and edX efforts all were created by people with Computer Science/Engineering backgrounds and in particular people with interests in Artificial Intelligence.

The trend toward opening up college courses while they are being taught started back in 2007 with David Wiley. Others like George Siemens, Stephen Downes, Dave Cormier, and others increased the sizes of these open courses and explored different pedagogical approaches to the courses.

But in the Fall of 2011, three Stanford courses were opened to the world and they effectively took the idea of large-scale open courses and pushed it up to 11. With all three courses seeing an enrollment of over 100,000 students, it opened up the possibility of a whole new level of scale in terms of the number of students enrolled.

Once this new frontier was identified, people are moving quickly to explore the possibilities of large-scale open courses (some call these MOOCs). Coursera, Udacity, and edX were formed to move these amazing experiments more towards the mainstream by making technology available to more instructors, universities and students. Even though these efforts are still only a few months old – they are capturing a lot of mind share and they are quite successful already.

Who knows where these efforts will take us in 3-5 years?

Note: I am excited to be teaching a course in Coursera as part of the University of Michigan participation called Internet History, Technology, and Security that starts Monday July 23, 2012 (i.e. next Monday).

Abstract: Initial Experiences Teaching a Massively Open Online Course (MOOC)

Dr. Severance teaches the online course “Internet History, Technology, and Security” using the Coursera teaching platform. His course starts July 23, 2012 and is free to all who want to register. The course has over 25,000 enrolled students. In this keynote, we will look at at the current trends in teaching and learning technology as well as look at technology and pedagogy behind the course, and behind Coursera in general. We will meet the Coursera founders as well as take a live behind-the-scenes look into the course as it is being taught including successes and challenges to date. Attendees are welcome to sign up and participate in the course prior to the keynote to make the discussion about the course even more interactive.

Date: August 10, 2012 – Wilmington, NC

Speaker: Dr. Charles Severance

Charles is a Clinical Associate Professor and teaches in the School of Information at the University of Michigan. Charles is a founding faculty member of the Informatics Concentration undergraduate degree program at the University of Michigan. He also works for Blackboard as Sakai Chief Strategist. He also works with the IMS Global Learning Consortium promoting and developing standards for teaching and learning technology. Previously he was the Executive Director of the Sakai Foundation and the Chief Architect of the Sakai Project.

Blackboard, xpLor, and Sakai – Oh My!

It has been four months since I started working as a consultant for Blackboard in the role of Chief Sakai Strategist. With the annual Sakai Conference a month ago in Atlanta and Blackboard DevCon and BbWorld this past week in New Orleans, it seemed like a good time to give an update on things.

Cross-Platform Learning Object Repository – xpLor

Now that xpLor has been announced, I can further clarify why I joined Blackboard back in March. Back then I knew what you all now know. Blackboard (through MoodleRooms) is building a cross-platform Learning Object Repository that is planned to be deeply integrated into Learn, ANGEL, Moodle, Joule, and Sakai. For years, in my role as IMS LTI evangelist, I have been hoping and encouraging anyone to build a real LOR that made proper use of IMS Common Cartridge and IMS Learning Tools Interoperability.

Blackboard xpLor running the in the Sakai CLE

It turns out that for the past two years, Dave Mills (founder of ANGEL Learning) has been quietly working on just such a product in his (then) role as the Chief Technology Officer at MoodleRooms. Dave had quietly re-assembled a number of the brilliant ex-ANGEL development team (Kellan, Mike, Scriby, etc) back together at MoodleRooms and when Blackboard acquired MoodleRooms everyone has stayed, and we are having a great time working together. I love it because I get to go to Indianapolis every few weeks and work with that team. It is just a 4-hour drive from my home so it is easy to get to Indy. When technical folks are having fun working together on fun stuff – it bodes really well for the future of any company.

The xpLor system uses real cloud technologies like Node.js, MongoDb, and elastic search. These are fun technologies to work with for a guy who has been deep in in the trenches of Java, multiple SQL variants, and Spring for the past 10 years.

As a quick history aside, many know me as “Dr. LTI” – but what is less well-known is that the original Common Cartridge evangelist before Jeff Kahn was none other than David Mills himself. Back in 2005-2006, Dave Mills was at ANGEL and used his leadership position to spearhead both the technical designs of IMS CC as well as make sure that it was rapidly implemented in ANGEL as the first implementation in a major LMS. Dave/ANGEL shipped IMS Common Cartridge import and export *before* the standard was complete. Here is a video from the Learning Impact in 2006:

Another history tidbit is that Ray Henderson is one of the initial inspirations for IMS Common Cartridge when he was at Pearson (before ANGEL and before Blackboard). Ray was at the (then secret) meeting in early 2005 where the words “Common Cartridge” were first uttered and Ray Henderson was the person who formally proposed the idea of a Common Cartridge specification in Summer 2005 at the Alt-I-Lab conference in Sheffield England. What is cool about all of this is that all of us have been working together for the past 8 years *regardless* of what company we have worked for. Our personal passion for standards and interoperability stays us with through any job change. And now we are all together at Blackboard. End of history aside – you get the picture that this has been brewing for a while.

The xpLor system is the exact system that I would have designed if I had the time to do it. It uses IMS CC and IMS LTI as its foundational architectural construct and everything is built around the fact that the LOR will interoperate and supplement LMS systems. It is the first LOR that will not try to replace LMS systems, but instead augment all LMS systems regardless of the vendor of those LMS systems through the use of standards to make the integration. In a sense it makes LMS-specific Learning Object Repositories pretty much obsolete. Dave Mills built the ANGEL Learning Object Repository (which is a fine product – but not cross platform) so he knows first hand (a) the right features to put into a LOR, (b) the features *not* to put into a LOR, and (c) the limitations of a single-vendor LOR in the marketplace.

If you saw Michael Chasen’s keynote at BbWorld – you saw a 10 minute demonstration of xpLor connected to Learn and then a single screen with a few clicks showing xpLor integrated into ANGEL, Joule, and Sakai.

BBWorld Day3 (21 of 72)BBWorld Day3 (23 of 72)

If you came to the in-depth session hosted by Brent Mundy and David Mills later, you saw the longer demo done in ANGEL. For those of you well-versed in demo-ology, you would immediately assume that it meant that the ANGEL, Moodle, Joule, and Sakai integrations were fake or hand-constructed. That is absolutely not the case. Before BbWorld we had full and deep implementations of the xpLor integration API in all five platforms (Learn, Sakai, Moodle, Joule, and ANGEL) – the 10 minute demo could have been done with *every one* of those five LMS systems and it would have been as smooth as the Learn demo. I will be showing the Sakai implementation to folks at IMS, Michigan, Columbia, NYU, Rutgers, and others as quick as I can. I am not going to make a screen recording because it is not a final product and I still have a few things I need to tweak in Sakai and in the integration API before the product is finished – so I want don’t want things locked down too early. In terms of full disclosure, none of the integration code is in the core codebases of Sakai, ANGEL, Learn, Moodle, or Joule – as we need to do a little more work before we start the process of putting the code into those core code-bases.

But I repeat that what you saw of the demonstration of xpLor and Sakai, Moodle, Joule, ANGEL, and Learn was real, rich, working code that was working solidly and continues to work as we evolve the code bases towards Beta.

Oh yes and grades are already flowing back to the LMS through LTI 1.1 – the way I did it in Lessons is that I just made it auto-create GradeBook columns when grades started to flow. I made the instructor UI as simple as possible – I did the nomal things and made it as simple as possible. by the way – grades flow back to all of the LMS’s that are integrated with xpLor though LTI 1.1.

I could not be more excited than I am about xpLor and in a way I have spent more time since March working with xpLor than I have with Sakai because I wanted to make sure Sakai was an equal part of the xpLor roll-out this week. Now that BbWorld is done, I can get back to Sakai.

Sakai Presence on the BbWorld 2012 Trade Show Floor

I have been part of my first ever “Sakai” booth! I had a booth. I did demonstrations of xpLor and Sakai at the booth. I used the little badge scanner. I had a special Blackboard Open Source Services t-Shirt. I felt all grown up! We had a combined open source booth with Sakai, MoodleRooms, and NetSpot. It was so cool and in particular because I am getting to be really good friends with all the MoodleRooms folks and got to meet all the NetSpot folks. Phil, Lou, Martin, and Tom from MoodleRooms are the best mentors I could ever have. In a way, if you think about it, what I will hope to build would be something like “SakaiRooms” where we host Sakai in Blackboard’s hosting facilities around the world. I have no idea how long it will take to roll out such a service or if/when I will start working on it, but I will say that my focus in my role at Blackboard is to invest Blackboard resources in Sakai 2.9 and beyond to improve the overall quality of Sakai as my top priority.

But while I work on and invest Blackboard resources in Sakai 2.9, I am getting so much help and mentoring from all the folks at MoodleRooms. MoodleRooms has done a really nice job of how they deploy Moodle as a cloud service. It takes some pretty dang clever tricks to make a shared multi-tenant app server work. I don’t think that I will be able to pull off multi-tenant app servers for hosted Sakai, but I am learning all the tips and tricks that make MoodleRooms scalable and manageable and I can use many of the same techniques in my design of a hosted Sakai service that will greatly streamline management and deployment. Luckily since Learn is a Java application with similar limitations to Sakai, Blackboard’s hosting facilities are well-prepared to handle Java applications. By the time MoodleRooms is integrated, the hosting folks will have a really broadened skill set and bringing Sakai into the shared centers should be pretty smooth.

What is freakishly cool is the camaraderie between the folks working on Learn, ANGEL, Sakai, Moodle, Joule, and Engage (formerly edline). You would think that there would be some kind of edge or competition with six LMS systems in the same company. But that is not the case since there is only limited market overlap for the products. It might be a little confusing for sales people – but it absolutely *not* confusing for technical people – we all are having so much fun seeing different parts of the market. For me in Sakai, we had such a hard time penetrating the K12 market. If I work closely with the Engage folks – I can get features that I think are important into 20,000 K-12 customers through a simple upgrade. I cannot tell you how exciting this is for me as someone who wants to build technology that changes how we teach and learn.

Plans for Sakai CLE and OAE

The integration that I built for the Sakai CLE is basically an integration into Sakai 2.9’s Lessons (the software formerly known as LessonBuilder). Lessons is our place for hierarchical content, Common Cartridge Import, selective release and all the gooey goodness that defines content within an LMS. And now it has xpLor integration as well. Prior to BbWorld, I could not work with Chuck Hedrick and Eric Jeney of Rutgers on the implementation / Lessons integration. Now I can sit down with them in the next few weeks and get things nicely integrated into Lessons working with Eric and Chuck.

I don’t want to release the integration code yet because I still want to change the APIs a bit but once things are locked down, I will simply check the code into the trunk of LTI. The API code is only about 350 lines of additions to:


The patches are not yet in that code – but once things settle down – they will be. I doubt it will make it into Sakai 2.9.0 – perhaps 2.9.1. But since the patches are so localized they could easily go back to 2.8 or 2.9.0 for Beta use when I get the done. By the time all of the things I want to change are completed, it will likely touch a few more files and perhaps a bit of work in Lessons.

The xpLor folks are working up a Beta program and I am hoping to get at least five Sakai schools into the very first Beta and then as the Beta expands, perhaps make it available to more schools with a membership in the Sakai foundation. When you are making a real cloud service it needs be carefully tuned for scalability. No promises here – just telling you what I am hoping for. I will let folks know as this progresses.

While I am totally excited about the relationship between xpLor and the Sakai CLE, I am even more excited about how the xpLor can work with Sakai OAE. Throughout the OAE project there has been this tension between whether OAE should follow the path of being a “new” LMS and rewrite everything that is in Sakai CLE or should OAE focus on new ways of thinking about collaboration across teaching and research in education. The “hybrid mode” has been the compromise to broaden the scope of the OAE to get it feature-rich enough for production without requiring a full-on re-build of the traditional LMS functionality present in the CLE. But there is a bit of an impedance mis-match between the CLE and OAE in hybrid mode as each is architected to be the “top level organizer” of the entire experience.

The combination of OAE+xpLor will not suffer from this impedance mis-match. The xpLor system was designed from its core to *not* be the top-level organizer of the user experience. the xpLor system was designed to support *whatever* organizing principle that a particular LMS has produced. Lessons in CLE is one approach to organizing, activities in Moodle is another approach, while Content in Learn is another approach. OAE is still another approach to organization, workflow, authorization, navigation, etc. The xpLor design is intended to work with all of these approaches and fit in gently to all of them.

I don’t think that the xpLor will replace hybrid mode as the functionality in xpLor is simple, pretty and generic – almost Google-like in its UI designs. The xpLor approach is to stay simple and generic (like Google) and as such needs to work with more complex tools like Message Center or Samigo in Sakai CLE. Sometimes you want things that are simple and can be thrown around like widgets and other times you need something larger with more precise use cases. OAE+xpLor+hybrid will be a very nice combination.

As I have time, I will meet with some of the OAE stakeholders to give some in-depth demonstrations and begin the discussion. I would hope to have an OAE school in the first round of Beta testers. If I have time (sheesh), I may even start to develop a more rich integration of xpLor into OAE or I may find someone in the OAE world that can help me do it. Any work would have to be under NDA for a while until things with the API are more solid and officially released – but the code would eventually be open source and part of the core OAE code base. For me OAE is a lower priority than CLE 2.9 – but I am excited enough about xpLor that I would pull this up in the priority – at least to get the OAE conversation and thinking started.


It has been a *heck* of a four months. I am so glad that I can talk openly about xpLor. I have been hinting to all my friends in the Sakai community about “good things to come” and now I can talk about it and do demos and be more open – which is my nature. I feed off openness and I feed off sharing and learning from that sharing.

The culture at Blackboard is great. I am getting so much support from my friends at Learn, Engage, MoodleRooms, and the shared services teams. There is absolutely no resistance to standards and interoperability. I just don’t have enough hours in the day to work on all the fun things and move the cause of flexible choices in teaching and learning forward. I may need to be getting some help soon in order for me not to be the weakest link.

Oh yeah, and if you think this is all pretty exciting, remember that this is *just* the beginning. It is just the beginning. It is just the first four months. Hang on – this will be a fun ride.

Independence Day (US): A Maturing Open Source Community at the 2012 Sakai Conference in Atlanta

I was really looking forward to the Sakai conference in Atlanta this year because with my recent involvement with Blackboard as the Sakai Chief Strategist it was the first time since 2007 that my non-academic work life was nearly 100% focused on Sakai. In order to achieve what I plan to achieve in my role at Blackboard, Sakai needs to be a success and I needed to find a way to have Blackboard a part of that success in a manner that is supportive to the community. So I am once again back in the middle of all things Sakai.

The State of the Sakai CLE

The Sakai Technical Coordination Committee (TCC) is now two years old having been formed in June of 2010. The formation of the TCC was a Magna Carta moment where those working on the CLE asserted that they controlled the direction of the CLE and not the Sakai Foundation Board of directors. Now that the TCC is two years old, the culture of the Sakai community has completely changed and the TCC is very comfortable in its Sakai CLE leadership role.

This was evidenced in the pre-conference meeting, several talks throughout the conference, and most strikingly in the day-long Sakai CLE planning meeting on the Thursday after the conference. The TCC has 13 members but there were over 40 people in the (very warm) room. The TCC is a membership body but does all of its work in public on the Developers List and the TCC list. TCC meetings are also open to anyone to attend and contribute.

The goal of the planning meeting is to agree on a roadmap, scope and timeframe for the Sakai 2.9 Release as well as a general scope for Sakai 2.10.

The agenda was very long but the group moved quickly through each item having the right kinds of conversations about issues balancing the need to have a complete and yet solid 2.9 release in a timely manner (Mid-Fall 2012 hopefully). The meeting was led by the current TCC chair Aaron Zeckoski of Unicon. We had the right amount of discussion on each item and then moved on to the next topic to make sure we covered the entire agenda.

I was particularly interested in figuring out items that I could accelerate by using Blackboard funds and resources. But I wanted to make sure that we had community buy-in on the items before I set off to find resources. I was quite happy that we will include the new skin that came from Rutgers, LongSight, and University of Michigan. We decided to put the new skin into Beta-6 but after the meeting decided to move it to Beta-7 because there was so many little things in Beta-6. Most of the Sakai 2.9 decisions were carefully viewed through a lens of delaying the release as little as possible.

The Coming Golden Age of the Sakai CLE

To me the biggest problem that the Sakai community faces (OAE and CLE) is that the CLE is incomplete and as such is weak in competitive situations when facing products like Canvas, Moodle, Desire2Learn, eCollege or Blackboard. From its inception, Sakai has been more of a Course Management System than a Learning Management System. Sakai 2.x through Sakai 2.8 is incomplete because it lacks a structured learning content system like Moodle Activities, Blackboard Content, ANGEL Lessons. etc. This is a feature that can create a structure of learning activities that include HTML content, quizzes, threaded discussions, and other learning objects. These structured content features have selective release capabilities as well as expansion points.

The IMS Common Cartridge specification provides a way to import and export the most common elements in these structured content areas and move learning content in a portable manner between LMS systems. Sakai 2.8 (and earlier) simply did not have any tool/capability that could import a cartridge that included a hierarchy of learning objects. Melete (not in core) could import a hierarchy of HTML content, and Resources can import a hierarchy of files but nothing could import a Common Cartridge and that meant that Sakai 2.8 was missing essential functionality that every LMS with significant market share had.

Other efforts like Learning Path from LOI, Sousa from Nolaria, OpenSyllabus from HEC Montreal went down the path of building hierarchal structures beyond Melete and Resources, but never got to the point where they were full-featured enough to become core tools and put Sakai on equal footing with the structured content offerings from other LMS systems with real market share (i.e. the Sakai’s competitors).

That all changed in the summer of 2010 when Chuck Hedrick and Eric Jeney of Rutgers University decided to build Lesson Builder (now called Lessons) for Sakai. Instead of building Lessons on a design of their own making, they started with a competitive analysis of the other LMS systems in the marketplace to determine the core features of Lessons. This alignment with the other LMS systems in the marketplace also perfectly aligned Lessons with IMS Common Cartridge.

Chuck and Eric built Lessons aggressively and deployed it at Rutgers as it was being built and took faculty and staff input as well as input from others in the community who grabbed early versions of Lessons and ran them in production at their schools. In Early 2011 we decided Lessons was mature enough to be part of the Sakai 2.9 release and later in the year,I added support for IMS Learning Tools Interoperability so that Lessons could be certified as able to import IMS Common Cartridge 1.1.

Even though Sakai 2.9 stalled in early 2012 for lack of QA resources, a number schools put the 2.9 Beta version with Lessons into production because they had a painful need for the Lessons capability. The great news is that Lessons has held up well both in terms of functionality and performance in those early deployments. All of that production testing will help insure that Sakai 2.9 is solid.

I suggest that Sakai 2.9 with Lessons will trigger a Golden Age of the Sakai CLE. In a way I am completely amazed at how well the Sakai CLE through 2.8 has fared in the marketplace without the Lessons capability. Sakai has taken business from Blackboard Learn, WebCT, Moodle, ANGEL, and others without having the Lessons capability – a feature that many consider essential. I shudder to think how much market share we would have at this point if the Sakai CLE had Lessons in 2006 when Blackboard purchased WebCT. I spent a lot of time talking to WebCT schools and they loved Sakai except for its lack of structured content. So we left a lot of that market share in 2006-2007 on the table.

I honestly don’t think that the primary purpose of an open source community like Sakai is to get more market share – but it is a nice measure of the value of the software and community that you produce. Commercial vendors like rSmart, LongSight, Unicon, Edia, Samoo, and now Blackboard use Sakai to meet the needs of customers for whom Sakai is a good fit and good value. We can be proud of the aggregate market share of both the direct adopters of the community edition and the customers of the commercial providers of Sakai.

The LMS market in North America is hotly contested with strong entrants like Canvas and OpenClass and well-established competitors like Desire2Learn so I don’t now how well Sakai (even with all the 2.9 gooey goodness) will be able to gain market share. But I do think that there is an amazing un-met need for Sakai outside North America. Outside North America, I see the primary market players as Learn, Sakai, and Moodle.

If you look at the market where Learn and Moodle are the only significant players, I think that Sakai 2.9 has a lot to bring to that market. I think that Moodle and Learn have their strengths and weaknesses and I think that Sakai 2.9 is strong where Learn and Moodle are weak and that Venn-Diagram of strengths and weaknesses leads to natural adoption and resulting market share. I am happy to talk more about this over beers about the precise areas of relative strengths and weaknesses between Sakai, Moodle, and Learn.

So to me the Golden Age of the Sakai CLE is the 2.9 (and then 2.10) release that allows Sakai to maintain or slightly grow market share in North America by winning more than we lose and dramatically growing Sakai market share beyond North America.

I also think that once we have 2.9 out the door and installed across the Sakai community, the pace of innovation in the Sakai CLE can slow down and we can focus on performance, reliability, and less visible but equally important investments on the quality of the Sakai code base. I think that we need one more major release (Sakai 2.10) to clean up loose ends in Sakai 2.9, but as we move beyond Sakai 2.9, I think we will see a move from one release per year to a release every 18 or 24 months. We will see more 2.10.x releases during those periods as we tweak and improve the code. In a sense, the sprint towards full functionality that we did in 2004-2007 and then picked back up in 2010-2012 will no longer be necessary and lead to a golden age where we can take a breath and enjoy being part of a mature open source community collectively managing a mature product from 2013 and beyond.

I am telling this same story internally within Blackboard in my role as Sakai Chief Strategist. Invest in 2.9, get it solid and feature complete and then invest in 2.10 and make it rock-rock-rock solid. Any notion of deploying scalable Sakai-based services in my mind takes a back seat to investment in improving the community edition of Sakai in the 2.9 and 2.10 releases. I am not taking this approach because Blackboard has a long history of charitable giving. I am taking this approach because I see this approach (fix the code before we deploy anything) as the way to maximize Sakai-related revenue at Blackboard while minimizing Sakai-related costs. Even though Learn, ANGEL, and MoodleRooms are my new colleagues at Blackboard, I am hopeful that while any Sakai business that Blackboard undertakes will likely not be Blackboard’s largest line of business, I want Sakai to be the most profitable line of business in the Blackboard portfolio so I end up with enough to fund tasty steak dinners and plenty of travel to exotic locations :)

Sakai OAE and Sakai CLE Together

There has been a testy relationship between the Sakai OAE and Sakai CLE community since about 2008. Describing what went wrong would take an entire book so I won’t try to describe it here.

The good news is that when the Sakai CLE TCC was formed in 2010, it set the wheels in motion for all of the built-up animosity to go away in time. At the 2011 Sakai conference there was a few flare-ups as folks in the OAE community needed to let go of the notion that the Sakai CLE community were resources that should be controlled by the OAE management.

The great news is that in 2012, everything is as it should be. The Sakai CLE and Sakai OAE communities see themselves as independent peers with no remaining questions “who is on top” or “who does the Sakai board like best”. Not only have all of the negative feelings pretty much become no more than background noise, there is increasing awareness of the interlinked nature of the CLE and OAE. The OAE needs the CLE to be successful to maintain the Sakai presence in the marketplace while OAE matures and the CLE forms the basis of the OAE hybrid mode so the more solid the CLE is – the more successful the OAE will be.

While I want to the CLE to be quite successful and have a long life, its founding technologies like Java Server Faces, Hibernate, Sticky Sessions, Iframes, and a host of other flaws mean that it is just not practical to move the CLE technology to the point where it can be a scalable, multi-tenant, cloud-based offering without a *lot* of care and feeding. The OAE is a far better starting point to build such a service given that it is starting much later (i.e. 2008 versus 2003). The OAE was born in a more REST-Based cloud style world. Sometimes you need a rewrite – and history has shown (in Sakai and elsewhere) that rewrites take a long time – much longer than one ever expects. The community has wisely switched from seeing the CLE as resources coveted by the OAE and instead seeing investment in the CLE in buying time for the OAE work to finish taking as much time as is needed.

The only bummer about this year’s Atlanta meeting was that the CLE folks and OAE folks both had quite full schedules making progress on their respective efforts so there was very little overlap between the teams. Usually when meetings at the end of the day “finish” what really happens is that the discussions continue, first in the bar, then at dinner, and then later at the bar or Karaoke. Because the CLE and OAE meetings were on different tracks, there was no where near enough overlap in the dinner and beer conversations. I think that at next years meeting we will address that issue.

Sakai + jasig = Apereo

Wow this discussion has been going on for a long time! The good news is that we seem to have very high consensus on all of the details leading up to the moment where the two organizations become one. It feels like we are down to crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s. It will still take some time to do the legal process – but those wheels are now started and I am confident we will have Apereo by Educause this year.

This is a long time in coming. Joseph Hardin and I had a discussion back in 2005 before we created the Sakai Foundation as to whether we should just join jasig instead of making our own foundation. We dismissed the notion because back then it was clear that we needed a focal point to solidify the definition of Sakai and what it was and the Foundation was a way to help make that happen and create a world-wide brand.

The decision to start our own foundation and not join jasig had its advantages and disadvantages.

We certainly advanced the Sakai brand with an active and visible board of directors and full-time executive director in the form of first me and then Michael Korkuska. We were able to come together and engage and “defeat” Blackboard in the patent war of 2006. We had well attended bi-annual conferences that later became once per year out of financial necessity and grew a series of regional conferences around Sakai as well.

But with all those advantages there were some massive mistakes made because the Sakai Foundation ended up learning a few hard lessons that jasig had frankly already painfully learned several years earlier. And sadly those lessons took a long time to learn and caused significant harm to the Sakai Community. The very board of directors that was empaneled to nurture and grow the community, by the middle of 2009, were the greatest risk to Sakai’s long-term survival.

I won’t go over all the mistakes that the Sakai board made between 2008 and 2011 – that would take an entire book. I will just hit the high points:

When your funding source is higher education – money does not grow on trees. The Sakai *project* in 2004-2005 was funded by large grants and large in-kind contributions and handed the Foundation a $1Million dollar surplus. The annual membership revenue peaked in 2006 and has fell steadily ever since. Here is one of many rant posts where I go off on the financial incompetence of the Sakai board during that period:

Sakai Board Elections – 2010 Edition

It literally took until March 2010 for the board to understand that it needed to live within its means so as to not go bankrupt. The jasig group learned to live within its means and align their spending with their real revenues years earlier.

The second major problem that the Sakai board has was its own sense of how much power it had over volunteer members of the community. The Sakai Board saw itself as a monarchy and saw the community as its subjects. The perfect example of the Sakai Board’s extreme hubris was the creation of the ill-fated Product Council. Again this was solved in June 2010 and now in June 2012 there is very little residual pain from that terrible decision – so we are past it.

As a board member of the Sakai Foundation in 2012, I am very proud of the individual board members and very proud of how the board is currently functioning as a body. It took from 2006 – 2010 to make enough mistakes and learn from those mistakes to create a culture within the board that is truly reflective of what an open source foundation board of directors should be.

The Sakai Foundation board has (finally) matured and is functioning very well. My board tenure (2010-2012) has been very painful and I have shouted at a lot of people to get their attention. But the core culture of the board has finally changed and it is in the proper balance to be a modern open source organization. If I rotate off the board at the end of this year or if my board position ends at the moment of Apereo formation, I am confident that the culture will be good going forward.

Why Merge?

So if everything is so perfect, why then should we merge and become two projects (Sakai OAE and Sakai CLE) and become Apereo?

Because the Sakai brand, while a strong brand and known worldwide, can never expand the scope beyond the notion of a single piece of software in the teaching and learning marketplace. The brand Sakai is successful because it is narrow and focused and everyone knows what it means. This is great as long as all the “foundation” wants to do is build one or two learning management systems – but terrible if we want to broaden the scope to all kinds of capabilities that work across multiple learning management systems.

What if we wanted to start a piece of software to specifically add MOOC-like capabilities to a wide range of LMS systems using IMS Learning Tools Interoperability? Would we want to call it Sakai MOOC? That would be silly because it would imply that it only worked with one LMS. We should call it the MOOCster-2K or something like that and have a foundation where the project could live.

The Sakai brand is too narrow to handle cross-LMS or other academic computing solutions. The jasig brand is nice and broad – but there is nothing in jasig about teaching and learning per se. So the MOOCster-2K would not fit well in jasig because it needs to be close to a community (like Sakai) that has teaching and learning as its focus.

The Apache Foundation would be perfectly adequate except that there are no well-established communities that include teaching and learning as a focus.

So the MOOCster-2K needs to make the MOOCster Foundation and go alone and perhaps take 5-8 years and perhaps make mistakes due to growing pains like both the Sakai Foundation and jasig endured. But why? Why? Why waste that time in re-deriving the right culture when all the MOOCster community wants is a place to house intellectual property and pay for a couple of conferences per year.

So we need Apereo – and we need it to be the sum of Sakai + jasig. It needs to have a broad and inclusive brand and mature open source culture throughout but also including all of the academy – both the technical folks and the teaching and learning folks and the faculty and students as well. It will take this group of people with a higher education focus to truly take higher education IT through the next 20 years if we are to make it through the next 20 years begging for scraps from commercial vendors that see higher education as a narrow and relatively impoverished sub-market of their mainstream business lines.

I come out of the Atlanta conference even more convinced of the vitality of Apereo than ever before. While there are many benefits cited for combining the organizations, having a single conference is the most important benefit of all. It was so wonderful to see all the uPortal folks in the bars and know we were all in the same building. But this was not some kind of Frankenstein conference with parts and pieces awkwardly sewn together. I must hand it to Ian Dolphin, Patty Gertz, and the conference organizers. The tracks were nicely balanced and literally we could have the conference be whatever we wanted it to be. It was so well orchestrated that I don’t think anyone would ever suggest that these two groups should ever have separate conferences from this point going forward.


Wow. Simply wow. Things in Sakai are better than they have been in a long time. Excitement is high. Internal stresses within the community are almost non-existent. The Sakai Foundation is financially stable (thanks to Ian Dolphin). Both the CLE and OAE are moving their respective roadmaps forward and rooting for each other to succeed.

Those of you who have known me since 2003 know that I do *not* candy-coat things. Sometimes when I think things are going poorly I just sit back and say nothing and hope that things will get better. And other times I come out swinging and don’t hold anything back.

The broad Sakai community is hitting on all cylinders right now. It will be a heck of a year. I promise you.