Report from the First Apereo Conference

I really enjoyed attending the first Open Apereo 2013 conference in San Diego June 2-7, 2013.

The mood of the conference was very excited, positive, and upbeat. For the past two years the Sakai and JASIG communities have been gently aligning in anticipation of Apereo. But now the waiting and anticipation is over and all the energy that went into planning is going back into our existing and new projects. It seemed that for a few years, both organizations put a lot of forward-looking thinking on hold to focus on the merging. But now nothing is on hold and it felt like new ideas and new directions for our new community were little popping up every day. Being able to make progress on these pent-up project ideas was very freeing.

For me the founding notion of Apereo was that the more rich and diverse our community became – the more solid and sustainable it would be. With Apereo we could focus on anyone in higher education interested in openness (and not just software) rather than limiting our scope to our historical beginnings. It is a very freeing feeling. We are no longer bound by the (wonderful and amazing) historical accidents that brought the Sakai and JASig communities to life. We owe a great debt of gratitude to thanks Ira Fuchs, Carl Jacobson, and Joseph Hardin as the initial founders of our projects.

But now, ten years later, we have re-founded ourselves in a careful and thoughtful manner and informed by over a decade of experience making open source happen. We need to thank those who gave so much to make this merger a reality. This was two+ years of hard work where a number of people learned far more about non-profit laws than you could imagine. Building something good takes time – but a lot of people are very relieved to have it finished so we can look to the future.

People who stick out for me a leading the merger effort include: Patty Gertz, Ian Dolphin, Josh Baron, Jens Haeusser, Robert Sherratt, John Lewis, Seth Theriault, and both of the board of directors of Sakai and JASIG as well as the transition committee made up of members from both boards. I was on the Sakai Board and part of the transition committee but my own contributions were small compared to those who were the real leaders of the effort. It was a long and winding road – and the only way to move forward was to be patient and do it right because we really only had one chance to get the founding principles of the Apereo Foundation right.

Sakai in a Apereo-Foundation World

The Sakai-related efforts that are now part of Apereo are now so much better positioned to make forward progress. In the Sakai Project and Foundation – these ideas were often too intertwined to make forward progress. We spent too much time trying to come up with one set of priorities across all our efforts that distracted from moving our efforts forward. Here are my observations:

  • The Apereo Open Academic Environment has renamed itself to emphasize that the OAE is very much an independent project exploring next generation approaches to teaching, learning, and collaboration. The OAE team has rewritten much of the core software since the end of 2012 and is moving quickly to a version 1.0 sometime this summer running in production for Marist, Georgia Tech, and Cambridge. Getting a 1.0 project into production is a wonderful milestone and will likely re-kindle interest in the OAE project, growing their interest and resources. Some might say that OAE died and has been reborn – I actually disagree with this notion – OAE has been on a path all along and there were certainly bumps on that path – as the bumps smoothed out the project is moving toward a 1.0 release nicely.
  • Teaching and Learning SIG – Because this is now an independent entity within Apereo it is a natural place to look across the Sakai CLE and OAE as well as looking at emerging efforts (below). The T/L group also will continue the TWISA (Teaching with Sakai Innovation Awards) and look to expand the effort. This group serves as a natural gathering point for the faculty and student interest in applying the ideas of openness to teaching and learning. I think that this group will make sure that the end-users of our software have a place at the conference. I also think that this group can nurture interest in areas like Open Education Resources (OER) and if there is an interest in developing practice or software for OER – Apereo might be a great place to incubate that work.
  • The WAD Portfolio Effort – Thanks to efforts like Janice Smith, Shoji Kajita, Jacques Raynauld, and many others, there is continued interest in portfolio solutions in open source. The current effort is a pre-incubation group working together on a product they call WAD (I don’t know what it stands for). The idea for WAD is to build a portfolio system outside of the LMS and find ways to do a deep integration to pull out LMS data as needed. In many ways WAD feels like a throwback to the OSP 1.0 times where practicing pedagogists kept themselves very close to the emerging development efforts and gently steered the process. I am very excited to feel the energy in this group that being part of Apereo makes possible. It was exciting to see the re-engagement of some of the people who brought so much passion to OSP in the early days.
  • The Learning Analytics Effort – There has been a small group of highly interested folks within the Sakai community interested in learning analytics activities for quite some time now. This has resulted in tools like SiteStats in Sakai. But as we gain understanding about the real approach to LA it becomes increasingly clear that analytics work must be done outside of the LMS with (again) many deep integration points. Add to the Tin Can API support in Sakai (and soon uPortal and OAE) it paves the way to take real steps in a separate software development project that is just about analyzing analytic data. This group is also pre-incubation but it looks like there is interest that is building on building shared open source software to analyze learning data from many sources.
  • Sakai CLE – I will talk more about this later in a separate section. June 2012 was really the time where the CLE started to re-emerge from being under the radar in the Sakai Foundation politics since about 2008. The 2.9 release (November 2012) and 2.9.2 release (May 2013) have greatly energized the community. Leading schools and commercial affiliates have enthusiastically jumped onto the bandwagon and many have converted or are converting to the 2.9 release. The 2.9 release has enough “good stuff” to make it attractive to move to the latest release. We as a community are reducing our installed version skew and that is very important for long-term sustainability. If we put out a version and no one installs it – it is game over.

In addition to these efforts, there were many other ideas bouncing around the hallways, breaks, and pubs. What was nice was to say over and over – “Hey that could be a new Apereo working group!” – What was most exciting for me was these working groups would have had a tough time being part of Sakai with a foundation that was dedicated to one (or two) core products and far too much debate about what should get the “resources”. In Apereo with independent projects large and small and laissez-faire approach by Apereo, each project builds its own small sub-community and finds its own resources. It is amazing how this Sakai+JASig community has so many ideas as what to do next – but when we were the “Sakai Foundation” the question of “Is that Sakai or not?” kept most of these nascent efforts from gaining forward inertia. With in Apereo – there is little to slow a small and dedicated group from moving an idea forward.

The Sakai CLE

So while I am excited about all the wonderful diversity of thinking that now makes up Apereo, the Sakai CLE is my personal focus. As I said above, 2012 was a breakout year for Sakai with the 2.9 release and quick uptake within the community. I felt that the Sakai Technical Coordination Committee (TCC) activity level and commitment level at last year’s conference was amazing – the talent and commitment brought forth at that meeting powered us to completing the 2.9 release and brought the Sakai CLE up to par with the rest of the LMS marketplace.

I gave a talk titled Sakai: The First Ten Years and the Next(*) Ten Years that both celebrated how far we have come and talked about the upside for the future of Sakai once we have the basics nicely in place in Sakai 2.9.

On Sunday June 2, the TCC met with a focus on governance issues in the new Apereo world. We made some progress on gnarly issues but like the merger itself, evolving the Sakai CLE governance will be a work in progress for a while as we find the right shape for things in the new world. The good thing is that we are not slowing down to talk governance – the technical bits of Sakai continue to evolve and the governance bits will be addressed over time.

In the area of socialization, after the Sunday meeting we had the second-annual Festival of the Dead Cow (or Festival of the Spinach au Gratin, Sweet Potato Casserole, and Sautéed Mushrooms for the vegans of the group). We also had our traditional Karaoke Night out at Karaoke 101 in northern San Diego.

On Thursday June 6, we had the more technically-focused meeting of the TCC as we laid out the areas where folks were intending to work over the next 12 months and trying to come up with a release schedule that we could collectively meet.

What was exciting was that it has started looking like the new capabilities of the release scheduled for roughly June of 2014 might have enough new functionality to justify a new major release (like any good committee we are endlessly debating what number that might be). Things like the new search from AsahiNet, the TinCan API project from Unicon, the dashboard tool from Michigan, Project Ketai to enhance web services and build a mobile app, LTI 2.0, greatly enhanced Lessons capability and many more start to sound like a very exciting release where are very much moving forward and starting to address real emerging market needs rather than focusing on building basic functionality.

Looking Forward

While all this is exciting as our existing community will function so much more smoothly within the Apereo Foundation, I think that the most exciting things for Apereo are the ones we can neither imagine nor predict. With the “big tent” approach baked into the bylaws of Apereo, an existing thriving open focused community with participants and conferences around the world, and a solid incubation process emerging, I am hopeful that we will start to attract small new groups from areas outside our traditional LMS and portal spaces.

I would love to see new projects like an open source EPUB3 book authoring environment or building MOOC platforms or LTI tools to share across many LMS systems become part of Apereo.

The sky is now the limit for Apereo and it will be fun to see where it goes.