July 21, 2018 | ° F

Senate report shows flaws with Sakai

A University Senate report from 2005, conducted by the Committee on Instruction, Curricula and Advising, indicates Sakai quickly advanced from a prototype to its current colloquial standing at the University.

But the report, complete with details on both the benefits and downfalls of the three course management systems (CMS) used at the time — WebCT, eCollege and Blackboard — also shows the University was unsure about the newly developed Sakai.  

"While Sakai has the potential for becoming a focal point for faculty instructional research, its development as a course management system is still relatively primitive and requires significant institutional commitment," according to the report.

The University decided to make this commitment for three years, which allowed faculty and students to experiment with the developing Sakai program, said Chief Technical Officer Charles Hedrick.

"To be perfectly honest, in terms of features some [CMS] are better at some things," he said. "But we can do things [with Sakai] that might not be as easy to do with other systems."

With a University-run support staff, Hedrick, also University director of Instructional and Research Technology, said the use of Sakai is common throughout the New Brunswick campus, allowing faculty to complement their course load with online course material.

The Senate report also detailed the University's desire to implement an official CMS instead of multiple platforms. Although the University still uses both Blackboard and eCollege, Vice President of Information Technology Donald Smith said a single CMS remains an important goal.

"When you go with a single CMS, all of your support structures stay the same. All of your students' experiences stay the same," he said. "People feel comfortable and they know how to use it. So it is familiarity."

Other academic institutions also strive to use a single CMS but usually end up with two, which Smith said is a possibility for the University.

"It would be foolish for us to say you have to use this system for everything you want to do," he said. "But being able to just use one is a much more convenient experience for everybody."

Shortly following the Senate report, Sakai replaced WebCT as the major CMS at the University, deemed as inferior to both Blackboard and eCollege in the report, Smith said.

One deciding factor was the ability to work with an open source format, which allows the University to create a Sakai support staff for faculty and students within its academic borders, he said.

The Senate report also showed the availability of training in the CMS was an important factor for faculty in the transition.

"In general, faculty are more concerned with ease and logistics of use of CMS than specific content of individual systems," according to the report.

Sakai Foundation Executive Director Ian Dolphin said allowing the academic community at a University develop Sakai is a major characteristic of the CMS.

"Sakai's great strength lies in its flexibility, which provides the ability to adapt the software to meet local needs," he said via e-mail correspondence. "Sakai is very much a community effort."

By having a CMS with an open source format, Smith said the University could solve many concerns among faculty.

"What open source means is that you have to dedicate some resources — development staff, support staff — to make sure this works," he said. "You can control your own destiny rather than paying for a commercial product and dealing with licensing issues."

Licensing issues are common to a CMS-like Blackboard and was also a factor in the decision to move from WebCT to Sakai, Hedrick said.

"We have guest users, web researchers who want to collaborate with people on another campus," he said. "If I had a commercial system, I'd have to worry whether the people at the other campus are covered by our license."

Over time, the number of required licenses tends to increase, Hedrick said.

"For example, they say this is the end of this product and we'll design a new product," he said. "With open source software, you just have a lot more control of what's happening."

With WebCT also planning to release their upgraded, but costly, program Vista, Hedrick said the University decided to fully commit to Sakai and abandon WebCT.

"The time when you typically consider making major changes is at the time where you are forced to change anyway," he said. "That's when we moved from WebCT to Sakai."

When the University Senate composed the 2005 CMS review, Smith said there was a clear distinction between web-enhanced, meaning partially online and web-delivered, which is fully online. With the use of Sakai, this distinction is disappearing.

"We have now sort of bridged the gap. Hybrid courses are becoming popular where a substantial portion is given online," Smith said. "For example, giving an exam online but still meeting face to face."

Although the University is preparing its servers for the upcoming Sakai 3 upgrade as students continue to use eCollege, Smith is still hopeful of having an official CMS for the New Brunswick campus.

"We have to look at this as a whole and decide what the institution wants to do," he said. "My strong sense is that possibly in three to five years, we are going end up with one CMS. But that is something the future will tell us."

Devin Sikorski

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