6 Reasons to Read 'Sakai: Free as in Freedom (Alpha)'

Sakai: Free as in Freedom (Alpha) by Chuck Severance comes at a particularly interesting time in evolution of the LMS ecosystem.

January 3, 2012

Sakai: Free as in Freedom (Alpha) by Chuck Severance comes at a particularly interesting time in evolution of the LMS ecosystem.

Many schools are somewhere in the process of evaluating their campus LMS, looking to decide over the next year or so if they want to stay with Blackboard, migrate to Blackboard, go with an open source platform (Moodle or Sakai), jump to D2L, Canvas or OpenClass.

Severance was the first executive director of the Sakai Foundation and the original chief architect of the Sakai Project.  Today, he is a Clinical Associate Professor and teaches in the School of Information at the University of Michigan. 

After reading Severance's personal history of Sakai, I've become convinced that any LMS discovery/investigation project should include an evaluation of this platform. Even if you are nowhere near an LMS evaluation I'd still recommend that you pickup a copy of Severance's book. And I'll give you 6 reasons:

1. Chuck Severance is Crazy:  When I say that Chuck Severance is crazy, I mean crazy in the very best possible way. Crazy as in completely honest. Crazy as in willing to say things that might offend other people.   Crazy in the sense that he is willing to be critical of his own actions. Crazy in that he believes in the promise of open source software in higher education more than he cares about his own career advancement. Crazy in that he is willing to take risks, to fail, and to learn from his mistakes. I don't know Chuck Severance, but I hope that I get the chance. This is a guy who quit a series of good jobs in quick succession in order to have the opportunity to work on a risky open source education project. This is a guy who spent a few years on an airplane, flying around the world to nurture and support the Sakai community of developers and partners from scratch. A guy who was willing to walk away from management of Sakai when he realized that he had given all that he could to the project, and it was time for new people to step in. You can literally see Severance's dedication to open source in higher ed on his body, as the cover of the book shows the Sakai logo that he has tattooed to his shoulder. Crazy.

2. Higher Ed Tech Is a Small Community:  It is exhilarating to read the inside account of the creation of Sakai, and even more exciting when people who we have met in our (small) ed tech community are part of the drama. I have never worked at a Sakai school (the University of Michigan, Indiana University, Stanford University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology were the original players), although I've met some of the people involved in Sakai through EDUCAUSE. It is extremely instructive to read about how technology projects such as Sakai are run at a big research university.  This is a book about the origins of Sakai, but also a story about how universities and granting agencies work together, and how the mechanics of cross-campus collaboration actually work.  

3. Learning Lessons from Sakai: The fact that the creators of Sakai were able to ship a stable and well-developed platform within a couple of years is simply amazing. The achievement of Severance and his colleagues of getting Sakai into production at a number of major institutions should not be underestimated. In my experience, most software projects fail - or at least end up dramatically behind schedule and over budget. By ruthlessly guarding against feature creep, and by a willingness to make unpopular decisions about how limited resources were directed, Severance and his team were able to get Sakai developed and installed at a number of partner institutions. The platform was able to evolve in real-world conditions of production stress testing, with feature and UI improvements coming from the community (as opposed to educated guesses or vocal funders). This approach to software development, a willingness to both stick to a release schedule and to iteratively improve the code and feature set, should be a roadmap for future software projects.

4. The Importance of Sakai: Every school the at uses any LMS owes Sakai a debt of gratitude. Sakai helped validate the idea that an open source, community created, LMS is possible.  The existence of both Moodle and Sakai keep the pressure on the for-profit LMS providers, and ensure strong competition in the marketplace.  Sakai was critical in the development of IMS Learning Tools Interoperability - allowing for learning tools to be plugged into any learning management system that supports this standard.

5. The Book is $4.99:  Sakai: Free as in Freedom (Alpha) demonstrates the possibility of e-books. This is a classic long-tail book. Huge masses of people will not be interested in the Sakai story, but many people in our IHE community will be.  At $4.99, with instant download, there is no reason for all of us not to buy this book.  

6.  You Will Not Be Able to Put The Book Down:  Perhaps the best reason to buy and read Sakai: Free as in Freedom (Alpha) is that Severance tells a great story.   Severance's willingness to honestly total up his successes and failures, strong points and faults, gives shape to the story of Sakai's birth and growth.  Designing software is a creative act, an artistic endeavor.  We may not all choose to embrace open source to the extent that Severance and some institutions have, but we are all richer for the existence of the open source movement in higher education.

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