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    Digital Tweed® is the work of Kenneth C. Green, founding director of The Campus Computing Project. If successful, these posts will inform and entertain, and at times also annoy. A little dissonance can be a good thing.

Looking Beyond Sakai
May 19, 2014 - 6:07am

This year marks the 10th anniversary of Sakai, one of the two flavors of Open Source Learning Management Systems (LMS) used by many colleges and universities.  It was with great fanfare (and also great aspirations) that in January 2004 the Mellon Foundation announced a $2.7M grant (more like seed money venture philanthropy) to help launch Sakai, intended as a community-determined and driven alternative to the commercial LMS applications licensed by colleges and universities.    Essential to the Sakai initiative were significant cash and kind contributions from four universities: Indiana, Michigan, MIT, and Stanford. 

At the time of Sakai launch I characterized the LMS arena in higher education as “a mature market with immature products,” a combination that suggested great volatility in the marketplace.  The market was mature in January 2004 because data from the annual Campus Computing Survey revealed that even by fall 2003, most institutions had campus agreements to license a LMS application from one or more commercial providers.  And the LMS applications were immature because these were “young” and rapidly evolving products, launched during the dot.com/dot.edu era as a way to help faculty put course materials on the web. 

A decade later that volatility remains:almost two-thirds (64 percent) of the CIOs and senior campus officials who represent the 451 two- and four-year colleges and universities that participated in the fall 2013 Campus Computing Survey report that that their institutions are “reviewing options for the campus-standard LMS.”

The LMS market has changed dramatically since the 2004 launch of Sakai.   Blackboard purchased two major competitors – WebCT and Angel Learning – yet has seen its market share suffer significant erosion, at least as measured by the percentage of US institutions that identify a Blackboard’s LMS (Blackboard Learn and Angel) as their single, campus-wide LMS application. 

Two “flavors” of Open Source – Moodle and Sakai emerged during the last decade, each with very different creation stories.  The history of Moodle parallels Linux as the initial work of one individual, in this instance Martin Dougiamas in Australia, while Sakai was primarily the work of a consortium of US institutions.  (As a flippant aside, it is easy – way too easy -- to characterize the organizational structure of Moodle as being like a “benevolent dictatorship” and Sakai like the “Soviet Politburo.”  But these would be admittedly flippant, irreverent, and probably unfair analogies, given the efforts of the individuals and institutions in the Moodle and Sakai camps who have endorsed, supported, and have helped to advanced and improve both these Open Source LMS applications.] 

Also during the last decade, Canadian-based Desire2Learn (D2L) began to grab market share in the US as campuses unhappy with Blackboard – either the organic version they initially licensed or the LMS applications that became part of Blackboard by acquisition – looked for alternatives from commercial providers. 

More recently, a new contender, Canvas by Instructure, has taken the higher ed market by storm.  In roughly four years Instructure has signed agreements with some 500-plus colleges and universities and has also become the LMS of record for the Cisco Academies that serve 1 million students/learners in training programs across the globe administered by Cisco Systems.

Evidence that the landscape of the LMS market has become even more volatile emerged late last week with a report of a “secret” movement, named Unizin, lead by Indiana University, to develop a new “learning ecosystem,” which would, at least short-term, use Canvas as the operational infrastructure for the initiative.  (Note to the Unizin leadership: ya may wanna rethink the Unizin name as my quick Google search reveals that Unizin is the also name South Korean of zipper manufacturer.) 

Naming issues notwithstanding, Michael Feldstein’s Unizin expose (congrats, Michael!) includes some PPT slides describing the broad scope of the Unizin initiative and reveals that Indiana has approached at least nine other institutions, including the University of Michigan (one of the four “pillar” Sakai institutions) and the University of Wisconsin (an early and strategic win for D2L) to participate in Unizin.  Other early potential Unizin partners (invitees?) include Colorado State, Oregon State, Purdue, the University of Florida, the University of Maryland, the University of Texas, and the University of Utah. There are lots of issues to dissect and reconstruct in the discussion about the Unizin initiative.  But rising to the top, at least for me, are two topics:

--The dramatic rise of Canvas by Instructure in the past three years; and

--The movement of one (and possible two) pillar Sakai institutions, Indiana and Michigan, to a commercial LMS.

Let’s begin with Canvas by Instructure.  A third generation LMS (Blackboard, Prometheus and WebCT were Gen1, founded in the mid/late 1990s; Angel, D2L, Moodle, and Sakai were Gen2, emerging in first part of the last decade; and Canvas is a Gen3, launched in the current decade), Canvas by Instructure has moved into the higher ed market quickly and successfully.  Canvas was born from the experience (frustration!) of two Brigham Young University students who thought they could design a better LMS.  And beyond offering a new approach to LMS design, Instructure was also very lucky as Canvas arrived just Blackboard announced plans to retire its legacy LMS applications (Blackboard 8.0 and older, plus Angel and WebCT), forcing some 700-plus campus clients (my extrapolation, based on public numbers from Blackboard) into “up or out” decisions: migrate “up” to Blackboard Learn 9.0 or “go out” to another LMS application.  The forced “up or out” choice was a catalyst for a large number of colleges or universities to reassess their LMS strategy and to review new LMS applications.   Canvas, and to a lesser degree D2L, Moodle, and Sakai, were all beneficiaries as a large number of Blackboard clients went “out” and not “up." 

And now there is the decision by Indiana (and possibly Michigan), two of the four “pillars” of Sakai, to transition to a commercial LMS application (i.e., Canvas).  Symbolically (and perhaps substantively), what should we make of what seems to be the impending transition from Sakai to Canvas by two universities that were “present at creation” for Sakai and whose support for Sakai no doubt played an important  role in (a) providing credibility for Sakai and (b) the LMS deployment decisions over the past decade of some colleges and universities to migrate to Sakai as their campus standard LMS?

Indiana University’s  apparent plans to migrate to Canvas are particularly interesting as Indiana’s IT leadership has played a very visible and aggressively vocal role in evangelizing for Open Source LMS and ERP applications as “the way” for colleges and universities to take control of their IT futures and also to save significant sums by not paying licensing fees to commercial providers.  That Indiana University (and perhaps Michigan), via Unizen, now appear to be endorsing Canvas, a commercial LMS application, over Sakai, the Open Source LMS that two these universities helped to develop, may give pause to many institutional IT leaders and also to the campus committees currently engaged in a LMS review.  The Indiana and Michigan involvement in and endorsements of Sakai served as a critical safety net:  if two of the Sakai founders are fleeing, what does that suggest about what the senior IT leadership at these two universities view to be the long-term the future of Sakai?

Indeed, what appears to the the impeding Indiana (and perhaps Michigan) migration from Sakai to Canvas reminds me of a conversation I had in summer 2004, following the Sakai announcement, with a thoughtful CIO from midsized private university.  As we discussed Sakai as an emerging Open Source application vs. his LMS choices from commercial providers, my lunch companion expressed his concern about trust issues, stating, in essence, “who am I supposed to trust here with the emergence of Sakai as an Open Source LMS developed by other universities:  should I trust my university colleagues or the commercial providers?  I’m not sure I am comfortable with either option.” 

No doubt the Unizen disclosures will create some significant discomfort among many in the Sakai world.   Moreover, last week’s Unizen disclosures will also be a catalyst for lots of campus conversations, animated emails and phone conversations across institutions, and blog posts like this one. 

In the end, many of these exchanges about Unizin will ultimately focus on the trust issues articulated by my lunch companion a decade ago: who should campus officials trust with regard to critical decisions about mission-critical LMS and ERP applications – campus colleagues in the Open Source movement or the current commercial providers.  Like my lunch companion a decade ago, I suspect that many campus IT leaders are unhappy with their current options.

Related Digital Tweed posts of potential interest:

Trust But Verify

LMS 4.0: Semantic Remorse and Student Engagement


Disclosure:  Blackboard, Desire2Learn, Instructure, and Longsight (which provides operational support to campuses that run Sakai) are all corporate sponsors of The Campus Computing Project.

 

 

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