Free e-learning software: unifying coding efforts, and admin efforts

In this article, I will talk about an exciting chain of events which brought several universities together: instead of buying different Learning Management Systems, they teamed up and started working on the same piece of software -- together. This led to the development of Sakai, a fantastic Learning Management System. I will also talk about the importance, for organisations like the Sakai foundation, to then merge with similar ones (which share similar goals) for the same reason: avoid work duplication.

The end result, which is happening as we speak, is that one great foundation will manage, protect, organise, and support multiple projects (free software) centered around Learning Management Systems.

It’s about the Community

Many organizations fall back on traditional bets such as proprietary office products. This is also true for Learning Management Systems. As an individual organisation, you do not have much control over the choice of the evolving feature set of the product, the long-term quality and the raising costs of licenses.

In practice, it is better to gather (smart) people who need a Learning Management System, write out requirements that cover all the basis, and create a free piece of software based on those specifications. This approach generates competition and opens up new opportunities for innovation in the marketplace. You are now investing in building knowledge in-house rather than paying for annual licensing costs.

Higher Education has its own unique characteristics. Each university has its own identity and a history that shapes reputations and approaches to integrating technologies. However, the core features of online learning are similar if not the same from university to university. Producing similar applications is not cost effective and does not always lead to excellence. If you put ten custom systems together expect 90% similarity. We have a recipe for growing new services. Clearly, universities need to invest heavily in community source.

This is exactly what happened with Sakai.

Universities need to invest heavily in community source

The Sakai Collaboration Environment and the Sakai Foundation

The Sakai Collaboration Environment (CLE) is a community source learning management system. The Sakai Foundation promotes the community.


For in-depth coverage, I have helped write two books on the subject. For those interested in playing with Sakai here is an article on how to on your local machine.

The Sakai Foundation defends the interests of its community. The foundation has a membership of around 100 Universities. They pay a small fee and more importantly dedicate human resources to the Sakai project. The foundation arranges conferences, supports the community by providing common infrastructure such as a WIKI and bug database. It defends the free software copyrights, fighting the patient gaming inherent in the current legal system.

The problem for the community is not only to attract individual universities, but also to get them involved and not just consuming the product. In the long term, it is easy to forget that it is not about software but about sharing common requirements. The only effective way to influence the feature set is to work hard in the community.

The only effective way to influence the feature set is to work hard in the community

The primary task of any foundation must be to motivate its community by maintaining a deterministic roadmap.

The JASIG SAKAI Foundation merger

JASIG is a respected organization that maintains a community around a number of complementary projects to Sakai. The two largest projects are Yale CAS, a Single Sign On (SSO) service that allows you to hook up multiple systems and log in once and uPortal. uPortal allows you to build a portal for student information and extend it quickly using the Java programming language. Both these products work well as part of a collection of services deployed by a University. For example, the University of Amsterdam (UvA) uses Yale CAS with Sakai and Blackboard and uPortal. UvA uses uPortal as the first login place for students where they can pick up information quickly.

To create a critical mass of interests, the Sakai Foundation is merging with JASIG. The new foundation, renamed Apereo Foundation, will then go through a cultural dislocation as it moves from a single product maintainer to an entity that maintains several products. The role of maintaining multiple communities of interests requires active diplomacy. The trick is growing the community, not necessary to promote membership expansion, rather to remind the less active organizations that they have a stake. The merger will be an excellent point to reflect on what community source means. Sakai needs you active.

the JASIG SAKAI merger will be an excellent point to reflect on what community source means

Converging with ESUP-Portail

The consolidation process is moving rapidly forward. The Sakai Foundation has recently signed a memorandum of understanding with ESUP-Portail. ESUP-Portail is a French non-profit organization of 73 educational institutions that promotes free software solutions for higher education. In theory and hopefully in practice, the memorandum will catalyze joint efforts and deliver greater resources.

Risks and benefits

The larger a Foundation, the greater the risks that it becomes a talking shop. It is important to express the community’s requirements through a process of consultation. However, the software also needs to be written and developers have to be focused on achievable short-term goals. A significant risk for a large foundation is that development and consultation process progress at two very different velocities. The consultation process needs to generate real goals with short-term improvements. Requirements need to reflect technological reality. Occasionally developers have to be able to say that the requirements are not practical. Luckily, the Sakai CLE project has a great template for success. I happen to be a member of a Technical Coordination Council TCC, a meritocracy which helps steer the Sakai CLE roadmap, keeping the creation of features focused and actionable. Each member of the TCC is actively involved in the project. Hands dirty from regular action. The future looks promising as long as enough universities actively participate rather than acting as consumers without responsibilities.

The future looks promising as long as enough universities actively participate rather than acting as consumers without responsibilities

With a larger foundation comes greater opportunity for interplay between projects. New projects are emerging such as the uMobile for uPortal and the Mobile project for the Sakai Foundation. It will be interesting to see how the community manages the projects, finding overlap and actionable commonality. Many Universities build their own mobile apps. Worse, many universities build multiple apps that do roughly the same thing. Consolidation is important as it has the potential to improve quality and decrease the amount of wasted effort in Higher Education.


The merger is logical; the range of products nurtured by the new Foundation complement each other. A larger umbrella organization such as the Apereo Foundation can deliver a safe haven. Small projects can grow nucleating around the larger projects.

Community source can deliver great value for each dollar invested, but only if the community is prepared to invest resources. The Apereo Foundation needs a critical mass of support. It has only a few members of staff. Its success will depend on the activity of its community. If the community is uniformly motivated, keeps delivering short-term goals as well as the longer-term ones, then it will succeed. Community activity is not always guaranteed. The Apereo staff are going to have to continue to be great diplomats. Success is proportional to community activity. Community source needs you active.

=ZOOM=Community source needs you active=


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