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Alan Berg [opinions]

Writing a book with the help of the Sakai free software community [sakai] [cle] [book] [lms] [sakaiger]

This article is about writing a book with the help of the free software community. The book in question is Sakai Courseware Management with the main authors being Alan Berg (Me myself and I) and Michael Korcuska, the executive director of the Sakai Foundation. In reality, around forty community members delivered valuable content, which the authors distributed strategically throughout the book.


Sakai is a respected online platform for collaborative learning. Millions of students around the world, especially in higher education learn using this platform. Sakai is highly flexible and allows you to quickly make project and course sites. The power of the application is that, per site, you easily choose from a wide variety of tools such as chat, podcasting, forums, blogs, etc.

Sakai is used by Universities such as Michigan, MIT, Berkley, Amsterdam, Cape Town, Indiana. Over one-third of the top one hundred universities in the world participate in Sakai, providing a system now in use in over one hundred and sixty other universities, colleges and schools.

Figure 1: Sakai deployments

If you are interested in trying out Sakai on your own computer, then I would recommend an article written by Alan Mark Berg, someone I know and have a great deal of respect for, he said modestly. The article is written for Sakai 2.4 but is also valid for the current version, 2.6. Version 2.6 has more tools and a slightly smoother user experience. It is a mature product, which can be scaled for up to a 160,000 user base.

The community has at its centre the Sakai Foundation, a non-profit organisation that manages the product roadmap, defends the product legally and coordinates conferences and supporting infrastructure such as the source code repository, bug tracking, Wiki, mailing lists and Quality Assurance. Organisations become members of the foundation and vote for a board. Investing in the Sakai Foundation is enlightened self-interest. If managed well it is cheaper and more reliable for a specific University to create an excellent student experience.

In this competitive time where commercial companies sue free software products in an apparent attempt to gain market dominance it is good to have a biodiversity of free software products. Arguably, without Sakai, Moodle or other free learning management systems, the choice of online learning systems would come down to one major commercial player. If that commercial player gets an econnomic cold or pushes the license costs up then you will experiece the cos and the pain too. Free software creates choice and bypasses vendor lock in.

I became involved in the Sakai project in my alter ego as senior developer, Quality Assurer and professional naysayer at the University of Amsterdam. The University saw the potential of the product and wanted to bring it into mainstream use as a student and researcher community builder. Sakai is also is used at Amsterdam for keeping track of students performance through online portfolios.

After numerous emails to public lists, creating some automatic quality assurance processes and generally being a pain I was awarded a Sakaiger (a stuffed toy). After being bitten by the stuffed toy I gained secret super powers, which I only use for good (or as a joke at parties). I gained a second stuffed toy, when I became a Sakai fellow. Becoming a Sakai fellow meant that I could ask the Central Computer Services at the University of Amsterdam, to give me the time I needed to help write an official Sakai Foundation sponsored book. We all agreed that any royalties made by the authors would go to the Foundation.

Figure 2: Sakaigers as photographed by Lawrence Berg (aged 9)

I was highly motivated to write. I thought it better to lock myself in a darkened room for ten months rather than to talk to my colleagues. Probably because they were embarrassed to see me walking around the building with stuffed toys and wearing my underwear over my trousers, the University agreed. My family, especially my long-suffering wife, was supportive. However, if I had not asked for prior permission before writing the book, I suspect that my life insurance would have soared.

LESSON 1: To avoid heavy objects being dropped on your head, keep your family informed

The delivery of the book had well-defined deadlines. These deadlines made demands on the number of words that needed to be written in a day. Different authors work in different ways. I did not leave my desk until my word quota was reached. At a certain point, the potted plant and stuffed Sakaiger toy were the most viewed objects in my life. They counselled me through many long dark nights of the soul.

LESSON 2: Be prepared for a boring, regular workload if you want to hit your deadlines

I am neither the best nor the worst writer in the world. However, I do know the underlying technologies. I am by nature succinct, but sometimes under a high load can construct sentences that can contain colloquialisms. After producing 130,000 technically correct words, it was wise to filter out any offending sentences. Luckily, Margaret Wagner of Sakai newsletter fame unpicked my verbal tangles with patience and compassion.

LESSON 3: If you write fast, ask someone else to filter your masterpiece

Through my daily work, I knew many community members and did not feel awkward asking for their help. I decided to break the work into smaller parts, sending out email interviews and asking for support through the writing of case studies. The result was a lot of feedback and much valuable content including ten case studies. The quality of the content was OK and extremely good from a technical perspective. The responses required some light polishing, but not as much as I was originally expecting. It was really rather good. The main effort was directed at nudging specific authors to return their work on time.

LESSON 4: The more members of the community you interact with the harder it is to plan deadlines

LESSON 5: Break work up into doable packets such as interviews and case studies so that the community can focus and respond in a timely manner

LESSON 6: The main effort was not cleaning up content, but getting the content delivered on time

A significant number of chapters were written by Michael Korcuska and one by Josh Baron and another by David Jan Donner and Léon Raijmann. Working with co-authors made the reaching of deadlines more manageable and facilitated multiple perspectives. Michael focused on the proper way an educationalist should use Sakai and discussed its future. I was more focused on the technical structures. Josh described what made courses excellent, David Jan Donner and Raijmann looked at the key reasons to buy into Sakai. This interplay of different authors with different skill sets makes for a book that speaks clearly to different target audiences.

LESSON 7: Having more than one author makes for a well rounded book

Generally, writing is not a financially rewarding process due to the large number of hours you may need to invest. However, the process does teach you to trust your publisher and your co-authors. To form your own opinion about the quality of the book you can find two sample chapters on the PACKT website. If you are unsure of the potential value of Sakai in your organization then install the software on a test machine. The demo is simple to set up and fun to use.

Figure 3: The book's cover

I have learnt other lessons during writing. However, you will have to corner me at a Sakai conference, force-feed me more whiskey than you can probably afford. The book was hard work, but in hindsight worth doing. Individual help from the Sakai community was numerous and supportive. Thank you all.


I would like to acknowledge the genetic similarities in humour with my father, especially the ones that land me in trouble. Thank you very, very much Dad.


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