Notes from Educause 2007 (part 1)

I spent last week at Educause in Seattle. With lots of warm sunshine and only one day of rain, Seattle delivered uncharacteristically beautiful October weather. Still, I spent most of the week inside. I’ve already written about the Sakai Board Meeting that took place on Monday the 22nd. Here are some highlights from the first half of the week:

NITLE Sakai User Group Meeting. On Tuesday, I was invited by Martin Ramsey to give a brief presentation at the NITLE Sakai User Group Meeting. NITLE is a non-profit that helps liberal arts educators make use of emerging technologies. There were a number of Sakai users there, as well as institutions piloting Sakai as part of a shared pilot program that NITLE is running.

The meeting went all day and I only attended a small portion mid-way through, but two themes stood out for me. First, there was a concern about whether a school with a small (or non-existent!) IT staff could effectively run an enterprise installation of Sakai. The second was how institutions without development staff could contribute to the project. Both of these are important considerations and I was especially happy to see this group thinking about how to give back to the community.

For the first question, it is important to distinguish between the initial deployment and ongoing operation. While there is more to say about the initial deployment, setting up any enterprise system is going to require some specialized skills that may not be abundant at small schools. There’s nothing really unique to Sakai. Getting the system integrated with a student information system, setting up the hosting infrastructure, and rolling out training to users are all task that come with rolling out a new CMS. This is also where commercial partners come in. They can provide installation and support of Sakai for those who can’t, or don’t want to, by themselves.

As for contributing to the community, there are many ways smaller organizations can contribute short of writing Code. A few that were discussed in the meeting include:Helping with Quality Assurance. This work is fairly easy to distribute and you don’t need programming skills to be involved.

  1. Helping with Quality Assurance. This work is fairly easy to distribute and you don’t need programming skills to be involved.
  2. Assisting with Documentation. It’s best not to be a developer if you’re writing end-user documentation. We can always have more and the existing documentation can always be better. Since larger institutions do a fair amount of customization, often requiring custom documentation, this is a place where the smaller schools who are going to be using the “out of the box” Sakai can really make a big contribution.
  3. Working in the requirements development. Helping the community collect, prioritize and document requirements is another place where programming skills aren’t needed. To be certain you do need to understand the application and technology fairly well.
  4. Banding together. There were probably a dozen institutions represented at the meeting. Pooling resources could allow these institutions to get development work completed. It’s more complicated, of course, but it isn’t out of the question if the community has common interests that aren’t being otherwise addressed.

Zimbra and Sakai. Zimbra, the open source email and calendar software provider recently acquired by Yahoo!, is getting a lot of attention. Anthony and I met with Viral Kadakia, Director of Product Management, and other interested members of the Sakai community (including Unicon, who has become a Zimbra VAR). While there is nothing concrete to announce at this time, we can expect to see at least a lightweight integration between Sakai and Zimbra in the coming year, probably by allowing the synoptic calendar in “My Workspace” to display both Sakai and Zimbra events. There’s lots more that can be done here, of course, and we should embrace this type of effort. I know Sakai isn’t going to keep up with Zimbra in terms of calendaring capabilities, for example. Finding a way for Sakai to easily use another open-source (or proprietary) solution to manage those types of things that are provided by other enterprise applications on campus is a “good thing.”

It also underscores to the importance of standards (you don’t want to do this in 10 different ways). We also talked about JSR 170, the Java Content Repository specification. It was only a speculative conversation at this point, but I think making content available across enterprise applications is an important long term direction.

Serensoft and Blackbaud. I had dinner with Chip Stiles from Serensoft and a couple of his contacts at Blackbaud, who are most well known for their “Raiser’s Edge” fund-raising management software. They also have a student information system (Education Edge) that has been successful both in K-12 and in smaller higher education institutions. They had lots of questions about Sakai and Open Source in general and we talked about how things get done. It may seem impossible, given the relative lack of central control (not the same as lack of coordination) but, at the end of the day, we have software that many schools are running in production. In any case, I hope to see Blackbaud at the Newport Beach conference so they can learn more about working with our community.

Wimba and Elluminate. On Tuesday night I attended the Wimba reception at the Space Needle. I was somewhat disappointed that the reception was on the 2nd floor rather than at the top, but that was quickly forgotten with the fine hospitality of the Wimba crew. Hats off to the organizers for a very nice event. Back on the conference floor I got to see the Wimba tools working inside Sakai, which was great. I also stopped by the Elluminate booth and, although they didn’t have a Sakai integration to show me at the time, I have it on good authority that they will be demonstrating their integration at the Newport Beach Conference. As I’ve written before, these integrations are important because they allow Sakai users to get more out of the solution.

That’s all for now…I’ll try to get another entry up by the end of the week with a focus on Sakai member institutions.

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