Openness and Sakai History

There was an excellent exchange recently on the Sakai Teaching & Learning email list ( about how open Sakai is as a community. I’ve captured the original question and the main replies on a wiki page but thought I would highlight my own response in this space.

Here’s part of the original email that gives the general gist of things (the whole thing is on the wiki page):

…I’m presenting at the Computers & Writing conference next week: The theme is open source. I was recently talking to a colleague (main player in the C&W community) who is completely against Sakai. I honestly do not know all of his issues and concerns, but I would like to be prepared for responses and those like his at the conference. When I talked to him, he said that he was in charge at his institution of examining open source CMSs and he found Sakai to be the least open of open source CMS communities. In part, he says this because of the cost to join. He would suggest, I suppose, that cost is, itself, a gatekeeping mechanism that prevents some institutions from becoming involved. He also suggested that the community was driven primarily by developers and that it required too much developer knowledge to customize…

Some of this is just misinformation. Sakai doesn’t cost anything to use and you can certainly participate in the community without being a member of the Sakai Foundation. Other comments have some truth to them, namely, the fact that the level of knowledge needed by developers is higher than other “similar” projects. This may not be as bad as it seems (do you really want to be responsible for a million lines of PHP, I think Chuck Severance once said) but is an issue that the Sakai community is currently addressing through the MySakai work (see my recent blog post for more detail).

Again, you can see everyone’s excellent replies on the wiki. Here is my reply though:

I thought I would wait for others to respond before I jumped in. That said, a quick general response and then one more specific comment

My general answer to the “Sakai isn’t open” comment (which I heard a lot when I started about 9 months ago) is to ask when the person last tried to get involved. Generally it means that someone found it hard to get involved several years ago. Whether or not it “really” was hard to get involved a few years ago, the very perception is an indication that the Sakai community was either too closed or wasn’t doing a good job in helping new folks get involved. We have improved on both of these fronts. We’re also currently in the process of rebuilding the Sakai website (and maybe the wiki) with a strong emphasis on welcoming newcomers to the community.

Now, the particular comment, in response to this bit of the original email:

One of the topics in our paper will include issues about how power survives in open source. I suggested this topic because I think many academics (the audience at this conference) may have the idea that open source = democratic, which could be true but is not necessarily true. I noticed community members that developed tools but instead of contributing back to the community they were selling their own services and knowledge to other institutions. I overheard this at the conference. This would seem to go against community values. On the other hand, I do not know the context of the story. Perhaps the persons involved tried to contribute to the community but those ideas were not taken? Perhaps working with other institutions is the way this person is working to become a leader within the community (skills and knowledge, anyway–not necessarily demonstrated through direct contributions).

Power in open source communities is certainly worth a few dissertations. There are different types of communities that vary in their degree of centralized control (from the cathedral to the bazaar). Understanding power dynamics in more centralized organization (like MySQL) is much easier than understanding those in decentralized ones (like Apache). As John points out, Sakai has a bit of a different nature because of the institutional nature of the decentralized power structure. There’s a lot of local power (John presumably controls his staff’s contributions–although I should note using John as an example of controlling staff is quite misleading as he gives his team a lot of latitude into how they direct their energy, but I hope you take the point) but not a lot of centralized power.

In Sakai power is very subtle. People “on the outside” generally assume I have a lot of it. People “on the inside” know better. I have some authority on issues of process and external messaging. As to what gets built in the next release, that power lies with individuals who contribute their time/expertise and with managers who apply resources to certain issues. Right now Ian Boston from Cambridge has a lot of authority in terms of the technical core of Sakai. He’s a great person to have there because he uses his authority so wisely. Beth Kirschner has similar authority with respect to localization. So my only advice is that “power” needs to be unpacked a bit–power over what?

I suspect that the diffuse nature of Sakai will still make us a bit intimidating to outsiders just because our answers about “how to get involved” are complicated by the decentralized nature of power in the community. It just isn’t similar to most organizations that most of us have dealt with in the past. Which means we need to work harder.

I can’t really respond well to the comment members making their own tools and not contributing them back to the community (if you want to give me the specific reference off-list I’ll be happy to give you my perspective). This would be generally against the ethos of the community but it could make perfect sense in specific circumstance. Certainly the community chose a license that allows this. But I don’t think this is that common and a new model for doing vendor-based work is evolving in large part through the leadership being shown by GeorgiaTech and Unicon. I wrote a blog post about it a couple of weeks ago:
Let us know how the conference goes!


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