Sakai in South Africa

South African Flag

I spent a few days last week in Cape Town, South Africa.  It was too short a visit (as most Sakai trips are) and definitely whetted my appetite for another trip.  The South African Sakai community organized a 2-day meeting in Cape Town. The particular timing of the meeting was chosen in part due to Anthony Whyte’s annual trip to Cape Town to both spend time with the Sakai folks there and to ride in the Argus bike race.  Clay Fenlason was also on hand, mostly on holiday visiting some friends of his from the Peace Corps. All told, the Sakai Futures Symposium on Thursday March 5th attended by around 50 people from the following organizations:

Friday March 6th was more of an informal working meeting for Sakai contributors, but I would say about 20 or 25 people attended that session. It was very productive and most of the focus was how to get started contributing to Sakai 3. The South African folks are thinking of tackling the topic of discussion forums–certainly a big an important topic to get right in Sakai 3.  UNISA, especially, has some pretty formidable discussion forums given the size of their user base.

My presentation covered three topics: A summary of Sakai in 2008, a look at what is happening in “Sakai 3” and a preview of some proposed changes to how Sakai product development work should happen. I’ll be getting a paper out on the last topic early next week so stay tuned (I don’t want to publish the slides until the white paper is out).

Clay then followed up with more detail on Academic Networking, one key area of focus for those who are working on what we hope will be Sakai 3 (we really need an official code name for this work!). He distinguished between people-based and content-based networks (Facebook and Flickr, respectively), speculating that content-based is probably more relevant in academic context. He also discussed activity-based connections–for example, having connections suggested based on what classes you’ve taken or what readings you’re using in your class.

Finally, Stephen Marquard talked a bit about Content Authoring and even showed my screencast on the same topic. It’s always strange to hear a recorded version of yourself, but I got a number of compliments on it so I guess it isn’t too bad.

Laura Czerniewicz, Director of the Centre for Educational Technology at Cape Town, gave a great presentation about IT in Higher Ed in South Africa. It contained survey results from 12 universities and was quite informative.  A few highlights from my perspective:

  • On campus access to computers is generally very good for all types of students. Off campus access, however, remains very unequal. Both hardware and bandwith are a problem.
  • Mobile phones, however, change the equation. They are ubiquitous & all students use them strategically.
  • Only 8% of students say the often publish content to the web. Only 30% often use instant messaging on the computer. But over 60% use sms frequently. (A popular local network called MXit seems to be the technology of choice)

So, despite the fact that South Africa is getting a huge increase in bandwidth this summer, mobile access is key for students. We really need to make sure our designs consider the mobile handset screen size.

Stephen Marquard then gave us the results of a more detailed survey on Vula, Cape Town’s Sakai instance. He’s presenting the results on campus this week so I can’t share the slides yet, but here are a few things that caught my eye:

  • Access not an issue for most students. 74% say they mainly access Vula from on campus computer labs and there is enough availaiblity of those to meet their needs.
  • Student’s overall experience with Vula is fantastic. Approximately 96% of students say it is either very positive (54%) or positive (42%).
  • 80% of students say it has improved learning, 70% of faculty say the same thing. At the same time many students wish their instructors would use it more.  Perhaps 10% of the faculty don’t understand how useful it is to students?
  • 93% say VULA is easy to learn how to use.

And he shared some choice quotes with us as well:

“I was a student in the days before the coming of Vula, those were dark times….”

“Vula is like my survival kit!”

“If it were not for Vula I would most likely not know what to do for some of my courses”

UNISA and North-West University also shared their survey results.  UNISA had only about a 15% respons rate which meant they “only” got 28,914 responses! My notes on these presentations are a bit spottier.  Some highlights from UNISA:

  • Most appear to be accessing from the office. Only 25% from home.
  • 43% are using IE 6.0
  • The vast majority find Sakai easy to learn
  • UNISA’s needs and priorities inlcude
    • more advanced discussion features (e.g. post ratings)
    • math content
    • better notifications (consistency across tools)
    • integration with library (single sign-on and content repositories)
    • multimedia, podcasting
    • single sign on with library

North-West University’s has been running Sakai, which they brand eFundi, for 3 years now. They’ve seen a big increase in usage this year. A few of their highlights were:

  • 70% of students use sakai from pc labs on campus, only 5% from home
  • Sakai is stable and scalable
  • The find Sakai 2 easy to use and want Sakai 3 to be the same
  • Group aware tools are critical for North-West
  • Non- Teaching & Learning uses are important as well

Overall it was a great Symposium and we agreed we should do it again next year, although Laura made the point that next year’s topic probably shouldn’t be “Sakai Futures” again!  I certainly don’t want to be talking about Sakai 4 this time next year!

A big thanks to University of Cape Town for hosting us. Cape Town is a beautiful and friendly city. I encourage you to pay it a visit some time.

And, finally, a huge “Thank You!” to Val Theron from Psybergate for commissioning the “bead and wire” Sakaigers that all the foreign visitors received (one went home to Chuck Severance as well…Chuck had visited the previous week). These are truly amazing works of art and I know everyone who received one was very appreciative and quite humbled by the gift. I took a few pictures that I hope you enjoy:


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