Universiteit van Amsterdam and Edia

As part of my recent trip to Amsterdam to present at the OpenIC symposium, I also spent some time with the good people of UvA and Edia (a small company that provides Sakai services). I learned a great deal about what they’ve been up to, which was more extensive than I expected. Sakai has really become an integral part of life at UvA and Edia has done some very nice development work.

UvA Sakai Activities (courtesy of Frank Benneker)

  • UvA uses Sakai for something it calls webklas. These are three or four week distance eduction courses for prospective students who are interested in studying at the UvA. A webklas is based on a specific template with its own look and feel and selection of tools. This is an interesting example of open education that serves a strong need for UvA–ensuring students are applying to the correct program at the University.
  • Portfolios -UvA is also experimenting with OSP, Sakai’s portfolio tool set.  They’ll be getting some consulting help from Janice Smith at Three Canoes. As you probably know, making portfolios successful involves far more than usable software and a willing faculty member. It typically depends in curriculum reform at a higher level and a group of dedicated faculty, students and support staff. It will be interesting to watch the portfolio work at UvA as it matures.
  • The UvA Communities E-Collaboration site hosts a number of interesting projects.  One of these is Proeve, an internal project group for collaboration and knowledge management. Another (in English!) is Conflictstudies — a collaboration and knowledge site. This platform serves several courses on conflict studies and a growing community of scholars in this field. It makes it possible for participants in different courses to participate in discussions, make their work accessible to others and build on each other’s results in future courses.
  • There are also a couple of interesting E-Research projects. Testweeklab is research environment for research on psychology data sets.  A special tool has been developed to connect a Sakai site with a Fedora repository to store, manage and publish complex data sets. And specialised workflow to manage access to the data set is part of the tool.

Overall, I would say that Sakai at UvA is about “free.”  Not free as in no costs, but free as in freedom.  They are doing a variety of things with Sakai that are outside the realm of normal course management systems or virtual learning environment. Their ability to get their hands on the source code and adapt it to their needs, combined with the fact that there are no license restrictions preventing them from using the software for particular purposes, seems to have provided a great deal of value to the campus. I’m sure there are more great things to come as well–the staff there is very talented and dedicated.


Edia is a small software development shop in Amsterdam that has been active in the Sakai community for a few years. They’ve done some interesting things with Sakai that you should know about, including the Skin Manager and Maps tool.  Here are a few new additions:

  • The Knowledge Base tool is an application that allows a group of users to collaboratively create a body of knowledge. Edia uses it as a replacement of the help-function of Sakai. It is context sensitive to sites, tools, permissions, level of experience, and it features a Lucene/Solr search engine. Key features include:
    • Searching and viewing knowledge base articles. Articles inside the KB consist of text, media (video) and relations to other articles. Additional information on articles includes rating, comments, difficulty and required permissions. In order to search and find information, the knowledge base allows users to browse categories (tools, user types, permissions, difficulty) or search (full-text & lemmatised query). Results are shown in a sortable table.
    • Authoring. The KB tool has an interface for both end-users and authors of support documentation. The latter requires the knowledgebase.edit permission to be activated in the site or !user realm. Having the knowledgebase.edit/delete permission, authors can add, edit and delete articles in the KB.
    • Context. Similar to the standard Sakai help system, the KB can be used to replace the context-aware support information on the level of a single tool. By clicking the help icon in a tool, the KB will select all articles related to a tool that correspond with the user’s current site permissions.
      Edia developed the knowledge base tool for the University of Amsterdam and the tool is likely to become open source and available to the Sakai community at large.
  • The Community Manager was developed as an administrator tool to create delegated administration workspaces. Delegated administration wokspaces allow course administrators at faculty level to create and maintain new sites, without accessing the general administration workspace. The tool also simplifies the creation and maintenance of sites by using pre-configured template sites for project and courses.The Community Manager combines a number of other tools that Edia has created for easier administration of Sakai: the Invite tool (which lets the delegated administrator invite a bunch of people into several sites at once), the Create Site tool (for creating sites from template) and the Skin Manager (for selecting a skin for a community). Again, Edia developed the Community Manager for the University of Amsterdam and the tool is likely to become open souce soon.
  • The Open Courseware tool integrates Sakai a Fedora repository containing materials with Sakai. The tool explores the possibilities of using a Fedora content repository and a Solr generic search implementation to make course materials publicly available. The user interface concentrates on ease of use for teachers to upload their content and rich search and exploration functionality for public access. Key features include:
    • Upload course materials.  Teachers can upload their course materials into a delegated fedora repository and provide a well defined set of metadata based on Dublin Core. The upload functionality concentrates on usability and ease of use.
    • Defining and compose courses Courses are collections of materials described by metadata. Teachers can create courses by defining sets of materials. Materials are reusable as they can be part of any course.
    • Searching, browsing, and tagging Courses and materials can be searched and browsed by their aspects, furthermore, the tool makes use of tags to cluster related courses and materials.

All of Edia’s Sakai tools can be tested on http://sakaitools.edia.nl. It’s worth paying their site a visit (and encouraging them to make these capabilities available via Contrib!).

Finally, Edia showed me a really neat application they are developing that has nothing to do with Sakai. It’s called The Smart Newsreader and is an application for learning a second language from today’s news. Learners are tested for their vocabulary and are subsequently presented with news articles that match their level of proficiency. As they read texts, translations are made available and the system also provides example sentences (from outside the news article) in which difficult or new words also occur. The tool tracks the exposure each user has had to particular words and, over time, looks for articles that will advance a learner’s vocabulary.  Another cool feature is the automated exercise generation. From a database of sample sentences, the system creates fill-in-the-blank and matching exercises that help users learn new vocabulary words. The underlying technology Edia is using is quite sophisticated and they are developing some very interesting applications on top of it.  Their internal code name for the technology is ALANE and you can learn more about it here.

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