Sixth Sakai Conference – Trip Report

I’ve been quite active in the area I term “open-education”, meaning the application of open-source technology to improve education, for just over two months now. I have done this mostly on my own time as part of my volunteer activities and, as time permits, to work with some fellow employees who work in the education arena. (Most of my volunteer time for the last three months has been spent writing this blog.)

As part of these activities I was asked to participate in the Licensing and Policy Summit in Indianapolis in mid-October.

By way of brief background, suffice it to say I found the Summit to be not just a simple discussion of open-source licensing issues, but a detailed, nuanced and quite sophisticated dicussion about Contributor License Agreements (CLA’s), patents, and the impact of patents and the particular nature of universities that needs to be addressed in drafting CLA’s, namely that faculty typically enjoy rights related to their patents that are quite distinct from the rights of employees whose work results in patents owned by their employer.

My “trip report” on that meeting can be found in the earlier post Licensing and Policy Summit for Software Sharing in Higher Education: Trip Report.

While at the Indianapolis Summit I learned that two of the most important activities in this space were Kuali, a financial management system that addresses the unique financial needs of institutions of higher education, and Sakai, a system for e-learning. Both are written in Java and each is currently about a million lines of code. Both use liberal BSD-style, Apache-like licenses. I was also told at the Summit that Eben Moglen, whom I knew to be the key legal advisor to Richard Stallman, would be a keynote speaker at the upcoming Sakai conference. Several folks said he was a great speaker, and they also suggested I should try to attend the conference.

And that’s pretty much all I knew about Sakai going into the conference. I had no particular agenda. I was just there to find my own answer to the question, “What is a Sakai?”

The conference began on Tuesday, with a day of tutorials and introductory presentations. The more formal part started Wednesday and ended Friday noon. The highlight Wednesday was the keynote by Eben Mogen and his other presentations.

I made no attempt to be comprehensive in attending the conference sessions. I just picked the ones that interested me most, which included for the most parts the ones related to open-source licensing and open-source governance.

I knew Moglen would be speaking at the conference as as keynote speaker, and I did know there was some controversy in the academic community about a patent that was recently granted to a company called Blackboard that is one of the major commercial suppliers of e-learning software. When I arrived at the conference I learned that Moglen was not only a keynote speaker, but that there would be a “debate” between Moglen and an attorney from Blackboard.

I attended that debate, as well as a session led by Moglen later that day about patents and open-source. I took notes of both sessions and, knowing there was quite some interest in this topic, I wrote several blog posts about that day that evening. These initial posts were:

These posts drew quite a wide readership; my “views per day” went up markedly just after they were posted.

I have just completed several posts about the conference sessions that I attended in full and for which I took some notes:

I hope to conclude my “trip report” in this post, though I will be writing of Sakai and some of the lessons I learned while at the conference in future posts. So here are my first impressions.

The conference was held at the Marriott Marquis Hotel. All the smaller sessions took place in a quiet area at the lower level containing about ten rooms. There were multiple tracks. The could be, and often were, as many as nine different sessions gonig on at the same time. The interior space of the hotel is the work of Atlanta architect John Portman, one of the pioneers in creating carefully sculpted, soaring interior spaces.

The first day, Tuesday, consisted mostly of tutorials and workshhop, including the “Programmer’s Cafe.” I attended Anthony Whyte’s “Introducing Sakai,” and wrote a post about that. I also sat in on part of an OSP presentation. OSP stands for Open-Source Portfolia initiative, and is now part of Sakai. It supports content management, such as the organization and presentation of the work of a student in a schoole of Fine Arts or Architecture.

I sat in briefly on a couple of tutorials. They were well-organized and had good handouts, some of which came from the University of Indiana.

Wednesday morning began with Moglen’s keynote. I arrived a bit late and so heard only the last twenty minutes or so. It was very passionate though it did contain some over-the-top statements such as “It doesn’t matter if a commercial software company goes out of business.” I learned later that this talk, as well as most of the presentations at the conference, was recorded and that the podcasts would be available online. I think I’ve seen a blog post by someone who wasn’t there but listened to Moglen’s talk this way.

(By the way,I don’t travel that much. When I do, I find that IBM/Lenovo laptops are becoming a rare breed. I attended one of my daughter’s classes in Constitutional Law a few months back, and at most one laptop in twenty had the red button in the middle. I didn’t see many in Atlanta, either.)

Though I focused on the sessions related to open-source licensing, patents, and governance, these were but a small fraction of the total. I guess the majority of the presentations were about deploying, using, and customizing the software. If was a technical conference, but the technology was education, not writing enterprise-level Java
applications, or the associated programming technology.

I attended Chuck Severance’s Sakai Foundation Overview after Moglen’s keynote. Looking back, I could have left the conference just after it ended, because I had learned in under an hour that the Sakai folks had learned all one needs to know about how to set up an open-source community and associated governing body, that they had funds on hand, and that they were also overseeing a software-development process that was very rigourous, approaching the industrial level. There were roadmaps, design processes, a QA process, means for interacting with the community. Indeed, the Foundation spends most of its budget funding the Sakai conferences, recognizing that this is vital in helping to grow the ecosystem.

I recently spent a short while at Apache’s web site, comparing their financials with some of the numbers in Chuck’s presentation. I estimate Sakai’s resources and budget to be several times that of Apache. It’s notable that much of the funding for Sakai came from the Mellon Fund, a very sophisticated philanthropic group that is exploring ways to use open-source to aid education. (Mellon also helped fund the Indianapolis Summit; I’ll be writing more about them soon.)

After Chuck’s talk I spent a few minutes at a talk about the “University of Michigan Build Process.” I wanted to see if they used Jikes (they don’t) and if they used Ant (they do). By the way, Apache Ant is one of those remarkable programs that when you first try them you you to yourself, “What was the idiot programmer who put this together thinking?” And then once you finally figure out what’s going on, you say to yourself, “Why was I such an idiot? I should have thought of this?”

I’ve already written up the rest of Wednesday: the lunchtime Blackboard “debate,” the CLA discussion, and the talk on Patent Defense Mechanisms.

I wrote up two of the presentations I attended on Thursday

There was a reception Thursday evening that must have had close to a hundred demonstrations of Sakai. I looked at only a few, and spent most of the rest of the time socializing, but it’s fair to say that the few were representative and that the demos covered a wide variety of topics. I did the socializing because this was the occasion I had to meet some of the IBMers working in the education space.

It is hard when reporting on a conference, particularly when one is new to a field, to separate the novelty from the actuality. Suffice it for now to summarize my first impressions as follows:

  • Sakai is for real.
  • It is being used and extended by many institutions, a significant number of which are outside the US; for example,in China.
  • There is an active e-learning community in the UK that is working with Sakai
  • The governance process, under the auspices of the Sakai Foundation, is quite advanced.
  • The development process is quite advanced, nearing industrial-strength level
  • Going forward, commercial partipants in this space will ignore Sakai at their peril. Cooperation, not competition, will prove more fruitful.
  • Not only are many of the folks in this space as smart as university professors, some of them ARE university professors. This is a fun place to be.
  • The education arena is an attractive place to attempt innovation using open-source, and there are unique resources available.

These impressions have led to some ideas about education and open-source that I hope to pursue in future posts.

Let me close with a couple of personal observations, the first of which I shared with several of the people I ran into, especially hotel employees who were from the Atlanta area.

I have a relationship with Atlanta that goes back over thirty years. Currently it’s the home of my oldest daughter and my two grandchildren. But back in the early 1970’s I worked as a consultant to the NYU School of Education in developing an introductory program for mathematics at the kindergarten level as part of “Follow Through,” a program for children who had been in Head Start. We did our initial testing in Atlanta, so I got to know some of the teachers and students then in the Atlanta schools.

Also, since my sponsoring professor was a strong believer in supporting black-owned businesses, I stayed at a motel/restaurant called Paschal’s. To fully understand Paschal’s, and its special place in the hearts of Atlantans, is a subject worthy of a separate post. Suffice it here to say I was one of the few white folks on the premises, and that their southern fried chicken became my exemplar.

One night during a stay in the fall of 1972, I wandered by a room where a bunch of people were celebrating. They were all clearly very happy. I asked what was going on, and was told that a local politician, a man of great promise, had just won the Democractic primary, and so was almost certain to win the general election.

I asked his name, and learned he was Andrew Young. He did win the election, becoming Georgia’s first African American congressman since Reconstruction, and he went on to serve our country in many other ways, so much so that a major street in Atlanta bears his name: the conference hotel was near Andrew Young International Blvd in Atlanta.

So progress is possible, though it may take decades.

I didn’t make that many trips to Atlanta. My program wasn’t that great and so the experiment ended.

I also worked with a new kind of education called “programmed learning” back in the early 1960’s. I also taugh a senior-level course at NYU for four years in the 1980’s. From thes experiences I learned that teaching is hard, and also that innovation in education is hard, very hard. For example, I recall once reading but one illustration of the difficulties:

Question: If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we improve our school systems?

Answer: The moon doesn’t have 7000 local school boards.

This makes Sakai’s accomplishements to date — and I’m not speaking just of Sakai but of the efforts of all the people whose open-source activities have helped bring e-learning to its current state — even more noteworthy, in that they were done in a very challenging arena.

No area requires innovation more than education, and few areas make it as hard to achieve.

Keep up the good work, Sakai. We’re counting on you.

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