Sunday, August 28, 2011

A Review of Sakai: Free As In Freedom


A couple of weeks ago I bought Chuck’s Sakai: Free As In Freedom (Alpha). When it arrived in the mail from Amazon, I thought, “great, another $20 shelled out on a book that was exciting to buy but that I won’t actually read with all the other distractions in my life.” How wrong I was. Chuck’s book is actually a page-turner – at least for those of us who’ve tried to tag along for the Sakai ride. There have already been two positive reviews of the book by Alan Berg and Jim Farmer. Like them, I took no small pleasure in reading it not least because Chuck reveals a lot of things that I was only vaguely aware of (having never sat on the Sakai board) or that I might have been familiar with but that I’ve forgotten over the course of the years.

Not all of Chuck’s recollections can be summed up in this review but one especially worth highlighting (and which you can get the gist of by reading the closing chapters) is that Chuck and the board differed on issues of governance. Anyone whose dipped more than their pinky toe into open source initiatives knows, following Eric Raymond, that there are cathedral style (e.g. hierarchichal) software organizations and bazaar style (e.g. organic self-organizing) ones, and that open source (with many notable exceptions including the up and coming Instructure) generally gravitates toward the bazaar. But while many of us came to Sakai (and open source) because we longed for more inclusive, less top-down software communities, this doesn’t mean we’re partial to moving away from the cathedral and into the bazaar in equal degree. These same differences existed on the board and Chuck sums up the division as follows:

My opinion was that the purpose of the Foundation was to have a light touch and focus on nurturing the individual and organizational members of the community. The Foundation was to be the cheerleader, the communicator, throw good parties several times per year….and generally give folks a rallying point to find each other… the Foundation was never to take the responsibility for the direction of the product, nor should the Foundation hire core developers, nor should the developers report to the Foundation staff to receive their assignments.

The opposing view held by the majority of the board members was that the Foundation and Foundation staff were a form of command and control with the top of the authority hierarchy as the Sakai Foundation Board of Directors. The…stakeholders were concerned that letting individuals….make their own priority decisions….would be too risky for the adopting schools…..Central control and guidance was needed to insure that the product would move forward according to a well-defined and well-understood roadmap and do so on an agreed-to schedule.

Given my own school's tepid reception to the Sakai product (I still remember one Weber student who summed up his experience in version 2.4x with the withering description “everything is scattered from hell to breakfast”), we were receptive, on pragmatic grounds, to a little more command and control planning. And yet, at the same time, Chuck’s vision appealed to my own deeply seated political and pedagogical beliefs. Especially as Chuck justifies them near the end of his diary:

The reason that I prefer a bazaar-style organizational structure for Sakai was that software for teaching and learning is something that everyone understands and has feelings about. There is not one set of designated experts who can define and design teaching and learning software and hand that design to some developers and have them “code it up” as if programming was an advanced form of typing….good ideas can literally come from any part of the world and an idea can come as easily from a student as from a professional instructional designer. So I felt that it would be wrong to let design and priority decisions rest in the hands of a select few.

Given the competing virtues that are inherent in authoritarian and more anarchic governance structures, it was true, as Chuck also observed, that there wasn’t a “universally correct” organizational strategy that Sakai could have followed. But for better or worse, Chuck’s vision differed from most of the board’s and in his view it played an important role in his decision to relinquish the executive directorship to Michael Korcuska at the Amsterdam conference in the summer of 2007.

Chuck’s sympathies with a more loosely organized development model can also be found in other places in his narrative. For example, while he eventually learns to appreciate Carol Dippel and her QA efforts, he’s initially skeptical. And while he credits Mike Elledge’s use of Microsoft Project to systematize Sakai’s development efforts he readily admits his own aversion to using it. The portrait is rounded out when Chuck recounts buying a couple of suits for bettering his Sakai advocacy: apparently his credit card company flagged the purchase as suspicious. By whatever stereotypes of consumer behavior credit card companies use to build portraits of their users they seemed to have pegged him more as a Birkenstock than Wingtip kind of guy.

I’ve only talked with Chuck once very briefly while riding up an elevator at the Movenpick hotel at the Amsterdam conference. But I don’t get the sense, even after noting the above predilections, that he’s a simple Richard Stallman caricature who is out to “stick it to the man.” For example, in contrast to some of the rest of us, his misgivings of Blackboard were not that deep-seated. He describes the patent suit as a defensive action that any corporation out to protect share-holder value would have been interested in pursuing (p. 176) And in spite of the suit he continued to seek productive partnerships between Sakai and the Blackboard corporation. Like Brad and Joseph he knew how to appeal to freaks like me who sometimes have difficulty acknowledging that our 401-k’s make us complicit too in the heartlessness of capitalism. But he did it in a way without alienating potential partnerships with commercial interests outside academe.

As the Soviet’s used to say (and as historians often still profess), “the future may be certain but the past is always contested territory.” Which is another way of saying that if Chuck has offered up an intriguing story, I hope it doesn’t end up being the authoritative history of Sakai. The sub-title, after all, is a “retrospective diary” rather than a history, which would suggest that many other stories are worth telling. For example, Chuck glosses over the divisions that arose between those of us who saw Sakai primarily as an LMS and as a commodity whose core design could largely be derived from prior art and those who proclaimed the LMS as dead and Sakai as a larger platform and community for innovating new online teaching technologies. The CLE versus LMS story is, I expect, only one of many other stories worth telling. Perhaps, as Jim Farmer has suggested, we need to publish a compilation? In the meantime Chuck’s book is a great (Alpha) history.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Homesick on Campus? iPhone Home!

This is a guest post from my wife, Susan Matt, whose book, Homesickness: An American History, comes out in September from Oxford University Press. The last chapter, titled "Of Helicopter Parents, Facebook, and Walmart: Homesickness in Contemporary America," deals with college students and mobility among other things.

Mobile devices have profoundly transformed campus life. One of their significant effects has been a change in the way that students relate to those off campus. A recent study of University of Michigan and Middlebury students found they were in touch with their parents by phone, email, and text message an average of 13 times each week. Add to that Facebook and other social media sites, and students today can be sitting in their college dorms rooms, and still chatting online with their high school classmates, parents, and siblings, no matter how far apart they are scattered. The idea of going away to college is not quite what it was. As a New York Times columnist reported, with “unlimited cell phone minutes, e-mail, text messages and Blackberries,” college life today is far different from “the days of calling home once a week—collect—from the pay phone in the dormitory hallway.”

What does this unprecedented level of contact with home actually mean? Some suggest that it is the perfect antidote to homesickness, the old bugbear of freshman year. Now, rather than pining for mom, dad, and old friends, students can point a mouse and be in touch.

Others, however, worry that the endless text messaging, the Facebook, the tweeting, and cell phone conversations, are inhibiting the emotional development of students. According to this view, college used to be a developmental stage on the path to independence, a point when young people learned to separate themselves from home, and overcame homesickness. Psychologist Peter Crabb, for instance, suggests that the spread of cell phones and other communications technology among college populations ultimately “promotes immaturity and dependence.” He argues that the rising generation is not learning proper lessons of emotional control, observing that students call home for comfort. “The call makes them feel better. But they are not learning to control their emotional states, which is part of becoming an adult.”

Is too much communication a bad thing? Should we worry? Will we end up with a cohort of immature adults who are unable to be independent?

It seems to me that we only need worry if we hold sacred the idea of the rugged and isolated individual. Modern psychology suggests that the footloose person, who can be mobile, who can cut ties and not look back, is the norm of human behavior, but this is only true in the contemporary United States. Our ideas about how connected young people should be to their parents—emotionally or technologically—are historically contingent. In more communitarian societies, the ceaseless emphasis on individualism is largely absent, the lessons about breaking home ties less visible. If students and their parents want to stay in touch, and indeed, if students want to stay in touch with their classmates, their past, their homes, why should we complain? Aren’t such efforts a reflection of their commitments to other value systems besides lonely individualism? We celebrate mobility and moving on as distinctly American traits; yet we shouldn’t overlook or discount Americans’ ongoing efforts to sustain connections and community across great distances.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Canvas Discussions; Chuck and Martin and the 80/20 Rule

Earlier this week, Instructure hosted their first international conference. I expected mostly Utah people but there were attendees from all over the U.S. including one person from a school in Toronto. In keeping with Postman's first rule of technological change I don't want to be an evangelist for any LMS but I will say that the conference did a good job of disarming me. The conference, in many ways reminded me of early Sakai conferences in Baltimore and Vancouver. There was real energy in the air and I left with a sense of belonging to a close knit community of users who are listening to each other. Whether Canvas can sustain this as it grows will be interesting. Josh Coates (Instructure's head honcho) alluded to this in a question and answer session when someone in the audience asked him, "What is your primary strategic focus in the next three years?" Josh responded that a year ago there were only seven employees in Instructure, that today there are 45 and that next year, at present rates of growth, there will be upwards of 140 (not to mention how many more schools there are likely to be using the product). Given those numbers Josh asked "How do you grow?" Hopefully, from our perspective, in a way where we still feel like we're still playing a role in determining our own technological destiny.

To that concern of controlling destiny, during the closing BBQ, I had a chance to talk with Brian Whitmer who cofounded the company with Devlin Daley during (or perhaps directly after) a grad stint at BYU. For the most part I've really liked teaching in Canvas but I did ask him whether there were any plans to supplement the way they've chosen to set up discussion boards with other more traditional approaches. Instructure chooses an option that Moodle calls "Display replies flat, with oldest first" whereas I prefer "Display replies in threaded form" or "Display replies in nested form." (The links, by the way, take you to a Moodle hosted discussion where participants are discussing the relative merits of Moodle versus Canvas.) We didn't talk long enough for me to understand completely what Brian has found problematic in the nested and threaded forms, but I think he thinks that students often won't drill down as much as instructors would like them to -- which would mean that the potential advantages of nested and threaded approaches might not really pay out in practice. To keep this post short, I won't weigh the respective merits of these approaches except to speculate that there are enough users who like the traditional approach that it may merit including it as an option, even if Brian wants to keep the flat approach as the default.

Certainly, this is the strategy Moodle has chosen. Since there is a division among users, rather than choosing just one, Moodle provides users with choice. Interestingly, there's a short video of Dr. Chuck (former Executive Director of Sakai) interviewing Martin precisely about this challenge. Here is the transcription:

Dr. Chuck (aka Charles Severance): Is there ever been a situation where the community has mildly revolted where you thought X and a whole bunch of people thought Y and they sort of ran away with it? Or have you been in front of it the whole time?

Martin Dougiamas: It's been pretty good....occasionally when something's been put in there as a pedagogical feature....what usually happens with this sort of stuff is we talk about it we decide there's two camps and so we create an option and people can make a choice but the default value for that choice is always mine. I always try to make Moodle out of the box behave like the way I want it to behave.

And if you want to see the speech in full check out the actual video at minute 2:30

As I recall from our conversation, Brian mentioned the 80/20 rule but when I pressed him on it, he wouldn't say definitively that 80 percent of users prefer the "Display replies flat, with newest last." This isn't to say that the Instructure guys haven't already given all of this a lot of thought (in a story that is rapidly becoming mythic Brian and Devlin toured the country in a car without air-conditioning gathering user requirements at a ton of schools before actually coding anything). So it's possible I'm wedded to an anachronistic outdated approach that isn't worth including because of the clutter it would cause. And in fact, Brian, does have a point. I may miss Moodle's approach but it's certainly not enough of a frustration that I'll stop using Canvas because of it. Still, I'm writing it here so it matters at least a little to me. What do other people think? With respect to this little microcosm of Canvas are there any refinements that could be made to discussions? If so what are they?