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By the end of 2012, Sakai will replace Blackboard as the University’s learning management system.

The move to Sakai provides an expanded set of tools for faculty and students, greater flexibility for collaboration and the exchange of ideas, and long-term sustainability, said Larry Conrad, vice chancellor for information technology and chief information officer.

Conrad and Charlie Green, assistant vice chancellor for teaching and learning, answer some questions about Sakai.

What led to the decision to switch to Sakai?
Green: We’ve used Blackboard as an online classroom tool for about 15 years, but its long-term adoption has remained relatively low. Only around 35 percent of our faculty members regularly use Blackboard.

A few years ago we started a pilot assessing alternative products and Sakai moved fairly quickly to the forefront as a favorite. We ran the pilot for two years to be sure faculty and students had an opportunity to examine the software thoroughly.

Conrad: The focus was to adopt something faculty members think will help them with their teaching and research. Those who participated in the pilot thought Sakai was a better way to go. Ultimately, the IT Executive Steering Committee, which is chaired by the provost, approved the change last fall

What features are built into Sakai?
Green: Overall, Sakai provides a tool that better meets our current needs, an improved interface for faculty and students, and an expanded feature set: portfolios, wikis, blogs, RSS feeds and tie-ins for social networking. Sakai was designed as a collaborative space, not simply as a course management tool.

What flexibility does Sakai offer?
Conrad: When Blackboard came out, it blazed a path. But it’s more of a Barbie doll type of marketing program, where you buy the doll but every time you want to get an accessory, you have to fork over more money.

Today, we want to consider extending our valid University constituency, whether it has international or distance learning or student education components. Blackboard has restrictions, which require signing an extension or buying another component. Sakai does not.

Green: Initially, learning management systems were about helping to manage course materials, providing access to the materials online and helping faculty members save time. But many instructors today want to use the system to encourage student engagement; researchers want to use it to facilitate collaboration with their colleagues; and committees, work groups and student organizations want it to provide a space for teams to work together online.

Can Sakai be adapted for future needs?
Green: Sakai is a community-sourced environment. That means it was designed by higher education for higher education. People who are interested in seeing improvements have an opportunity to become a member of the consortium and contribute code back to the community. So when one campus develops an interesting or useful feature, it’s made available for use by all.

Conrad: Sakai really has proven the concept of this community sourced development idea, where our colleagues around the country are making the decisions about development priorities.

It’s also important to look at who that community is. The challenges some universities face don’t compare with the challenges of places like Berkeley or Michigan, both of which run Sakai. The universities we see ourselves in the same league with use Sakai.

How easy is Sakai to use?
Conrad: One goal was to make the transition process as automated as possible. So we have a tool that will migrate most of the content – sort of “push a button” and it goes. Plus, we will provide ample training.

Green: We recently met with a faculty member who seemed a bit nervous about moving his materials over from Blackboard but wanted to get an early start on it. So he called us and we talked about what he wanted to accomplish.

Within an hour and 15 minutes, he had moved all of his Blackboard sites over to Sakai, and at the end he said, “This is the greatest thing. I could have done this myself. I’m loving it.” And we’re seeing this type of response from a number of our faculty.

Conrad: And to help with the pieces that don’t transition smoothly, we’re establishing a SWAT team approach to come in and work with a faculty member to figure out those issues. We’re trying to make this as painless and straightforward as we can.

When will faculty have to begin using Sakai?
Conrad: It will be a couple of years before we complete the move so we’re giving people plenty of time to transition. It’s up to each faculty member to decide when to move to Sakai, and we hope the early adopters will be so enthused, they’ll help spread the word.

Are there cost savings with Sakai?
Conrad: We know we’ll save $80,000 on the license, and we think there’s potential for other savings. But we think Sakai will be a better strategic platform for the University, and that’s the most important thing.