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Interview with Neal Caidin, Community Coordinator for the Apereo Foundation

About Neal Caidin

Neal Caidin is Community Coordinator for the Apereo Foundation—formerly the Sakai Foundation—creator of the Sakai learning management system (LMS). Sakai is an open source LMS, which means online colleges can implement it at no cost and modify it to suit their needs. Institutions can also design and share new tools and add-ons within the field.

Prior to joining Apereo, Mr. Caidin served as Applications Manager at Duke University, where he helped plan and implement an enterprise-wide LMS, and collaborated with information technology groups. He was also in the University’s Instructional Technology Group, which allowed him to participate in the planning and exploration of other online learning technologies and pilot programs.

Interview Questions

[] According to the Babson Survey Research Group’s 2014 Survey of Online Learning, universities continue to add and expand online learning programs. As a technology developer, what trends do you see at work in the field?

[Mr. Caidin] Educational technology has been part of the landscape for a number of years. Systems that are reliable and adaptable are the ones that will survive. No single system can do everything, so finding the right niche, like Sakai has; being flexible enough to integrate with other systems; and, especially, leveraging the IMS Global Consortium’s Learning Tools Interoperability (IMS LTI) standards is essential.

Sakai is also keeping its eye on the emerging trend of learning analytics, which hopefully can use big data at an individual level to improve outcomes. Learning analytics is a good case study because, in order to work, all kinds of disparate systems need to be able to talk a common language. Standards become even more important.

[] What are some of the key features and benefits of learning management systems? How do these tools adapt to varying needs in areas like content delivery, assessment, and scheduling?

[Mr. Caidin] The education field continues to have a love/hate relationship with LMS’s. But this love/hate is healthy because it stimulates questioning of who the LMS is for, what is it really achieving and where does it need to go. LMS’s provide important administrative capabilities that free up time for instructors to focus more on pedagogy and it provides tools that can be used to engage learners. But the tools aren’t smart enough to do this themselves, they need instructors who understand how to use them well.

There is largely functional parity in the LMS marketplace. To be competitive, LMS’s need a core set of tools like a grade book, assignments tool, announcements, quizzes, chat for synchronous communications and forums for asynchronous communications to name a few. Most competitive LMS’s also have some sort of tool to make it easier to organize content and interactive tools by theme or time frame, and provides some sort of adaptive release mechanism that ensures students are covering the material in a way that will help them absorb it best.

[] Sakai is an open source learning management system. Can you explain what that means and how it might shape the user’s experience?

[Mr. Caidin] At Apereo, which is the parent organization providing support, infrastructure, and licensing management for Sakai, we like the Open Systems Initiative (OSI) definition of open source that includes not only access to source code, but also addresses how software can be distributed, and how the work can be derived from. All Apereo software, including Sakai, is truly open. This means that we don’t have one version that is owned by a commercial affiliate, vendor, institution, or Apereo itself, and another version that is made public. All of our code and all of the capabilities are completely in the open, so that any institution or individual anywhere in the world, at any time, can get the latest community supported version to use, to configure, to modify, and to build upon. In fact, they can get the latest experimental version as well, and see the “road map” of what is coming next.

Sakai software is incredibly configurable, which means it is easy to apply different skins for a new look and to set properties in a configuration file, no coding required, to turn off and on the features that best meet your institution’s needs. And, of course, you can modify it specifically to your institution’s needs and integration requirements. Sakai is a leader in support of IMS LTI, which means that it easier to integrate custom functionality, again, without any code changes. IMS LTI are quickly becoming the standard “plug-ins” for Sakai. And of course, there is the option of source code changes to meet local needs or new functionality that can be contributed back to the entire community. The options are many, with costs and benefits to each, but the flexibility is there.

A sometimes overlooked benefit, but which is huge in the world of Sakai, is the value of community. Being part of the community means institutions share best practices for teaching and learning with Sakai, it means influencing the direction of the software, and many times it means contributing back your custom software to make the core software stronger, and the sustainability of your changes improved. We have a number of projects in which institutions pooled resources to make a new or improved feature just “happen” in Sakai. That kind of community interaction and direct evolution of the product may not exist in any other LMS on the planet.

The other great thing about open source software is lack of vendor lock-in. There are a spectrum of options from completely managing your system yourself to a hybrid option of managing plus getting expertise from a commercial affiliate, all the way to commercial affiliate hosting. Because it is your system, and your data, you “own” it all, and it’s portable.

Open Source licensing also means that institutions can be completely creative in how they use the software, including things like community engagement, online courses, hybrid course, and research. The only worry for expansion is capacity of your systems. Sakai is capable and used at institutions with large scale.

[] Some learning management systems, including Sakai, offer tools for students with disabilities or who speak different languages. What are some of these adaptive features and how they work?

[Mr. Caidin] Sakai’s web pages are created in a way that makes sure the technical/semantic markup of the page give hints about structural items like list, abbreviations and navigation items, to name a few. There are currently 24 translations of the Sakai interface that an instructor or student can choose. Sakai ensures that not only is the page translated, but the web browsers knows that it is displaying text in the chosen language. This ensures tools like screen readers and translators have all the hints needed to discern between the respective language and institutional jargon (PSYC100) and discipline specific terminology.

Sakai also offers functionality to help tools like screen readers to skip over redundant content and navigate the page. Sakai is also simple to navigate in its mobile and desktop versions and at 100% zoom or 200%. Sakai will continue to be easy to navigate when these interface distinctions go away when it moves to a responsive design in its next version.

An important part of the LMS is the content instructors create for it. Sakai offers a guide to creating accessible content in its help files. These instructions on creating accessible content are distributed as a creative commons work so that local instructions can choose to refine to instructors to match their specific accessibility requirements.

The RA11Y Plan (Review Accessibility Plan) is an initiative by the Sakai Accessibility Working Group to commission a substantive review of Sakai’s accessibility by organizations like National Federation of the Blind with a goal of obtaining a certification, including a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) and Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG2) 2.0 review that would assure potential adopters and current users alike. We expect this process to start late 2015 or early 2016. It is a fully funded initiative supported by the community.

[] You mentioned open source platforms invite institutional collaboration. Can you describe OpenCast and how such projects impact the broader field of online education?

[Mr. Caidin] Another great thing about Sakai being a part of the Apereo Foundation is that we have a multitude of tools that are all truly open and instigated by institutions of higher education. NCast, a commercial provider that uses Opencast, recorded some wonderfully high-quality videos from the most recent Open Apereo conference. Xerte, which provides content authoring, but not delivery and learning management, is getting a lot of interest in the Sakai community. Interest groups in security, accessibility and internationalization are starting to meet to share knowledge and experience across Apereo projects.

Open source operates positively on the higher education market in a number of ways. First, providing a solution without licensing costs, and great features, pushes the commercial options to be better because there is more choice. Second, open source projects can, and this is certainly true for Sakai, push the envelope of adopting standards. Standards help free data, by making it more portable between systems, helps systems interoperate better, and creates new choices and markets for new tools, both open source and commercial.