Is there a perfect storm brewing for the Sakai Project’s goals of improving the user experience? I am very impressed with the confluence of ideas and action in the Sakai UX improvement initiative, the Fluid project, and CARET’s Sakai Web 2.0 project. These initiatives show the community prioritizing the user experience need and coming at a shared problem from many angles, each contributing pieces of the design activities, technology, and community building. After spending the morning perusing the sites and catching up on the happenings that I am more optimistic regarding Sakai’s ability to reach user delight than ever before.

In addition to bringing good ideas and changes to the Sakai product, I am liking where it is heading in the communication department. Nathan Pearson, the UX lead for the UX improvement initiative has used Flash demos with voice over to share his design ideas with the community. Working rapidly and iteratively, he has taken the approach of share earlier rather than later, iterate and improve. He has had a lot of good research and documentation to launch from, but he also uses his design expertise and general design best practices to move forward with some best guesses which can then be tested. This can feel risky to many designers, but if the promise of being able to iteratively improve is real, then it is well worth it in terms of getting buy in and concrete visuals. In the open source and community source projects, this may be the best way to be successful with design and usability.

If you haven’t seen his presentations, check them out:

Week 1, Week 2, Week 3, Week 4, Week 5, Week 6

Nathan’s approach and Cambridge’s approach with the Sakai Web 2.0 project represent a value that is hard to come by in higher education, partly because of tight budgets which means all work must be efficient and produce a product for our end users, partly because of the reluctance of our universities to invest in R&D within its administrative units (even when supporting the academic endeavors of the campus), and partly because of our tendency to invest in a narrow range of skills (the ones that we think will shorten the time to delivery — such as programmers — and limit overhead costs — such as project managers). That said, even a range of skills doesn’t guarantee good product. I think perhaps a value of risk taking, exploration, and getting stuff in front of users for feedback will be terribly important.

Jutta Treviranus and I will be leading a discussion on some of these ideas and challenges regarding building the right organization and culture at the 9th Sakai Conference:

Mara Hancock and Jutta Treviranus will lead a discussion that explores the culture, values, and structures within our departments and institutions that enable a User Experience (UX) approach to flourish and bring transformational change to our services and open source systems.

Using the Fluid/Sakai partnership as an example they will look at the range of roles, skills, and methods that precipitate and enhance the inclusion and embracing of UX in the development process. They will lead the group in the investigation of ways in which the Sakai foundation and contributing institutions can enhance and extend their staffing models and capabilities to create a creative, flourishing, and inclusive development environment.

Hope you can make it and help us explore these issues. Meanwhile, thanks to Nathan Pearson, the CARET team at Cambridge and their friends working on the Sakai Web 2.0 project for adding some additional wind to the perfect storm.

Open Cast Planning Grant

April 29, 2008

Thanks to WIlliam and Flora Hewlett and Andrew W. Mellon Foundations for joining together to support the Open Cast project (new site will be coming out soon) planning grant. This funding will support the project in conducting three requirements and best practices workshops to explore the requirements and readiness for a new community source effort around the shared development and design of an open source podcast capture and delivery system for higher ed. Outcomes will be documentation of the resulting requirements and best practices, the development of a collaborative community (already well underway with over 200 individual participants), and a well defined proposal for next steps.

Why is this important?

UC Berkeley has been delivering open webcast content (audio and video) since the mid-90’s. As we have increasingly automated the process, brought down the cost to sustain the system, disseminated the content to popular platforms such as YouTube and iTunes (go to where the viewers/learners/users are), and increased our installations, we have found that this program makes a difference in both lives and professions.

First, professions.

In Spring 2006, UC Berkeley launched a free podcasting service, which leveraged Berkeley’s existing video webcast infrastructure in general assignment classrooms and our central scheduling and capture system. In doing so, humanities curriculum was exposed to an eager public. These humanities podcasts have had a tremendous impact on the public and far exceed the popularity of the sciences – becoming some of the most popular podcasts on iTunes, wedged between notable media outlets like CNN and National Geographic. Popular courses include “Man, God, and Society in Western Literature,” taught by Philosophy Professor Herbert Dreyfus and Professor Michael Nagler’s “Non-Violence Today

Webcast video and audio helps to spotlight humanities curriculum and faculty at a time when the humanities are struggling to receive funds and recognition. The American Historical Society, for example, highlights the Berkeley History curriculum on its website . One young Berkeley history lecturer used the webcasting of her course to promote her teaching and scholarship, eventually earning an assistant professorship at the University of Virginia. Without a scalable and affordable system and set of best practices, the sharing of this content and exposure for the Berkeley History Department would not be possible.

Now, lives.

ETS and our webcasting faculty get amazing letters from learners around the world. These webcasts are engaging, entertaining, educating millions of people. There is not a continent that has gone untouched. Here are a couple of examples:

“…As far as I’ve been watching it’s been great, though I’ve only been watching Physics 10 with Professor Richard A. Muller because he’s really such an interesting teacher. I’m interested, I’m laughing and I’m learning…”

“Is there a course on art history? If so I beg on bended knee for that to be uploaded!
Thank you a million times for allowing us to watch your lectures here!
The person who had this idea should be knighted or maybe a petition for sainthood!
The free flow of information is an essential part of the evolution of any society!
Thank you again!!!”

No kidding. Comments like this come in like candy, reminding us why we come to work every day at such an incredible public institution like UC Berkeley.

Interestingly, the UC Berkeley students seem to get it too. They are absolutely in love with webcast because it helps them learn better. In recent focus groups with ETS they have talked about using it to review the lecture and to listen to other teachers from other semesters on the same subjects. They will review the lecture notes at night and then listen to the podcast on the way to school in the morning. Several students have mentioned that while they would love to have these embedded in their course sites, they also don’t want to deprive the public of them. One student mentioned how the MIT OCW helped her augment her studies as a high school student in India and credited her acceptance to Berkeley because of that.

Wouldn’t it be great if more schools could/would do this too?

We hope that Open Cast will make it easier for them to join in.

Fluid Project Summit

October 9, 2007

The week of September 24-28 was the first Fluid Summit, held at the University of Toronto. This brought together folks not only dedicated to the project, but other key members from the associated communities such as the Sakai Executive Director, Michael Korcuska, and fellow Sakai board member, Clay Fenlason. We also had volunteers from the larger community, such as Kathy Moore, a UI designer from Boston University. Of course, we also had a large contingent from the Fluid Project core team as well, making it a pretty large group of designers, developers, and managers.

One huge benefit of the Fluid Project is that it reaches across communities – uPortal, Sakai, Kuali Student, Moodle — and brings people together around real work. This real work is what keeps us all motivated and getting up in the morning. I was surprised to find in a discussion with Michael Korcuska that he wasn’t sure about just how concrete the Fluid contribution was going to be. The Summit revealed to him how committed the project is to getting real results (designs and code) into these community source products. Michael wrote a great blog entry about the Fluid and Sakai as a result of his attendance at the summit. One of his statements that was particularly heart-warming to me was this:

“Fluid is Sakai

Looking around the rooms at the Fluid Summit I saw a lot of familiar faces from places like UC Berkeley, Cambridge and Georgia Tech. These folks know Sakai inside and out and that knowledge will ensure that what gets worked on is relevant to Sakai. Of course Fluid is other things as well, including uPortal and Kuali Student and Moodle, which should benefit everyone. But I stopped thinking about Fluid as a project that is somehow separate or “in parallel to” Sakai.”

When we were working on the proposal for Fluid, we articulated that Fluid would never be successful if it was seen as being from “outside” the community/open source project it was working to improve. Being inside — and trusted — is a critical aspect of making an impact and contribution to open source projects. Thus, we talked about Fluid as being “embedded” in the core projects it was working on. Michael’s comment indicates to me that we were right on with this approach.

It is important to stress that Fluid is not a theoretical exercise or experiment. Efforts from its teams have already begun to be seen in implemented designs and code. The component and design pattern libraries will be be built and integrated “as we go,” we will not wait to achieve perfection or critical mass. Everything is open and available now. This includes access to decisions, methods, mock-ups, user research, code, html widgets, components, and more.

Look for the U-Camp to roll out for the JA-SIG Un-conference in New Brunswick on November 11-16 and the Newport Beach Sakai Conference on December 4-7. U-Camps are a place to learn, talk about, and do design. They include UX designers, training and support folks, faculty, and programmers. You can see some of the activities that took place in the Sakai Amsterdam conference U-Camp. The Newport beach U-Camp will be the third U-Camp for Sakai, and the fourth delivered over the past year. The Sakai programmer’s cafe and the U-Camp are exploring ways to bring together UX designers and developers — perhaps in some sort of sprint activity.

Before closing, I want to reiterate that projects that directly contribute to and impact production systems are the only type of project you will ever find the UC Berkeley Educational Technology Services unit involved in! While we may lust in our hearts after the pure innovation project, it is critical to our mission as a services unit that where we extend our effort has direct impact (hopefully for the good!) on our constituency. If you notice my eyes straying, just give me a nudge.

OCW Sustainability Formula?

October 7, 2007

I attended the Open Courseware Consortium (OCWC) conference in beautiful Logan, Utah at the end of September. The OCW “movement” is still relatively young (2002ish?), and the OCWC organization is busy trying to define its mission and structure.

UC Berkeley joined OCWC in August, although we have been delivering “open courseware” via our online lectures since 1995 ( This began as a research project managed by Professor Larry Rowe in his Berkeley Multimedia Research Center (BMRC) as the BIBS project (Berkeley Internet Broadcast System). We are now busy on what we call webcast NG, the next generation of the webcasting infrastructure that is being built upon Sakai’s open source framework and new infrastructure that includes some key elements from one of our favorite education and media companies, Apple. I gave a little talk about this while at OCWC and have attached my slides as a PDF if you are interested in learning more about what we do at UC Berkeley.

Some of the discussions I enjoyed the most were about sustainability. This is always of interest to me, as someone who is responsible for providing centrally supported services to my campus. Sustainability was talked about in terms of the OCWC organization and in terms of the OCW effort in general.

I think a central criterion for sustainability in the open content arena is “perceived value”. This means the value provided by the supporting organizations, and the value provided by the activity of providing the content (think about the alignment of university mission for this one), and, hopefully, the value of the content itself.

I suspect there is a formula for something like this that looks like, sustainability + meeting real (local and global) need + innovation = value. When looking through the lens of this formula, there may be an opportunity to expand the definition of OCW and its associated activities. To date it has often been defined as a publishing model which reflects the artifacts and experiences of a traditional course taught in the physical space of a classroom as well as those represented in an LMS or CLE. When thinking about sustainability, a publishing model makes good sense. However, while sustainability remains (and should be) prominent for most of us (this need is driving UCB’s current efforts), I doubt there is value in constraining the OCW vision to this in the future: innovation and meeting real needs will begin to take us well beyond this.

In regards to the meeting real needs part of the formula, at UCB we deliver videos and podcasts of complete courses via the capture of lectures. As we all know, a lecture is in no way the entirety of the course and this limitation is one of the common arguments used to convince a professor that public webcasts or podcasts are an OK thing to do — we are not giving away the keys to the kingdom! In fact, I think I would be hard pressed to find a large contingent of UC Berkeley professors at this moment who would be willing to release their entire course content in the manner of MIT’s powerful OCW program, let alone obtain an operating budget that would enable me to do so. That said, the email we receive from people all over the world indicates that in many cases, they consider these videos and podcasts alone as fantastic learning aids that expand their thinking and knowledge in valuable ways – these course web & pod casts improve lives! Now, if we could only get the funding to make all this content fully accessible through captioning, then we would truly be meeting real needs.

Adding “innovation” into the mix

While UCB is heads-down on getting our NG infrastructure in place, we are anxiously thinking ahead about new tools that will improve the experience of interacting with this content and help learners manage and share their own learning. These can be simple widgets with discrete interactions, to more complex applications that need to integrate with each other to manage institutional data through a CLE-type environment. Supporting these types of interactions begin to round out the value proposition since the activities that support managing an individual’s own learning and engaging with others to build knowledge are key motivators for learners. One way in which we can start to jump start this and alleviate costs is to form partnerships across higher ed and with companies doing interesting work such as YouTube and Apple, as well as building our platforms in an open enough way that our own constituencies can start to add to the value proposition!