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In the search for course management options other than Blackboard, Penn Libraries is pilot testing Sakai, a site whose central functions include the ability to create dynamic websites for student groups and researchers.

“We’re exploring Sakai as another avenue to see what else is out there. There is a conversation going on about course management systems on campus because the landscape is very dynamic right now,” said Marjorie Hassen, the director of Public Services at University of Pennsylvania Libraries.

Sakai is currently being tested in 24 courses across the School of Arts and Sciences, School of Engineering and Applied Science, the School of Nursing and Penn School of Social Policy and Practice.

One unique aspect of Sakai is that the software is developed by a group of educational institutions rather than by a corporation. “It’s been developed by faculty and different institutions have been very instrumental in its development,” said Joe Zucca, the director for Planning and Communication at Penn Libraries. “It’s not engineers who are designing this. It’s people who actually have expertise and interest in teaching and learning.”

Sakai has the same tools that Blackboard does but can also “be used to support teaching and learning academic enterprises” explained Hassen.

For example, faculty and students can create central project sites for groups on campus where they can upload documents, have a forum or a blog, provide links or have a central depository. “It’s similar to a what you can do with a Google doc, but this is an entire site,” Hassen said.

Sakai also has the ability to stream video assignments and includes a calendar where students can see their assignments for every class they are taking.

“It is more intuitive than Blackboard; I like the fact that I have been able to load Mp3 files of the lectures onto the site,” Caroline Doherty, a senior lecturer in the Nursing School, wrote in an email.

But not all faculty members would agree. “Sakai has been a little bit difficult to work both because it’s new and because of some of the features,” Doug Paletta, a lecturer in the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, wrote in an email.

“I don’t think it’s more difficult for students to use, but I don’t think it’s easier.” He explained that he will probably go back to using Blackboard next semester but that “it’s valuable to try alternatives so that we know we’re ending up with the product we want.”

Sakai, however, is still in the early stages of development. The pilot testing will continue in the spring with a newer version of the site, which “is quite different from the one we are piloting now and provides a lot of functionality related to building communities,” Hassen said. “We really want to get a lot of feedback so that we can then share that with our colleagues at the other schools and with the administration.”

Zucca and Hassen emphasized that the goal is not to replace Blackboard but rather to provide another option. “Penn is not a homogenous community. So different disciplines use Blackboard or courseware in different ways and different schools have different goals,” Hassen said. “It’s providing us with an opportunity to see how different faculty as individuals use the site and whether there are disciplinary trends in terms of using courseware to support what’s going on in the classroom.”

“It’s a little early to be talking about the outcomes of this,” Zucca said. “At the end of the semester will run more surveys to gather data about their experience with the system, and we’ll look at the gap between their expectations and what they actually reported at the end.”

Zucca reiterated that the aim is to evaluate Sakai on its own merits, “not so much trying to evaluate it against Blackboard. How well does it meet your needs?”

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