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Blackboard isn’t getting erased anytime soon, but the University hopes to give faculty new alternatives to cater to their courses’ individual quirks.

Last semester, the Sakai Collaboration and Learning Environment, an education management software, implemented a successful pilot in 25 courses across multiple schools, serving 500 students.

“Student satisfaction was generally high” during the fall pilot, said Marjorie Hassen, director of Library Services, who coordinates system-wide research and instructional services.

Sakai CLE, a learning management system, is open source software. This makes Sakai different from its competitors because it is engineered by a community of developers, rather than being developed solely by The Sakai Foundation.

“One of the great things about Sakai is that since it is open source, there is potential for a lot of third-party applications,” Hassen said, adding that this allows for more flexibility. She also highlighted other features, such as thorough integration, which allows students to easily navigate all aspects of the course.

Other attractive aspects include its focus on higher education.

Whereas Blackboard is focused on a diversity of industries, from higher education to the military, Sakai is developed with a primary focus on higher education, Hassen said.

Douglas Paletta, a Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing faculty member, who taught a writing seminar course with Sakai in the fall wrote that he encountered both pros and cons to Sakai.

Paletta found the software to be on the same level of user friendliness for students as Blackboard, but “it’s less intuitive and less streamlined for the instructor.” He appreciated the “opportunity to have been involved in the Sakai pilot.”

This summer, Penn will try out a new version of Sakai released last December — Sakai Open Academic Environment.

Sakai OAE is different from the previous CLE iteration, for it adds more of a social aspect to the software.

Among its numerous sharing features, Sakai OAE allows users to post videos to their course pages and carry out discussions about them. The software also allows for virtual classrooms, where students and instructors can hold video conferences, supplemented by online interactive whiteboards.

Sakai OAE “is built on community building and content sharing” Hassen said.

Rob Nelson, executive director for education and academic planning in the Provost’s Office, said the summer pilot is a “great leap forward in general for courseware, because OAE is a great leap forward from Blackboard but also from the previous versions of Sakai.”

Similar to the fall pilot, the summer pilot will allow the University to see how well the software functions in its natural environment — among students and faculty.

Both Nelson and others managing education software at Penn are optimistic about the new pilot.

Joe Zucca, director of planning and communication at Penn Libraries, said “there will be people who want to do adventurous things” and the new version of Sakai will offer that opportunity for faculty who wish to do so.

Similarly, Nelson said “we couldn’t stop [faculty] even if we wanted to. The great thing about faculty is that they want to try out new things and these kinds of software.”

Sakai OAE will also pilot next fall.

What happens after that is currently uncertain, according to Hassen.

With over 4,000 courses in the School of Arts and Sciences alone, it “takes a while to make decisions,” Hassen justified.

But even if Sakai is well-received by the faculty, she doubts that Sakai will become the new Blackboard for the University.

Hassen stressed that education software is about “providing the broadest support to the broadest swath of people.” Currently, Blackboard does that, and Sakai is unlikely to take its place, she said.

“There will be more organized conversation after the fall pilot,” she added. “It’s going to be interesting to see where we go from here.”


Penn considers Blackboard alternative Sakai

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