This is the first installment of my promised non-patent (and non-patented) coverage of the Sakai Atlanta conference. I’m going to start with Bodington, in part because I continue to be really impressed with these guys. In my opinion, they are doing some of the most interesting work in the LMS/VLE space today. They are also the furthest along of anyone in terms of realizing the kind of system design that my colleagues and I have been calling an LMOS.
As you may know, Bodington is going to be using Sakai as the framework for the next generation of their platform. I wrote a few posts about Bodington a while back, shortly after the announcement. The conference gave me several opportunities to hear more from the Bod team about their thinking, their project, and their progress.
To begin with, Bodington’s guiding light Aggie Booth was one of the keynote speakers. Kudos to the conference organizers for making this happen; it was definitely one of the highlights of the week. If you have decent computer headphones or speakers and can put up with sound quality that’s a little rough, I highly recommend listening to the podcast.
One of the first stories he told was about how, in the early days, they couldn’t get students to ask questions in an online newsgroup set up for extra help. When he asked them why they wouldn’t, the students told him that it was a bit like asking questions in a 300-person lecture hall, except that the lights were out so you couldn’t see who else was in the room. So, when Aggie and his team built a system (which later evolved into Bodington) that allowed students to see exactly who has access to any document (including a discussion post) and who has, in fact, accessed it, the problem went away. (Coincidentally, another conference attendee had just asked me five minutes earlier if I knew of any system that has a similar feature. It seems that the ESL faculty on his campus have a homegrown system that does this and they value the feature very much.) At any rate, my main point is that this kind of thinking permeates Bod. The design is driven not by what the developers think an LMS should look like but by what the faculty and students tell them they need at a fairly granular level. To give another example, it turns out that Bod provides exactly the same flexibility in access that I advocated for a while back in my post about so-called “walled gardens.” Content can be open to the entire world, the entire school, the entire class, or just a very small, select group–whatever works best for the purpose at hand.
At any rate, much of Aggie’s presentation, as well as a presentation by the broader Bodington team and the several conversations I had with various members of that team, focused more on Bodington’s future. One of the more interesting (and exciting) things that Aggie said to me was, “I don’t believe in a VLE anymore.” He and his team see Bod evolving into what they call a “kernel” (think LMOS) with ad hoc collections of tools running on top of it. What would that look like? Well, this PowerPoint stack is about as clear a description of an LMOS, which they call a WAFFLE (Wide Area Freely Federated Learning Environment), as I have seen anywhere. I’m not sure how committed they are to all the details of the presentation; they seemed to indicate that they wanted to find simpler ways of doing some things (which is one of the biggest practical barriers to making the LMOS happen). Nevertheless, it’s exciting stuff.
That slide stack was not the one they presented at the conference, though; they were more focused on how Sakai and Bod are going to fit together. There was a lot of talk about making Sakai’s permissions system match the flexibility in Bodington. Much of this was frankly over my head, despite their patient efforts to explain it to me. It did reinforce, however, what I’ve been hearing for a long time from smart folks like James Dalziel and Stuart Sim that authorization and identity management are the major, hairy problems that we need to solve to make the LMOS workable. The Bod team seemed fairly confident that they were on the road to a solution for merging Sakai and Bod permissions and seemed to be taking some interesting directions (which I’m really not competent to describe) for some of the bigger challenges in this regard.