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Moodle vs. Sakai: Future Directions

So in trying to come to a conclusion on Moodle vs. Sakai, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the minutia of feature comparisons and such. It seems to me, however, it’s important to keep in view the larger, longer-term, picture. In this case, that in part involves the strategic directions for these two projects, which will give us a sense of where they might be in five years. To wit, below is my understanding of Moodle 2 and Sakai 3. Am in a bit of a hurry with end of semester chaos, so please correct me if I have anything wrong here, or if I’m missing important details.

Moodle 2

As I read it, Moodle 2 is a significant change to the platform, but a largely incremental one. The primary change appear to be the addition of a repository API, which provides a flexible way to add access to different kinds of resource repositories. For example, there is a plug-in that uses this API to make it easy for users to browse and insert images from Flickr from within the standard Moodle editing tools. In addition, there is work on new features, many of which are outlined in the following video:

In other news, there appears to be independent work on making Moodle friendly for mobile devices. Here’s a video of one such example:

From what I can tell, Moodle 2.0 will be ready for deployment sometime later in 2011.

Sakai 3

Sakai 3, on the other hand, is a more radical change: effectively a complete rewrite of the platform. This rewrite involves building the Sakai-related functionality on top of other, more generic, open source code. The new core code, and hence what the Sakai community is responsible for maintaining, is dramatically less than the old; at present a reduction of close to 90% of the code base! In addition, one of the core developers on the new Sakai core has also become a developer on the Apache Sling project on which the Sakai 3 core is based. This reflects some smart strategic decisions, and should provide a focused, easy-to-develop and maintain foundation.

Following are a few examples we can glean of what this might look like from the design wireframes (visual mockups, not necessarily running code at this point) and the running demo code.

Example: Everything is Content

Michael Feldstein does a good job explaining what this all means. But perhaps some pictures will make the implications more immediately apparent. Consider search. Because existing LMSs are both organized based on courses and tools, its quite awkward to search for content (forum posts, blog posts, assignment or page content, etc.) globally. On the other hand, consider this proposed search UI for Sakai 3: Sakai 3 search panel So one does not go into, say, a forum and search the forum. Rather, one has a search interface that is the same whether you search the entire university’s content, or an individual course. That integrated search interface looks beautiful, and will be instantly familiar to anyone used to using contemporary web interfaces.

A few more screenshots follow below, these all from the actual current Sakai 3 demo server.

Example: Widgets for Integrating Different Content

The new interface is based on widgets, which allows you to quickly add different blocks of features, and move them around as well. Because of the new core foundation, these widgets are also designed to be really easy to develop, so that it’s much easier to add new functionality. In this view, for example, you see a “widget” I’ve added to access my Google Docs documents from within Sakai.

google docs widget in the Sakai 3 dashboard

Example: Editing

One design priority for Sakai 3 is to make editing content much easier. Here we see the clean new editing interface.

Sakai 3 editing toolbar

In addition, all content is versioned, so that you can easily step back through changes, and see who made what changes. Since all content is treated uniformally in Sakai 3, there are no artificial limitations in how this versioning support can be applied. Here’s what it looks like the UI currently:

versioning interface

What I get out of all of this is that Sakai 3 will be more scalable (faster), more flexible, more elegant and easier-to-use: a brand new LMS designed for the needs of the 21st century. The devil will still be in the details of exactly how they implement specific features (gradebook, assignments, etc.) on top of this new core, but I am also really encouraged by what I am seeing of the design process. It demonstrates an attention to detail that is necessary to do this right.

The current roadmap is that it should be ready for large-scale deployment sometime in mid-to-late 2011 [I corrected the year from 2012, per comment below]. Also, there’s some work going on (at Indiana?) in allowing mixed 2-3 deployment; using v2 tools within a v3 context for example.

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