Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Friday, April 15, 2011

U-M invests in expanded open source academic technologies

Try imagining writing software that can reliably handle more than 45,000 class sites and an additional 40,000 research or administrative project sites 24/7, 365 days a year.

Now add in the capability to personalize and customize those class and project sites, incorporate the ability to integrate with numerous external services like social networks, and, of course, make all of this accessible wherever you are in the world.


For additional information on the Sakai OAE project, go to


Now you have some idea of the task ahead for the Sakai Foundation developers working on the Sakai Open Academic Environment (OAE), the next-generation academic technology platform that ultimately will replace the current version of CTools, U-M's course management system, over the next three to five years.

Sakai is the open-source foundation for the higher education community that is the basis for CTools. U-M was a founding member of the Sakai Foundation and has played a major role in the open source community for many years.

With the support of U-M executive officers, the university has become a member of the Sakai Foundation OAE steering group.

"The IT Council committed to the executive officers over a year ago that our initial investments in NextGen Michigan technologies would all be focused on teaching, learning and research," says Dan Atkins, chair of the IT Council and associate vice president for research cyberinfrastructure. "This initiative exemplifies our goal to innovate with state-of-the-art technology to advance the university's core missions."

Chuck Severance, clinical associate professor in the School of Information, was the chief architect of the original Sakai Collaboration and Learning Environment (CLE) project that resulted in CTools. He also was the Sakai Foundation's first executive director, and is a current board member.

"The new Sakai platform re-imagines how effective learning communities are and will be generated and sustained," Severance says. "Learning is fundamentally collaborative in ways not fully anticipated 10 years ago, with information shared, discussed, and refined with others — all of this occurring within a technology-supported, open academic environment."

CTools will continue as the U-M course management software for the next several years while the Sakai OAE software is developed and made available to member institutions. Once available, the CLE and OAE platforms are intended to work together and will run in parallel for an as-yet-undetermined period to ensure a smooth transition.

"Sakai OAE is not merely an upgrade of the existing CTools software. The project's ambition is to reinvent the academic technology environment for students, faculty, and researchers," says Laura Patterson, chief information officer. "We are very pleased that U-M will continue its longstanding role in Sakai and be an integral participant from the start in this exciting project."

A significant difference between CTools and Sakai OAE is that the former is course or project centric and the latter is intended to be user centric. When fully operational, Sakai OAE users will see a completely redesigned interface that will allow for a level of individual customization not currently available with CTools.

It also will more easily integrate with other technologies (including audio, video and lecture capture systems) and social networking vehicles. Social networking was in its infancy when CTools originally was developed.

While Sakai OAE is being developed, the Information and Technology Services Teaching and Learning Group will continue to improve the existing CTools platform. ITS Teaching and Learning, under the direction of NextGen Michigan Program Director John Gohsman, is coordinating the on-campus Sakai OAE project.

The group supports campuswide academic technologies and currently is investigating how best to integrate CTools with the planned deployment of Google collaboration tools across campus beginning in 2012.

Other major academic institutions involved in the Sakai OAE development include Indiana University, New York University, University of Cambridge and Charles Sturt University (Australia).

A campus steering committee whose membership includes Patterson, Paul Courant, university librarian and dean of libraries; and School of Education faculty members Barry Fishman, Chris Quintana and Kara Suzuka (also NextGen Michigan Teaching and Learning domain associate stewards) will provide leadership and governance for the campus Sakai OAE project.

In addition, an advisory group with broad-based campus membership will bring forward U-M priorities and requirements to the Sakai project team.

U-M will play an important role in Sakai OAE development related to ensuring a high level of scalability — making sure the software will run efficiently and reliably with extremely high use.

Few institutions reflect the scale of demand on computing resources that U-M routinely experiences. For the 2011 Winter Term, for example, there were 45,243 CTools class sites at the Ann Arbor and Dearborn campuses and an additional 39,793 project sites. At its peak use in December 2010, there were nearly 12,000 concurrent users.