Putting Sakai to Work

by Alan Mark Berg Michael Korcuska | June 2009 | Open Source

Sakai is an open source, web-based, collaboration learning environment (CLE) that is focused primarily on higher education. It supports the activities of students, teachers, researchers, and Sakai administrators. Sakai is flexible and enables users to configure it for their own specialized audiences. Sakai is mainly a courseware management platform that provides users with learning, portfolio, library, and project tools. It is flexible by design and has a set of frameworks (internal structures) that makes it easier for those who want to build tools. In this article by Alan Mark Berg and Michael Korcuska, we will discuss how to use Sakai tools in combination to create a better online learning experience.

The fundamental determinants of course quality have always been, and remain, the course content, the instructor(s), the learning activities in which the students are engaged, and the students themselves. We do not make any exaggerated promises about the transformative nature of technology in education. Technology like Sakai can be used to improve your course by allowing you and your students to do things that might have been impractical without the technology or by reducing the amount of time spent on administrative issues. But the tools Sakai provides are just that—tools—and unless they are used purposefully they will not make much of a difference. So it is most important for you to consider what you want to accomplish with your students and how the capabilities Sakai provides can support the course activities.

There is not a single "best" way of teaching. What works in a small graduate seminar in philosophy may not work in a large introductory computer science class, and what works for one instructor may not work for another. The good news is that Sakai is designed with this variety in mind.

The tools and structure of a Sakai site

You can think of Sakai as a framework that allows you to create the kind of online experience you want for your students. There is not a single way that a Sakai course site needs to function—it is ultimately up to you, with assistance from your Sakai user support team, to determine how the course is presented to the students online.

Not all Sakai sites are used for courses. In many institutions, it is common to find Sakai used for research work groups and administrative collaboration. In fact, at many institutions, there are more "collaboration sites", as they are called in the Sakai community, than there are course sites. So, these types of sites are included in the overview.

Many institutions integrate Sakai with other enterprise systems—automatically creating a Sakai site for each course being taught, for example, and adding students who are registered for the course to the site. Other organizations require instructors to create a site online but, once that's created, students are added and removed based on data from the registrar's office.

Regardless of the type of course (or collaboration site) you might be teaching, there is a basic structure to Sakai that is useful to understand. This section describes that basic structure and common tools. It also gives you a quick and easy way to customize a Sakai site, so we recommend having a browser window handy with access to an instance of Sakai.

If you have not yet created a Sakai site or if you don't have access to an instance of Sakai at your organization, several Sakai Commercial Affiliates host trial versions of Sakai that you can access free of charge. Check www.sakaiproject.org for the current listing. At the time of writing, hosted trials were available from rSmart (http://sakaisandbox.com), Serensoft (http://sakaisthelimit.com), and Unicon (http://testdrivesakai.com). When you create your account, a site is automatically created for you.

Sakai's site structure

Once you've logged into Sakai the top of the screen consists of a Sakai banner that contains your organization's branding and a logout button. Just below that banner is a series of tabs, one for each Sakai site that you are a member of. Every course or project consists of a Sakai site and is accessed by clicking a tab labeled with the name of the site. If you are a member of more than one site, you have more than one tab across the top of your screen.

If you have too many sites to fit, a More Sites menu (often renamed My Sites or My Active Sites) is present; it enables you to access the appropriate site. Always be sure you're in the correct site when you're doing your work.

My Workspace

There is also a tab called My Workspace, a special site that only you have access to. You use it to manage your preferences, store personal files, manage site memberships, and even provide a calendar that pulls information from all the Sakai sites to which you belong. Contact your local Sakai support team for more information about uses of My Workspace.

You can modify which sites appear across the top of the page so that your most frequently accessed sites are a single click away. To do that, go to your My Workspace site and choose the Preferences tool. The Customize Tabs function enables you to change which sites are visible.

A basic Sakai site is a collection of tools that users have access to, typically presented to users in a sidebar on the left of the screen. In most Sakai installations, each link in the left sidebar corresponds to a single tool. To access the Assignments tool, for example, a user clicks the Assignments link in the sidebar. The Assignments tool then appears in the main content area of Sakai. In most cases, it is as simple as that.

The major exception to this rule is the site Home page. It is a significant exception because it is the first page you see when you access a site.

Putting Sakai to Work

The Home tool contents

Unlike most tools, the Home tool is not a tool at all. It is really a summary page. It generally includes information pulled from several different tools. Sakai tries to be helpful by providing the most commonly useful information and, therefore, a typical course site Home page includes areas (called panels) that present the following information:

  • A site description (a description of the course or project)
  • Recent course announcements
  • Recent discussion forum posts
  • Recent chat messages
  • A course calendar

Most of the panels on the Home page can be configured directly from the Home page. The Calendar panel, for example, allows you to specify whether the calendar is presented by week or by month. To add events to the Calendar, however, you need to use the Calendar tool itself. The Announcements panel lets you to determine how many recent announcements are shown (you can specify either a certain number of announcements or have the panel display announcements that have been created since a specific number of days in the past). Some panels enable you to edit the content itself. The Site Description panel, for example, provides an Options link that allows you to edit the content directly, obviating the need to access the tool directly.

Of course, if you are not planning to use a tool in your site you do not want its information panel to appear on the course Home page. If you are not going to make a chat room available in your course, for instance, you do not want your course Home page to include a summary of recent chat messages because that would make your site look unfinished.

Thankfully, Sakai is generally very smart about this—if you turn off the Chat tool in your site, the recent chat messages summary panel on the Home page simply disappears. Except for editing the Course Description content, you can mostly ignore the Home page and let Sakai take care of it for you.

To edit the Site Description, simply click on the Options button. There are four things you can do:

  • Specify the title for the panel. A good title reflects the type of site you have (for example changing the default Site Description to Course Description or, better yet, Welcome to Theater 101).
  • Create the content that appears in the body of the panel. An easy-to-use HTML editor enables you to enter whatever content you want. If you don't know HTML, the default WYSIWYG mode can be used like a simple word processor. Just type away using the built-in text styling buttons to add bold, italics, bulleted lists, and so on. You can also add images, hyperlinks, and tables quite easily. If you know HTML, you can use the source code mode to view and edit the HTML directly.
  • Specify the height for the panel. You want to make the panel large enough so there is no scroll bar within the panel itself. This is easy if there is not another panel just below it. If there is, make the panel just large enough to hold your content but not so large that there is excessive white space between the panels. This may take a bit of trial and error.
  • Enter a URL instead of writing content. If you already have an HTML page that describes the site published elsewhere, you can simply enter that web address. Sakai will display that page in the Site Description panel.

Then simply click Update Options to save the changes you've made. If you have access to Sakai, this would be a good time to try it out. Remember to ensure you are working in the correct site.

There are, certainly, many instructors who want their course Home page to appear in a very specific manner. There are risks to that level of customization—remember that your students are likely taking several courses at one time and they may benefit from a consistent Home page experience. Nonetheless, it is often quite appropriate to create a custom Home page. Later, you'll see a number of ways to significantly customize the appearance of your site, including the Home page. First, though, let's review tools to make available and just let the Sakai Home page do most of the work.

The basic collaboration tools

There are four basic tools that almost every Sakai site uses, regardless of whether it is a course or a collaboration site:

  • Resources. The tool for storing files that can be accessed by other members of the site. You can create folders to organize these files, and even make certain files publicly viewable (such as a web page you want to show to those who aren't part of your site).
  • Announcements. Use it to send announcements to members of the site. These announcements appear on the site Home page and can be sent to all site members via email.
  • Email Archive. This tool provides a dedicated email address for your site (mysitename@sakai.myschool.edu, for instance). While permissions can be configured to make Sakai behave differently, typically members of your site can send email to this address and everyone belonging to the site will get the email. All emails are archived and accessible using the Email Archive tool.
  • Calendar. Sometimes called Schedule, the Calendar tool allows you to put important events on a calendar. The Sakai Calendar supports recurring events and has different icons for different types of events such as class meetings, exams, and special events.

Site administration

As a site owner, there are certain tasks that you may want to undertake to modify the site and/or the members of the site. The Site Info tool allows you to:

  • Modify the tools available in your site, including modifying the order in which those tools appear in the toolbar and changing the names of the tools.
  • Manage access to the site, including specifying whether individuals can join your site without your approval.
  • Manage the membership of your site. What you can and cannot do with membership depends on your local Sakai installation and often varies based on organizational policies, but typically includes the capability to add and remove members and change the role of individual members.
  • Manage groups of users in your site. Many Sakai tools have special features that allow you to work with a particular set of users inside your site. Groups and class sections are good examples of predefined groups that may be automatically created by your Sakai administrators. You can also create ad hoc groups for particular purposes. If you have project teams in your course, for example, it might be useful to create a group for each team.
  • Import content from an existing site or export content from the current site to a new one.

As a site owner, you always have access to the Site Info tool. Depending on how you use Sakai and how Sakai is integrated with other systems on your campus, you may never use Site Info. Still, you should take a quick look to familiarize yourself with what is available to you.

Every Sakai installation is different from every other. Your organization may not make the same Sakai tools available as another organization. This article mainly restricts itself to those tools that will be commonly available in installations of Sakai version 2.6.x, but there may be instances where we mention a tool that is not available in your instance of Sakai. In many cases, you can request these tools from your Sakai administrator. We also try to mention alternatives to the recommended tool where they exist.

The basic teaching and learning tools

In addition to the basic collaboration and administration tools, there are three tools that are commonly used in Sakai Course sites: Syllabus, Assignments, and Gradebook.

  • Syllabus. Use this tool to put your syllabus (clear guidelines and expectations for your course) online. You can upload a document (such as a Microsoft Word document or a PDF), build a structured syllabus in Sakai, or even point to an existing syllabus you have posted online in another location. Regardless of how you use the tool, you can have Sakai automatically email students when you've made a change to the syllabus.
  • Assignments. This tool allows you to create and post assignments that students can submit electronically. Using the tool can help eliminate paper assignments and reduce class time spent collecting and returning student work. It allows students to send questions about assignments and enables you to post online comments, grade assignments, and transfer grades to the Gradebook automatically. The tool lets you set opening and closing times for each assignment, supports resubmissions, and marks each student submission with a date and time stamp.
  • Gradebook. The Gradebook tool allows instructors to record and compute cumulative student grades. Students can refer to the Gradebook to check their progress in a course. The Gradebook tool is often used hand-in-hand with the Assignments tool although they can be used separately.

With these three tools and the four basic collaboration tools reviewed earlier, you can create a solid online presence for your class. Students will get course announcements and can send and receive emails via the class email address and can check past messages online. You can post reading material and other resources for students online and build a course calendar to remind students of important events and deadlines. Your syllabus is available online and students are automatically updated with any modifications to it. You've provided a facility for students to submit their assignments electronically, and they can receive feedback on those assignments via Sakai as well. Their grades are computed online and they can check to see how they are doing at any time.

Now that you have your course's online infrastructure set up, we can begin to add some more sophisticated uses of online tools. We'll do this by turning our attention to the several common types of courses and discuss how a Sakai site can be structured to support each type of course.

Types of Sakai sites

There are more than four thousand universities and colleges in the United States alone. Each of these teaches hundreds or even thousands of classes every year. Trying to create some structure from such a diverse world would be an exercise in oversimplification. The categories discussed here along with the associated recommendations about how to support them in Sakai are not meant to be rules or even best practices but rather a place to start when thinking about structuring your Sakai site. Do read through all of the site types because it is likely that your course mixes the structures and activities in two or more site types. And your own personal comfort with technology will also determine how many (and which) tools you might want to use.

The site types you'll be working with are as follows:

  • Problem-based courses
  • Small discussion courses
  • Large, introductory courses
  • Project-based courses
  • Collaboration sites

The following sections highlight a small number of tools that are especially useful in a site used for that purpose. Other tools are often useful as well, but because you're just starting out, you'll have more success using a few tools well. Still, we encourage you to read through all the class types and mix and match the tools you feel will work best for your situation.

Problem-based courses

A problem-based course presents learners with one or more problems to solve on a regular basis (weekly, for instance). The problems are presented by the instructor and generally have either correct answers (such as a Calculus problem set) or at least a fairly clear way to distinguish better solutions (such as an analysis of a poem in an English literature class). Problem-based courses are often targeted at developing skills related to the topic at hand and students are therefore asked to apply what they've learned by solving problems. Math courses might include weekly problem sets, computer science courses might include small programming assignments, creative writing classes may have weekly writing exercises, an acting class may have a series of small scene studies—the general approach is to increase the level of student skill through repeated practice with frequent feedback.

The tools introduced so far serve this type of course very well, with a special emphasis on the Assignments and Resources tools, and with the addition of just a few extra tools, you can make the online aspect of your problem-based class very effective:

  • Assignments. Use this tool to enter all or most of the term's assignments at the beginning of the term. That provides students with an excellent guide to the weeks ahead and helps them plan their time accordingly.
  • Resources. For problems with correct answers, use this tool to share sample problems and solutions to past problem sets. For classes where high-quality answers are less well defined (such as a performing arts or product design class), share samples of previous classes' best work. You can even upload video or audio recordings. By providing examples of excellent solutions to open-ended problems, you help your students understand what you're looking for.
  • Forums. This tool provides online discussion that allows students to help each other with difficult problems. You can set up a forum for each problem set. (Be sure to monitor the forum to ensure that students are giving each other good advice and aren't crossing the boundaries by helping too much.)
  • Chat. Use this tool to provide online problem-set help two nights before an assignment is due (don't encourage procrastination by scheduling it the night before the assignment is due). From the comfort of your home, you can take student questions about the assignment and suggest resources they might refer to while working on it.

Small discussion courses

A small discussion course has a relatively small number of students and small group discussion is a primary activity. Depending on the instructor, the students, and the subject matter, the size of this course can be as small at 10 or up to approximately 50 students. At first glance, it might seem that a class with a small number of students that meets in person on a regular basis has the least to gain from use of Sakai, and the benefits of automation are relatively small compared to a large multi-section course. The real benefit, therefore, is enhancing the student learning experience. That comes in two primary ways: Maximizing the use of the face-to-face time in class and continuing the discussion between class sessions.

Because much of the value in a discussion class is derived from the interaction with other students and the instructor, it is critical that the face-to-face time is spent productively. You want to ensure that students are prepared (they have done the reading or research required before coming to class) and that the maximum amount of time is spent discussing class topics rather than administrative issues. The relationship between the students and with the instructor is also important—students are asked to provide ideas and opinions in front of others they may not know well. For many students, this comes naturally; for others, this is difficult even when the instructor does an excellent job in creating a challenging but safe space for learning.

Small discussion classes tend to meet less frequently in favor of longer class sessions that allow discussions to progress and reach a depth that might not otherwise be possible in a 50-minute class session. It is common for a class of this type to meet twice a week for ninety minutes or even once a week for 3 hours. Even with the extended class meeting time, there are often discussions that do not come to a satisfying close, yet the next class session needs to be devoted to a different set of ideas and readings. Encouraging the discussion to continue between class sessions is important for students to get the most out of the experience.

The basic Sakai tools come in handy here. Start by using the Announcements and Email Archive tools to handle administrative issues. This ensures that all students have the latest information about changes to any assignments. Use the Resources tool to upload any electronic reading materials, and then send emails to the class when readings become available, ensuring that everyone has access to the readings and that there are no excuses (such as, I didn't get your email). The Calendar tool is probably not necessary but it can be useful for highlighting events outside of class such as an important speaker on campus that you want the class to think about hearing.

There are a few additional Sakai tools particularly recommended for small discussion classes:

  • Blogs. Have students use a Sakai Blog tool to post their reactions to weekly readings and research assignments. This ensures that they complete the assignments and gives you a chance to see where certain misunderstandings or conflicts in interpretation might be lurking. If you assign some portion of their grade to completing this each week, you will see excellent participation levels. You don't need to grade the blog entries—the fact that they are visible to all members of the class generally is enough incentive for students to take them seriously.
  • Forums: Here are a few ways to use forums in this type of class:
    1. Use Forums at the beginning of the term to have students introduce themselves to each other by posting statements about why they are taking the class, what they hope to get out of it, and what previous exposure they have to the topics. Kick off the conversation with an introductory post of your own. Not only will that encourage others to jump in, but it also gives you a chance to provide a good example for students to follow.
    2. Ask students to post to Forums their reaction to that week's readings or research. You can also continue unfinished discussions in a Forum. As class is ending, ask those who seem to have unanswered questions or unfinished comments to initiate a discussion in the class Forum. (One common discovery among instructors who use a discussion forum for the first time is that students who are reticent in class can be quite eloquent online. Giving them a chance to have their voice heard there can help them in class as well.) Forums may sounds like a lot of extra work, but they do not need to be. You will probably find that students respond to each other's posts in helpful ways and you, as instructor, can clarify key points or quickly steer a discussion that is going off track. While this may take some time it can reduce the number of individual emails you'll get from students. Because all the students can see your responses, you can answer a question once rather than several times.
  • Drop Box. This tool allows instructors and students to share documents within a private folder for each student. It works like Resources, enabling you to upload many types of files and many files at a time. Because Blogs and Forums are public spaces, the Drop Box is a good way to allow for private communication between you and each student. This might be useful, for example, if a student wants your feedback on an early draft of an essay or research project. Drop Box works best when there are a relatively small number of items that you are working on iteratively with students. If you have a larger number of formal assignments that will be graded, use the Assignments tool instead.

Large introductory courses

A large introductory course often has a hundred or more students, usually divided into sections, each led by a teaching assistant. Anyone who has taught a large course, regardless of whether it is divided into sections with teaching assistants, knows the administrative and organizational challenges that they involve. The large number of students creates a great deal of administrative overhead in communicating with students about the practicalities of the course—when assignments are due, what the grading criteria are, when office hours are for section leaders, when special help sessions are before important exams, and so on. Sakai can really help the course instructors stay organized and facilitate communication.

You'll definitely want to be taking advantage of the Announcements, Email Archive, Resources, Syllabus, Assignments, and Gradebook tools. But Sakai recognizes that in a large class these tools need to behave differently than they do for a small class and Sakai provides a set of group and section management features. Taking advantage of these features is critical to a successful online experience for a large class:

  • Section Info. This tool allows you to manage groups of students in your course and is fundamental to success in a large course that includes teaching assistants. If your educational institution integrates Sakai with the registration system (called a Student Information System), it may have already created groups of students inside your site based on the class sections to which students are assigned. If not, you can use this tool to create sections manually. Once the section information is configured, many of Sakai's other tools exhibit new capabilities to let them work with sections. You can also assign a teaching assistant to each section, giving them permissions to do a variety of things with the students in their section. The following tools are "section-aware":
    1. Announcements. A teaching assistant can send announcements to his or her section but, by default, cannot send announcements to the entire class.
    2. Assignments. Teaching assistants can send assignments to their sections or the lead instructor can send assignments to the entire class.
    3. Forums. Set up forums for the whole class or for each section of the class. (You can allow students to reach the forums for other sections without giving them permission to post there.) This is a particularly powerful tool for a large class. Think about basing part of the course grade on participation in the class forums and definitely post a weekly discussion question to get things started.
    4. Resources. A great way to use Resources in a large class is to store lecture notes. It's inevitable that some students will miss an occasional lecture. Even for those who attend every session, lecture notes make great review material and posting the notes allows students to focus more on what you are saying rather than worrying about taking detailed notes.
    5. Gradebook. Instructors can filter the Gradebook to view grades for students in particular sections. Teaching assistants are limited to viewing and grading assignments for students in their own section.
  • Mailtool. While the Email Archive tool is, in many cases, more than sufficient for class communication, a large class may need more sophisticated features and functions. Mailtool provides HTML email authoring with a WYSIWYG editor, supports attachments, and, most importantly, is aware of the sections in your course. Emails sent through the Mailtool also appear in the Email Archive, if you like.
  • Tests & Quizzes. This tool enables instructors to set up assessment activities for students. It can also be used to gather survey information or informal course feedback. There is a fair amount to learn about online tests, so you may want to contact your local support team for assistance with this tool, but straightforward, low-stakes weekly quizzes are quite easy to set up and are a great device to use in large classes. They ensure that students are keeping up with the material and can serve as early warning signs to you about students who are struggling. Because many question types (such as multiple choice) can be graded automatically by Sakai, you can give quizzes on a regular basis without increasing the grading burden for yourself or the teaching assistant.
  • Modules. Instructors can use this tool (also called Melete) to publish learning sequences by using a rich text editor, uploading learning objects, or pointing to existing URL resources. You can also use it to present instructional content that you may not have enough time to cover in class or that is not adequately covered in a textbook you may be using.
  • Polls. Quick and easy polls can be useful in classes of any size, but are especially useful in large classes. You might ask students if they have heard about a relevant news event, to what degree they agreed with the point-of-view of a guest presenter, or if they found the readings for a current topic difficult to understand.
  • Chat. There are many possible uses for this tool in a large class. One excellent use is to have teaching assistants hold online office hours where they are available to answer student questions. Even students who are just "lurking" (reading what others are typing but not typing any messages themselves) can derive benefit from participating in a chat session with an instructor or teaching assistant.
  • Podcasts. If you are teaching in a classroom that is equipped to record your lectures, the resulting audio files can be provided to students via the Podcasts tool. Some universities even automatically add recorded lectures to your Sakai site thereby providing a valuable tool to your students without you having to do anything extra. Even if your university doesn't have such a service, adding recordings to the site using the Podcasts tool is very easy.

Sakai provides two ways to manage groups of students, the Section Info tool and the Manage Groups functionality inside the Site Info tool. This article assumes the presence of the Section Info tool. If your organization doesn't provide this tool, you can do many of the things described within by using the Site Info tool.

Set up a separate collaboration site for teaching assistants. You can keep everyone on the same page, discuss matters of student performance and grading privately and begin to create a set of materials that will be useful to future instructors and teaching assistants.

Project-based courses

A Project-based course centers on one or two single large projects. While the end product is important, the process of discovery and the problem solving that the students go through are equally important, if not more so. The question becomes how you can use Sakai to encourage and make visible the decision-making process students use as they work on their project. This is especially important in classes that include group projects where the contributions of each individual can be difficult to discern. Here are a few Sakai tools that are useful in a project-based course:

  • Wiki. This tool is a cornerstone for project-based courses. A Wiki is a living document that students can revise as the term progresses. It represents the current state of their project but also documents the decisions that were made along the way.
  • Blog. Use this tool as a student's personal journal for the class. While the Wiki serves as the student's "official" record of the project, the blog can be used to document personal reflections. This is especially important when the students are working on projects in groups. While it is often difficult to assess each individual student's contribution to the end result or even the Wiki, their blog entries provide evidence of their personal contributions. Blogs also encourage reflection about the project and its relationship to the ideas and theories the project is intended to reinforce.
  • Guest Access. Project-based courses often benefit from outside expertise—a consultant or advisor or judge who can interact with the students in some way. Give your outside experts access to the class site and give them appropriate privileges so they can see and even comment on student work.

Collaboration sites

There are a variety of uses for collaboration sites, common ones being for a research group, a student club, or an administrative committee. They are similar enough in their use of Sakai tools to group them together. A successful collaboration site can be built from the basic Sakai tools, especially Email Archive and Resources. Sending email and sharing documents are key activities for any collaborative group and for some they may be just enough.

A collaboration site that will exist for a relatively brief period of time—one dedicated to hiring someone to fill a job vacancy, for example—will work quite well using just the basic tools. For collaborative groups that either have a longer life expectancy or are more focused on creating content (rather than distributing and discussing it), enhancing the site with a few additional tools can make a big difference. Here are a few ideas for these types of collaborative group sites:

  • Wiki. This a great tool for collaborative document creation. It preserves a history of document changes and serves as a record of how the thinking of the group has progressed over time.
  • Web Content. In collaborative projects there are often other web sites—perhaps a public-facing web site for a research group or academic department that is hosted on another server—that are used by the group. This tool allows you to add those web pages to your Sakai site. They appear as links in the Sakai toolbar as if they were just another Sakai tool, and when you click on a link, the corresponding web page appears in the main content area of the site. You can also use the Site Info tool to add web content to your site.
  • Forums. A discussion forum is a valuable addition to a group that regularly debates certain questions and tries to come to a decision or shared perspective. While the Email Archive can be, and often is, used for these purposes, a discussion form can keep important conversations organized. By creating a discussion thread for each question or decision, a collaboration site has an organized record of the debate that can easily be found and referenced. Reading through the history of discussions surrounding important decisions is valuable for both current members and new members alike.
  • Search. Search is not so much a tool as a capability, enabling members of the site to search its contents. If a collaboration site contains a large amount of content or email, search is a valuable addition.
  • News. Use this tool to add RSS feeds to your site, making it easy for your site members to follow news important to the group directly from the Sakai site.

Building your Home page

To keep your site as simple as possible for users, remove, or at least hide, the tools you do not expect to use in your site. While Sakai speaks of "adding" and "removing", it is perhaps better to think about this as "activating" and "deactivating". Your actions aren't permanent—you can always add (activate) a tool later if you decide it will be useful. You can remove a tool using the Add/Remove Tools link in Site Info. To hide a tool, use the Page Order link in Site Info.

The Page Order functionality also allows you to rename tools or to change the order in which they appear. This can be very useful in certain circumstances but use these features cautiously. Changing the name of a tool can confuse users, especially students who may be taking other courses at the same time. Changing the order of the tools is less disruptive to users but can still contribute to a sense of unfamiliarity.

Check out the new look

Now revisit your site Home page to see how it looks. The panels associated with tools you've removed should no longer appear on the home page and, depending on how your Sakai site is configured, panels may have appeared for some of the tools you've added. At this point, you have a few possibilities for modifying the appearance and functionality of your Home page. You can edit the standard Home page, replace the site description with a different Sakai tool, or even create a custom Home page.

Edit your page

Editing the standard Home page is the easiest option. Earlier in this article, you saw how to edit the site description content using the built-in WYSIWYG editor. If you haven't done this yet, you should do so now. Each tool summary panel also has some configuration options. Explore these to see which options produce the view that you think your users will find most useful when they log in to your site. Try a few options and see what you like best.

You'll also notice that the Announcements summary panel is empty at this point because you haven't sent an announcement yet. Compose an initial announcement about the class so that there is useful content in that summary panel. You can, for example, create an announcement that welcomes students to your class, reminds them of the initial class meeting time and location, and informs them of what to expect in the first class session. If you're using Forums, you'll see that there are no recent posts. Again, consider getting things started. One simple thing to do is create a discussion thread called "Introductions" and post an initial message introducing yourself.

Replace the site description

After creating the initial content and configuring the panels, your Home page is hopefully now both attractive and useful. If you want something different, though, one option is to replace the site description panel with something else. Notice that the site description options include a field for a URL. Enter a URL there, and the page associated with that URL will be displayed instead of the site description content.

You can use this capability to display an external site if you want, similar to how you would use the Web Content tool. But you can also use it to display another tool inside Sakai that may not provide a summary panel for the Home page. For a collaboration site, you might want to display the contents of a Wiki page that contains the minutes from past meetings, for example. You'll need, of course, to grab the URL of the tool you want to display. Simply right-click (Ctrl-click on a Macintosh) on the link for that tool and select Copy Location to send the URL to the clipboard. Then paste it into the appropriate field in the site description editing screen. Save your changes and take a look at the result. Depending on the tool you've selected and the configuration of your Sakai instance, you may be seeing exactly what you hoped for.

On the other hand, because of the way space is allocated on the Home page, the resulting view may not appear as you expect. There is little you can do at this point with the standard Sakai Home page, although your user support team may be able to help change the spacing of panels on the Home page for you.

Customize the Home page

If, however, you know exactly how you want your home page to look and you can't make the default Sakai Home page appear that way, you can replace the Home page with one of your own construction. The following figure shows an example of just such a site in Sakai.

Putting Sakai to Work

You can do the same using the Web Content tool and the Page Order functionality in Site Info. Follow these steps:

  1. Build a web page or series of web pages using a tool of your choice. Put those pages on a web server somewhere—you can probably even put them on the Sakai server using the Resources tool. (If you do this and you're building multiple pages, be careful to use relative links so when you move them to Sakai the links will still work. Also remember that your web pages will appear in the content area of Sakai and therefore won't have the full page width available to them. Be sure to design them accordingly.)
  2. Add the web page you created to your Sakai site using the Web Content tool. The Web Content creation process asks you to provide a name for your page. Call it Home.
  3. You now have two Home pages in your list of tools. Use the Page Order function in Site Info to move your custom-built Home page to the top of the list.
  4. You have two choices about what to do with the default Sakai Home page. You can hide it using the Page Order tool or you can rename it, taking into account the tool summary panels that are available. If, for example, you have the Calendar, Announcements, and Forums summary panels, a name like Dashboard or Recent Activity might make sense.
  5. Once you are happy with them, save your changes.

Now your custom web page displays as if it were your Sakai site's Home page. And Sakai's Home page is either hidden or has a different name. That's all there is to it.

Ready to roll

Whichever method of constructing a home page you choose, your site should now be ready to go. Once you're satisfied with the appearance and functionality, send a message to your users to let them know that the site is open for business. The easiest way to do this is to send an email to the site email address inviting participants to log in, take a look around, and, ideally, complete some relevant task (downloading the course syllabus, for example, or introducing themselves on the discussion forum). You can also share the site email address so that everyone knows where messages should be sent.

Of course, all of the preceding suggestions are just that. Experience with Sakai and your style of teaching (or your group's collaboration style) will ultimately determine which tools are most useful to you. There are also new tools and capabilities being introduced on a regular basis so it is likely that you can do much more than is outlined in this article. If you have any doubts, tell your Sakai support team what you'd like to be able to do and they can steer you in the right direction. Or join the Sakai community's Teaching and Learning collaboration group and share your questions and experiences with others.

The Community section of the Sakai web site (http://sakaiproject.org) has instructions for joining the Teaching and Learning group and other groups in the Sakai community.

Summary

Sakai is a powerful tool for teaching and collaboration but, like any tool, it can be used more or less effectively. You can find creative ways of using Sakai by thinking about the type of class you are teaching and the kinds of learning activities you would like students to undertake. The suggestions provided in this article are an excellent starting point but you should feel free to adapt them to your own needs—you know your content and students best.

About the Author :


Alan Mark Berg

Alan Mark Berg Bsc. MSc. PGCE, has for the last twelve years been the lead developer at the Central Computer Services at the University of Amsterdam. In his famously scarce spare time, he writes. Alan has a degree, two masters degrees, and a teaching qualification. He has also co-authored two books about Sakai (http://sakaiproject.org), a highly successful open source learning management platform used by many millions of students around the world. Alan has also won a Sakai Fellowship.

In previous incarnations, Alan was a technical writer, an Internet/Linux course writer, a product line development officer, and a teacher. He likes to get his hands dirty with the building and gluing of systems. He remains agile by ruining various development and acceptance environments.

Michael Korcuska

Michael Korcuska is the Executive Director of the Sakai foundation and has nearly 20 years of experience in technology-enabled education and training. Prior to joining Sakai, Michael served as Chief Operating Officer for ELT, Inc., a leading compliance-training provider. He has also held leadership positions at DigitalThink (now Convergys Learning Solutions) and Cognitive Arts, an award winning custom e-learning developer. Michael got his start in technology-based learning at Stanford University's Courseware Authoring Tools Lab and Apple Computer's Multimedia Lab in the late 1980s. He holds an M.S. in Computer Science from Northwestern University (where he studied and worked at the Institute for the Learning Sciences) and B.S. in Symbolic Systems from Stanford University. He usually lives in Berkeley, California, with his wife and two children although his writing for this book was done during a year living in Paris, France.

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