Libby Mueller, Senior Staff Writer

The Miami University Learning Management System (LMS) Review Committee is currently in the process of comparing the Sakai system, Niihka, to two others. By the end of the month, MU will decide whether to continue using Niihka or switch to another LMS. The two systems being considered are Desire2Learn and Instructure/Canvas.

Assistant Provost for e-Learning Beth Rubin said Sakai was developed as a community effort among several universities.

“Sakai is open source, which means everybody can see the source code,” Rubin said. “It was created, developed and enhanced by a consortium of six to eight universities. Each of those universities hired coders and put hundreds of thousands of dollars into developing it.”

According to Rubin, three years ago there was a plan in place for the introduction of a new and improved Sakai system.

“Sakai was out and there was a plan for a new system that was going to be amazing,” Rubin said. “The plan was to create a new system that was flexible, highly social and fully integrated and that effort was not successful. A prototype was built but it would only work with less than 20 students. What’s happened since then is most of the universities left the consortium.”

Rubin said many of the universities who originally developed and used Sakai dropped it in favor of other systems.

“Indiana University did an intensive two-year study and decided last week they’re leaving Sakai, and they were among the people who designed it,” Rubin said. “We moved there because it was open source. We thought it would be flexible, and everyone was expecting this wonderful new version and the version was never created in a way that could scale.”

The LMS Review Committee was created to evaluate other LMS options following complaints about Sakai and the changing landscape of technology, including the advent and increased use of mobile devices and social media. The Committee conducted tests of two systems in addition to Sakai.

Julie Straub, the Educational Technology Coordinator on the Middletown campus, serves on the committee. She said the committee is looking at specific factors when comparing the systems.

“They’re looking at ways to increase the integration of technology and make sure we’re using an LMS that will be useful to and support all classes, traditional, online and hybrid courses,” Straub said. “And it should have a variety of tools that are necessary for faculty to utilize technology for teaching and for students to use it for learning.”

Rubin said the increase in use of mobile devices introduced new priorities for which Sakai is not well suited.

“Students and faculty have mobile devices and they want to teach and take classes on their pads, tablets and phones,” Rubin said.

Constantly changing technology offers many possibilities for incorporating different elements into an LMS. Junior Hannah Corner said there are some features she would like to see if a new system is implemented.

“It would be really cool if it synced with my Google account somehow,” Corner said. “I don’t know if that’s possible, but I would like to organize my Google drive with my courses and calendar.”

The committee finished pilot testing at the end of March. They tested Sakai in addition to Desire2Learn and Instructure/Canvas, which were the two systems deemed the best alternatives based on a set of criteria the committee developed.

“We set up a pilot,” Rubin said. “We created a fake course for faculty and a fake course for students and we put it on each of the three LMS’s, Sakai and two others. We asked people to do the things they would normally do when they teach or take a class and evaluate how easy the system was to use. A good system supports teaching and learning.”

The data from the pilot tests are now being aggregated and evaluated.

Sakai, because it is open source, is free to use. However, MU hired three full-time employees to code and administer the LMS. If a new system were chosen to replace Sakai, coders would not be needed.

Rubin said price is not a principal factor in determining which LMS will ultimately be chosen. She envisions a system that allows for live chat, video and even integration of social media.

“What’s really important is that the evaluations are done not on the basis of price, but solely on the basis of how well the LMS supports teaching and learning,” Rubin said. “What I love and believe in is creating online courses that have a strong connection. You can do the Miami experience online, but only if the technology allows it.”