Thursday, May 04, 2006

A first look at Sakai (an open-source competitor of WebCT and BlackBoard) - installing and running the Windows demo

Course management systems (e.g., WebCT, BlackBoard) are now ubiquitous on campuses across the country. These programs allow instructors to run courses online in a secure environment where they can post powerpoint slides, host quizzes, hold discussions, and do just about anything else they want with students. Students, on the other hand, have to log in to access the material (so it's not publicly accessible), and can see only what their instructor allows them to. All in all these systems are great educational tools that every college educator should use.

However, the two primary programs available (WebCT and BlackBoard) are commercial products that are extremely expensive (tens of thousands of dollars a year per campus). There are multiple open source alternatives (which are completely free to install and use): the two I know of are Sakai and Moodle. I'm currently using Moodle, and like it, but unfortunately my campus stopped actively supporting it more than a year ago, and I've now been told that the Moodle server is going away for good next fall. I'm extremely mad about this; Moodle is very similar to WebCT (see my comparison of the two for more information), and it's free. Our campus would easily save tens of thousands of dollars a year (if not more) by switching from WebCT to Moodle, but instead we're completely dropping Moodle (but I digress ... that's a topic for another post).

So, I need to find an alternative. My campus heavily supports WebCT, but I'm hesitant to move all of my online materials into a commercial, closed-source product. I've seen a lot of instructors have to waste hundreds of hours converting material from one commercial product to another; I don't want to ever have to do that myself. Also, I like supporting a free, open-source content management system, if only because if they were widely adopted they could easily save higher-education users hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of dollars a year.

While at the Innovations meeting (tag: Innovations), I attended a presentation about Sakai. The program looked very good, and appeared to be easy to use, so I wanted to give it a try. While Sakai is designed to be hosted on Unix servers, it advertises that it has a demo version that can run on Windows and is "perfect for a quick and easy demo of Sakai". I decided to try it out.

Installing the demo was anything by quick and easy.

[WARNING: Skip this paragraph if you don't like reading about bad instructions and problematic installations]. The demo download was a single zip file that I easily unzipped; it had no installation program that needed to be run. The demo_readme instructions said to run a batch file called "start-sakai.bat", which sounded easy enough. Unfortunately, the batch file returned an error that Java was not installed. I eventually found the file RUNNING.txt, which informed me that I needed to "Download and Install the J2SE Runtime Environment (JRE)" (J2SE). I did so, re-ran the batch file, and got another error (this time that JAVA_HOME wasn't set). This page had the solution; it turns out that I needed to manually set the JAVA_HOME variable. To do this I had to go into the system menu's advanced screen (Start -> Control Panel -> System -> Advanced -> Environment Variables) and manually add the variable. I did this, reran the batch file, and got another error. This one informed me that while I had JRE installed, I actually needed the Java SDK instead (and needed to set the variable JAVA_HOME to point to the SDK directory). So, I downloaded the Java SDK, installed it, and re-set the JAVA_HOME variable (which was to the directory "C:\program files\Java\jdk1.5.0 06"; not the one Sakai specified). I finally was able to run the batch file without error, though it did pop up a Tomcat window that quickly filled with dozens of meaningless messages before finally saying "server startup in 361520 ms" (that's 6 minutes). The Tomcat window never bothered to notify me that the server was running - I eventually just went to the URL included in the readme (http://localhost:8080/portal) and it worked.

So, to help others run this demo, here are some (hopefully clearer) installation instructions:
  • Download the Sakai 2.1.2 demo zip file (from here) and unzip it (the directory that contains the files can go anywhere; I just put it on the desktop).
  • Download Sun's J2SE 5.0 Java Software Developers Kit (called JDK 5.0). Navigate to the "Get Java SE page" from here (the download should be available from this page).
  • Install JDK 5.0; selecting the defaults should be fine.
  • Locate the directory where JDK 5.0 was installed (probably C:\program files\Java\jdk1.5.0 06, or something similar).
  • Create an environment variable called JAVA_HOME that is set to the location where JDK 5.0 was installed. To do this open up the system menu from the control panel (Start -> Control Panel -> System), navigate to the "Advanced" tab, and click the "Environment Variables" button. In the user variables area of that menu click the "New" button, type "JAVA_HOME" in the "Variable Name" box, and put the directory where JDK 5.0 was installed (probably C:\program files\Java\jdk1.5.0 06) in the "Variable value" box. Click OK to get out of the system menu.
  • Navigate to the directory you unzipped the Sakai demo to and double click on the "start-sakai.bat" file.
  • Once the Tomcat window has opened and finished reporting its various messages, open a web browser and navigate to the page http://localhost:8080/portal (the Tomcat Window may not report that the server is running). If all has gone well, you should see a working Sakai installation.
  • The default login is the administrator account (admin / admin), which lets you start creating course sites and modifying the configuration.
Once I got Sakai up and running, things worked great - I was able to fiddle with it for hours without having a single error.

Sakai is an extremely flexible course management system - it can easily host multiple sites (courses) on a single installation, allow access to those sites from thousands of users, and each site can add and remove countless tools. It is probably more similar (in appearance) to WebCT than Moodle is, which might appeal to some users.

Keep in mind that by running this demo you're seeing what the site administrator sees (and needs to see) to administer an entire campus's online courses; there's much more available than what an individual instructor needs to run a single course. As such, using this demo has a bit of a learning curve, and I'm still climbing that right now; I'll try to post more once I've had time to play and learn.

[Note: The online help within Sakai is very well written. At the very least I'd recommend reading the "Course/Project Sites" portion of the online help menu; the portion on "create/add/edit/delete work sites" has an excellent walkthrough on how to create a new course within Sakai. Reading it will save you hours of frustrated clicking as you try to figure out how to create a course.]

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