Book Review: Sakai Courseware Management: The Official Guide

This review is for Sakai Courseware Management: The Official Guide by Alan Berg and Michael Korcuska, a 504 page software guide published by PackT Publishing.
Sakai Courseware Management: The Official Guide

What I really liked about this book is that the authors, Alan Berg and Michael Korcuska,  took a large subject and made it readily accessible for several types of users: developers, administrators, instructional designers and instructors. But because the book covers so much for a variety of people, the reader (meaning me) may not truly comprehend all of what is read.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, actually.

Why? Well, I’m an instructional designer and while I may get the gist of web services and plugging Sakai into a variety of external systems (Chapter 11), that particular part of the book is really meant for the IT department (or a designer with a programming background). It was a tough read, for me at least, but I stuck it out and now have a better understanding of what it takes to hook Sakai into a larger network.

Therefore, anyone using Sakai or thinking about using Sakai should read this book from front to back, regardless of your position within your organization. You’ll get more out of it than you realize. I know I have and I’ve been using Sakai for about a year now.

Anyway, if you are an instructional designer or instructor using Sakai, you will appreciate Chapter 9: Putting Sakai to Work. The authors go over the tools and structure of Sakai but then also offer several different types of courses and how to set them up. For example, a problem based course may use the blog tool, the forums, or even the drop box whereas an introductory course would use Sections in addition to several tools to facilitate learning for a large student population. Of course, these are just ideas and suggestions but they are general enough that you get the idea of what can be accomplished with Sakai. Chapters 14 & 15 really bring this section to life and offer an idea of what it would look like in the real world.

If you are an administrator, though, you will definitely want to read Chapter 10 about the administrative workspace. It goes over the admin workspace in detail and the shows you how to set up Messages and permissions correctly. There’s even a section on using Java for those admins who can code. A nice feature is an interview with (wait for it) an actual administrator, Anthony Atkins!

Chapter 3 is a great look at the “bones” of the system whereas Chapter 6 is a detailed description of the quality control that the code must go through to actually make it into a live version. Both can be overwhelming if you aren’t technical but I suggest you read them anyway. At the very least it will give you an insight into why the tools are set up the way that they are.

Chapter 13 has quite a bit of code and delves into common error messages. For those in quality assurance, you’ll find this particular chapter enlightening. For those of us who aren’t, some of the “scary” error messages are explained in a way that makes sense.

The best part of the book, though, are the interviews (scattered throughout), Tips from the Trenches (Chapter 12) and Chapters 14 & 15 (Show Cases & Innovating Teaching and Learning with Sakai, respectively). It is one thing to talk about a program and how it works, it is something completely different to offer stories, vignettes, and real world examples to show it’s functionality. I think these sections are worth the price of admission considering the detailed information they offer on how award winning courses were set up in Sakai, and what worked/didn’t work.

That’s another thing that I enjoyed about this book: the authors don’t hold any punches. If something in Sakai is poorly made or done (the original blog tool, anyone?), then they share that information with you. There is also a short but amusing section on course migration in Chapter 12. Slightly amusing because course migration is a PIA at the best of times but also because I have had some experience with migrating across LMS systems and found that this section was, well, “kind” to this specific feature.

Anyway, I also particularly enjoyed Megan May’s interview in Tips from the Trenches in Chapter 12. She offers some solid advice on deploying Sakai, which is something I had to learn the hard way. But, if you are trying to sell Sakai to management, read over pages 378-379 in Chapter 16 before you make your pitch. The authors offer some good pointers on why Sakai is the best alternative for a CLE (collaborative learning environment).

In summary, this is a truly large book. Large not so much in pages but in ideas and complexity of purpose. I’m afraid this post would be twice as long if I discussed every aspect of this guide. Sakai Courseware Management has this unique ability to reach out to whoever you are in whichever job you do and give you a piece of information that will make working with Sakai that much easier. It also affords a sense of wonder at the sheer amount of man hours spend producing such an elegant piece of software. All for free because they love doing it. My hat is off to you, Sakaigeress*.

Thanks to PackT Publishing for offering me a chance to review this book.

Try before you buy: download Chapter 11: Web Services: Connecting to the Enterprise to get a general feel of the authors writing and instruction style.

* What’s a Sakaigeress? Read Chapter 18: Rogues Gallery to find out!

Book Review: Moodle 1.9 Multimedia

Two Thumbs Up

Original Image by Magic Marie on sxc.hu

This review is for Moodle 1.9 Multimedia by João Pedcro Soares Fernandes, a 272 page technology how-to guide published by PackTPublishing.

If you want to learn how to develop a course in Moodle, look to another book.

If you want to get your hands dirty with a variety of multimedia tools to enhance your course, read on.

The author is upfront with the fact that you will be using 20 different programs throughout the book to build a variety of multimedia activities (actually, it’s more like 45 or so including links to additional software/services). While that may seem overwhelming, it’s a good idea of what is available for free to the average instructor. Most, but not all, of the software is web-based so there is a minimum of downloading required.

Be aware that software is updated all the time so that the exact steps used in the book may be slightly different or non-existent by the time you try it for yourself. However, the general ideas of the activities are still valid.

Once past the first chapter, João jumps right into the “how to” portion of the book with a simple tutorial that uses an image, a sound file and a video in a forum post (pp 17-20). These three short tasks introduce the reader to his easy-to- follow presentation style as well as some of the chapter topics.

The rest of the book is broken up into the main multimedia categories:

  • Chapter 2: Picture This (images)
  • Chapter 3: Sound and Music (audio)
  • Chapter 4: Video (video)
  • Chapter 5: Web 2.0 and other Multimedia Forms (interactives)
  • Chapter 6: Multimedia and Assessments (interactive assessments plus a rubric)
  • Chapter 7: Synchronous Communication and Interaction (communicating in real time)
  • Chapter 8: Common Multimedia Issues in Moodle (copyright and child safety)

What I think is most effective about this book is that you don’t have to go through it in a linear fashion. While João guides you through each step (and how he built the activities in his own course), in reality you can pick and choose where you go in the book and what you want to use. Each chapter is self contained, although some later tasks require that you have a passing familiarity with multimedia software presented in previous chapters.

Each chapter also represents an activity that the students in Music For An Everyday Life must complete on their own. He shows the reader how to use the tools even as he discusses how his own students use the tools for the activities within his course. It’s a clever way to show and not tell particularly on a topic as wide and differentiated as multimedia.

There were a lot of activity ideas presented throughout the book but they tend to be sprinkled in throughout the chapters. The how-to’s are usable across LMS platforms so, even if you don’t use Moodle, you can still use the book.

The section on rubrics, pp. 218-219, is not as detailed as the rest of the book although João does offers minimal guidelines to assess multimedia projects with rubrics. While it may feel anemic after reading the previous how-to’s, understand that 1) this book is about multimedia and not assessment specifically, and 2) his audience is international. Therefore, he cannot give advice across borders for rubrics that may not even apply to a particular country. My suggestion is to Google multimedia rubrics for something more specific to your course as supported by local education standards.

Chapter 8, about copyright and child safety, should be read first before starting in on Chapters 2-7. Even if you are already aware of these issues, you should remind yourself before diving into creating multimedia for your courses.

Try before you buy: download the PDF of Chapter 6: Multimedia and Assessments to get a general feel for the writing and instruction style of João Fernandes.

* Please note that I offer only my honest opinion on the contents of books I review and do not receive compensation for doing so.