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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!