Sakai-based learning environment for collaborative and dialogic pedagogies

Open Letter to Sakai Developers' Community

Published February 10, 2010


Back to Grant Proposal


Dear Sakai developers community,


We are working on a grant proposal and we need your help in assessing programming work for this project (also, if we get the grant we might need your help in finding people who can work on this project). Over the past 14 years (since 1996, first using Microsoft FrontPage), we have been working to build and improve upon a web-based environment which supports dialogic pedagogy and its emergent pedagogical ecology in our classes at the University of Delaware School of Education. This class web environment has been designed to support a learning ecology of dialogue.  In our pedagogical judgment, we have found that web platforms designed and commonly used for education seem to build monologic educational ecologies, in which class web discussions focus on replies to singular topics (like in a FAQ forum), and the pedagogical design emphasizes instructor control and surveillance of students’ assignments and discussions. In contrast, we have designed a class web environment that supports a different educational ecology focusing on the participants’ messy exploration of ideas generated by the community of learners (this “messiness” embedded in our web design is deliberate as we do not wish to unilaterally organize or control the responsive discourse which emerges in the discussion). In this classroom community of learners, all participants, including the instructor, have equal rights for defining and negotiating the theme of communal discourse.


However, we feel that our current web platform has great technological limitations. Most importantly, it is built upon our clumsy integration of Microsoft SharePoint v.1, JavaScript, MSSQL Server 2000, and MS Access technology which cannot be easily shared with other instructors outside of our university. Furthermore, the complexity of our system has rendered it difficult to support for anyone other than someone well-trained in MSSQL Server and MS Access database systems, and takes valuable instructor time to maintain before and throughout the semester.


We are currently working on a grant proposal to develop (among other things) our dialogic class web environment on the Sakai platform and would like to ask the Sakai developer community questions regarding the feasibility of our project, as well as the overall costs and time associated with the project (e.g., costs for hiring developers, what types of work would be needed for developers to do, and so forth). Our university, the University of Delaware, has established Sakai as the platform for its course web environments. We would like to create a class web environment that supports dialogic pedagogy on the Sakai platform.


Conceptually, we see a class web environment supporting dialogic pedagogy as much more than a “dialogic tool” to be added to an existing pedagogical framework and structure. It is, we feel, a radical departure from existing educational technology and pedagogy. Although we recognize that pedagogy and technology provide mutual affordances for each other, we consider educational philosophy as the guiding principle for the pedagogical and technological designs for a class web environment. We do not want to sound arrogant, but in our view, the design of many existing class web environments is consciously or unconsciously guided by a conventional monologic educational philosophy based on “covering curriculum” unilaterally preset by the instructor in advance. Consequently, in the current conceptual language used about Sakai, each module is described as a pedagogy-free, self-contained tool. In contrast our approach is ecological rather than instrumental. For example, in a party, we wouldn't speak of a room, or a patio as “a tool” as much as we would consider it a space. Similarly, we look upon the Class Web Environment as a learning space with its own ecology instead of a tool. 


To better visualize what we have in mind, we have developed a web site with information about our grant proposal here, We would also encourage anyone to inform us about any current grant opportunities and provide your feedback on any technological challenges we face, criticisms of our approach, and pedagogical design improvements, and any new exciting possibilities.


We have created a Demo site of our class web environment supporting our dialogic pedagogy which allows interested developers and instructors to visualize this web environment, (when you get to the Demo Website, you are put in the student's role, which is just the tip of the iceberg of what we have designed for the course). On this site, please notice these key features:



1)   Webtalk: A threaded, asynchronous discussion forum which deliberately has more in common with old NNTP-based newsgroups than currently popular topic-centered FAQ-like designs of many “Web 2.0” discussion forums, wikis and blogs. This design, in our experience, promotes dialogue through the development of a rich threaded network of ideas, in which messages generating RESPONSES are immediately recognizable, and responses to messages can change focus, sometimes 3 or more times in a thread.


2)   Progress Report: A system designed for students to become responsible for their own progress within the class. Currently providing only daily updates to students, students can monitor their progress by seeing how much they OWE the class in terms of work, or how much they have in CREDIT. The report monitors the students’ meeting of minimum web participation requirements and any COMPENSATION which they owe or have performed for the class. Students are expected to do a minimum amount of Webtalk postings and weekly “mini-projects” in a given period of time (in the demo class, per week). All compensations are due within 3 weeks to keep students engaged.


3)   Miniprojects: An assignment system which encourages everyone in the class – both instructors and students – to respond to each other’s posted work. All assignments are publicly accessible.


4)   E-library: Unfortunately, due to copyright and privacy concerns we cannot show you the upper level of our class web environment. The “e-library” has educational resources that instructors share and collaborate on: databases of miniprojects, lesson plans, interesting links, videos, readings, surveys, course evaluations, and so on.

      Do you think this project is doable on the Sakai platform? If not, why not? If so, how much time and money might it take?
We look forward to your feedback and suggestions
Eugene Matusov, School of Education, University of Delaware
Mark Smith, School of Education, University of Delaware
Ana Marjanovic-Shane, Chestnut Hill College
Katherine von Duyke, School of Education, University of Delaware
Relevant publications:
Matusov, E., Hayes, R., & Pluta, M. J. (2005). Using a discussion web to develop an academic community of learners. Educational Technology & Society, 8(2), 16-39. Available at, Hayes, Pluto, Using webs for developing community of learners, THEN, 2005.pdf