Background to the technical platform selection

While the M4D course team was planning the M4D course, it tested the software platform Canvas, as a hosted service from Instructure (the vendor), to determine its feasibility as a technical system for course delivery. Cost estimates provided by Instructure for the hosted service were as follows:

  • The quoted cost for 400 learners was USD $10,000 for six weeks
  • Additional students up to 1000 (that is, an additional 600) were to cost $3.28 per “seat” for this period
  • The total cost estimate for 1600 students was: $10,000 + (600 X $3.28) = $11, 968.
  • There was no clarity on numbers beyond 1000 additional students

The vendor offered the following standard client services as a part of the proposed contract package:

  • Authentication integration assistance for supported identity providers, including LDAP, CAS or SAML 2.0
  • Standard Online Training Package that included administration, user support, and instructor training webinars
  • Site branding assistance with colour header for website with a logo for the institution
  • Basic student information system (SIS) endpoint, with a bulk enrollment API enabled that accepted updates provided in the Canvas SIS import format
  • Test/training instance: refreshed every three weeks (to coincide with the Canvas release schedule) with production data for the duration of the account
  • Premium support package (details unspecified)
  • The vendor indicated that the implementation process would take 90 days from contract signing to execution of a live M4D course site

Because the Instructure proposal appeared too costly, the team proceeded to use the complied open-source “community edition” software code for Canvas, available from GitHub, and installed the code on the Amazon cloud service. However, it became quickly evident to the development team that open source edition of the Canvas code presented serious stability issues that would be unacceptable as an implementation platform for the M4D course.

The choice of Sakai as the technical platform for M4D

As a consequence of the testing of Canvas, the team decided immediately, and one week prior to M4D registration opening, to switch to the open source Sakai platform. The team at IITK wrote a custom set of software code in a short timeframe in order to make Sakai compatible with the registration interface previously built on the Drupal platform.

Sakai was chosen as the course technical platform because it was available as open source software and had a reputation for scalability with large numbers of students. This proved to be the case in the M4D course.

The IITK team identified Sakai, an open source platform, as most suitable for use as an online classroom in this course. It was also mobile-enabled so that some of the interested learners could access it from tablets or smartphones.

An external review of the Sakai software describes some of the technical platform’s key features, many of which were used in the M4D course (University of Virginia, 2014):

“The Sakai software includes many of the features common to course management systems, including document distribution, a grade-book, discussions, live chat, assignment uploads, and online testing, but the capacity for online collaboration is really the tail that wags the dog here. Sakai is intended as a collaborative tool for research and group projects. To support this function, Sakai includes the ability to change the settings of all the tools based on roles, changing what the system permits different users to do with each tool. It also includes a wiki, mailing list distribution and archiving, and an RSS reader.

If online student collaboration, within classes or not, is a major part of what you will be doing I strongly recommend trying Sakai. Trying Sakai is low risk because it is free and you generally can demo it at without having to install it. You can download the software to install at that same URL. “

The Sakai technical platform is highly capable and scalable and proved to be a stable technical platform on which to mount and conduct the M4D course with approximately 1,400 students.

However, it is a plain and simple learning system in its raw form and could use graphic design support to effectively brand it, and increase its eye appeal for learners. The additional of graphic design elements, institutional colour schemes and logos could require additional cost by the development team in future.



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