ELearning Management Systems: Moodle vs Sakai

Hi, I’m Tony and I am a university student in Sweden. The university I go to uses two great free/open source products for their elearning platform and learning management system. Today I am going to talk about these products: what they are, some of their features and what strengths and bottlenecks they have.

Both are educational web-based platforms which allow students and teachers to communicate with each other on bulletin board systems, with web-based online forums. More importantly, they are places where students can hand in their assignments and have them graded by teachers.

They both offer an educational platform with similar feature sets, so in that regard they are competitors.

Moodle

Flexible in design, students and teachers can customise how pages appear by choosing from a multitude of themes. All you have to do is log in with a username and password and go change the theme in your account settings. Apart from the visual appearance, there are lots of other features, mainly being able to enroll in “courses”. This is an analogy to your university course. Students must enroll into courses to be part of it. Courses can either be open for enrollment or available with a course key (aka password). Once you are enrolled in the course, you can start talking to other enrolled students, by, for example: sending a private message and discussing in forums.

Teachers can create assignment sections on the site, accessible by each course-enrolled student. After a student has handed in the assignment, the teacher will be notified one way or another (e-mail notifications are most commonly used). After reviewing the sent-in assignment, the teacher can grade it so that the student knows whether they passed the grade on the assignment or not.

You also have a course participants section where you can see a list of the students and teachers. The activity list is a handy way to see a history log of assignments you have handed in. Even your course buddies’ assignments will show up in the history log.

All in all, it’s an open source solution suitable for universities wanting a way to administer courses and communication with their students. It is not perfect, but it has a lot to offer.

Pros of Moodle

  • Minimalistic web interface.
  • Runs well on older computers
  • Looks good on tablet devices

Cons of Moodle

  • Somewhat confusing to use at first. Hard to navigate and searching the site is not optimal.
  • As far as I know, it is not able to integrate with single sign-on (SSO), which means your users will probably need to register a special Moodle account to use Moodle.
  • I have found that some versions of the Moodle software don’t work 100 %. Your mileage may vary. They do update the code kind of frequently, so if something does not work in the version you are using, there is a chance it will get fixed eventually, in a newer version.
  • The system is very simplistic in appearance and features. I recommend developing your own theme if you have the time and skills, in order to integrate it smoothly with the rest of your university website.

Sakai

The Sakai system is similar in features to what Moodle offers. However, the visual appearance, layout and administration of the system is very different. The whole site is focused mainly around forum/discussion topics and different forms of teacher news bulletins. You also have an area where you can submit your assignments.

Pros of Sakai

  • Invites the student to discuss topics with fellow students in a structured way.
  • Perfect for teachers who need to communicate with students about upcoming changes in course schedule
  • Well-organised forum section.
  • Support for Single Sign-On (SSO). While this depends on how your university set this up, you at least have the ability to enable and use SSO with Sakai.

Cons of Sakai

  • While the navigation between forums is well-organised, it is unfortunately single-session. This means you can’t open multiple tabs in your web browser to navigate between different forums and forum posts, which can be a reoccurring annoyance.

How are they different from each other?

While I would say Sakai is a competing solution to Moodle, it is also very different in nature. They are not competing in the sense that their target audience will be the same. Some university courses will be perfect to use Sakai for, while others benefit greatly from Moodle. Moodle is assignment-oriented while Sakai is a discussion-oriented platform with a strong focus on communication between the teachers and students.

How does the university use them and which one should you choose?

The way Sakai is focused around discussion topics and teacher news announcements, it is targeting university courses that revolve around assignments where students are supposed to discuss specific topics with each other, in categories of studies such as arts, philosophy and language learning.

Moodle on the other hand, is very focused around reading about each and every assignment you have in your course and later hand them in when they are ready to be submitted to Moodle. While there usually are forums set up to use in the courses, it is more of an optional feature and not the center of the attention of the product.
Moodle is suited for scientific and programming courses where you do programming code assignments or scientific paper assignments, where each student work individually and hand in their results when they are done. It is not much of a collaborative community approach, unlike the discussion approach Sakai takes on.

Hands off teaching vs hands on teaching

If you want to put together a course for students, with moodle you can be more hands off and let students run through the course themselves. this is the strategy taken by organizations such as the Open University (http://www.open.ac.uk/) and the Ontario Ministry of Labour. Other educational organizations such as Coursera would be more suited to use Sakai as their classes start at the same time for all students so they have cohorts of students that can communicate with one another and with teachers. Moodle can be used for self-learning, Sakai can be used for group learning.

Both Solutions Are Good

Both solutions are good on their own terms. You will find that both Moodle and Sakai are solid web-based educational platforms.

You only need to consider four things when you evaluate these two systems:
– What kind of courses are we running and how do we match these to our educational web?
– Are students working alone or working together?
– What is the core structure of your courses: communication oriented and collaborative (Sakai), or solution oriented (Moodle)?

No matter which solution you choose: good luck!

Tony Granberg (@teknisktsett on Twitter) is a university student in Sweden with years of experience in using Moodle and Sakai.

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