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The ATLAS Network Pilot: NYU's Sakai Open Academic Environment Initiative

January 21, 2011

In January 2011, NYU launched one of the first pre-release pilots of the revolutionary Sakai Open Academic Environment (OAE) for academic networking and collaboration in teaching, learning, and scholarship. Initial development on this project was begun by the Liberal Studies Program with a 2008 National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Digital Humanities Start-Up Grant for their Simonides ePortfolio tool. At NYU, Sakai OAE will be known as the ATLAS (Advanced Teaching, Learning, And Scholarship) Network.

Sakai OAE is innovative in its ability to provide a combination of academic networking, content authoring and management, and internal group structures. Its academic networking functionality allows participants to unite the multiple aspects of their university identities—in courses, research groups, administrative memberships, and co-curricular projects, for example—from a single dashboard and searchable profile space.

Flexible networks, versatile content

Sakai can be easily customized on the school, program, department, and individual level without altering the system architecture. Perhaps most important, the function and appearance of Sakai have the appeal of popular social networking sites while providing the specialized tools that academic networking requires. All participants have the ability to form contacts, create groups, and author content regardless of their status as students, faculty, or administrators. Moreover, students will be able to maintain their profiles and presence in the NYU network from acceptance through their alumni years.

The pilot environment at NYU is being conducted by the Sakai/ATLAS Working Group (SAWG), a cross-school, academic-led committee charged with oversight of the development and implementation of the Sakai OAE environment and its portfolio tool. SAWG was founded by ITS Associate Vice President David Ackerman and Liberal Studies Program Dean Fred Schwarzbach as a unique opportunity for ITS/academic collaboration in technology design and development. James Bullen (ITS) and I are SAWG's co-chairs. Since fall 2009, Liberal Studies has been joined in the Sakai OAE effort by the Gallatin School of Individualized Study, the College of Nursing, the Faculty of Arts and Science, NYU Abu Dhabi, NYU Wagner, the NYU School of Medicine, NYU Steinhardt, ITS, and the Libraries. Faculty and administrative representatives from each of these bodies compose the SAWG, which funds and employs NYU's Sakai OAE technical team.

SAWG member schools initially cohered around the common need for a single network with individually customizable experiences for their faculty and students, including a special focus on flexible portfolio options. Thus the NYU pre-pilots feature searchable (within the NYU community) profiles; group spaces; and two versions of ePortfolios, one of which will be a private archive and the other of which will be a public-within-NYU display page customized by individual schools. Participants are able to join each others' profiles as contacts and form groups and can use the Sakai OAE content authoring functionality to create HTML-based pages that embed widgets.

The environment's unique treatment of content allows participants to upload files once, tag and organize them in a content management space, and share them with multiple groups and individuals over time. There are customizable settings for content shared with groups (such as courses and administrative or co-curricular bodies) that allow members control over what others do with the content they make available to the group. Like every participant, pieces of content (a category that includes web URLs) also have profiles with extensive metadata that facilitate searching and sharing.

With the environment's content authoring tool, participants can create HTML-based pages that easily embed content from multiple repositories; at NYU, these repositories include Files 2.0, scheduled for integration with ATLAS during the pilot period. From a teaching and learning perspective, this page creation feature is particularly exciting because it means instructors will not need to use external services such as third-party blogs, wikis, or content authoring software to have students engage in collaborative exercises.

Sakai uses the flexible concept of groups to replace the more rigid structure of sites in traditional learning management systems (LMS). These systems generally need the site structure as a means of delivering tools, such as discussion boards and wikis, for group use. In Sakai OAE, however, those tools are "widgetized," meaning they exist as free-floating modules that can be pulled into any page. So, for example, if an instructor wants his or her students to participate in a discussion board assignment based on a reading, he or she would simply place a discussion board widget beneath the link to the reading on a page in the course's Group Pages. Or if a participant wanted to conduct a poll on a page in his or her profile, he or she would simply add a poll widget in the appropriate place.

In the OAE, groups also have searchable profiles. There are multiple options for populating a group: automatically (as in courses), by invitation and/or request only, or public. Within groups, members can access and (if they have permission) author group pages, have access to common content, and belong to subgroups that they either form themselves or are placed in by group manager(s).

Next steps

The ATLAS pilot will grow to include 2,300 participants from Liberal Studies, 1,300 from Wagner, roughly 500 from Gallatin, and smaller numbers of from each of the other SAWG schools. Pilot preparations among member schools have included student and faculty focus groups at Gallatin; adaptation of the Wagner Portfolio tool designed by global design consultancy IDEO to Sakai OAE; and, in Liberal Studies, a week-long Tech Academy during which a small group of faculty collaborated on teaching and advising projects for the ATLAS Network.

NYU has a seat on the Sakai OAE Steering Committee to provide leadership and oversight for development; other members include Cambridge University, the University of California, Berkeley, Indiana University, Georgia State University, and Australia's Charles Sturt University.

At the EDUCAUSE 2010 Annual Conference in Anaheim, CA, this past October, representatives from SAWG and NYU ITS joined Sakai Foundation Executive Director Ian Dolphin to give a presentation on their groundbreaking collaboration to build the ATLAS Network. SAWG and ITS representatives also gave several presentations at the 2010 Sakai Conference in Denver last June. A whitepaper on Liberal Studies' findings from the NEH grant and a broader overall discussion of NYU's academic-led approach to the development of the ATLAS Network/Sakai OAE is available on the NEH website.

The ATLAS Network is part of a larger NYU technology initiative known as the Academic Collaboratory. A fully supported enterprise version of the ATLAS Network is planned for general use in 2012; stay tuned to future issues of Connect for updates.



Lucy Appert is the Director of Educational Technology at the Liberal Studies Program in NYU's College of Arts & Science.

This Article is in the following Topics:
Connect - Information Technology at NYU, Learning Management Systems, Teaching and Learning

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