Why I Hate Sakai

I’ve had to use the Sakai course management software this term, and it’s really the worst software I’ve had the misfortune of using in a long long time. If anyone out there has the choice between using it and using a commercial product like Blackboard, I strongly recommend the commercial product.

I’m usually quite happy about using open source products. (This post is being composed in Firefox, for instance.) But Sakai is way from being ready for critical usage.

There are two really big flaws that have caused it to be an unremitting nightmare to use all semester.

First, the software is too stupid to handle having multiple tabs open on the same login. So for instance just this morning, I was trying to write an assignment in one tab, while having older assignments open in another tab so I could compare what I was doing with what I had already done. When I went to save the new assignment, the software thought for some reason I was trying to edit the old assignment, and, I guess in a fit of confusion, completely lost the assignment I had written. I guess I’ll just have to rewrite the whole thing – perhaps this time in TextEdit so I can save it before having to deal with the monstrosity of Sakai’s data saving.

This also comes up when entering grades. The server I’ve been using is painfully slow, which might not be the fault of the software. (Though the server runs a lot of other software at much higher speeds.) So it can be a long and painful process entering grades, since this requires opening a new page for each student, entering a number, and then going to a new page that registers that the number has been saved. In Blackboard this process can be speeded considerably by opening the pages for different students in different tabs, and while some pages are loading, entering grades in other tabs. (Or you could, if you were more confident in getting this right, enter the grades in Excel and try to manage the grade import functions. But that’s always seemed like a very hit and miss approach to me.) Sakai can’t handle this because if you open multiple tabs, then do anything in any one of those tabs, it will take the inputs as an attempt to modify the last opened tab. This led to worlds of confusion before I figured out what was happening. And it led to some painful times waiting for pages to open so I could enter grades one by waiting around one.

Second, there are very few capacities for error correction. The main reason I wanted to use course management software was so I could give the students small quizzes on the reading before each class. But in Sakai there is no way, once a quiz is posted, to change it. So sometimes I’ll write questions that are ambiguous or confusing, and one of the students who is first to take the quiz will ask about this. Even if I wanted to, there is no way to change the quiz, short of deleting it and posting a new quiz. (Which would then delete the fact that some people have taken the quiz.)

This is perhaps carelessness on my part, but there are quite a few things that need to be changed from the default settings every time you run a quiz, and which if you forget to change before posting can’t be changed after. For example, questions in a quiz by default are worth 0 points, which isn’t maximally helpful. On a couple of occasions I failed to change the default value before releasing the quiz to students. There’s nothing much, it turns out, you can do about this once it has been released. Perhaps a better user than me wouldn’t have made such a mistake, but it’s really quite annoying that the software doesn’t have the capacity to let you fix mistakes like this.

There are other serious bugs too. Once you post a quiz, there are two different points on the site where it purports to let you change various settings, such as due dates. But only at one of these points will changing the settings make a difference to changing what the students see. At the other point you can make changes, hit save, and if you go back to the same spot it will look like it has saved the changed settings, but this won’t affect what the students see.

Perhaps Sakai will one day be better than its commercial rivals, as Firefox is better than IE. But that day hasn’t yet come, and it’s hard to see it coming in the near future.

2 Replies to “Why I Hate Sakai”

  1. Just FYI, regarding Blackboard, the configuration I’ve been using at Ryerson allows grades to be entered for students all at once, rather than opening new tabs for each student. I go through Control Panel —> Gradebook Views —> View by Item, and then click through to the list of all user’s grades for that item. Not sure if that’ll work for you, given the way Cornell has things set up, but it might make your life less painful.

  2. You might want to consider looking at Moodle, which is a more regular open source project. Andreas Wittke, who works for Germany’s oncampus (a company offering teaching and consulting around web based learning, mainly tilted at vocational education and univesrities), gave a presentation about a year ago titled “Why German Universities Choose Moodle Instead of Sakai”, which has a fair bit to say about Sakai’s deficits when it comes to usability for teachers and students. My wife, who has used both Blackboard & Moodle, finds Moodle to have the usability edge here as well.

    The slides for Wittke’s talk are at URL:

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