moodle vs. sakai

At my old university, I was using course software called “Moodle,” which I loved for both its ease and its power. Now, at my new institution, I have to use course management software called Sakai, which is both very expensive and (as I see it) a whole truck-load of suck. This is my first post in a series in which I explore what I miss about Moodle, and what I dislike about Sakai.

For background, go to the Sakai website and watch (if you can stand all 11 minutes of it) the “Sakai Video Report” that’s featured prominently there. Note the weird mix of techno-babble and CEO-speak. Now, go to Moodle’s website, and look at their page on Pedagogy. Note how they actually have a page devoted to pedagogy! You may not completely agree with them about how learning happens, but it’s clear that Moodle was developed from the learner’s point of view. Where Sakai is a glorified version of Lotus Notes–the guy in the video admits as much–Moodle was built from the ground up on widely-accepted learning theory.

One concrete example is how everything in Moodle is either an “activity” or a “resource” for students (or “learners,” or whatever, since you can customize roles in Moodle), and every activity or resources can be found right on the main page of the site. If I want to put a PDF text right next to a forum to discuss that text, I can. Not so with Sakai, which uses a byzantine file structure, and buries both activities like discussion forums and resources like texts in different areas, requiring much clicking to move from one to the other.

As a teacher, when I ask students to discuss a text, I want them to have the text open while they write, so they can, you know, actually refer to it. In Moodle, two clicks gets you there–I haven’t bothered to count how many in Sakai, both because it’s variable, and because it makes me weep. Navigability, I’m saying, is more than just an issue of elegance; it has pedagogical consequences. My students are much more likely to engage with texts and discussion in fruitful ways if they don’t have to drill up and down the file structure to do it.

But isn’t it confusing to have all those activities and resources on the main page? Not at all, because Moodle lets you easily customize how you organize things. You can arrange everything by week, or you can do it by “theme” or “unit.” This is generally how teachers think about their courses anyway. In my writing courses, each unit is aimed at having students draft and revise a single essay. With Moodle, I can put the essay assignment, related texts, discussion forums, private journals (for brainstorming/freewriting), wikis, etc. all in one area, and I can move that area to the top of the main page so it’s the first thing students see when they log on during that unit.

Sakai, on the other hand, is like an overzealous Montessori teacher; there’s a place for everything, and everything must be in its place. Texts and handouts and assignment prompts belong in “Resources,” while discussions go in “Forums,” and students submit work in “Assignments.” If you’re looking for something in particular, you first have to think about what kind of thing it is, and then go look for it under that rubric. So, if your teacher says, “please download the reading for next Monday,” you have to figure out that that’s a “Resource,” then go look for it there. In Moodle, the text sits right there, on the main page, in the section that covers next Monday’s class.

Anyway, I’ve got plenty more to say, but I’ll save it for later posts in this series. I might eventually (and grudgingly) admit that Sakai does have a few nice features, but I’m more interested in explaining how Moodle is better in almost every conceivable way.


15 thoughts on “moodle vs. sakai

  1. As someone who works on developing and deploying Sakai, I’m certainly interested in hearing more of your thoughts on how we can make the software better. Looking forward to seeing more writeups in your feed.

  2. JS: Thanks, Jason. Maybe you can keep me honest. I only know Sakai from the POV of a teacher trying to use it, so I don’t claim to know everything about it. Let me know if I’m misrepresenting it.

  3. KC —
    I too am engaged on the Sakai project and have been since very early in the project and sit on the board. Welcome to the community!

    I think there is much truth to your critique of the usability and pedagogical challenges in Sakai. In fact you point out several critical issues that have been at the center of several discussions this past year. What you may not know is that there are two active groups working on both pedagogy and usability issues. One of the large UI efforts underway is to rethink the way that content is displayed and utilized within Sakai. Last year the board highlighted usability as its highest priority which included hiring a UX lead for the foundational staff.

    Given that you are now utilizing Sakai, it would be great to add your voice to these efforts.

  4. No, you’re not misrepresenting it. You’re offering a lucid and trenchant summary of the kinds of things the Sakai community itself is struggling with and laboring to overcome, while not enough development resources have been focused on these kinds of issues. That’s changing, but slowly, and so the critique is timely.

  5. Hi – I am the guy from the Video you mention :). Your points are all very well taken and your analysis makes a lot of sense – Moodle is a Learning Management System – Sakai is a Collaboration and Learning Environment. However for Sakai to be what it needs to be, we need to address all of the issues you raise so Sakai can get better. I am no longer the Sakai CEO guy – I am now a teacher myself using Sakai – so my perspective has shifted some what. I do find things I like about Sakai in my teaching style. I think that you hit the nail on the head about Moodle being about organizing and displaying “resources” as its view of the world. Being able to plop down a discussion where *you* want it as a teacher and then organize it the way *you* want as a teacher is missing in Sakai. I eagerly await your follow on posts.

  6. As an adjunct instructor I missed similar functionality when I went from teaching in WebCT Vista to Sakai. In WebCT Vista it’s a bit easier to present a learning module to students that contains a packaged set of links to readings, discussions, quizzes, etc. Hopefully, similar packaging tools will be incorporated into future Sakai releases. All this said, this lack of packaging hasn’t had a significant impact on the quality of my online teaching: I get similar student evaluations whether I teach in Sakai or WebCT.

  7. LF: On the issue of organizing material, I should say that Sakai *does* have that “Modules” feature, but I frankly haven’t tried to use it because it looks really cumbersome to me. I’ve seen other peoples’ modules, though, and they still look really buried and counter-intuitive to me.

    Whether it’s better than WebCT, I can’t say. At my previous institution, a group of us started using Moodle precisely because we didn’t like our university’s port of WebCT. We actually had our own Moodle server going for a while.

  8. I don’t want to take anything away from the arguments, which are well put, but one of the motivations that led to putting Wiki in Sakai was that even ‘week’, ‘theme’ or ‘unit’ _could_ be construed as constraints. Some faculty relish the flexibility of organising files, discussion threads, etc. at will and have assembled some very creative sites.

    We plan to incorporate our learning from this into future developments that are also influenced by newer trends such as OpenSocial. Do you feel able to share more about the sort of teaching you are doing? Class size, typical materials, course elements? and what (if anything) you wanted to do with Moodle that was difficult?

  9. JN: Oh, that’s a good question. I’ll try to write about context in a future post, but for now I’ll mention that I teach small, writing-intensive courses, typically capped at 25 students. It’s possible that Moodle just fits this context better than it would a 400+ lecture, but I don’t know.

    I should also mention that my courses are kind of “hybrid,” in that we’re using Sakai/Moodle both in class (in a computer lab) and outside of it.

  10. I’ll comment as someone who used Moodle as an instructor in “hybrid” courses like KC refers to, in online-only courses for a distance learning Masters program, and now Sakai in “hybrid” courses at my new institution. I’ve figured out how to use the module thing for organizing stuff on a weekly basis, and it’s okay, but not nearly as intuitive or easy as the Moodle organization. And I can honestly say that I would be scared to death to use Sakai (our campus version anyway) in an online-only class. One of the great things about Moodle for online-only is that, from the student perspective, where to find anything one might need for any given week is completely intuitive. This is really invaluable when you are talking about online classes that have no synchronous face-to-face meetings where the instructor can clarify where to find resources, where to post responses, etc. Before I started using Moodle for online teaching (before, we were using Blackboard), I was constantly flooded with emails from students who were lost in the course architecture and wondering where to find things and what was due when. After we switched to Moodle, these questions all but disappeared. Now I’m using Sakai, and my face-to-face students don’t know where to find things, so I would never want to try it with online-only. What will I do if my department decides to offer online courses? Pay for my own Moodle hosting, probably. *sigh*

  11. KC – Well, at least we’ve hopefully shown that the Sakai community all seems to:

    1) care passionately about developing the best tool for learning and collaboration we can


    2) All subscribe to the same Google keyword searches 🙂

    I would strongly encourage you to join in (or lead) discussion around how we can learn from other platforms on the Teaching & Learning Discussion Group (

  12. I’m a philosophy professor who has taught in Blackboard/Vista and who am now teaching a pilot class in Moodle. I must say that I never missed an LMS as much as I do now. Moodle’s message system is an absolute joke, it only allows you to upload one file at a time, it’s aesthetically displeasing, and it doesn’t allow much flexibility in terms of how the main page is set up. I am desperately hoping that my university chooses not to adopt Moodle, but instead opts for Angel, Sakai, or Blackboard.


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