Using Sakai to improve Knowledge Engineering conduits between government agencies, SMEs and academics

Thanks to Rob Crouchley (Lancaster University) and Rob Allen (STFC) for this article.

Collaborative Research in Business (CRIB) project is a UK Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) funded project examining Knowledge Engineering conduits between government agencies entrepreneurs of Small and Medium sized Enterprises (SMEs) and academics. Central to the CRIB project was to build web based social networking tools into the existing Sakai Collaboration and Learning Environment; to harness the power of social networking but minimizing the risk associated with public social nets, such as Facebook.

It is interesting to look at the way that the community uses some of Sakai’s collaboration tools and what they might do if the tool were not available.

Announcement: used to post announcements to work site members. An e-mail notification can be sent. An e-mail list server could be used as an alternative to this and the Mailtool described below. In the UK, JISCMail is available for academic users and MailTalk for commercial users, both of which also archive mail. A local server could be set up instead.

Chat Room: on-line chat facility internal to Sakai for site members to hold impromptu discussions. Content is archived. Other internet chat facilities could be used instead. We note that BigBlueButton contains a separate chat channel for background discussions during on-line meetings.

Discussions: threaded discussion forum tool. An e-mail notification can be sent when a thread is updated. Users can opt out or receive digests. A separate forum tool could be used.

Mailtool: used as a list server to send e-mail to community work site members. Mails are archived. See comment about alternative mail list servers above. Projects which do not use a list server with archival facilities tend to send large numbers of individual e-mails, the content of which are scattered among project members and other partners. There is no consistent thread of information and no possibility of knowledge management based on this so called “grey literature”.

Meetings: BigBlueButton audio visual conferencing tool. This is now integrated with Sakai enabling meetings to be scheduled for work site members. Other tools could be used, e.g. Evo (for academic use), Skype, or regular telephone conferences. We note that AccessGrid has been widely used by the academic e-Science research community. Whilst there is a portal interface to this, portable access grid (PAG), it is currently not integrated with Sakai.

People (aka Roster): used for sharing information between community members. Shows all people on a work site and links to their published profiles, it also provides a quick way to find how to contact people directly. Alternatives might include FaceBook, LinkedIn, or a variety of social network tools deployed for specific purposes. We note that many of these will also contain blogs and other functionality for sharing information.

Profile: used to publish information about yourself, both work related and personal. Users can control which information is visible to other users. They can search by interest and connect to people across all Sakai sites to form networks.

Resources: shared folders for work site members to post documents and links. An e-mail notification can be sent when a resource is added or changed. Whilst there are public Web 2.0 sites for sharing specific resources like photos (Flickr) and video material (YouTube) we have found few usable alternatives to the general purpose Sakai Resources tool. Google Docs can be used to collaborate on document writing. DropBox might be another possibility. We note that, by default, documents in Sakai are stored in the data base. For large binary documents, such as the CAD drawings mentioned above, it is possible to configure Sakai to store them in a separate file space.

Search: used to perform a key word search across all work site content. Returns a list of items and a tag cloud. There would be no simple way to search across multiple external Web 2.0 tools even if social networking standards like OAuth are used.

Web Content: used to put up links to important Web sites for the community. Here these include Business Link NorthWest, NorthWest Development Agency, e-Science Training and Help pages and a Facilitator Form which are all hosted externally. These links can be useful in the facilitation process.

Wiki: A Radeox based Wiki private to the work site for members to collaboration on document development. Can link to images and documents in Resources. Also widely used to record meetings, monitoring development status, etc. There are many external Wiki tools maintained for different purposes.


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