The Sakai PDA portal

November 20, 2008

Sakai has a portal for small devices since 2.4. It is pretty bare bones but it does several neat things:

  1. it flattens the tool/site hierarchy so that they can coexist in the same breadcrumb
  2. it serves up an iframeless experience
  3. it elides many elements from the portal that would be noise in a small screen

Am working on several improvements to it for Sakai 2.7  under SAK-14827 and we are testing it at Michigan. It has been a very instructive experience constraining things to the small screen. What follows is a description of the changes, some tools and techniques that were useful, and some  observations from the preliminary testing.

The main tool turned out to be an iTouch that Chuck Severance donated to the lab. I tried several emulators such as iPhoney, Apple’s iPhone Simulator that comes with the iPhone SDK but there was no substitute for the actual thing.

Initially all I had in mind was polishing the portal, taking into account the screen size and the input device (your finger!). The PDA portal is served via a single Velocity template file present at a specific URL, so there was no need to do device detection – if you are there, you are using  a PDA (or, if you want to use a PDA you should use that URL). In the future it would be nice to route that  user agent to that URL automatically.


The main complication was setting the viewport via the <meta /> tag. The official documentation is very telegraphic, but there is discussion about it. Eventually I settled on the following:

<meta name="viewport" content="width=device-width,
     user-scalable=yes,  initial-scale=1.0, maximum-scale=2.0"/>

The main issue here is font sizing after an portrait/landscape orientation change or after the user input zoom function takes place. Amazing to think that some people are using Javascript to detect the first.

The second task was to take all the styling references out of the template and out of the experimental portalstyles.css and create a CSS framework for the PDA. This entailed adding a pda.css + 3 images to each skin in the system, and querying in the template what was the skin in use per site.

Note: I have only checked into trunk the style sheets and images. The changes to the velocity template (pda.vm) and are being reviewed.

Now that the PDA portal was skinnable, it’s styles could be addressed via the CSS. The main preoccupations here were the following:

  1. font sizing
  2. adjusting padding/margins on links so that fingers of a moderate fatness could poke in the right place…
  3. curtailing horizontal spread

The results for the gateway pages and the site/tool pages are pretty good. Below with the University of Michigan skin, site navigation.


The tool navigation:


And an actual tool:


I have craftily selected a tool for the screen-shot that works very well in this medium: the calendar summary from the excellent folks at Universidade Fernando Pessoa. Other tools are less fortunate.

A fun thing was adding icons for bookmarks. Following this tutorial I created a handful in no time. The iPhone actually takes care of all the glitz effects (corners, glassy look).


And this is what the icon looks like in the “desktop”


And what the Sakai skin looks like:


Preliminary testing with the iTouch indicates some problem areas.

  1. Any tool that uses internal iframes is hosed.
  2. The browser detection identifies the iTouch as Safari, and serves it the default rich text editor, with it is unable to use – it should instead serve a plain text area.
  3. Cannot do attachments because the <input type=”file” /> is disabled in the iTouch.
  4. Not all tools render nicely, lots more to be done in this area.

RTL’g Sakai Tools

October 22, 2008

In order to create a skin for a RTL context we will be working in a the tool.css (so that we can override tool_base.css) of a new skin, named RTL. We will identify changes that need to be made, workarounds, failures to account for an RTL context in the tool design, etc.

If you are not very interested in the details  – the uncombed and disreputable skin is availiable here

If you want to know how we got to this and the shortcomings of this approach, read on.

We will begin with a simple tool view  – the Announcements list. What it looks like in a LTR context:

What the direction:rtl applied to .portletBody gets us. Am keeping the language as English.

Some nice things: the toolbar has been rearranged. The columns of the announcement table have been flipped correctly. Block elements are now flush right, such as the <h3>Announcements</h3>. The label of the view navigator select is not to the right of the select. The select itself is reoriented. The list paged lists, from right to left: “first page, previous page, next page, last page” correctly as the entire block has been flipped.

Some things that will need to be addressed: a) the pipes between the toolbar items look wacky and need to be aligned right; 2) the navigation panels need to be flipped ( a sad irony: if the layout of these and the toolbar  had been a table our work would be done); 3) the text direction of the cells inside the table needs to be adjusted.

The toolbar

Align the toolbar right. We will be working in the new rtl/tool.css):

.navIntraTool {
	text-align: right;

Add a border to the span child of the first list element:

/*special style for the first item, namely no border-left*/
.navIntraTool li.firstToolBarItem span{
	/*border:none;*/border-left:1px solid #ccc;

and take the border away from the last:

.navIntraTool li:last-child span{

Since the design of the toolbar did not take into account a RTL possibility we had to resort to a pseudo class to identify the last element. We will see this problem elsewhere.

The navigation panels

The layout of these is set in tool_base.css. We will override in rtl/tool.css:

	float: right;
	float: left;

The table list

/*skinned header of standard tab. data table*/
.listHier th, .listHier td{
	text-align: right !important;

The !important is needed to override the !important in tool_base.css – a bad decision that now needs to be dealt with.

The end result:

And in the target language:

Some issues remain with the navigation panels – reversing the floats did not exactly reverse the position, resulting in some inexplicable whitespace.  Someone help, please.

To recapitulate before we take on a more complex view of this tool: a) any series that identifies a first item also needs to identify the last; b) floats are not always totally reversible.

Forms and inputs

Some problems regarding the layout of the input, label and required marker troika. The orientation of the three is just not working due to floats. An example from create a new announcement.

So we rearrange the floats and display attributes, paddings, margins (if you are redoing an existing skin, look for some of these definitions elsewhere in the sheets if your results do not match):

.shorttext label{
.shorttext .reqStar{
.longtext label{
.longtext label .reqStar{


And in Arabic:

The other input types render correctly without any tweaking (this is also from create a new announcement):

While on the subject of inputs, the following is also needed if there is to be mixed RTL and LTR content:

input, textarea{
	unicode-bidi: override;
This opens an  additional level of embedding and overrides the Unicode character ordering, reordering the sequence to the value of the direction property. 

A quick glance over the core tools and it seems most rendering now is OK. There will be exceptions where the developer has been forced to apply sui generis layout or styles because of the paucity of the default styles. There will also need to be addressed – please leave some comments where that is the case, thanks!

Off hand – here are some locales that need more work because of these and other reasons:

  1. Filtering controls in Schedule list view.
  2. “Add” menu in Resources – text is misaligned.
  3. Certain icons are facing in the wrong direction – such as disclosure triangles. These will need to be replaced in the file system when they are inline images, or in the skin when pulled as background images.
  4. The FCK Editor – needs configuration – information on configuring the FCK Editor for RTL is here. There are language files for Arabic and Hebrew, Persian as well. Probably a lot of other stuff that a native speaker could figure out needs to be tweaked.
  5. Placement of icons inside certain blocks needs to be tweaked – see alertMessage etc. 

The uncombed and disreputable skin is avaliable here.

RTL’ng Sakai from portal to tools

October 20, 2008

Some things we left disheveled in a previous post about the RTL Sakai Portal, I will address these below. We are modifying a pre-existing portal in case this is useful to a context where the LTR and the RTL experiences need to coexist – then you can just modify the existing LTR portal skin. If the context is strictly RTL, you might be better off starting from scratch. I will provide a starter RTL skin at the end.

Site navigation

Some portal clean up: the pipes between site links still reflect a LTR orientation.

Change the location of the borders:

/*links to other sites*/
#siteLinkList a,#siteLinkList a:link,#siteLinkList a:visited{
    color: #fff;
    padding: 2px 6px 2px 4px;
    text-decoration: none;
    /*border-right: 1px solid #fff;*/border-left: 1px solid #fff;

and take borders away from the last link (which is the left-most one):

#siteLinkList li:last-child a{

Portlet titles

The portlet titles also need sorting, flip the floats and text directions :

.portletTitle .title{
	/*float: left;*/float: right;
.portletTitle .title a{
.portletTitle .action{
	/*text-align: right;*/text-align: left;

So now the direction is correct:


Presence also shows the old LRT orientation:

On the portal level – adjust the title:

   font-size: .7em;
   /*text-align: left;*/text-align: right;
   margin-left: .5em;

The presence list is inside of an iframe – and as such it is a tool, so it will be a useful segue to RTL’ng the tools. As with the portal we are adding the direction attribute to the first child of body (.portletBody).


This will get us a lot of LTR > RTL changes for free in all of the tool descendants as we will see later. Except in the presence list as that doc does not have a .portalBody wrapper!!! Since presence does not have a .portletBody we need to add direction attribute to the list itself and fiddle with the paddings:

/*below for "presence in chat" functionality*/
   font-size: .8em;
   list-style: none;
   margin: 0;
   /*padding-left: .1em*/padding-right: .1em;

.presenceList li {
    /*padding: 0 0 0 .7em;*/padding: 0 .7em 0 0;
    margin-bottom: .2em;

Looks better now:

The results this far:

Next post – the tools in all their glory.

Print previews on the cheap

August 22, 2008

1. Put this in the document (as well as a link to the jquery file).

<script type="text/javascript">

2. Put this in your external javascript:

function setupLinks(){
     var w =, 'printwindow', 'width=600,
     return false;

3. And this

function setupPrintPreview(){
  if ( == 'printwindow') {
   // all the settings below would need to be edited
    $('.portletBody *').css({
        color: '#000'
        padding: '1em',
        fontSize: '.85em'
    // provide a print link
    $("h3").append('a link with an
        'javascript:window.print()' href value);

In (1) we are calling a function (2) that bind the onclick event to any link with a class of ‘print-window’ – opening the current document in a named window. In (3) – if a window matches the given name, then massage the elements for the print medium, hide elements that were classed as ‘noPrint’ (formish things, whatever), and add a link with an ‘javascript:window.print()’ href value to the DOM.

The end. Lots of room for improvement, of course – the massaging would be done best by swapping the stylesheets, for example.

Corners of Sakai 2 – Skinning Site Types

June 28, 2008

The ability for an institution to configure their local Sakai instance with site types I think underexploited. Or maybe I do not know what people are doing with it. I show how to serve different look and feel for different site types using the same skin. But first – what is a site type?

Let’s say that your institution does not offer courses, but synergymnasiums, no seminars, but collaboratoriums, no discussion sections but hoedowns, etc. These choices can be presented to the user via configuration changes. But it goes beyond the name:  creation of different site types can be associated with different access level people. Maybe only administrators can create synergymnasiums, for example. Each site type also comes with a set of tools to choose from or forced to accept, and after 2.5.x, even with prebaked content into the bargain, etc. There is more to this that am aware of, but for our purposes here, the only thing that matters is that the site type is emitted as a class in the portal markup, allowing us to do different things to a portal depending on the site type. There are 3 spots where this happens:

In the portal masthead:

<div id="siteNavWrapper" class="workspace">
 <div id="mastHead">

In the site navigation block:

<div class="siteNavWrap workspace">
 <div id="siteNav">

and in the top most wrapping block of all site content:

<div id="container" class="workspace" >

This means that you can get at, via contextual selectors, to almost any element in the portal, and do different things to it based on the site type.

At the University of Michigan we have 5 significant site types: workspace, course, project, gradtools, and unspecified. Here is how the first three look like, using the same skin:

The user workspace:

The course site:

The project site:

Since a given user will go from workspace to project (at Michigan any user can create project sites) to course site it was important to make sure they were only subtly different – or different enough to help the user locate herself,  not different to force them to remap things between site types. This was done via color only – the color of the banner text (a background image of one of the children of the .mastHead block), the bottom border of the site navigation, the text of the site title, the text of the current tool, other things. The most radical difference was with the workspace banner text – we found our users needed that extra flag to discern between workspace and worksite.

You can take a look at the portal css of CTools if you would like. All of this is documented as well in the source documentation in the reference.

The remaining site type is the undeterminedSiteType – the default. That is literally the name of the class you need to address, or ignore but provide a css default for to take care of:

Since the default will be triggered when the site type is unspecified, and the only possible cases would be during errors (like Site Unavailable above) or admin type sites – where the stakes are high, the reddish color seemed warranted.

Anyways, this is all short on detail – but the documentation linked to above covers that pretty well.

A better select one or many

April 7, 2008

“Better” is an exaggeration. It may be that occasionally it is more appropriate.

At issue is presenting a control to the user where she can select one of many, or several of many. When the selection is fairly small (arbitrary at 7 items) – radio and checkbox groups are standard. But when the choice number goes over a certain number, there are various mechanisms to be seen, of which the most common are single select <select /> and multiple select <select /> – the problem is how to fit large number of choices into a cramped area.

This came up in the context of the Sakai Course Evaluation tool, where any number of question types need to be constructed and presented to the user. One of these questions, used in a Cambridge course evaluation, involved a really long list of choices.

Occasionally you might want a control that is a bit friendlier and stylable than a <select />. A colleague alerted me to:

Here is an example from C82:

Nice! The clickable area indicated by the dark green hover is created by the <label /> element, wrapping the <input /> and the text and set to display:block. The height and width of the top container (a <ul />) are fixed and the overflow:auto for the scroll.

There are three possible improvements to the excellent widget.

  1. Having the overflow and height attributes set only if the height goes over a certain number (template or system set) – so scrollbars appear after a certain height, and groups of less than that height size automatically.
  2. Having the “checked” attribute of the input reflected in the style of the parent label
  3. Having a message display of the “you have made x selections” or something like that.

Setting the scroll and height dynamically

The markup looks like this:

<ol class="multchoiceholder">
<label for="1">
<input value="1" name="1" id="1" type="checkbox">
<label for="2">
<input value="2" name="2" id="2" type="checkbox">

And the CSS is pretty much what the C82 article above is using, except no height is set for the container, allowing it to grow to fit the contents. To get the “intelligence” about the height I added jquery.js to the <head />

<script src="jquery.js" language="JavaScript" type="text/javascript">

And the following at the end of the document:

<script type="text/javascript">
if ($(this).height() > 180) {
// if ($(this).children("li").size()  >  9) {

This essentially adds the “oversize” class to the parent container if the parent container contents go over 180 pixels in height. This class, below, sets the height and the overflow that we need. I played around with counting the <li /> child nodes (commented above), but since a given list item could span multiple lines the pixel height seemed best.

border: 1px solid #ccc !important;
height: 12em !important;
overflow: auto !important

Using/Configuring the Sakai Rich Text Editor

March 22, 2008

The rich text editor in Sakai has a very hard row to hoe. It needs to be:

  1. invoked in the context of 6 view technologies (Velocity, JSF, SPRING/MVC/JSP, XSLT, RSF, Servlets, am sure am forgetting some!)
  2. configured to run plugins (Sakaibrary, Josh Ryan’s Entity Browser, etc.) or not
  3. stand being poked into a number of curious contexts, fulfilling any number of disparate purposes, from helping people write smallish blurbs, blog entries, full blown web pages, the Encyclopedia Galactica, etc.
  4. display in tight spaces, take over the whole screen, stuff in between…
  5. be any rich text editor – the tool invoking it need not know what rich text editor is being invoked – FCK, HTMLArea, TinyMCE, etc.

This is what it looks like at present (FCKEditor used as example below). This is default, when no parameters are specified it resolves to an editor area 600px wide, 400px tall, with the Default ToolbarSet.


In the Velocity tools the editor is invoked via a daisy chain of macros and templates. Unfortunately the only parameter that makes to the actual editor script is the id of the textarea being replaced. Am addressing that in SAK-13244.

Sakai tools that use Velocity will have the following in a template:

<textarea name="body" class="block" id="body"
  cols="65" rows="30" wrap="virtual">

The #chef_setupformattedtextarea macro lives in VM_chef_library.vm:

#macro (chef_setupformattedtextarea $textarea_id)
  ## setup wysiwyg editor
  #set($editor_path = "vm/editor/$!sakai_editor/sakai_body.vm")
  <!-- $editor_path -->
  <script type="text/javascript" defer="1">

and essentially uses a server variable ($!sakai_editor) to decide on the rich text editor that the installation is using, then calls a text editor specific template (vastly simplified below) that sets up some configuration values:

function chef_setupformattedtextarea(textarea_id){
  var oFCKeditor = new FCKeditor(textarea_id);
  oFCKeditor.BasePath = "#libraryLink("editor/FCKeditor/")";
  <snip />
  oFCKeditor.Width  = "600" ;
  oFCKeditor.Height = "400" ;
    = "#libraryLink("editor/FCKeditor/config.js")";
  oFCKeditor.ReplaceTextarea() ;

The thing to notice is that the only value passed along the chain is the id of the textarea in the template that will be replaced with the editor. What values would be minimally useful other than that? I decided arbitrarily that width, height and editor toolbar options would be the most useful. I wonder if this is true.

So now the calling template has:

#chef_setupformattedtextareaparams("description" "400"
  "600" "Default")

and the macro in VM_chef_library.vm reads:

#macro (chef_setupformattedtextareaparams $textarea_id
 $height $width $ToolBarSetChoice)
 <snip />
 <script type="text/javascript" defer="1">

Note that there is a new macro involved (chef_setupformattedtextareaparams). The old one (chef_setupformattedtextarea) expects one parameter only. Velocity macros cannot deal with missing parameters, so need 2, one macro that expets one parameter (the id of the textarea) and another that expects exactly four.

The template that drops the javascript onto the the template DOM is would use the paramenters if available and provide some defaults if not.

Height and width are pretty self explanatory, toolbar settings are trickier. FCKEditor allows for named bundles of toolbar functionality – out of the box is provides “Default,” “Attachments,” and “Basic.” To these I have added the following: “large”, “medium” and “small” described below. These names were adopted because they are the same as the ones used in the HTMLArea option. Since a given bundle has certain horizontal needs I indicate the width sweetspots for each.


365 px wide or more. This essentially is the FCK “Basic” plus some added functionality. The emphasis is on writing text, without too much block formatting (other than lists), and no non-textual elements. Suitable for comments, quick text entries, snippets of all types.



410px wide or more. Is like small + links to word processing like functionality (copy, paste, undo, search) as well as embedding,linking and extended formatting options.


At 410 it will display 5 rows in the toolbar, at 500px will display 4 and at 600 it will display 3. Essentially the FCK “Default” minus some functionality and rearranged somewhat for more width elasticity.



Same set of options as large but toolbar will fit in small areas – 380px wide, for example.

The choices above can be seen as arbitrary. I will try to get feedback on them. Ideally the user could swap between choices, but at the very least we can provide some useful defaults.

Next – invoking and configuring the editor in JSF, as well as the problem of multiple parameter types for some options such as the toolbar options in various editors.

JSF invocation

There are 2 tags available. <sakai:inputRichText /> and <sakai:rich_text_area />.


presentation parameters: width, height (integers, in pixels), cols, rows (integers – some conversion to actual height and width takes place in the tag), toolbarButtonRows (integers, or string – in the later case it is a named set of buttons sets: “small”, “medium”,”large” and “largecompressed” )


presentation parameters: width, height (integers – in pixels), cols, rows (integers – some conversion to actual height and width takes place in the tag), buttonSet (string – the values are “small”, “medium”,”large” and “largecompressed”)