A ride on the Wayback Machine

This is a temporary diversion. I went to the Wayback Machine to dig up an old series I wrote back in 1999 on a British Columbia higher education listserv (remember those?). I add it here for historical interest only. Feel more than free to ignore it.

Instructional Management System Standards
by Irwin DeVries (posted on the BC Educational Technology User Group Listserv Fall 1999)


This posting is the first part of a discussion on the emerging Instructional Management System (IMS) standards for online education and learning. There will be 4 parts in total, intended as discussion starters.

Part 1 introduces the concept of online education and learning standards; Part 2 will explore what a digital world with online education and learning standards might–or might not–look like; and Part 3 will provide a general overview of the technologies that could underlie standards. Finally, Part 4 will collect information gathered from the discussion with a view to identifying possible approaches to online education and learning standards within the BC postsecondary system.


Although it is becoming an increasingly important medium for education, the Internet is still in a state of near chaos. For course developers, finding online digital resources requires combing through vast masses of irrelevant data. Once resources are located, determining validity, ownership and other important information is almost impossible.

For learners, finding appropriate learning opportunities is at the very best a highly hit-and-miss proposition. (Ever try to find a course on something specific on the Internet? Good luck!) For administrators, connecting online courses and tests with student record systems is a logistical headache.

All of us involved in online education and learning are making do with a bad situation. At the bottom of this problem lies a serious lack of standards–standards for finding and incorporating pieces of the vast, sadly underutilized resources available in the digital world; standards for interoperability of different course development and delivery and student management systems; and standards for classifying, cataloging and locating learning opportunities on the Internet. It would not be difficult to think of things to add to this list.”Educom Review” describes educators’ efforts to date as “random acts of progress” (Vol. 34, No. 6, p. 33)–probably a fair characterization.

The IMS Cooperative is the child of Educause, “…an international, nonprofit association whose mission is to help shape and enable transformational change in higher education through the introduction, use, and management of information resources and technologies in teaching, learning, scholarship, research, and institutional management” (http://www.educause.edu/cm/cm.html). IMS was established specifically to create standards for online teaching and learning systems. The intended beneficiaries of the standards include students, educators, content developers, educational institutions and businesses that provide learning services and applications. Although this is not the only body that is proposing Internet standards (there are many), it is prominent in Internet-based education, and is recognized as such world-wide. IMS is working in collaboration with ARIADNE (Alliance of Remote Instructional Authoring and Distribution Networks for Europe), a European organization with similar goals; the AICC (Aviation Industry CBT Committee, probably the world’s largest CBT standards body); the W3C (the World Wide Web Committee, which governs standards for the Internet); the Dublin Core, a group that has developed well-known metadata standards for the Internet; and other significant agencies.

There are two levels of membership in IMS. The higher level is “Investment Members,” who have representation on the IMS Advisory Board and Technical Board. The qualifications to join this level are $150,000 US. “Investment members are able to influence the direction in which the IMS develops so that the vision that they have for their own internal development activities is consistent with the specifications” (http://www.imsproject.org/joinim.html). Investors include Apple, Asymmetrix, Blackboard, California State University, IBM, Macromedia, Microsoft, Oracle, Peoplesoft, Sun Microsystems, U.S. Department of Defense, and a bunch of other heavy hitters. (How would you like to be a fly on the wall at one of those meetings?)

The next level of membership is Developers, who pay $1,000 US and thereby may contribute to the technical specifications, experiment with prototypes, and receive access to a number of other benefits. This network includes a large number of colleges and universities as well as companies that have some involvement in online education and learning.

The next posting will go out in a few days. Until then, if this topic interests you, you may wish to check out the IMS website (http://www.imsproject.org). The FAQs for providers and developers are particularly helpful. What kinds of issues would you like to see included in this discussion? Do you have any experience with IMS or other, related standards? What initial questions come to mind? Please feel free to speak up!

Standards for Online Learning (Part Two).

You are building an online, second-year, three-credit horticulture course. You’ve completed your planning and are ready to begin developing and assembling resources. With a few keystrokes in a specialized search engine, you locate eight photographs of “Levisticum officinale,” along with the creators’ names, copyright notes and other key information. You then search for exam questions, and locate a number of item banks that you can acquire. With another search, you quickly collect a bibliography of online resources. You tag the ones you want, then auto-sort them according to your institution’s style sheet.

When you pull in pages of content that you might locate and repurpose, their original format is stripped out and replaced with yours, again with a few keystrokes. You decide to turn endnotes into footnotes and do this with a few clicks, and your course re-sorts. You create one link to a series of on-line resources, through which the learner can click in succession while remaining inside your course. Permissions are automatically forwarded to copyright agencies, which log the transactions and conduct the necessary “paperwork.” (How long is that word going to last?)
Widen out the lens a little…your colleagues are doing the same thing, thanks to your institution which is part of a province-wide cooperative that has negotiated the necessary arrangements with various copyright agencies (think of an e-comm CanCopy).

Beyond course development, with a simple transaction you can load the student records from your course into your institution’s student record system, and vice versa. And other faculty who prefer to use other course delivery programs can do the same. Every student who participates in online learning in this system has a “profile” which can be simply transferred from one system to another.

How did learners find this course in the first place? Simple…one, from Arizona, was looking for a 3-credit course that would fulfill an elective requirement in her agriculture degree program. She searched for a course and entered criteria for credit, level, and accreditation. Another, from Australia, had read your book and wanted to take a course from you as he was intrigued by your ideas and searched by your name. A third was a farmer in BC who was looking for resources on organic pest control, a key topic in your course, and searched for a course that provided west-coast-specific information. And bonus!–an organic products company in Washington state has requested rights to Unit 3 of your course, which they plan to repurpose into a user support website on their products. Each one of these was readily able to find you, your course, and detailed information about you and the course, by searching according to their own requirements.

“…you may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one…”
As several persons have already noted in this discussion, there are technological developments that can help move us toward this edutopia. These include the use of metadata and XML in the development of online course technology. But before we focus on the technology (something we technophiles tend to do too quickly), let’s back up a little and try get a sense of the bigger picture. (More about the technology in the next posting.)
There are two little creatures on my shoulders, one on each side. One has little horns and a pitchfork, and says something like this: “Hey, before we link arms, light candles and start swaying to the music, let’s get a dose of reality. Put down your bong for a minute and ask yourself, does Microsoft really want to be interoperable with Sun and Oracle? Is interoperability really a big issue for Blackboard, FirstClass and WebCT? Are Asymmetrix and Macromedia eager to see their products working with one another’s like Russian dolls? Perhaps IMS started out with the best of intentions, but will it turn out to be the equivalent of a Royal Commission, studying the problem indefinitely and writing white papers that no-one reads? Let’s remember there’s a war out there, and the name of the game is money and cyberworld domination. The way to succeed is to integrate with complementary technologies, not competitive ones. Stay proprietary. The winner gets to set the technologies. And hey, who cares who sets the standards, as long as there’s one dominant player who has all our best interests in mind… :>0 If you’ve followed IMS over the past few years, you’ve seen enough stops, starts, and drastic changes in direction that one has to wonder-what’s really steering it?”

The critter on the other shoulder strums an angry chord on its harp and fires a withering glare at the horned critter. “How are we going to improve the situation if you talk like that? This is a serious, credible effort to provide leadership. The best way to make it work is to get on board and do our part to support these efforts. The results may be some years away, but if we don’t start working at it now, the horned critter will get its way and then where will we be?”

Standards for Online Learning (Part Three)

Instructional Management Systems

IMS is been working on scope documents in three areas. First, IMS is developing specifications for “searching, digital packaging, and modularizing content with the goal that any content can run on any learning server.” The idea behind this, as described in the previous post, is that learning resources can be moved from one use or context to another and/or located with minimal difficulty. Second, IMS is working on specifications for recording learner progress through learning sequences that will enable the creation of “learner profiles” that can be imported from one platform to another. Third, IMS is developing specifications for the enterprise integration of learning servers, student record systems, content repositories and electronic commerce. IMS points out that these specifications would not interfere with the autonomy of software developers but would only guide the definition of certain core elements.

As you may have gathered, when speaking about the IMS we are looking at a small canoe paddling in a very large river. And it’s not the only canoe; there are others. We’re not talking the Swanee River here… No, think the Chilliwack River after two weeks of rain. Or think “Deliverance” …then again, maybe not…

However, in spite of the many currents, rapids and forks, there is some direction. This direction is XML, “eXtensible Markup Language” as developed by the W3C, the organization that sets technical standards for the World Wide Web. And metadata, as mentioned earlier, is an important current this river, particularly as it is being developed by the “Learning Objects Metadata” project by the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers). We’ll come back to this… But first a warning: in this post we are scratching one scratch on the surface of the surface. Digging into these matters is like peeling a gargantuan onion (even the tears part)–and the onion is still alive, growing and mutating day by day.

What is XML? It is a child of SGML, Standard Generalized Markup Language, which was approved in 1986 as an ISO standard. SGML is a not a markup language but, rather, is a meta-language, a framework for defining markup languages. (So why isn’t it called Standard Generalized Meta-markup Language? Your guess is as good as mine… this may seem a minor digression, but don’t feel bad if the plethora of acronyms in XML/SGML etc. gets you scratching your head. Tip: don’t buy a used car from anyone who says he or she is on top of it all.)

What, by the way is a markup language? To put it simply, it’s all the stuff behind the scenes that turns one huge jumble of words into a structured and formatted document. Ever wonder why importing documents from one word processing program to another requires specialized import tools, if you are fortunate enough to find one that will do the job (and don’t expect too much even then)? It’s because of proprietary document structuring and formatting. If developers of word processing software were to use XML and some related common standards to create their products, there would still be a variety of word processors each with unique look, feel and functionality, but the text created with their products could be freely imported and exported among the word processors and even reused in different ways. Better yet, documents created ten years ago in XML (or SGML, to avoid the anachronism) would still be accessible by today’s word processors with all that new power and functionality (and bugs) at your disposal. Rather than using proprietary methods for inserting structural and formatting commands into documents, each word processor would follow a common set of rules. A similar situation already exists with databases; most modern databases have proprietary features such as interface design, navigational structure, and querying functions. However, the data can be sorted and presented countless ways, it can be queried in a systematic manner, and it remains readily available to be transferred to another proprietary database, loaded into a graphics program to create charts and tables, or posted on a web page. The most important feature, then, is that the content is separate from the structure: the data can be freed from its container to be manipulated and repurposed.

XML was developed mainly as an answer to the limitations of HTML. Like those word processors we complained about earlier, HTML mixes up markup with content and thus creates documents that are limited in their functionality and transportability.
For instance, HTML mixes markup tags with structural tags such as those for bold type, with those for headings. The difference between these two types of tags is the first specifies how the text will appear (boldface), whereas the second specifies a structural component (a heading) of the document (oddly enough, it also includes a font size specification). Whether the heading is “Learning Objective,” “Quiz” or “Bibliography,” in HTML it is indistinguishable from any other content; the only thing in common may be the bracketing of the tag. Using XML, however, one could define , or tags as structural components of the document, and the content that would appear underneath these would be independent of any other markup. One could set up a related “stylesheet” (XSL) that would specify what, for instance, a should look like in terms of formatting; a change to the XSL stylesheet would immediately affect all learning objectives. Documents created in this way are “structured”; that is, each component is clearly identified and tagged apart from its format. In terms of interoperability, one course delivery application could, if working to an agreed upon system, import learning objectives from another application AS learning objectives, not as chunks of undifferentiated text.

XML is not limited to documents; it can be used for a whole range of other functions such as electronic commerce or other types of transactions. As it is structured to be machine-readable, it can be used in applications that would be unthinkable with HTML.
The real strength of XML is its extensibility. XML is a meta-markup language. Whereas HTML is a fixed set of tags (you take what they give you), XML permits an author, a group or an agency to define a unique structure, its elements and the tags that go with it, as long as certain rules are followed. These definitions are called schemas (schemata if you want to be picky).

Ok, so we have all these nicely structured documents or other resources distributed throughout the digital world. How do we find them? Now we’re getting to metadata. A companion to XML, metadata (“data about data” ) is used to describe resources in a systematic way, much as a library catalogue or an address book does. Metadata itself can be structured with the use of XML. The metadata then gains all the functionality that XML documents have. Metadata bound to XML makes it possible to create search utilities that can search, sort and manipulate metadata in countless different ways.

As with XML, metadata itself can be structured in schemas, which brings us back to IMS. IMS has proposed a metadata schema that describes educational resources. These are a few of the elements described in the draft IMS metadata system: Title, Language, Keywords, Course, Student, Life Cycle, Version, Format, Size, Interactivity, Semantic Density (my personal favorite…), Age Range, Difficulty, Rights, Cost. There’s more; you can find the general schema at . IMS is working to build upon the metadata standards developed by IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers) using the IEEE Learning Objects Metadata Model http://ltsc.ieee.org/wg12/index.html.

As implied by the “river” metaphor, the development of metadata standards is still in state of flux. One of the results has been that there is at present (as far as I have been able to determine) no utility to locate and process (parse) XML-bound IMS metadata. It will probably be some time before we see something like this. IMS has made available, via Sun, a Java-based application for creating metadata. However, this is still in the early stages of development. Apart from that, only the most recent browsers are capable of parsing XML in any reliable way. Microsoft has established BizTalk, an XML implementation initiative. A group of others including IBM, Sun, Lotus, Apache and others, oddly suspicious of this magnanimous move towards “open source” technologies, is countering with their own initiative. (Would the history of Java have anything to do with this?)

Darcy Clark at the University of Michigan built his own learning object cataloging and search site at http://msewww2.engin.umich.edu:591/default.html. Although this is built with database rather than XML technology, it gives us an impressive glimpse into a possible future.
NEEDS uses a database, a SQL query structure and IMS metadata descriptors to provide learning resources for the engineering professions; see http://www.needs.org/engineering/info/about.html. An interesting presentation of IMS metadata as applicable in mathematics can be found at http://robby.orst.edu/papers/guide_v2/.

Telelearning (a component of Telecampus New Brunswick) completed a pilot project in which a number of institutions, including U. Vic., wrote IMS metadata definitions for a number of online courses; seehttp://courses.telecampus.edu/pilot.shtml. It should be noted that at this stage the metadata is human-readable only (in HTML) not-machine readable (i.e. in XML, able to be processed by a search engine).

C2T2 and OLA set up a website on structured information and called “Thinking about Metadata” at http://www.ola.bc.ca/sprcamp99/ as a discussion primer for the C2T2 1999 Spring Camp.

I’d like to start by thanking everyone who followed or contributed to this discussion. There have been some excellent contributions, in terms of both comments and questions. Like the River Jordan, the topic is deep and wide. The question now is…what next? Where do we go from here, if anywhere at all? So let’s begin with…

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That’s simple enough. The first question we might ask then is, Is it broke? The consensus appears to be clearly, Yes it’s broken. Locating and manipulating digital learning resources via the Internet is at present a chaotic enterprise. HTML is unsuitable for handling structured information. Online learning management systems are bound to rigid proprietary structures. We are still, figuratively speaking, hacking through the online learning jungle with machetes and mosquito nets. So we look for a…

Future generations (remember, Internet “generations” are measured in fruit fly years) of learning resource development tools could enable us to create XML-based structured learning resources using DTDs (Document Type Definitions) built by leaders in the education field (possibly discipline-specific). Building online learning resources could be a simple as plugging content into any one or a combination of model, modular (and easily adaptable) learning templates designed to support a range of pedagogical approaches, learning styles, content considerations and desired outcomes among other things. This could be an open source movement, or one or more dominant players could create such compelling, flexible proprietary tools that we wouldn’t need to worry about all this stuff any more.

Thanks to metadata, there will be improved methods for standardized identification and description of online learning resources, enabling their easy discovery and re-use. IMS and IEEE may develop a definitive learning objects metadata model. Tools to create, manage and discover resources could become ubiquitous.

As some have hinted in the discussion, although XML has been adopted as a W3C standard, dominant players in the Internet world may subvert moves toward open standards and create flavors of XML that work only with specific operating systems, browsers or suites. There are those who would like to simplify XML, as some developers believe it is too complex for 95% of the tasks it will be given. Others would like to incorporate more of the full functionality of SGML, XML’s parent language. Many of these issues lie outside the scope of individual and institutional course developers and possibly even to some extent outside the hands of the online learning management system developers.

At present only the latest browsers have properly functioning XML parsers. Tools for developing XML are not widespread. Beyond pools of technical specialists, there is not a widespread base of knowledge about XML, metadata and DTDs. The technology behind them is complex and rapidly changing. Many interests are seeking to influence these developments.

As for metadata, IMS standards are not final. Although IMS, along with such organizations as ARIADNE and AICC, is now basing its work on IEEE standards (Learning Objects Metadata Model) in order to secure a stronger foundation, early adopters of metadata standards at the local level will almost certainly need to struggle through numerous iterations down the road before things settle down. As with XML, there are no widespread tools for creation of metadata let alone compliant search utilities. And again, there is currently no widespread body of expertise in metadata, at least not in the education field.

Finally, lest we become too enthralled with the technical possibilities offered by new technologies, let’s be reminded they have only a “second order effect on the painful process of actually learning” (Jess H. Brewer, 2/12/99). McLuhan aside, this rings very true! Perhaps there is a fork down the road: one way leads to a technology that supports (not supplants!) flexible, dynamic and creative learning design and the building of learning communities; the other leads to a meaningless proliferation of decontextualized learning (read “market”) objects, dissociated from any meaningful dialogue with a learning community. Of course these are extremes, but are they not both very real possibilities? These are not just technical matters; they involve our educational vision…let’s keep our eyes open to the bigger issues.

Several people in this discussion asked whether we should become involved in some way with these developments. Alan Cooper (1/12/99) pointed out three possible areas of involvement for us: awareness, adaptation and influence. These three areas probably best encapsulate the things we can do to move ahead.

Awareness: As we’ve seen during this discussion, members of this list have a wide-ranging network of contacts and other information sources; let’s keep the information rolling in! A list of XML and metadata resources could possibly be added to the C2T2 website (gee it’s easy suggesting work for other people). Perhaps we can learn more about the pioneering work that OLA is doing using XML/SMGL, DTDs and metadata. More and more conferences are including these topics in their lineups. Awareness is the starting point for action.

Adaptation: Although it would be premature if not impossible to undertake a full scale adoption of these technologies at this time, a certain amount of adaptation might help us move forward in our understanding of, and preparation for, their potential. As a system we could perhaps take on one or more model or testbed projects. For instance (more work for others again…), metadata could be incorporated into the DLCD (Distributed Learning Course Directory) or portions of it, with an interim search capacity until better tools come along. Even if we don’t have IMS or other advanced search tools yet, we’ve seen examples of reasonable facsimiles using database queries or other homemade search tools. The OER (Online Educational Resources) project could be a good foundation for further research into XML and metadata issues. Perhaps IMS student profiling standards need to be studied by an agency such as CEISS. We also need talk to our librarians about their role in metadata–after all, they are the cataloguing and classification professionals. Perhaps we can work with their professional groups to advance our understanding of and preparation for metadata adoption in BC.

Influence: Do we want some influence in the development of metadata standards? Could C2T2 or another representative organization in BC take the lead in this area, perhaps becoming part of the IMS cooperative and seeking input from the rest of the system? These are issues we can continue to explore.

Again, thanks everyone for your participation. This is a great list and I look forward to many more fruitful discussions in the new millennium (I know, it’s not really a new millennium, but when the big odometer of time turns four numbers at once, what can you say?…).

http://www.jibc.bc.ca The BC Educational Technology User Group is supported by the Centre for Curriculum, Transfer and Technology

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