open & distance learning

reflections and ideas on open and distance learning

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The challenge of OER

OER definitions vary greatly, but there are themes. The original UNESCO definition from 2002 (just celebrating its 10th anniversary!) includes ready access to educational resources, enabled by information and communication technologies. Other definitions emphasize other aspects such as the famous 4 Rs (reuse -redistribute-revise-remix), open licensing, and tools for interaction and collaboration. Elements can include full courses and components, textbooks, media, tests, and software as well as tools needed to access and reuse them. One proposed model supports courses delivered as a type of textbook that is based on self-study without a human instructor, with the use of automated support and feedback, quiz marking, and other bot-type support systems. When you add all these ideas together (and there are many more), the project becomes huge and can in fact overwhelm both the providing institutions and the re-using institutions.

It’s well known that there is a rising flood of openly available course material out there – the litany of providers read not be repeated here. But now the question arises: to what extent are OER (and specifically full courses) being created for the institutions’ existing learners, programs and other contexts, and alternatively how many are being developed to meet criteria for the various aspects of OER as described in some of the definitions? How open are they in the wider sense? For instance, are they accessible in their latest versions? Are the source files available? Is all the copyright information available for the resources used? Are the referenced texts open, or at least current? Are pieces of the course (e.g. forum discussion topics, quizzes, activities) freely available, not locked up in LMSs? Is the course in a transferable format, rather than trapped in presentation or PDF files, or in classroom capture videos with references such as “make sure you hand in your essays by Friday” or other highly localized references? Are source files available for media and can it be assumed that the re-users have access to the tools to revise them if necessary? Does the course avoid embedded language throughout referencing the existence of markers, instructors, and peers? Are marking grids and rubrics available? The answer is probably not – and for good reasons: it’s enough work producing courses for our own learners let alone create other versions for open provision. I’m pretty sure that very few of us can answer in the affirmative.

“Doing OER” is complex and hard work, but at the same time the concept is right and we need to keep doing it and learning and sharing as we go. Hopefully we’ll get it right, at least enough to start building new opportunities for so many learners worldwide for whom the words “open” and “education” are as far apart as the North and South poles.

Open Education Week – special event

Live Streamed Event: Designing and Assessing Engaging Learning Activities

In recognition of Open Education Week, Michelle Harrison and Melissa Jakubec from the Thompson Rivers University, Open Learning Instructional Design team will discuss their research on designing and evaluating engaging learning activities in the online environment.

As part of their departmental goal to develop learning experiences that are engaging and meaningful to students who are working in a distance learning environment, they have undertaken a research project to: (1) Create a set of promising learning design patterns that work in the organizational context and (2) Develop a methodology to evaluate learning activity designs/patterns so that they can be improved.

This presentation will describe their research context and learning design, results of early workshops and focus groups with instructional designers about learning activities, and survey results from learners on the effectiveness of learning activities in online courses. They will also describe their proposed methodology to help evaluate learning activity effectiveness and course designs at Open Learning and will relate this to research activity that could be done in blended or face-to-face environments.

There will also be an opportunity for live chat questions and comments.
Time: 11:30 AM Pacific time (UTC-8)

Caution: Open course developers at play

Much has happened at the OERu since the formal launch meeting in November. In the open curriculum project, a series of public consultations through the SCOPE forum at BC Campus and subsequent discussions among partners have led to the selection of eight prototype courses for initial development. In order to support the open development and design stages, two online workshops were recently conducted through WikiEducator, OERu’s virtual home. The courses provided hands-on practice and experience with Creative Commons licensing, and with developing and formatting content in WikiEducator. The purpose of going though these steps is building capacity among partners and supporters in setting up prototype courses in an entirely open environment. We were fortunate to have leaders of such reputation as Cable Green of Creative Commons and Wayne Mackintosh of the Open Educational Resource Foundation.

WikiEducator provides the ability to revert, fork into different versions and collaborate in various ways in content development. And of course good coders can go under the hood and do a whole lot more. However, there are some helpful tools anyone can learn such as simple pedagogical templates, mechanisms for importing and/or creating Creative Commons licenses, and an Open Office plug-in that permits the export of basic document formatting properties into WikiEducator syntax. At present the LMS is always available for delivering the content extracted from the wiki, but a flame of hope continues to burn that we can either make better LMSs or move beyond them in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime we make do.

Equally interesting are emerging discussions and proposed models around learning design factors for open pedagogy. This is the next big challenge. While open and distance education has a long track record of practice in independent study, the past 20 years of collaborative and networked learning concepts and practices confront real challenges in the face of the “lonely” distance learner working through open courseware. Support networks of peers as well as potential volunteers and mentors are on the radar as well other creative ideas.

There are many challenges to “open,” not only legal but also in terms of technical issues as well as deeply embedded concepts of quality and governance in higher education that deserve careful consideration and dialog. We have much to learn from the free and open source software movement in terms of building powerful and sustainable communities around major projects.

A little over a decade ago, Eric Raymond wrote in The Cathedal and the Bazaar, “It may well turn out that one of the most important effects of open source’s success will be to teach us that play is the most economically efficient mode of creative work.” So far the work of OERu does feel like play, and if having fun is a good thing – then we’re not doing too badly!

Unwrapping the OER package in 2012

#oeru In one of the highlights of 2011 for me, I had the privilege of attending a two-day meeting at Otego Polytechnic in Dunedin, New Zealand to participate in formalizing plans for implementation of the Open Education Resource University (OERu). The meeting was attended by representatives of 13 tertiary educational institutions from around the world and 2 non-teaching institutions, together known as Anchor Partners. The Canadian partners attending were Athabasca University and Thompson Rivers University (where I work).

In addition, there were 148 registered virtual participants from 41 countries participating through live video feeds and microblogs, as well as others who were unregistered. Planned by the OERu Foundation in New Zealand and BC Campus in Canada, and sponsored by the Commonwealth of Learning and UNESCO, Pacific States, the goal of the meeting was to outline the first steps in the implementation of an OERu concept that had been incubating in various forms over the past few years. An earlier meeting in February 2011 had established the foundational concepts and “logic model” for the OERu, with preceding public discussions and consultations with the higher education community worldwide including open seminars conducted on BC Campus’s SCOPE site (SCOPE, 2011). The underlying reason for the establishment of the OERu was the expanding world of open educational resources (OER). The Open Education Resource University (OERu) foundation, a not-for-profit entity, was established to assemble a consortium of universities that could support and accredit learning undertaken through OER courses. That is, they determined to make low-cost education and credentials available to learners worldwide by contributing their own OER courses as well as repurposing other OER. This “parallel learning universe” (from Jim Taylor, 2007) was established on a logic model based on collaboration among partner universities; i.e., the provision of education institution services and support infrastructures.

The establishment of the OERu signifies a shift in the focus of OER from only content to include processes, both in the repurposing of OER as well as in the support mechanisms undergirding the learners’ engagement with the OER. While many OER are in essence publishing initiatives (although this is beginning to change, e.g. MIT), the OERu is focused on the multiple processes associated with online learning at the university level. The processes include curriculum planning, course design and development, pedagogy, student support, assessment and credentialing. Supporting these processes are community service by institutions and volunteers, new business models for OER education, technology infrastructure and student administration.

The OERu is not in itself a university. Rather, the intent is to build collaboratively, among the Anchor Partner institutions and others, a system of access to free open educational resources in the form of courses and programs offered through the university network, alongside possible user-pay optional services provided by the institutions including tutoring, accreditation and assessment of learning, and credible credentials. The OERu Foundation is structured not to provide courses or develop and administer educational policies. Instead, out of consideration for institutional autonomy, the OERu facilitates the collaboration of Anchor Partners and other participants in contributing their own open education resources as well as other available OERs, along with the application of their own internal educational policies in their interactions with the partnership and participating students who engage with their own universities. Thus it acquired the mantra of a “parallel learning universe” in that it was intended not to replace any of the functions of the partners, but rather to form a collaboration that would work alongside them and in which they can each engage to the extent and in the manner that works best for the individual institutions (Wikieducator, 2011). The seminal parallel learning universe concept was outlined in a paper by Jim Taylor (2007), citing recent studies that indicated a massive growth in the need for higher education worldwide, to the extent that two new universities a week would be needed just to satisfy the need in India alone. The increasing availability of free courseware online worldwide was seen as a vital key to improved access to higher education worldwide.

What does the new year hold for OERu? How will it play out? The model is still emergent and it could go many different ways. I for one am keen to see how this plays out and will provide updates here.

Sweet convergence

There is a sweet scent of convergence in the wind, although the connections haven’t really been stitched together yet—at least not as far as I can see. But there is an underlying pattern of currents that, sooner or later, need to merge into something new and improved for making more learning opportunities available to more people in more ways—which means breaking down those many barriers and silos we all seem to love to create, nourish and defend in higher education. These thoughts emerged during discussions at the CONVERGE-EFQUEL 2011 conference in Lisbon, Portugal.

First, open content is boundless in its availability. It’s wonderful and it’s a mess. But we can’t not do anything about that as educators. More on that later. Next, alternative forms of credit and accreditation that can be given to other forms of learning than that gained in the standard university environment: Discussions that took place on outcomes-based learning made it clear that outcomes approaches are vital to moving beyond content- and credit-driven systems of recognition of learning. Third, user-generated content is receiving growing attention—i.e. content that is developed by students in a wide variety of courses and other learning contexts in such socially-shared areas as blogs and micro blogs, journals, podcasts, social bookmarks, wikis, shared videos and photographs, and many other formats—content of sufficient value that it could form content to be used by other learners. The pool is growing and increasingly we see learning communities consisting of instructor-developer-learner partnerships. Fourth is movements in quality that is defined by fitness for purpose and appropriatness for context; i.e. quality not as an “objective characteristic of a learning resource or a service, but … constituted as a specific characteristic of a context which in turn is made up through the realities of the personal, organizational, social and structural interactions of the stakeholders involved” (Thomas Kretschmer at the CONCEDE – EFQUEL2011 conference in Lisbon). There’s more–we have concepts of learning interactions that proceed on the following hierarchy: data-information-knowledge-wisdom-transformation (Steve Wheeler at the same conference), reminding us that content (data and information) is only the beginning. Up to data and information, scouring the Web is very much up to the task for learner. Building up towards knowledge begins to occur when there are reliable guides available or open courses with inbuilt pedagogical interactions. But when it comes to wisdom and transformation – the praxis of both knowing and doing – that is where higher education can continue to excel, if the convergence is allowed to continue and learning extends beyond the classroom and reaches into the world around us.
That brings us back to OER, the discussion and practice around Open Educational Resources and how they can be developed, discovered, used and revised. There is nothing new in the concept — but with the development of the Open Education Resources university (OERu), there is now a core of committed institutions (including, happily, mine) seeking to contribute a core of OER-based courses toward a coherent combination culminating at the degree level. This is wonderful news, especially for learners in countries that desperately need more higher education but can’t afford it. But to make it fly, we need to find the will and way to continue the convergence.

Instructional designers on instructional design

It was extremely interesting to sit in on a group of instructional designers at a brainstorming session hosted by UBC’s Centre for Teaching and Learning a few weeks ago. Discussion themes centred on instructional design and included innovation and creativity; Web 2.0. and social media; mobile learning; learning environments outside of structured courses; and the future of instructional design.

This was obviously going to be pretty open ended discussion, with no beginning and no end. My impression is that trying to nail things down is a little like trying to survey buildings under construction while perched on the roof of a passing train where the track is being built just in time in front of the train—and no-one has the plans for any of this. Universities are under huge pressure to change, adapt and reinvent themselves out of an age-old tradition where the badges of success are still largely based on narrow definitions of learning and scholarship. Teaching is challenged by the massive influx into the classrooms of mobile devices that can confound the standard model of educational delivery. Distance education and e-learning are swamped with the potential of new tools, social networking and mobile devices. Enterprise systems retain their distinction as lumbering behemoths sucking in all light, energy and sound, and learning management systems keep swirling around the periphery looking for some way to land. Alongside, the very real issues of privacy and copyright legislation in a digital, post 911 era are just beginning to rear up into challenges so big they have the potential to block out the sun.

And yet…who isn’t having some fun with all this! It’s our job to stay with it – keep learning, testing, experimenting and in many cases muddling along to the best of our abilities. Further, we need our own communities of practice to keep us balanced, on track and maybe even sane. I think Tony Bates nailed it with this magnificent wrap-up of the session: “All these problems were solved in the pub after the meeting, but unfortunately no record was kept.”

Data Soup: A Recipe

Tony Hirst of the Open University pretty much left us all with our jaws on the floor as he romped through a variety of methods to pull, claw, scrape, coax, tease and otherwise harvest structured and unstructured data from such varied sources as PDFs, APIs, HTML tables and other screen-scrapable pages, CSVs and other utilities – in a presentation at the Banff Learning Analytics conference – #LAK11. The data is imported/mashed up into Google Spreadsheets. It is cleansed to be consistent and comparable, and then queried, analyzed and visualized. As Tony put it: you then have a “conversation with the data.”

That is a nicely humanizing concept, a cherry on the cake of a home-made and ingenious approach to making a tasty soup from a handful of leftovers and wilted vegetables in the crisper. Assuming that the world will continue to be a messy place for a long, long time, we don’t have to wait for perfect IT systems and teams, along with a semantic web, to do some interesting and creative work in data analysis.

Eye Movement Tracking and Hermeneutics

Who would have foreseen discussions of both hermeneutics and eye movement tracking technology in the classroom at the same conference? It was quite interesting to see this seemingly incongruous blend of concepts presented in the context of learning analytics. Both emerged at the Banff Learning Analytics #LAK11 conference over the past weekend.

Michael Atkinson and David Wiley noted the “impoverished vocabulary” of clicks and key presses and cautioned against a reductionistic understanding of decontextualized information tracked in an online learning environment. For example, a photograph of a student reading a book provides an everyday understanding as to the learner’s engagement in the reading activity – as compared to “time on task” proxied in page visit data online. On another track, Ravi Vatrapu described a fascinating project by the EU-funded Next-Tell project set up to apply an evidence-centered methodology to build a mind-numbing number of models around student learning in a classroom situation. He noted that 4th-generation eye movement tracking was envisioned as part of the data gathering process.

Both quite fascinating – the science and hermeneutics of learning analytics. Ethicists and more broadly philosophers need not fear – there is plenty of work ahead.

LAK11 conference on Learning Analytics: The Data Science Team

The first day of this most interesting and probably seminal (for higher education) conference ended with George Siemens leading a discussion and brainstorming session on what it takes to make up an effective “data science” team within a higher education context. Initial proposals included a stakeholder, who defines the problem or question(s) to be addressed; the data scientist, who is able to manage the way in which different systems work together at a higher level; the programmer, who writes the query; the statistician, who analyzes the data; and, interestingly, the “visualizer,” who is able to portray the data in a way that communicates the key areas of interest. As the discussion developed, additional ideas from participants were thrown into the mix. For example, the team could include the following roles, functions or persons:
A “champion” must ensure this capacity operates as an ongoing strategic resource, rather than as an ad-hoc system only. There is a bridging function – connecting the different specialties, experts or departments to internal and external stakeholders. A project manager needs to pull all this together. And it continues to expand. For example what is the role of faculty—which academic communities are represented along with which other services? Who ensures the quality of data? IT is an obvious resource in this – but do they have the time and resources to give it priority? Do things change when the process moves to the Cloud? Ethics and privacy become critical concerns and can rapidly become a showstopper.
And of course: how does the information get folded back into a process of improvement – e.g. to faculty and instructional designers, among others? That is probably the key question in the end.

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” ( 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” ( 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 ( 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

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 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 An interesting presentation of IMS metadata as applicable in mathematics can be found at

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; see 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 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?…). The BC Educational Technology User Group is supported by the Centre for Curriculum, Transfer and Technology

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