reflections and ideas on open and distance learning - by irwin devries

Tag: Educational Technology

Another click on the wall

What to do when your technology fails in the classroom? This was a student teacher’s question submitted for our weekly online forum. The ensuing discussion was robust, with many examples shared. When the projector broke down in an elementary class, a pupil in the class had suggested the perplexed teacher sing the fun-dance action song that was intended to be played, and the pupils could act along. In another case a teacher decided make animal noises to compensate for failed sound clips; another played charades. When a Smart Board broke down, the pupils proclaimed “The Smart Board isn’t very smart today.” Smart pupils! There were many wonderful and creative examples. In some cases I think the workarounds were as good as, or better than, the technology-supported versions.

Below is a list of some lessons gleaned and summarized from this class’s collective practicum experiences and workarounds shared in the online forum. Inspired by a session offered by BCcampus’s Amanda Coolidge, there was interest in the class to share helpful products developed in the class with a CC license. I’ve named this one Another Click on the Wall, and I hope others will not only find it useful in their teaching-with-ed-tech practice, but also 5R it for others as well. (It should be copy-and-pasteable from the text below.) This project brings to mind discourses around “pedagogies of failure” but that’s for another time.

And here are some accompanying lyrics, which may be sung to this fairly recognizable tune:

We don’t need no applications
We don’t need remote controls
No dark projectors in the classroom
Teacher leave them vids alone
Hey! Teacher! Leave them vids alone.
All in all it’s just another click on the wall

Another Click on the Wall

Classroom technology fails and bails

Creative Commons License
By the students of EDIT 4150 TRU, Spring 2018 class. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Tip 1: When something breaks down and you can’t fix it, explain the intent of the activity to the students and let them suggest alternatives.

Tip 2: Don’t be afraid to step out and try something different when you’re stuck. It may be risky but students will appreciate your efforts, especially if you can maintain a sense of humour about it.

Tip 3: Check everything – technology, connections, accounts, passwords, permissions – ahead of time to make sure everything is working.

Tip 4: Learn from accidents – e.g. sometimes students will listen more closely if the volume of a video is lower even if it wasn’t originally intended that way.

Tip 5: Think on your feet – example: put a microphone (if available) up to a mobile device speaker if the audio output to the A/V system isn’t working. AKA pulling a rabbit out of your hat.

Tip 6: If your planned AV doesn’t work, mime or mimic the actions or sounds you wanted to play. Or… have your students do it. It might even be fun. AKA practice your farm animal sounds ahead of time.

Tip 7: Have a hard copy handy – e.g. in case the audio book stops playing, you can keep reading from the text. Same goes for slides, discussion/activity notes, etc.

Tip 8: Flip the app – e.g. turn an app designed for competition among students into a cooperative class activity by having them all work from the one device (gather them around, or if possible plug it into your projection system and let them provide the answers for the teacher to input).

Tip 9: Remember to sync the Smart Board; or else you’ll sink it.

Tip 10: Have your own emergency tool kit – a few cables, spare adaptors, charger, audio connectors, etc. suited for your own digital environment. Also paper and pens.

Tip 11: Charge the devices. Keep them charged. Check early to make sure they are charged.

Tip 12…add your own…

The mighty portable practice studio

Okay, now for a slight change of pace. This is a little open music sharing for my friends and colleagues in the open education multiverse. For some reason, open education seems to go well with guitars, basses, voices, saxophones, drums, keyboards, synths, theremins and other noisemakers that can’t even be imagined let alone played by ordinary humans. Wherever any of us might meet up, it’s not always easy to find a place to Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out.

So, in the spirit of disruptive innovation, I’ve been testing a few ideas and gadgets, and it all came together when I discovered how amazing small Bluetooth speakers have recently become. Normally a load of guitar and bass amps, a drum kit, a PA system and other clunky gear needs to be collected, assembled into a special rehearsal space, and then dismantled after the fact, especially hard on us spindly-legged open eds and techs with our carpal tunnels and atrophied arms. So, introducing the Mighty Portable Practice Studio.

The video is a short demo of how the pieces fit together and what it sounds like. Yes it’s a little sloppy and out of tune…all intentional, meant to resemble real live jam sessions (…cough…). I pre-recorded several tracks in place of having live musicians help out, but either way it will work fine. Any suggestions for improvement or enhancement are most welcome. And…pardon the hat…I was doing this between handing out Halloween candies at the door…

My summer vacation (and a few lessons I learned)

My unusually lengthy summer vacation of four weeks straight was a pretty rare thing. I don’t remember taking this much of a stretch of time off in many, many years. I got to do some cool, fun and relaxing stuff, as well as some things that were backbreaking but in the end satisfying. In the spirit of learning and reflection, here are a few vacation anecdotes along with some things (among many) learned along the way. Here we go.

In the cool, fun and relaxing category, Jean and I visited and stayed with our daughter and son-in-law in Eugene, Oregon. They met in their mid-teens when we took our kids (back then) camping down the Oregon coast. He was a high school student working at a go-kart track in Florence, and somehow he and my daughter struck up a conversation when we went for rides. They just hit it off, and he seemed (miraculously, in our view at the time) to be able to cheer her out of her teenage funk. They kept in touch for several years through ICQ and MSN (remember?), lost touch, and then about 10 years later re-discovered each other on Facebook and married two years after. They are both fabulous, and we now have a place to stay when we cross the border to spend time on the untamed and funky northwest coast of the USA. We spent some time lake fishing – and while the fish decided to hide, we saw birds all day long, e.g. bald eagles, large flocks of pelicans, kingfishers, turkey vultures, great blue herons, osprey, cormorants, buffleheads, and many more. We also found a small swimming hole under a bridge that reminded me of my childhood in northern British Columbia. The water was icy cold but exhilarating. We jumped in like little kids, skipped stones and jumped off rocks into the deeper holes. I took a mental snapshot of that moment to retrieve on the coldest, snowiest, slushiest, sloppiest day of winter when I again get to slip and slide my way up and down the Coquihalla Highway (aka Highway through Hell) to Kamloops, commuting weekly between my work there and home in Vancouver.

  • Lesson 1: We have absolutely no idea as to what one little chance encounter will do to profoundly change the lives of individuals, families, friends and others, forever.
  • Lesson 2: Nature is a major reset button for the soul. Don’t forget to get out there, as often as possible. (Except in winter, on the Coquihalla. Forget that.)

On the somewhat backbreaking side, this was also a good time to do some badly needed yard work. This included cutting down a chestnut tree in our yard that I had planted about 15 years ago. This work also involved taking the leaves and branches away for chipping, and then digging out the stump. Reason: We liked the tree, but in keeping with the Law of Unintended Consequences, so did the squirrels. After they took up residence in our roof, we had to have them humanely trapped and relocated. Little critters, seriously.

We also cut up and pulled out a massive hedge that had gone insane and overgrown with wild blackberries. As I was pulling up hedge roots, I kept thinking about rhizomatic learning (really). The roots wandered throughout the yard, some deep, some shallow, and some reconnecting in new ways in weird unexpected intersections. There were new shoots popping up all over the place, seemingly randomly, including one right across the yard and through our deck. There were also enough blackberries to make some blackberry-lime jam.

  • Lesson 3: To really get rid of a problem you have to get to the roots of it (ooh that’s so bad, sorry).
  • Lesson 4: Digging out stumps is really hard work. If you don’t have to, don’t.
  • Lesson 5: If you don’t get rhizomatic learning, dig up a hedge. It will help.
  • Lesson 6: Make jam from berries you picked. Every time you spread it on toast or stir it into your yogurt, you think about the time you picked the berries to make it. A very cool connection.

We went to Victoria, BC to participate in a Dragon Boat festival. Well…Jean participated, I watched. This ferocious team of paddlers, who call themselves Gift of Life, is amazing, made up of organ transplant recipients (including heart, kidney, double lung!), a kidney donor (Jean), a mother who donated her son’s organs after a tragic fatal accident, and other supporters.

In competition with about 50-60 other teams including cancer survivors, visually impaired persons, paddlers with MS, and able-bodied groups, they came in with a Bronze in their category. And then…celebrating afterwards in a nearby brew pub, we were told by our server that our drinks were paid for. She pointed to a customer at the counter. When we thanked him and asked why, he told us with a breaking voice that he was waiting for a double lung transplant and had received badly needed hope and inspiration from the team, whose purpose was spelled out on their jerseys. We were stunned, and to this day it still resonates.

  • Lesson 7: In a world where we see so much horrible news, suffering and despair, there is also so much to be impressed, inspired and even overwhelmed by.
  • Lesson 8: We can choose to be on the good side. This includes our rag-tag networks of ed-techies, open educators and other such gifted educators and thought leaders who still have the desire to transform things and make them better for others.
  • Lesson 9: If it works for you, remember to sign an organ donor card. It can give life to others and by the time the card gets used, you really don’t need those parts anymore.

More on the fun side, I reorganized my recording studio and now am fully digital. At the same time I still have my old Tascam 16-track reel to reel tape recorder. I tried but just can’t let it go; there’s something about that tape rolling that makes me feel warm inside, sort of like a sip of bourbon trickling down your throat. I’m now looking for a MIDI interface that can lock it to my digital audio workstation so I can have the best of both worlds.

Lesson 10: There’s no need to assume we need to throw away things that are old, or to avoid things that are new. We just need to find ways to get them in sync.

OK enough for now…this is getting too long. Maybe more next time.

For a fistful of Doing Something Good dollars

I was browsing the Help Wanted pages of Twitter for part time work in preparation for the impending collapse of higher education and was thrilled to find a great opportunity. Unfortunately it didn’t promise pay in any currency other than Doing Something Good dollars, but it had the potential to keep me busy so I could forestall playing my guitar in front of the local supermarket with an upturned hat on the sidewalk. Which was good enough for me.

The task at hand is participation in a most inspiring project started by Dr. Valerie Irvine at the University of Victoria. The purpose of the project is to interview and gather the stories of long-time (in Internet years) scholars and practitioners in open education, with “open” being defined more by what it has meant over a stretch of several decades than solely by the definitions (both legitimate and mutant) that have emerged more recently. We’re talking the PM era (oh, sorry, pre-MOOC) and of course before Silicon Valley recently invented Ed Tech; e.g.,

“Education is one of the last industries to be touched by Internet technology, and we’re seeing a lot of catch-up going on,” said Betsy Corcoran, the chief executive of EdSurge, an industry news service and research company (NYT Jan 15, 2015).

We’re talking about veteran educators who were committed to getting education out of the classroom and beyond, mainly with the assistance of educational technology as it has developed over a much longer period than ed-tech investors seem to recognize. Our goal is to track down these educators, interview them on camera, curate the videos and share their thoughts, experiences and wisdom with everyone.

So: Fair warning. You know who you are. Wherever you are, we’ll be knocking politely at your door and asking for an interview. Or…look us up and talk to us. It’ll be fun, I promise, and you too will be rewarded with a fistful of Doing Something Good dollars!

Ed tech really matters: A reminder

A moment ago I followed a link in a Tweet by Stephen Harlow which he posted in response to a query regarding a learning repository:

The link points to an archived 2004 blog post by Alan Levine that includes a discussion between him and Bruce Landon. This caught my attention, not so much because the topic of the discussion is still very much relevant today, but more so because of Bruce Landon himself. This is Dr. Bruce Landon, a brilliant cognitive psychologist, researcher, college teacher and ed-tech aficionado who was also a close acquaintance of mine at the time of that post.

Back then both we worked in ed tech in neighboring institutions, he at Douglas College and I at the Justice Institute of BC. We collaborated on several ed tech projects, and also he was particularly devoted to increasing accessibility of educational web resources for the visually impaired. I’m sure some ETUG members of that time remember his presentations and challenges to all of us to do better in this area.

Shortly after this time I moved on to something else and, as can sometimes happen, we fell out of contact with one another, not by intent but rather by changing circumstances. The last time I talked to him was when he kindly provided me a reference for the doctoral program that I was just starting.

The link to this eleven-year-old blog post prompted me to look him up, and I learned from a local news item that some years ago Bruce suffered a serious stroke and has been undergoing a long period of rehabilitation. The article also linked to a YouTube video of a recent electronic speech by Bruce to students at Douglas College, which I struggled to view through blurred eyes:

As surprised and saddened as I was to stumble across this news via this strangely circuitous route, it was also humbling and inspiring to see how Bruce is now himself using the very types of technologies he advocated for in his ed tech work. It just reminds me that in spite of the many frustrations we run into, ed tech work really does matter – especially with a reminder that we need to remember accessibility in our work. Thanks Bruce for your inspiration, and I’ll be dropping by soon to reconnect!

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

Whither educational technology plans?

That’s Educational Technology with caps, I mean. In other words, the institution of Ed Tech, in the way that it emerged over the past 25 years. Educational technology that created a new wave of interest in teaching in different ways, an exploration of the capacities and semantics of new or repurposed technologies in the classroom and on the Web. I joined an interesting webinar this morning where the topic of an educational technology–oops I mean Educational Technology–plan on a larger, provincial scale was discussed. The discussion took an interesting turn fairly early on in that many of the obviously seasoned participants recognized that (beyond an institutional or provincial context in terms of technology layers–LMS’s, etc.), we are really talking about collaboration and teaching/learning innovations not technology per se. And this is a collaboration that takes place at many different levels. For instance–how to deal with the push (demand?) for asynchronicity while at the same time seeking collaborative, team based learning strategies? With enough cooperation and collaboration, this is possible where the will exists to pool learners from beyond institutional boundaries and create virtual drop-ins where participants can move from mini-cohort to mini-cohort within one course or learning unit across (gulp) an entire province…or beyond. This is not an impossible task, particularly if courses are carefully assembled into discrete but reasonable chunks each of which is run continuously or frequently and students can participate on a drop-in basis. This is not a new idea and has been around in various iterations earlier; i.e. learning consortia. Knowing how things work, it seems impossible…but we can always dream…