BC “Learning Content Strategies” meeting


Most of you will know one of my long term projects has been to help share online learning resources across BC and beyond. One of the main stumbling blocks to effective sharing has been the diverse (divisive?) environments in which the material are produced/housed/assembled (at last count there are at least 5 major flavours of LMS in our 26 institutions, as well as sundry other ones and non-LMS approaches as well).

I’ve always held that a top-down “standards” approach isn’t the answer; not only is my project not big enough to compell that kind of change, I am thoroughly sceptical of any of the current standards-based approaches to actually work across all of these LMS. Plus for any “solution” to be adopted, it needs to reflect local realities and priorities at institutions, and be seen to solve local problems before it (or at least, as it) solves the ones of sharing outside the institution.

Add to this the fact that I am loathe to highlight only solutions that would simply further entrench LMS-based solutions or that don’t take into account the learning we’ve all been doing about the role of openness, or the new approaches which social software and other loosely-coupled technologies can offer, and we faced a quandry. How to frame a meeting that brought up the issues, highlighted the common pain points, and ALSO presented both LMS-oriented and other approaches to learning content/learning environments?

Thanks to a suggestion from Michelle Lamberson, we decided that framing the day around the conceit of “Learning Content Strategies” was the perfect way to bring all of this together (seems obvious now, but we struggled for a while for the right frame.)

After a very brief intro from me, we kicked off the day with an hour long discussion of common problems and challenges around learning content. I facilitated this, getting the discussion going with a set of questions that people answered using iClickers. (As an aside, while I recognize lots of potential problems with clickers, I was frankly blown away by how well the iClicker technology itself worked. Truly simple to use and functioned flawlessly.) It felt to me like a good start to highlighting some of the common problems people are facing and laid the groundwork for the rest of the day.
The next step was to showcase work of a few institutions around the province who, in my experience, have developed different approaches to developing content indepedant of their LMS environments. Katy Chan from UVic, Enid McCauley from Thompson Rivers and Rob Peregoodoff from Vancouver Island University all graciously shared with us some insight into their content development processes and the factors that shaped their choices. The important thing that came out of this for me is that none of these approaches is the “right” one, just the “right” one for their context – they ranged from standalone HTML development, to industrial XML production, to Macromedia Contribute, and each had its strengths but also possibly its complications. It’s a tradeoff, you see, like any choice. But they certainly gave their peers in the audience lots to think about.

After lunch I trotted out my dog and pony show, highlighting some of our offerings from BCcampus as well as launching the new Free leaning site. I still live in hope that some of these offerings will resonate with our system partners (a boy can dream) and already there seems to be some renewed interest, which is heartening.

The afternoon was given over to a completely different set of approaches to the problem. Like I said, while the vast majority of our institutions use LMS as their primary online learning platform, that is not the future, or at least, not the future I hope for, so we wanted to expose people to some approaches already happening in the province that are outside the LMS, ones that used loosely-coupled approaches or “openness” as an enabler.

First up was Brian Lamb and Novak Rogic from UBC, and I’m pretty sure their demos of moving content to and fro using WordPress, Mediawiki, their fabulous “JSON includes” and “Mediawiki embeds” techniques left some jaws dropped on the floor. A hard act to follow indeed, but Grant Potter from UNBC did a great job, showing off their own work with blogs and wikis for shared and distributed content development.

Finally, since all the presentations to date had been from a somewhat “institutional” perspective, I thought it important to get an instructor up there to show what a single person can do with the current technologies, and who better to do so than Richard Smith from SFU. Worried though he claimed to be about following @brlamb and co. on stage, he needn’t have – his session was a blast, showing off many web 2.0 tools that he uses with his students. I think some of the biggest value from that session was challenging the notions of the handhel instructor, of the assumption that media must have high production values to be useful, and that this tech is just for “distance” learners. Richard basically made the case that he is able to offer more than 100% seats in his class by always having remote and archived materials for the students. I’m pretty sure this turned more than a few heads.

In the end, my nicely laid plans for orderly rountable discussions were thrown out the window, and I tried as best I could to facilitate a whole room discussion on the fly. I think it went pretty well;  we tore through many of the real challenges people face, from single sign-on to copyright, offering some new ways to think about these and identifying what I hope are some things we can keep working on together as a province.

In all honesty, this meeting went as well, even better, than I had hoped. My goal was not to propose a single solution (as I do not believe there is just one solution) but to bring the problems to light, to get people to acknowledge they exist, and to give them a chance to see some different ways to deal with them, and talk amongst themselves. My experience with this group and with the ed tech professionals in BC in general is, give them a chance to talk and share and don’t be surprised at the number of collaborations and shared solutions that emerge. I have great hope that this is just the start of the conversation and of renewed efforts. – SWL

Course Management System Content Conversion Tools wikipage


One of my main gigs is running a repository service to help faculty here in BC share online course content. As I have likely lamented far too many times, the bane of my existence is the uneven support for content interoperability across the various course management systems. At last count we had at least 6 flavours in the province in which ideally the content would work, and certainly would love it if it’d work with others too. So while I personally believe CMS are increasingly bankrupt as a model for online education and continue to work with others to demonstrate new ways of teaching and learning online, my reality is that the content I am asked to help share is almost exclusively CMS-based, and moreover built directly inside the CMS, thus somewhat reliant on the vendors to provide easy and open ways for getting it out. Yeah right.

We come at this issue from many different directions trying to improve it. We built a “best practice” wiki to encourage people in the province to share their tricks and tips on how to work with CMS and still get content out “cleanly.” We are looking at some content “convertors” as part of the repository framework to clean up some of the exports into better formats (a dicey proposition at best). We’re experimenting with a “harvestor” that will grab CMS content not through the API but by spidering course sites.

Along these lines, I have put together this wiki page to collect together whatever CMS content export/conversion tools I can find, mostly for the CMS flavours at play in the province, but not totally limited to.

And I’d like to invite you to play. There are multiple ways to contribute to this – if you have a wikispaces account, I will gladly add you to the site. If instead you are a del.icio.us user, simply tag any resource you think appropriate with “cms_migration” (or even just send it my way with the “for:nessman” tag). Am I duplicating effort here? Please tell me if you know of another good collection of CMS conversion tools. I have no need to re-invent the wheel here, just trying to give people as many options as possible. Please also tell me if I am barking up any wrong trees with my assessment of what CMS already work well (or not) with each other – I get sporadic access to any of these, and the situation often changes with versions etc. If you can think of a better way to do this, I’m all ears for that too. – SWL

bfree – export courses from Blackboard


Another useful pointer from Michael Roy at Wesleyan’s Academic Commons, bFree is a tool built by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It allows you to open a Blackboard course export or archive file, select the files you want and then export these as an independent website.

This might not seem like a lot to some, especially with supposedly mature content interoperability specifications to ease the movement of content between CMS, but frankly I did a little dance when I saw this.

My issue hasn’t actually been with Blackboard’s CMS (no one in B.C. runs it) but with the product they acquired, WebCT. Specifically CE6 and Vista. I run a repository service for the province. We have funded both individual resources as well as full courses to be shared through this service. In CE6, there is currently no way to get a full course worth of content out of the system at one time in a way that works with any other systems. You can take a ‘module’ at a time as an IMS Content Package, but not the whole course. It’s not that this wouldn’t be feasible; the exact same state of affairs reigned over CE4 until it came time to get everyone off that platform when suddenly a tool that could export the entire course as an IMS package was created (the administrative Content Migration Utility). And it’s not like I am waiting around for WebCT/Blackboard to fix this; I was willing to develop a powerlink that extracted the entire set of content modules at once in a format that could be used in other systems. Except, much to my chagrin, I learned that WebCT/Blackboard had systematically left out the module export functionality from their API, and there are no plans to ever include it. Meaning there is no programmatic access to export content packages out of WebCT CE6. If you want to move an entire course worth of content, do it one module at a time.

This is probably enough that they can claim to not be playing the content lock-in game, but if I were at an institution that had recently adopted WebCT CE6, I’d be asking what the exit strategy from the product was (you do have one, right? because it won’t be long before you’ll have to have one) and shudder to think it amounts to “we’ll wait until WebCT offers us a good solution.” – SWL

XERTE – Free Visual Editor for SCORM compliant Flash Learning Objects


Wow, I feel really torn about posting about this at all. When I stumbled across this today I was quite excited; while the promise of content interoperability has been there for quite a while now, the availability of easy to use tools for producing such content outside of the CMS delivery environments has been scarce. So any time I see a tool like this I am anxious to check it out. more…
Continue reading “XERTE – Free Visual Editor for SCORM compliant Flash Learning Objects”

Short Video on Common Cartridge


If you’ve ever tried to export a course from an existing CMS in a ‘specifications-‘compliant format you’ll know that currently the best you can likely do is get the content as IMS Content Packages and hopefully the quizzes separately in IMS QTI format. Leaving the rest of the course (discussion forums, assignments, etc) embedded in the original location and needing to be recreated from scratch.

IMS COmmon Cartridge, recently demonstrated in action between Angel, Sakai, Blackboard and WebCT at the Alt-i-lab 2006 sessions, is the attempt to remedy this problem, to create a common standard for full course import and export between CMS and useful to publishers.

Above you can see a short video describing its promise and the effort that went in around it, and you can find out more about it on the IMS Working Group page. It is a worthy problem to solve because IMS CP just doesn’t do the full job. Let’s hope some lessons have been learned over the subsequent years since its advent and the support for Common Cartridge is more, let’s say, even, than it has been for IMS CP. – SWL

alt-i-lab 2006 presentations available


If you’re an elearning standards geek then there’s lots to sift through in this collection of presentations from the recent Alt-i-lab 2006 sessions in Indiana. And if you’re not, then be warned that forcing yourself to go through these is likely to aggrevate any masochistic tendencies you may already harbour.

Part of me really wants some of these developments to come true, to deliver the promised ‘plug and play’ elearning environments described herein, and in my rational moments I know that 10 years really isn’t that long for a field like this to coalesce around an open set of interoperability specs. And yet it would be hard to fault a newcomer looking at these presentations for wondering if this represents what is still to be done, how anyone manages to develop quality online learning experiences now (and how many PhDs will be required to operate the CMS of the future)? SWL

Update – Septmeber 15, 2006 Don’t you just hate it when people reorganize their websites and don’t use mod_rewrite and other tricks to make the old URLS work. Note the new URL for the presentation, AND the requirement to sign up for a free account to get at it. Ickk!

Presentation on Archiving Course Websites to DSpace, Using a Content Packaging Profile & Web Services


For a long time I’ve been asked about available open source learning object repositories, and specifically about whether DSpace could work as a LOR. My answer regarding DSpace, up to now, has always been – well it depends on what your use cases are. If you didn’t care about things like IMS Content Packages and learning object metadata, then sure, maybe it could work, but it always seemed like a stretch, that those asking the question were looking to adopt a system because of its license but not because of its functionality.

In this regards, I had always held out some hope on the CWSpace project. As I have mentioned before, CWSpace is a project looking to archive the educational materials found in MIT OpenCourseWare using DSpace technology, and in so doing provide a valueable extension in functionality to DSpace itself.

With the presentation above it looks like they are making some progress – it details how they plan to deal with two major issues, mapping OCW’s object model to DSpace’s object model, and improving the interfaces to DSpace to make them more conducive to working with living (not archived) materials. NOTE: this presentation really only useful for standards geeks and other interoperability weenies (like myself, I guess). Not for the faint of heart.

It’s unclear to me whether they are shipping code yet for this, but it is still encouraging to see some progress, and for me really encouraging to see the library/institutional repository crowd take seriously the differences between their standard use cases and the ones from the LOR world; a big step forward from the red flag that’s been waving from the DSpace site for years claiming it can accomodate ‘learning objects’ (whatever that meant). – SWL

CETIS writeup on Alt-I-Lab 2005 Demonstrators


It’s been eagerly awaited (at least by me!), and likely delayed because of all the other stuff going on at CETIS and the need for the good folks there to take a well-deserved break this summer, but we are all fortunate to finally get a more detailed write-up on the interoperability demos from the past Alt-i-lab sessions held in June in the U.K.

While this writeup does put some more meat on the bone and help us understand more about Learning Design, Tools Interoperability Profile and repository interoperability, I can’t help but think that recording some of these sessions (and maybe some screen recorded demos too) would be helpful for spreading the word and illustrating the concepts to a wider audience. Maybe next time 😉 Still, seems reason to hope that we’re moving along from abstract specs to support interoperability to actual working systems, hooray! – SWL

Remote Question Protocol


You know there has to be something to this because a) it hasn’t been widely hyped, as far as I know b) they actually seem to be shipping code and working specifications. What a nice contrast. A high level description of this web services protocol to provide remote processing of assessment items on behalf of assessment systems, independant of specific CMS, can be found in this PDF file. Apparently Moodle is already supporting this, and it is on the radar for the people working on the Tools Interoperability Profile. – SWL

Presentations available from 2005 Alt-i-Lab sessions


June has been a busy month in the post-secondary elearning world; along with the release of Sakai 2.0, another major milestone happened this month at the Alt-i-lab sessions in Sheffield, England. The page above links to many of the presentations and demonstrations that took place there, possibly most notable of which was the first practical demonstration of the Tool Interoperability across multiple CMS. A summary of the demonstration by Chris Vento is available, which seems to be cause for cautious optimism; unfortunately, the only ‘independant’ report I’ve been able to find (not having attended myself) is this one from the Learning Technology Standards Observatory. One can only hope that Wilbert Kraan and the folks at CETIS will come to the rescue with another of their lucid and helpful write-ups to explain what this really all means.

But I would be remiss in not pointing to some other sessions of note; for me the one that jumped off the page as I read further was the working session on “A Common Cartridge for Robust Content Delivery.” This group basically proposed to tackle the problem of content interoperability once more in light of the current situation:

“It’s five years later. The major elearning providers have implemented IMS specifications; many customers mandate compliance with some form of them. However, software vendors and suppliers, consumers, and maintainers of content have not worked together to create a detailed de facto understanding of what implementation means. So while elearning firms market ‘compliance’ with IMS specifications, and some have been certified as compliant with a specific version of the specifications; the lack of practical interoperability has left us in a place not sufficiently different than where we were prior to the IMS specification effort began.”

It’s nice to see the problem being owned up to (no real news to folks in the trenchs who have become increasingly dismayed as the variety of implementations of IMS Content Packaging failed to bring them the content portability and freedom from vendor lock-in they had hoped for). Too early yet to say if the proposed idea of “Content Cartridges” can have any better effect, but the idea of compliance testing and publisher involvement in the standards both seem improvements. – SWL