Editor’s Note: In the March Journal, Rory McGreal and his team reported on the eduSource project, a collaborative venture among Canadian public and private sector partners to create the prototype for a working network of interoperable learning object repositories. This paper describes The University of Mauritius Learning Object Repository (UoM LOR) based on Learning Object Metadata (LOM).
Reusable Learning Objects Aggregation for e-Learning Courseware Development at the University of Mauritius
Mohammad I. Santally, Mahen Govinda, and Alain Senteni
Keywords: e-Learning, reusable learning objects, adaptation, online learning, distance education, learning object repository, courseware authoring, web-based environments, personalization,
Learning objects describe any chunk of decontextualized learning information, digital or non-digital, such as an image, text, video, educational game or sound files. The aim of those entities is to provide a tremendous set of learning knowledge that once developed can be exchanged among organizations, and be used to build individual lessons and courses. We present in this paper, the learning object repository project of the University of Mauritius for online courseware development. The project consists of three main phases (1) Development of the repository, (2) Extension of the repository with a Course Builder tool and (3) Incorporation of adaptation features to courses built from combination of learning objects from the repository. Two phases of the project are already completed and we explain the major concepts and approaches behind these projects and argue the need for extending the capabilities of the course builder tool to include adaptation features for personalized learning.
The Concept of Reusable Learning Objects (RLOs)
Learning objects describe any chunk of decontextualized learning information, digital or non-digital, such as an image, text, video, educational game or sound files. The aim of those entities is to provide a tremendous set of learning knowledge that once developed can be exchanged among organizations, and be used to build individual lessons and courses (McGreal & Roberts, 2001). The key factor for this flexibility is not performed by the physical learning object itself but by its standardized description or more precise in metadata specification (Rumetshofer & Wöß, 2003). As cited in IEEE (IEEE, 2002) Learning Object Metadata (LOM) specification:
A metadata instance for a learning object describes relevant characteristics of the learning object to which it applies. Such characteristics can be regrouped in general, life cycle, meta-metadata, educational, technical, rights, relation, annotation, and classification categories.
Learning objects are often used as components to assemble larger learning modules or complete courses, depending on different educational needs. Assembling of these learning objects is also known as content packaging and provides a standardized way (metadata standards) to exchange digital learning resources between different learning systems. Packaging of learning objects of low granularity (for example, a web page) into larger granularity objects (such as a chapter) is similar to the lego bricks approach that provides children with a set of decontextualized small granularity objects. Children assemble (contextualize) the relevant bricks to form, say a model of a house. Using learning objects to construct sections, chapters of modules, and eventually curriculums, is analogous to the lego bricks approach (figure 1.0).
Figure 1.0: From Learning Objects to complete Curriculum: The Lego Metaphor
The concepts of reusability and contextualisation gives rise to what is called the reusability paradox. The reusability paradox postulates that the more you contextualise learning objects, the less reusable they become and vice versa (figure 2.0). A constraint governing this paradox is that contextualisation, as postulated mainly by contemporary learning theories, is critical for successful and meaningful learning to occur. The size of a learning object fits with the context-reusability constraint imposed by learning objects. Wiley et al. (2000) noted the inverse relationship between the size of a learning object and its re-usability. As the learning object’s size decreases (lower granularity) its potential for reuse in multiple applications increases.
Figure 2.0: Context v/s Reusability (Hodgins, 2000)
Content and context must therefore be captured independently, but context and good pedagogy must be introduced through the learning design process. Dufresne et al. (2002) postulate that it is imperative that the resources be created separately from their intended context to promote reusability, and separately store the documents and their use in scenarios. They also highlight the importance of linking the objects not only to their metadata, but also to explicit documentation on the theoretical and practical aspects of their possible uses. To sustain such statements, the authors recognize it is important to develop of appropriate tools to implement the proposed solutions.
The University of Mauritius (UoM)
Learning Object Repository (LOR)
Rationale behind the UoM LOR Project
The University of Mauritius launched its virtual campus in 2002 with an e-Learning platform, Virtual-U developed at the Simon Frasier University with about five online and web-enhanced modules that were delivered to approximately five hundred students. The University of Mauritius set itself four main objectives with the setup of its virtual campus namely:
Institutional Framework and Resources
Provide a framework in which a range of educational resources and technologies are available to staff and students to enable more flexible approaches to teaching, learning, and learning environments.
Training and Knowledge Building
Train and build capacity through staff development activities for academic and support staff to implement a range of learning methods and appropriate technologies. Support a shift to new methods in the educational practices in place at the University and the workplace by involving academic staff in the use of these methods and technologies for their own knowledge building.
Pedagogy and student support
Develop new student-centred models of learning, learning environments, and pedagogies to better meet the needs of the workplace, society and the Mauritian learner.
Produce high quality academic e-learning materials, online learning resources and other relevant materials in conjunction with the delivery of courses on a distance education and flexible learning mode.
The motivation behind development of a learning objects repository at the University is inherent from the objectives that were set and the project is viewed from a perspective of providing the blueprint to lay the foundations of the institutional framework for sharing and exchange of resources in Mauritius and the external world.
Metadata Standards and Need for adaptation to the Local Context
Standards are necessary for internetworking, portability and reusability. With standards, there is no confusion about what is being communicated by a particular expression. There are many standards in the literature such as ARIADNE (Alliance of Remote Instructional Authoring and Distribution Networks for Europe), DUBLIN CORE, IMS and LOM (Learning Object Metadata). For the UoM LOR project, LOM was chosen to document the learning objects.
Learning object metadata keywords list were found inadequate from a local educational point of view. Consultation with the tertiary education commission (TEC) of Mauritius led to extension of the original keywords list of the LOM. We use the LOM standard to conserve the reusability and interoperability features of the UoM LOR with other repositories and the TEC keywords list is used for metadata exchange within the local context.
Context-independence and Reusability in UoM LOR
Dufresne et al. (2002) argue that the sharing of learning objects by geographically and/or culturally dispersed users and methods of (re)contextualisation of these objects, has not been fully explored. Explicit definitions, visualizations and pedagogical manipulation of the different utilization contexts of a learning object seem to be determinant attributes for success in sharing. While most courses in classic classroom environments are specifically designed for a particular goal and context, learning objects are actually electronic content that is usable in different contexts and situations.
In the UoM LOR, we add as part of the object metadata, two additional fields “comment” and “pedagogy” where different users can edit to add new usage contexts and pedagogical approaches that can be applied with a particular object in different situations (figure 4).
Figure 4.0: Separating Content and Context in the UoM LOR
The LOR Aggregator Tool
The LOR Aggregator tool has been developed as a second phase development and integrated in the UoM LOR interface as an extended functionality. The system consists of three main core parts:
A user-friendly interface for the user (lecturer) to create a course, search for relevant learning objects and to add them to his course.
Populate an XML document dynamically for each course that is the actual package of the course. A purely object-oriented system has been built and an XML database.
Transformation of XML document through XSLT applications into HTML format so that other users can view it.
IMS Content Packaging Standard and Conceptual Model
The content packaging specification is aimed primarily at content producers, learning management system vendors, computing platform vendors, and learning service providers. The objective of the IMS Content Packaging is to define a standardized set of structures that can be used to exchange content. The scope of the IMS Content packaging specification is focused on defining interoperability between systems that wish to import, export, aggregate, and disaggregate packages of content (http://www.imsproject.org).
The IMS Package depicted in figure 5.0 consists of two major elements: a special XML file describing the content organization and resources in a Package, and the physical files being described by the XML. The special XML file is called the IMS Manifest file, because course content and organization is described in the context of 'manifests'. Once a Package has been incorporated into a single file for transportation, it is called a Package Interchange File.
Learning Objects Selection and Sequencing
According to the IMS Content Packaging Specification (IMS CP), a package without the manifest file is not considered as an IMS package. The manifest file is considered as the soul of the content package because it keeps information about the learning objects that are in the package (a course folder) and information about how the LOs are organized to provide a learning sequence. Adding a resource to the course being created can be done in three different ways:
The lecturer uploads a LO from his machine to the course folder successfully
The lecturer adds a public LO from the repository to the course folder
The lecturer can add a private learning object (password) protected into the course folder.
The lecturer can decide of the sequence each resource will be presented in the course file.
As depicted in the IMS CP specification, the organization or structure of the course is stored in the <organizations> element of the manifest document. The <organizations> element can contain one or more <organization> and the <organization> element will contain one or more <item> element where the latter may contain zero or more <item>. The <item> element will refer to the resources that in turn refer to the LOs in the course package. Therefore, for our system, we provide an interface that will give the lecturer the facility to add as many ‘organizations’ as he likes, add ‘items’ to those ‘organizations’ and add an ‘item’ to another ‘item’. Finally, the updated manifest should conform to the IMS CP.
Figure 6.0: Integrated Architecture for LO Aggregation
and the Virtual Campus
Discussion and Future Work
The Learning Object Repository project has provided considerable extensions and capability to the University of Mauritius virtual campus that is actually used to deliver online courses at the University. The virtual campus of the university lacked the main facility of courseware authoring and the learning object aggregation tool has provided for this facility. Learning objects can be aggregated together, and instructionally sequenced to meet the needs of the course and published on the virtual campus of the university. Figure 6 shows the integrated architecture for learning objects aggregation and publishing on the e-learning platform.
The learning objects approach means that components of courses and the learning objects themselves can be later reused in different contexts, courses or applications. However, there are a number of improvements that can be brought to the existing aggregator tool. For instance a drag and drop user interface is currently being developed for dynamically adding and removing learning objects from a course. In addition, simple zip functionality will be added so that courses will be available for download by students to enable offline browsing.
Important work in progress is phase 3 of the UoM LOR project that investigates the possibility of adding adaptation elements in the authoring of courseware through the combination of learning objects. It is postulated that one of the main problems with e-learning environments is their lack of personalisation (or adaptivity) (Cristea, 2003; Rumetshofer & Wob, 2003; McLouglin, 1999; Ayersman & Minden, 1995).
Offering personalization in distance education systems via e-learning mode will help promote the teaching and learning process through customization of tutorials to each student based on his level of understanding, his academic ability and his individual learning, cognitive preferences, learning strategies and preferred information processing strategies (sequential or random).
Cognitive styles are considered as important factors that need to be included in adaptive learning environments while modeling the user (Ford ,2000). Rumetshofer and Wöß (2003) propose the extension of the learning object metadata standards to include what they call “psychological” factors as part of a learning object metadata.
The phase 3 of the UoM LOR project deals with how to include these features while constructing the course itself. We are currently building a prototype extension to the aggregation tool using simple IF-THEN rules to incorporate adaptivity in the course to provide a personalized learning experience to the learner. Different learning paths will be available for different types of learners. For instance, one with a visual preference will be exposed to learning objects containing animations and simulations, visual cues or images while a student who is kinesthetic will be exposed to learning objects with same content but with more activities such as calculations and interactive exercises. When the course is being created, a lecturer will select learning objects matching different learners’ styles for a particular topic. When a student logs in the system, his characteristics will be loaded from the stored student model and he will be presented with the suitable material. In the case that a learning object matching the students’ preferences is not found, then the system will present the closest match to that student. We are currently investigating how to deal with such situations using fuzzy approaches.
Many learning object repositories have been built. All have the same goal: sharing of reusable, context-independent learning objects. But the question remains whether we are making optimal use of these repositories? How much sharing has taken place between the various repositories that exist? This is an open question. Obviously they are being used but we do not presently think that users are making optimal uses of these facilities. Our learning object repository has also been subject to the same problem and we are currently pushing the research towards new horizons such as adaptive courseware authoring from learning objects to offer personalization to students following online courses. This paper therefore summarizes the current developments at the University and describes our on-going effort to deal with the current issues such as under-utilization of repositories and lack of personalization in web-based learning environments.
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About the Authors
Mohammad Issack Santally has been working as Instructional Designer in the Virtual Centre for Innovative Learning Technologies (http://vcampus.uom.ac.mu) at the University of Mauritius for more than 2 years. He is in charge of the Online Courses Development Section and research in the e-learning/technology in education field under the supervision of the Director of the Center. email@example.com
Mahen Govinda has been working as a lecturer in the Computer Science and Engineering Department for 4 years and is presently the Manager of the Centre for Information Technology and Systems. He has just completed his PhD in Computer Systems Security and his research interest is currently security and authentication of learners in for online examinations.
Alain Senteni is a Professor in Computer Science and is currently the Director of the Virtual Centre for Innovative learning technologies in Mauritius. For the last fifteen years, Alain Senteni’s teaching and research have been related to the uses of technology in education, including computer-mediated communication, multimedia, technology-based training and pedagogical engineering. firstname.lastname@example.org