Cloud Watching #4 – Managing Learning Content

In the old days it was simple. Agree a curriculum; approve and distribute the books; get teachers to push the contents into empty minds.

Since then everything has changed, especially:

  • The need for students to learn more effectively
  • Student’s appetite for active rather than passive learning experiences
  • Explosive growth of content and ease of access to it

So what does all this mean for learning content, and how it gets managed? On the one hand it could mean chaos as schooling systems deal with extreme complexity – infinite permutations of content types, authoring, storage, categorization, search, access, retrieval, and rendering methods. On the other hand, managed properly, it means the right content built or used by the right person at the right time – making learning significantly more effective. The ease with which ideas, concepts and knowledge are acquired by learners is a function of the availably of engaging learning content and how it is used, so managing content effectively is critical to improving learning effectiveness.

It’s no longer sufficient to think of learning content as a one-way street terminating in the minds of “empty headed” learners. It’s pretty clear that learning is much more effective when students create content rather than just consume it, and the proliferation of easy-to-use content development tools means that students themselves can produce professional standard learning content.

Given the explosion of web content and ease of access to it, the role of publishers is changing quickly too. Publishers have long been considered bastions of authoritative content, but back in 2005 Nature Magazine concluded that Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica were virtually equal in terms of the accuracy of their scientific articles. The challenge for publishers now is to be authoritative, relevant and engaging – not just providing the answers but the conditions in which learners construct their own answers. Learning content has to become much more interactive, immersive, challenging and fun, and it also has to connect to systems that enable intelligent intervention, manage the learning process, and provide analysis.

Schooling systems are faced with bewildering choices when it comes to architecting Learning Content Management Systems (LMCS), so a good place to start is with some questions about what outcomes should be expected from investments in this space. E.g. how do we:

  • Manage content to ensure that the most effective learning takes place
  • Exploit content creation, management, and consumption technologies
  • Leverage new models of content production
  • Ensure that publishers can maintain profitability and invest in R&D
  • Minimise costs and maximise the “Content Economy”

To help frame this discussion we can look to the work of Microsoft Research and their Higher Education project entitled “Technologies for the Scholarly Communications Lifecycle”. Here they describe six distinct areas for supporting the lifecycle of scholarly content. Adapting this for managing learning content within a Schooling Enterprise Architecture we arrive at the following model:

Figure 1. Learning Content Lifecylce for Schooling Enterprises

But before we go any further, what exactly do we mean by learning content?

WHAT IS LEARNING CONTENT?

At one end of the spectrum there are widely available digital entities from which someone can learn – from sophisticated Silverlight or Flash applications to video clips to plain text. At the other end of the spectrum there are highly structured learning content packages designed to meet specific learning objectives.

A key concept in learning content is the “Learning Object” – a self-contained package, with a clear educational purpose containing –

  • Learning content – digital entities including text, images, sound, video
  • Learning tasks
  • Interface to a workflow system so the next learning task can be appropriately set
  • The means by which to assess what learning has resulted
  • Metadata including – learning objective; prerequisite skills; topic; the “interaction model”; technology requirements; educational level; relationships to other learning objects; rights

Ideally, it should be possible to:

  • Edit a Learning Object so it can be tailored to precise requirements
  • Group it into larger collections of content, including longer course structures

Conveniently, there is a standard for how learning objects should be constructed and used. The Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM) is a standard that defines communications between content learning management systems, and how a learning object should be packaged into a transferable ZIP file. (See below for further details).

Advances in technology are also changing views about what actually counts as content.  For example, it could be argued that threads of dialogue through blogs, wikis and instant messaging are forms of content production.

CREATING LEARNING CONTENT

The old steps-and-stages, linear, age-cohorts and classes-dominated, subject-orientated curriculum is being superseded. Its successor is a “Thinking Curriculum”, based on a search for knowledge, on developing competencies rather than consuming content. The Thinking Curriuculum is information rich, multi-layered, and connected.

With the creation of high quality content relatively easy to accomplish, we have to ask a fundamental question – “who gets to produce learning content?” As explored in “High Performance Schools” a key way to get effective learning is to get students to create their own content then get peers to review it. With cheap webcams; basic video editing software; drawing, graphics, and productivity software; web development and portal tools, its increasingly easy to get great results from this approach.

There will always be a role for professionally produced, authoritative content. However, the world of publishing needs to embrace the idea that students and teachers will increasingly want to build their own learning resources from individual learning objects, in much the same way as building models using Lego®.

MANAGING CONTENT

There are essentially two types of content – structured and unstructured. Structured content is that which has been classified, and stored in a way that makes it easy to be found and used. Unstructured content is all other content.

Imposing structure and order on the exponentially expanding unstructured world of user-generated content is a major challenge for all organizations.

 

Figure 2. Unstructured content grows exponentially

Key concepts in Content Management include:

  • Document Management
  • Web Content Management
  • Rich Media Management
  • Archiving and Library Services
  • Scanning (Image and Capture)
  • Document Output Management
  • Workflows
  • Learning Process Management

Learning Content Management Systems (LCMS) help schooling systems organise and facilitate the collaborative creation of learning content, providing developers, authors and subject matter experts the means to create and use learning content. They enable the management of the full life cycle of content – from initial creation to consumption and re-creation by end users. They feature repositories, library systems, curriculum frameworks, curriculum systems, curriculum exemplars and resource assemblers.

A LCMS enables:

  • Efficient search and retrieval
  • Ease of authoring across a learning community
  • Rapid customisation for various audiences

An LCMS should enable seamless collaboration between subject matter experts, designers, teachers, and learners. It should enable content to be made available through a wide array of output types – such as structured e-learning courses, lesson plans, single learning objects – and output devices such as PC, phone or TV.

Learning Content Management Systems differ significantly from Learning Management Systems (LMS) in as much as an LCMS should be used to “feed” content to one or more LMS.

Figure 3. LCMS feeds learning content to LMS

Key LCMS Functions

Based on the Association of Information and Image Management’s specifications, a Learning Content Management System should have the following features and functions:

Categorization/Taxonomy

A taxonomy provides a formal structure for information, based on the specific needs of a schooling system. Categorization tools automate the placement of content (learning objects, documents, images, email, text etc) for future retrieval based on the taxonomy. A key question is who is responsible for and allowed to categorise content, and edit the categorisation data?

Indexing

Additional meta-data supporting information retrieval – this can be based on keywords or full-text.

Document Management

Document management technology helps organisations better manage the creation, revision, approval, and consumption of documents used in the learning process. It provides key features such as library services, document profiling, searching, check-in, check-out, version control, revision history, and document security.

Web Content Management

This addresses the content creation, review, approval, and publishing processes of Web-based content. Key features include creation and authoring tools, input and presentation template design and management, content re-use management, and publishing capabilities.

Digital Asset Management (DAM)

Similar in functionality to document management, DAM is focused on the storage, tracking, and use of rich media documents (video, logos, images, etc.). Digital assets typically have high intellectual property (IP) value.

Repositories

A repository can be a sophisticated system that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, or a simple file folder system. The key is to have information that can be found once it is placed in the system.

Syndication

Distribution of content for reuse and integration into other content.

Personalization

Based upon data about student learning history, their learning styles and what they next need to learn, types of content and specific learning objects can delivered to best match the student’s needs.

Search/Retrieval

One of the greatest benefits of a well architected LCMS is the ability to get out what you put in with the minimum of effort. Indexing; taxonomy; repository services; relevance; and social cues should make locating specific content in a schooling system easy. Search functions should include:

  • Best Bets
  • Metadata-based Refinement
  • People and Expertise Search
  • Recently Authored Content
  • Defined Scopes
  • Focused Search – site, local, enterprise and web
  • Taxonomy and Term Store Integration
  • View in Browser

Infrastructure Technologies

Supporting these functions are core infrastructure technologies including:

  • Storage
  • Content Integration
  • Migration
  • Backup/Recovery

DRM

Protecting copyrighted content is essential to drive a vibrant “Content Economy”. Ensuring that creators of content get what they deserve for their work is a cornerstone of the Knowledge Economy – the development of which is the aim of many governments. DRM does this by encrypting content to limit usage and copying to limits agreed between the publisher and the customer.

EXPOSING CONTENT

Producing content and storing it is relatively easy, but organizing it to make it easy to find is an altogether different matter. People in large enterprises spend huge amounts of time looking for content, and making it easier to find specific content in schooling systems is core to making them more effective.

Search can help, of course, but the key to making content easy to find is in structuring it well. There is no one right answer for this, but one way of thinking about it is to start by categorising people first and then categorising the content:

Communities

Ideally, content should be exposed to people according to what role they have in the organisation – this is known as “role-based” knowledge architecture. A teacher, for example, should be able to access different content to learners.

Sites

Once communities of users have been defined, sites can be created to serve their specific content needs. Sites are aggregation points for a mix of types of content and methods for surfacing this content.

Libraries

Within a site there can be several libraries, each one categorising content by subject, topic, phase of learning, etc. Categorised content should contain metadata making it easier to find what the user is looking for.

Galleries

For more visual content, it may be easier to flick through a set of images for the user to find what they are looking for – galleries provide this function.

Wikis

A wiki is a website that allows the collaborative creation and editing of interlinked web pages via a browser. This technology has been around for at least 15 years, but its use as a general teaching tool is still in its infancy. However, an increasing number of universities are now adopting them as a teaching tool – see http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/02/education/02iht-educSide.html?ref=education.

Blogs

Personal spaces for building and publishing content such as blogs or “MySites” give users a way of quickly exposing their thinking to a wider audience to express viewpoints and get feedback.

Figure 4. Structuring content starts with classifying users

LEARNING CONTENT MANAGEMENT ARCHITECTURES

Key Concepts

Roles

A key starting point in architecting a LCMS is determining who the users of the system are and what roles can be assigned to them.

Across the schooling enterprise publishing house staff, experts, teachers, teaching assistants, administrators, students, even parents could all – in theory at least – take on one or more of these roles:

  • Creator – responsible for creating and editing content.
  • Editor – responsible for tuning the content message and the style of delivery, including translation and localisation.
  • Publisher – responsible for releasing the content for use.
  • Administrator – responsible for managing access permissions to folders and files, usually accomplished by assigning access rights to user groups or roles. Admins may also assist and support users in various ways.
  • Consumer, viewer or guest – the person who uses the content after it is published or shared.

Questions raised by the SULINET experience, suggest the following considerations:

  • Who is the principle audience – teachers, students, parents?
  • Who can publish – teachers, students, parents, experts, 3rd party publishers?
  • What incentives are there to encourage contributions?
  • How will Quality Assurance work?
  • What about peer review/rating systems?
  • Should all contributors be allowed to create, publish or edit a Learning Object?
  • Who is the legal owner of a Learning Object – teacher, school, and district?
  • How will logical groupings work? Is it possible/desirable to have national level admin and users, or should groupings work at lower levels such as:
    • District or conglomerate of schools
    • Individual School
    • Grade levels (Eg Year 10)
    • Subject areas (Eg Maths)

Standards

Another key consideration is the role of standards. There are many standards covering content, and the following are the key standards specifically designed for learning content:

SCORM – Sharable Content Object Reference Model – is a collection of standards and specifications for learning objects (Shareable Content Objects, or SCOs). It defines communications between learning objects and a host learning management system. SCORM also defines how content can be packaged into a transferable ZIP file called “Package Interchange Format”. SCORM defines:

  • Content Aggregation Model
  • Runtime Environment
  • Sequencing & Navigation

IMS Global Learning Consortium is concerned with establishing interoperability for learning systems and learning content. IMS publishes specifications for content packaging, enterprise services and digital repositories.

Dublin Core. Defined by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) The Dublin Core provides metadata descriptions for most learning resources – digital and physical – so they can be described and catalogued. Implementations of Dublin Core typically make use of XML.

CDN

A content delivery network or content distribution network (CDN) caches data at various nodes of a network. A CDN can improve access to the data it caches by increasing access bandwidth and redundancy and reducing access latency. Data content types often cached in CDNs include web objects, downloadable objects, applications, realtime media streams, and database queries.

Blobs

A blob (alternately known as a binary large object, basic large object, BLOB, or BLOb) is a collection of binary data stored as a single entity in a database management system. Blobs are typically images, audio or other multimedia objects, though sometimes binary executable code is stored as a blob.

Scenarios

In the simplest model, the “industrial schooling” approach of pushing book based content into the “empty minds” of learners is digitized:

1. Government sets the curriculum

2. Publishers convert curriculum into content

3. Schools buy content

4. Teacher delivers content

5. Students receive content

Figure 5. Top down approach has limited effectiveness

The SULINET example featured earlier in this blog offers a more sophisticated, “connected learning community” approach. Here, reusable combinations of learning units are stored in a central database. Classification, and the use of metadata and sophisticated enterprise search, makes it easy for users to locate and retrieve content. The smallest digital objects can be independently used or combined together to form learning objects. A curriculum editor application enables users to develop their own learning content.

Extending this further still, in the model below the central repository is connected to external content publishers, online content market places and the worldwide web.  It exploits Cloud technology to drive out infrastructure and management costs; enable flexible scale; and increase reliability and speed.

1. Publishers research and develop new learning packages and make these available for different learning styles

2. Teachers look for materials for specific learning opportunities, and assemble objects into packages for students

3. Teacher assigns learning packages to students

4. Students work in teams to create new content from learning packages

5. Students submits assignment to teacher

6. The best new content from teachers and students gets added to content repository

7. The repository receives content through online market places and the web

8. Standards and processes are overseen by curriculum content committee which uses data to make editorial decisions

Figure 6. An integrated “learning content economy”

Conceptual Design

Converting this usage scenario into a high level conceptual design, we can break down the key processes into three chunks – Creation; Management and Consumption. As discussed at the outset, however Consumption and Creation should increasingly be seen as part of the same process – ie learning is part-consuming and part-producing content.

Figure 7. Conceptual design for a Cloud based Learning Content Management System

Key Products

Creation

Technologies such as Expressions, Visual Studio, and the Adobe Creative Suite are used extensively by professional content developers. DreamSpark is enabling a growing number of students to produce professional quality content too.

Management

Windows and SQL Azure

In the above Schooling Enterprise Architecture Learning Content Management model the core Cloud based content management technologies are Windows and SQL Azure, and the following features are exploited:

  • Compute is a service which runs managed applications in an Internet-scale hosting environment.
  • Storage stores data including blobs – large binary objects, such as videos and images.
  • AppFabric manages users’ permissions and authenticated use of web applications and services, integrated with Active Directory and web based identity systems including Windows Live ID, Google, Yahoo! and Facebook.
  • Content Delivery Network – places copies of web objects (images and scripts), downloadable objects (media files, software, and documents), applications, real time media streams, and other components, close to users. This results, for example, in the smooth streaming of video to Silverlight and Android clients without requiring any software development, management or configuration.

Figure 8. Windows Azure CDN speeds up delivery of content

  • Marketplace – data, imagery, and real-time web services from leading commercial data providers and authoritative public data sources. The Windows Azure Data Marketplace will also contain demographic, environmental, weather and financial datasets. An Application Marketplace will enable developers to easily build applications for Azure.

SQL Azure can also be exploited to provide the following services:

  • Database relational database, providing services to multiple organisations.
  • Data Sync – synchronisation between an organisation’s current SQL on-premises databases and SQL Azure Databases in the Cloud.
  • Reporting – a complete reporting infrastructure that enables users to see reports with visualizations such as maps, charts, gauges, sparklines etc.

Live@Edu

Live@Edu provides a suite of communication, collaboration and storage services for students. It also provides a single account and password for access to many Microsoft Cloud services including Windows Azure. Later this year, Live@Edu will be superseded by Office 365 for Education.

SharePoint Online

SharePoint Online offers a core set of Content Management capabilities including:

  • Document Management
  • Collaboration (team sites), Extranet
  • People Search
  • Content Search
  • Social Computing – including wikis and blogs
  • Publishing Portal (custom theming/branding)
  • Rich Media Management
  • Data Visualization
  • Workflows

 

Figure 9. Through SharePoint, end users get a “control panel” for consuming and creating learning content

Through the SharePoint portal, end users can quickly find the learning content they need, consume and create new content with others, and publish this to a wider connected learning community.

Consumption (and recreation)

Silverlight

Silverlight is a great way for learners to experience learning content. A free, cross-platform browser plug-in, Silverlight is designed for Web, desktop, and mobile applications – online and offline. It supports multimedia, enhanced animation, webcam, microphone, and printing.

Microsoft Learning Content Development System (LCDS)

LCDS is a free tool that enables users to create interactive, online courses and Silverlight learning objects. It can be used to create highly customized content, interactive activities, quizzes, games, assessments, animations, demos, and other multimedia.

Office

PowerPoint is the most widely used content creation tool in schools, and many schools create highly interactive and challenging content with it, eg: see this archive at the University of North Carolina Wilmington

MediaWiki extension for Word allows learning materials developed in Microsoft Office to be saved directly to MediaWiki-based repositories such as WikiEducator.

To create SCORM objects with relatively low levels of technical skill, Hunterstone’s Thesis “Light” is available as a free download with Learning Essentials for integration into Microsoft Office for easy application of the (SCORM) learning content standards to Office documents.

OneNote

Whilst designed as a personal productivity application, OneNote isn’t an Enterprise wide content management solution – however used in the right way, it can be a quick and cost effective way to enable content development, management, search and retrieval amongst small, distributed groups. For example, a teacher could have a “master” OneNote file held on a Windows Live SkyDrive site (in the Cloud). This can contain several “books”, each book sub divided into classes with learning content – videos, links, text etc. Each class can then be further subdivided with an area for each learner. In this way, a Science class – students and teacher, for example, can collaborate with Science classes in other schools.

 

Figure 10. OneNote enables small-scale learning content management

Looking to the Future

HTML 5

The next version of HTML – a language for structuring and presenting content for the World Wide Web – will have profound implications for how learning content can be consumed. It will encourage more interoperable learning content solutions, and will make it easier to include and handle multimedia and graphical content on the web without having to resort to proprietary plugins and APIs.

Conclusion

Providing students with the right kind of learning content at scale is a critical component in making schooling more effective. It’s no longer sufficient to think of content systems as delivery mechanisms, rather they should be thought of as integrated “learning content economies” where learning value is added by all participants and stakeholders. Cloud computing can help facilitate this new approach, driving down costs, increasing connectivity and collaboration, and enabling scalable, flexible and highly available learning content management systems to emerge.

Thanks to David Langridge, Brad Tipp and Sven Reinhardt for support in writing this article.

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