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DesignShare: Linking up IMS Learning Design tools and systems

Christina Smart
Last modified 15 Apr, 2008
Published 15 Apr, 2008
We spoke to Mark Barrett-Baxendale from Liverpool Hope University about the JISC DesignShare Toolkit Demonstrator project, which focussed on the use and storage of Units of Learning defined by IMS Learning Design. Mark concludes that the project “demonstrated the utility of the service oriented approach” by linking the Open Document.Net repository to the Reload IMS Learning Design editor.


Learning design is a relatively new concept in the UK education sector. The idea that practitioners can use tools to plan their lessons and modules has been popularised to a large part by user-friendly tools such as LAMS (Learning Activity Management System) [1]. IMS has a specification for Learning Design which although complex potentially enables a much greater functionality than LAMS [2]. So the challenge has been to produce tools and systems that give practitioners access to that greater functionality without losing usability.

Two JISC projects, LD4P (IMS Learning Design for Practitioners) and DesignShare, both led by Mark Barrett-Baxendale at Liverpool Hope University, have looked at how to make IMS Learning Design tools and systems that serve the needs of practitioners and that bridge the “gulf in usability between the simpler tools (such as LAMS) and fully fledged tool sets such as Reload/ReCourse and SLeD” [3]. We spoke to Mark about those projects.

CS: The concept of Learning Design is gaining currency within the education sector. What was the rationale behind the DesignShare project [4] and how did it build on other Learning Design projects?

MBB: The concept certainly is gaining currency. We have just run the LD4P project [3] which is part of the JISC Design for Learning programme [5] and I think when that programme started the concept was seen as something new, but during the life of the Programme I have seen other projects and other institutions starting to look at IMS Learning Design and thinking about how they might use it. So there’s lot more interest in it now which is encouraging.

Previously in the Learning Design domain there has been a strong technical and developer community, which was developed through the work of the UNFOLD project [6]. Recently there has been a lot more interest from educators, but what we need to do is bridge the gap between the technical and the people who want to use it.

The overall aim of these projects is to get the tools and designs to the point where we can demonstrate to people what they can do with it, and that was what LD4P was about. We were trying to show that the IMS Learning Design specification could be used by practitioners, even if it takes a bit of work to do it, and to demonstrate that it’s a useful thing to do.

DesignShare was an offshoot of the LD4P project which was about supporting practitioners to author and work with Learning Design. But we started to think about how a practitioner would be able to find units of learning, find out what they were about, adapt them and so on.

In a sense DesignShare was a bit ahead of its time, we were anticipating a point at which Learning Design tools had become more mature, where more people were authoring units of learning and would want to find units of learning and work with them, so we needed some way of doing this. There would also be a need to have somewhere to keep units of learning in a standardised way. So we needed a repository for units of learning that could be integrated with an authoring tool. We were aware that the Leonardo-funded OpenDock project had worked with RayCom BV to develop the Open repository [7], so DesignShare aimed to link that up with the RELOAD Learning Design editor [8].

The repository provides an infrastructure which lends itself to storing learning designs. The system is actually a network of local repositories or nodes. I could have my own Open repository node installed locally in my institution in which I store my designs. But my designs could be discovered from other people’s repository nodes elsewhere on the network. Open Doc.Net is designed to be easy to install, all you need is a web server that can run PHP. Another good feature is that the repository is designed so you can upload a zip file to it, and it will unpack the zip file and expose the contents for searching. This means if you’re searching and find an item in the repository you can actually see what’s inside it. The repository has also been designed to recognise a Learning Design and expose certain aspects of the design, for example the title, and how many activities there are in the design, and make them available for searching.

CS: What were the main achievements of the project?

MBB: The main achievement was the plug-in for the Reload Learning Design editor. It wasn’t a particularly difficult thing to do which demonstrated how well Reload has been designed. The project also adapted the Open repository API to allow them to be linked up to the Reload plug-in.

We demonstrated the utility of the service oriented approach, because it wasn’t that difficult to link up the two systems. We also demonstrated that it was relatively easy for someone outside the development teams to take the software, set it up locally and make it work.

A Learning design in Reload

Figure 1:Opening an IMS LD unit of learning retrieved from the Open repository in the Reload Learning Design Editor.

CS: What have been the main challenges?

MBB: The biggest challenge has been to engage the practitioners. One of the things we wanted to do was to get practitioners that were already working on the LD4P project to use the DesignShare system and think about what sorts of things they would be searching for. There were two things that were a problem. The first was the timescale of the project. The project ran for six months from January to July 2007 which is not a great time for academics because they are right in the middle of the teaching year. Ideally, you need the summer to hook practitioners in to the project and get them ready and then sometime in the academic year for them to use the tools with students. We have recommended to JISC that projects that engage practitioners in software developments might need to be spread out over a longer period of time.

The second thing was that this project were a little bit ahead of its time. We were looking to a time when these Learning Design tools were more mature and practitioners were more experienced at using learning designs. So a problem we had was that when the projects started the practitioners we were working with had no experience of learning design (few people do) and they were grappling with the specification and what they could do with it in the classroom. They weren’t ready to think about how they would search for a learning design, or what sort of metadata they would need to search for learning designs.

CS: How has the project influenced current thinking in Learning Design and how will you be building on this work in the future?

MBB: I think because the project was ahead of its time it has had limited impact on other projects to date. However, it has influenced the Ten Competence project [9] The project will be using the DesignShare idea within TenCompetence with the new ReCourse IMS Learning Design editor that they have developed. The work builds on the idea of a service oriented learning design system where all the different tools link together and are interoperable.

CS: Learning Design is a complex concept and specification, what do you think needs to happen to get Learning Designs used and shared more widely by practitioners?

MBB: We have a vision that we developed during LD4P which is for practitioners working with a variety of tools. We’ve seen that practitioners can quickly get to grips with LAMS (Learning Activity Management System) [1], and we’ve also shown in LD4P that you can take a LAMS sequence and load it into an IMS Learning Design editor. So practitioners can start with simple learning design tools and move to use more sophisticated tools as their skills develop. So we’re not only thinking about sharing between individual practitioners but also the same practitioner moving their own designs between tools with different functionalities.

In terms of sharing between practitioners we think generally we need a lot more experience in using Learning Design before we can start to think about sharing, repositories and what metadata we might use. It will be important to let practitioners themselves define the sorts of tags that they would use on their own designs and the keywords they would use to search other people’s designs.


[1] LAMS

[2] IMS Learning Design specification

[3] LD4P project web site

[4] DesignShare project

[5] Design for Learning Programme

[6] Unfold project

[7] Open Dock project

[8] Reload Learning Design editor

[9] TenCompetence project (A Large European project funded by the IST Programme.)


Supported by JISC Supported by CETIS
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