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The SLeD project: Investigating Learning Design and Services

Martin Weller
Last modified 08 Feb, 2006
Published 08 Feb, 2006
Martin Weller from the Open University discusses the reusability rationale behind the SLeD (Learning Design integration software toolkit) project and the challenges that arise from integrating IMS Learning Design with a service oriented approach.

Flavours of Reuse

Over recent years there has been a considerable push towards reuse and interoperability. This desire for interoperability has several motivations underpinning it. Perhaps primary amongst these are cost considerations. As it became evident that e-learning was not a cheap alternative to face to face teaching, then the desire to reuse content grew. The initial focus of reuse was on content, with the notion of learning objects, with the resulting standards providing means of describing resources (metadata) and structures of resources (content packaging).

As well as reusing content, it makes financial sense to reuse software components in the development of larger systems. A related motivation is the convenience afforded by reusing existing components that have already been developed and tested, instead of creating each one from scratch. The rise and acceptance of open source software developments has also suggested a third motivation, namely that of quality.

There have also been a number of large projects focusing on the development of reusable, interoperable components, particularly in the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) sector, where the notion of a technical architecture based around generic descriptions of services has been advanced, known as a Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA). Such an architecture would facilitate the development of component VLEs comprised of a number of best of breed components which can plug together, instead of the more integrated, monolithic systems offered commercially. The viability of such component VLEs has been raised by recent developments which seek to specify a generic, standards-based approach to VLEs, often focused around open-source systems. These include the SAKAI initiative in the US [1] and the JISC/DEST e-Framework for Education and Research [2].

The last area of reuse is that of pedagogy, whereby activity structures, or learning designs, can be reused in different subject areas. The concept behind reusable learning designs is that an activity once specified clearly enough is reusable in a different subject matter, merely by changing the resources, for example an online debate in political history has the same underlying structure as one in evolutionary psychology – it is merely the resources that will alter. This led to the IMS Learning Design specification.

Learning Design and Service Oriented Architectures

A service oriented approach to services and tools is especially relevant to a Learning Design perspective, and the two can be seen as interlinked. If the reuse of learning designs is to be realized, then it is likely to be because they meet three main motivations for reuse: they provide savings; can be more convenient than creating from scratch; and offer quality benefits. Such learning designs are likely to be reasonably complex and pedagogically rich, since relatively simple ones can be easily created, thus reducing the benefits of reuse. This complexity of structure will often lead to a requirement for the use of a range of tools and services. Currently only email, discussion forum and search are specified in the Learning Design guidelines. In order for complex designs to be created a greater range of services needs to be described, along with the provision for adding to these.

If learning designs are to be reusable however, they need to remain neutral in terms of software requirements, since they are not reusable if they only work with a specific tool. The service approach therefore holds great attraction for the Learning Design community, as environments configured in this way have a greater potential to accommodate a Learning Design approach by calling on specific instances of services.

In order to realize this three factors need to be in place:

  1. Generic descriptions of services that a learning design can interpret in order to create complex pathways through material. For example, all discussion forums perform the same sorts of functions. By describing these, a design that utilizes a forum for an online debate with different roles can be realized.
  2. A methodology for describing these services so that new ones can be added.
  3. Software that is amenable to such an approach. It was some of the assumptions in this model that the SLeD project sought to investigate, while at the same time developing software that would be usable by other educators

The SLeD Project

The SLeD project [3] was a collaboration between the UK Open University (UKOU) and the Open University Netherlands (OUNL) and was funded as part of the Framework and Tools strand of the JISC e-Learning Programme, which is constructed around the concept of a service oriented architecture [4]. The project built on the CopperCore system developed at OUNL which validates Learning Design packages, to check if they conform to the specification, and if not, indicating the problem areas. Thus a Learning Design package could be passed through CopperCore, validated and then passed on to a ‘player’, which would run the Learning Design, by presenting the appropriate information to the user and calling the required tools. Developing such a player was the aim of the SLeD project.

Initial work was successful in integrating two types of discussion forums into the SLeD player, and similarly two separate types of search function. The integration of these services demonstrated that both commercial and open systems could be called from the player, giving users a wide choice as to the actual implementation of any service they prefer.

SLeD system

An example of the SLED system. This example and other demos can be found on the SLeD web site [3].

A second project was initiated in April 2005 and its aim was to build on the success of the first project, by extending and formalizing the approach for integrating services and also to allow the integration of assessment packages within Learning Designs.

The project specified a means of describing generic service descriptions so that future tools could be added. This model was successfully implemented and expanded to handle calls from eportfolio tools. However, in order to realize the sort of rich data handling required for a learning design approach it is necessary not just to launch an application once, but to pass data between that system and the player, so for instance it would need to know when a message has been posted or read in a forum. In order to achieve this it is necessary to develop an agreed language for describing these actions so that they can be specified. Thus, for a new service such as e-portfolios requires a complete description of the type of functions such a service would perform, and then agreement in the community on this description.

Use in other institutions

At Liverpool Hope University the SLeD player was deployed successfully as part of the JISC funded SliDe project [5]. Although there were some issues surrounding scalability and bugs in earlier versions, the project successfully implemented the system in a blended learning context. Student evaluation of the system was largely positive, particularly with regards to the benefits of being guided through activities (see SliDe final report [6]).

The possible benefits of the Learning Design approach in general are:

  • By formalising teaching approaches in Learning Design it forces people to articulate and reflect upon their approach.
  • It creates a means of facilitating discussion between educators and information technology specialists.
  • It creates an audit trail of teaching design decisions.
  • For students it structures online activities.
  • It ensures a consensus of approach across a large cohort.

The benefits of the SLeD project in particular are:

  • It is open source and therefore free to use and adaptable.
  • It uses generic service descriptions so should be able to adapt to any existing tools or VLEs in the institution

Conclusions and Issues

Although this project has offered a potential model for incorporating the generic service approach into the current environment, there remain a number of unanswered questions. Firstly, we have not yet determined the efficiency of such a system. With many users it could be that such a system becomes too inefficient and significant time delays occur. Secondly, we have not explored the limitations of generic service approach. While it is possible to derive a list of generic functions from a range of tools providing the same service, by necessity this ignores differences between them. Thus any particular richness, or subtle nuances of a specific program will be lost through this approach since only the generic services are required. This may be the price that is paid for any reusability. The issue is whether that additional richness is worth the cost.

Thirdly, the complexity of creating generic service descriptions should not be underestimated. In creating one for the eportfolio integration, it became apparent that in order for the system to do more than simply act as a ‘dumb’ interface to an eportfolio tool it would be necessary to devise a list of all the generic functions of eportfolio tools, describe these in programming terms and then get agreement from the eportfolio community and developers. Thus, although the endpoint may be desirable, the effort required to reach it may prove to be prohibitive.

Overall though, SLeD and associated projects have been useful for investigating two areas of interest to educational technologists – the service oriented approach and the use of Learning Design. In both cases it has been successful in realising a usable model and software. The challenge now is to take these developments to the next level of robust, large-scale operation.

Martin Weller is Professor of Educational Technology at the Institute of Educational Technology in the Open University. His research explores the implications of the internet for education, Virtual Learning Environments and Learning Design.

References

[1] The SAKAI project

[2] The e-Framework for Education and Research

[3] The SLeD project

[4] The e-Learning Framework

[5] The SLiDE project (SLeD Integration Demonstrator)

[6] The SLiDE project final report

 

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