The Transformed Phase

This is the fourth and final article on the phases of transformation that schooling systems go through. The first was “Taking the First Steps”, and this phase is characterized by access. The second, Taking the Next Steps – The ‘Enhanced’ Phase, is where technology is used to enhance existing processes. The third -“The Strategic Phase” – is characterized by using technology to meet strategic goals and help determine what those goals should be.

Feedback that readers have kindly sent me had prompted me to adjust the overall maturity framework so each of the main characteristics of each phase now look like this:

Four Stages of Schooling System Maturity

Whilst the three preceding phases were about applying technology to schools as they currently are, the Transformed Phase is about fundamentally changing the nature of schooling itself.

Using ICT to transform schooling allows us to ask questions such as “where is school”, “how do we deliver personalised and engaging learning experiences”, and “how can we develop highly effective and efficient schooling systems”?

Whilst transformation will mean many different things to many different people, there are three main ingredients to a transformed schooling system.

The first is providing anytime, anywhere learning for all citizens. The second is providing highly personalised experiences to all learners. The third is about building a culture of high performance throughout the entire schooling system.

Anytime Anywhere Learning For All

The first principle in transforming schooling is to redefine its “customer” base. At present, schooling reaches learners between the ages of 5 to 18, within narrowly defined geographic boundaries, and for around 18% of the year only. Now, there is a significant opportunity to deliver learning services to entire populations at relatively low costs. This is because the cost of digital content and software only marginally increases with the number of users, and because the cost of delivering e-learning services at massive scale through Cloud computing is increasingly cheap and getting cheaper.

To date we have thought about learning in the physical sense of going to a place called a school. Going forward, schools will facilitate learning less as a physical experience and more as one that can take place across different locations. Increasingly, we can expect the process of schooling to become less dependent on learners regularly attending a single campus over a long period of time.

Schooling will spread out of the physical confines of the school campus, and into ‘found space’ such as offices; high street locations; apartments; and even the homes of children.

The youngest learners need somewhere near their own home where they can physically go to access learning facilities; to learn with other groups of learners and access richer materials than those which they have in their own home. Older learners need learning spaces to interact with their tutors, counsellors and learning managers, but also need to learn in environments that are appropriate to their learning tasks. For example, a specialist science learning module – say optics, for example – may well be based in a traditional (campus) school laboratory, but equally there could be a company in the local community specialising in optics that would be willing for students to learn at their facilities.

In this model, there is still room for the traditional “Campus School”, but as a social, intellectual and resource hub – a place for those specialist learning facilities which might not be available in the local community such as laboratories, workshops, libraries, art studios and gymnasia. The Campus School is also a place from which to organise and manage learning and produce learning content.

The Campus School of the future will be a community resource; it will be open for 52 weeks a year, 7 days a week from 7.30 am (with breakfast clubs, computer clubs, gym facilities etc.), and will stay open until 10.00 pm (with after school clubs, homework clubs, sports facilities, cyber cafes etc). Its pupils will be aged 1 to 100. The four walls of a classroom/school will be replaced with online classrooms/schools/homes, ensuring access to technology and information for all.

Many university towns reflect this approach, where university learning facilities are embedded in the local community. Schooling is catching up. In “First Steps” we’ve already seen the ‘Kiosk’ model in India, where learning is simply put out onto the street to be consumed by self-organising groups of children. On the other side of the world, in New Zealand, Discovery Learning has schooling facilities deeply embedded in the community with locations in shopping malls and central business districts. Here, “school” isn’t a building and children are given “trust licences” to learn where they need to in the local community.

In this model, there is a vast spectrum of types of learning spaces, from traditional classrooms to cyber cafes, each type able to facilitate different levels of collaboration and self-directed learning.

Learning Spaces (C/O lookred)

New types of learning spaces will facilitate a much wider spectrum of learning methods too:

Technology Enabled Learning Styles. C/O lookred

Where Is School?

“Anytime Anywhere Learning for All” means exactly that. Every citizen, anywhere, able to access organised learning.  Not everyone will need to, or be able to, attend school in order to receive schooling services, which poses the question “where is school?” In the transformed schooling model, schooling is embedded deeply into the local community in the following way.

Anytime Anywhere Learning for All

1. Community Learning Spaces

Community Learning Spaces are places in which formal, organised schooling takes place for school age learners, that are not within the walls of the traditional Campus School. These spaces are, in effect, “franchises” of the Campus School, and firmly embedded into the Campus School’s systems. Learners in Community Learning Spaces have managed internet access, and plug their personal learning devices straight into e-Learning Service. Even the youngest children can learn with ICT – e.g. games based learning, immersive environments, interactive whiteboards and programmable toys. Learning to write with a Tablet PC helps young children to acquire basic skills long before they can type or use a mouse.

Learners are registered as members of the Connected Learning Community and the process of data collection begins. Managed learning pathways and dynamic timetables ensure that students work on the tasks that are most appropriate for their stage of learning. A spectrum of creativity, productivity and learning tools ensure that the optimal blend of computer and teacher mediated learning takes place. The ICT infrastructure comprises wireless network, workstations, display, scanners. Infrastructure and Core Sofware Services mean that computers joining the wireless network are managed via a Virtual Private Network. Users and devices are authenticated, and policies – especially security and filtering policies – are imposed.

Teachers, assistants and other responsible adults – connected to peers and experts through the technology – directly support the learning process. Learners progress through the curriculum as quickly as their learning performance permits, and move to different learning spaces when appropriate. Staff and learners alike access the Connected Learning Community portal to get information, content and tools. Learners can see their assignments, feedback, learning materials and web links from a single site, and populate an e-portfolio with their work. Community Learning Spaces are extensions of
the Campus School, and both staff and learners will spend some time at there.

2. Campus School

The Campus School acts as a central point for organising, managing and creating Anytime Anywhere Learning in the community. The Campus School in effect “franchises” learning operations in Community Learning Spaces, so ICT is used to drive alignment; manage performance; and ensure high quality, paperless administrative processes. Live communications ensure that expertise within and beyond the Campus School can be “piped” into the Community Learning Spaces (CLS) on demand.

The IT Infrastructure of the CLSs are supplied as a service from the Campus School.

Learners – of all ages – visit the Campus School to use specialist facilities and IT equipment that are unavailable in the Community Learning Spaces. Whilst learners bring their personal learning devices into the campus, the site has a proliferation of multi-touch interactive displays and these enable learners to access a vast array of information and content from anywhere on the site.

In the Schooling Enterprise Architecture model, Campus Schools are branch sites from the Local Education Authority hubs and as such receive the full range of Schooling Enterprise Services for Student Relationship Management, intelligent intervention, performance management, planning, operations and administration.

A master database of resources – people, spaces, equipment and content – enables the Campus School to dynamically timetable learners so their precise learning needs can be met immediately. Predictive analysis of learning pathways enables the system to book or purchase resources well in advance.

Underpinning the IT infrastructure at the school and its “franchises” is a set of Core Software Services including Security, Identity, Comms & Collab, System Management and Directory services. Services are either delivered through on-premises servers or relayed from data centres, private and public clouds “upstream” at LEA and/or MoE levels.

3. Local Education Authority

As a Hub in the Schooling Enterprise Architecture, the Local Education Authority’s main role is to deliver Schooling Enterprise Services to Campus Schools. Their managerial functions, facilitated by ICT, are to drive accountability, alignment and performance.

Another key role is to run large scale access programmes. Using aggregated buying power and regional connections the LEA is in an ideal position to acquire devices, infrastructure components and support for the best price-to-quality ratio. As a Hub for the MoE, LEAs should be able to ‘enforce’ MoE mandates on standards, quality and Service Level Agreements.

The LEA can also be an aggregation point for data held on children by different authorities – health, social care, the police and education – to be aggregated to give a secure ‘big picture’ on children,
particularly those who may be at risk.

4. Workplace

Anytime anywhere learning for all means delivering learning experiences to all, including those in work. Online vocational courses are available through the Connected Learning Community portal. Workplaces offer valuable learning opportunities to learners of all ages, especially where specialised equipment is beyond the financial reach of the Campus School. The workplace can also be used to house Community Learning Spaces. Being part of the Connected Learning Community Portal; local businesses can have direct dialogue with – and receive relevant learning services from – their local Campus School, FE College and University to better meet the learning needs of their organisations.

5. University

Universities offer a rich extension to the Campus School learning community by offering online access to lectures, experts and learning resources. Within the Anytime anywhere learning model, Higher Education is made available to students who are ready to take learning modules offered by the University – virtually or otherwise.

6. Off-Site Learning Environments

With community-wide Wi-Fi coverage, homes, cyber cafés, hospitals, and recreation areas can all be turned into learning environments.

Personalised Learning

Transformed schooling organises the learning around the individual, not the other way around.

Learning, by definition, is personal—no one else can learn for you. People learn different things at different speeds and in different ways. When students walk into a learning space, they bring very different sets of attributes, abilities, knowledge, skills, understandings and attitudes with them.

Over recent years, the concept of personalising learning has gained considerable ground.

From a technical perspective, personalising learning is about:

  • Delivering an extended range of opportunities to learn – individually and collaboratively
  • Delivering content that addresses precise learning needs
  • Managing learning pathways

Extending Opportunities to Learn

The wider and deeper the choice of content, the more personalised the learning experience can be. When providing learning to an entire community, the type of learning experience consumed will range from informal learning to structured and accredited courses.

Extended Learning Opportunities for All

With a wide and deep supply of learning content, learners can have a wide choice of learning experiences, modalities, pathways and assessments. For example, being able to pick from a menu of languages to learn is a more personalised experience than just having one to choose from. To be able to choose what level to study a language at – from beginner to advanced – again adds to the degree of personalisation.

Personalised learning is not about learning in isolation, however.  It is quite the opposite in, fact.  Learning is a social activity and personalising the learning experience is to do with providing opportunities to collaborate as well as to learn independently. A learning task that has been personalised for somebody could involve them working in a team, and part of the assessment could be how well they have managed to collaborate with other people. Therefore, another technical requirement here is to provide Communication and Collaboration tools – the more sophisticated these tools, the
greater the possible degree of personalisation.

Addressing Precise Learning Needs

Learners learn in completely different ways, and at different rates depending on prior knowledge and their learning styles. Therefore personalised learning systems need to deliver content so that different learning styles are addressed and different learning speeds are catered for. For example, in learning about the skeleton of dinosaurs, one learner might learn best by listening to a recording, another through looking at pictures, another by using a Tablet PC to kinaesthetically piece together the bones with a stylus.

From a technical point this means that content needs to be packaged so that learners can access it through multiple learning modes. Increasingly there will be automated agents that scour the internet and deliver content that precisely matches learning needs.

The relative length of time that it takes a learner to acquire the expected learning in each module shouldn’t matter as the e-learning services will adjust the personal learning pathway that the learner takes accordingly.

Managing Personal Learning Pathways

The extent to which a learning task has been personalised is a function of the extent to which that individual’s prior knowledge, skills, preferred learning styles, and attitudes have been taken into account when assigning the task.

In this model, learners are constantly assessed as they move through the learning programme, and the pathways that they take continuously evolve as they work their way through. This relies on feedback loops and systems which can dynamically adapt to the twists and turns of the learning process, and set challenging learning goals and tasks. This is essentially about using “business logic” which in turn uses data to decide what students need to learn next and manage the learning process.

Setting the learning task automatically is something that intelligent tutoring systems and learning management systems such as “Success Maker” have been doing for many years. However, if completing the learning task needs more than just a computer, managing the process dynamically becomes complicated.

This is where dynamic timetabling comes in. Dynamic timetabling starts with the premise that learning should be organised on a ‘performance’ as opposed to a ‘time’ basis (see Schooling at the Speed of Thought for more details). The core idea is that dynamic timetabling matches the optimal learning experience for a learner to the resources needed to deliver it. For example, if the learner has  mastered the concept of soil erosion in Geography, the next task may be to apply that learning in a practical experiment. This involves working with others who are at the same learning stage, using equipment, a physical space and teacher/assistant supervision. Ideally, the dynamic timetabling system will have predicted when these resources will be needed, organised them ahead of schedule and matched the learner to what they need to complete the next task.

Dynamic Timetabling

Today, this can be at least partially accomplished through resource scheduling within CRM.

Once the learning task is completed, a record of achievement builds in the learner’s e-portfolio.

Culture of Performance

In the Transformed Phase the entire schooling system is working at optimum efficiency and effectiveness – what Joey Fitts and Bruno Aziza (Driving Business Performance, 2008) call a “Culture of Performance”. To get to this stage schooling systems will have gone through the following stages:

  • First Steps: Increasing visibility
  • Enhanced: Moving beyond gut feel, and planning for success
  • Strategic: Executing on strategy

A culture of performance is goal orientated; results are measured and members of the Connected Learning Community are competitive in a constructive way. A culture of performance is
about transparency, predictability, and the ability to adapt to changing conditions. With capabilities to monitor, analyse, and plan, performance orientated organisations can create a culture where information is a prized asset, aligned execution is the norm, and accountability is embedded.

From a learner’s perspective, this is about friction-free administration regarding courses, options and assessments. It’s about micro payments, and cashless vending, and not having to repeatedly enter the same basic data for silo’d administrative processes. It’s also about the seamless escalations of issues – such as requests for special support.

From a teacher’s perspective this is about doing the lowest possible levels of administrative tasks, confident in the knowledge that the system is dealing with the administrative mechanics of running the schooling operations. For those administrative tasks that teacher have to do, reporting, administration, productivity and communication & collaboration tools ensure that the tasks are efficiently executed and add real value to the organisation.

Administrators and managers get the benefit of using processes that have been integrated. For example, when new staff join the organisation, background checks, basic data collection, terms and conditions, salary and on-boarding systems all work together as a single function, crossing organisational boundaries automatically. When strategy is set at the highest organisational level, this cascades down automatically into the objective setting process, ensuring organisational alignment. Performance management tools linked to in-depth data about learner performance ensure that teaching staff are rewarded fairly. Business intelligence is available to provide deep insights into operations to ensure that resources are being used to maximum effect.

Bringing it All Together

The key difference between a transformed schooling system and any of the other phases is the degree to which the entire system is architected around the student.

Learner at the Centre

The Transformed schooling system will integrate a spectrum of services and processes, many which would have been in silos before the transformation process, around the student. The result of this is that the student experiences a range of highly individualised services, delivered by a high performance, highly connected, lean, efficient and cost effective schooling system.

Getting to Transformed schooling is a long journey. In most countries there will be significant inertia from legacy systems. Paradoxically, one of the drivers for transformation is diminishing budgets. In the United States, for example, there is a strong surge towards anytime anywhere, personalised learning for all – delivered from outside the formal schooling system, driven by collapsing schooling budgets and widespread dissatisfaction with the current system.

Ultimately, the point of investing in transforming a schooling system is to get an order-of-magnitude improvement in return on education budget investment, and this cannot be done in isolation. The whole enterprise of transforming schooling needs to be organised within the framework of a Schooling Enterprise Architecture, as described in detail in Schooling at the Speed of Thought.

Schooling Enterprise Architecture

Focusing on the “IT Platform Architecture”, the Transformed phase has 5 interconnected layers:

Tranformed phase - five layer Schooling Enterprise Technology Architecture

And finally, across each layer are the following key technology levers:

Schooling Enterprise Technical Concept Architecture - Transformation Phase

This is the last in this series of articles on the phases through which schooling systems evolve, but watch this space for related articles. All comments, feedback, questions and suggestions for articles will be very welcomed.

Thanks to Matthew Woodruff and Chris Poole from lookred for contributions to this article.

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.