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Vol. 7, No. 2: October 19, 2000

Making Sense of Alphabet Soup:
On Current Efforts for Sharing Instructional Resources

by Hal Schlais, Coordinator for Learning Technology Development,
Office of Learning and Information Technology, UW System

Peter Nordgren of UW-Superior has long advocated the formation of a committee to oversee the great explosion of acronyms, especially TLAs (three-letter acronyms). My attempts at humor aside, I was reminded during a recent campus visit that we all have a gut-level, knee-jerk aversion to encountering new acronyms no matter how well intended they might be. However, like it or not, the development of any disciplinary area requires the creation of a new language ("jargon" to those of us not intimately involved) and with this come shortcuts or acronyms. So, despite the undesirability of jargon, what I am going to do is get a tremendous pressure off my chest and blurt out a list of acronyms. I just have to do it. Those of you with the ambiguity quotient required to read a sci-fi novel will read on blissfully unaware that anything strange has happened; you will proceed with complete confidence that somehow understanding will occur later. Those of you with much lower thresholds of jargon tolerance, please hang in there and read on. Elucidation will come soon. Here goes: SCORM! IMS! XML! MERLOT! ARRRGH! The first four are acronyms (only two TLAs, you may note); the last is a cry of exorcism.

Now that I have purified my mind, let me turn to the subject at hand. Imagine repositories of learning materials that you knew were of high quality: quizzes, labs, simulations, media clips, and so on. Imagine that you would be able to search quickly and find appropriate materials (perhaps moments before class) that you could add to enhance an instructional topic. Then suppose you could incorporate these materials seamlessly in the WebCTs and BlackBoards of the world virtually the same way you bring up web pages from any URL. Now let your imagination really run wild and suppose that you have created the killer app for your discipline and you had a place to put it and a relatively convenient way to save it there for later use and sharing among your peers. Sound too good to be true? And could acronyms actually be important in such an esoteric process?

All the dreaded "a-words" listed above play a role in the formation of a set of standards. They represent levels in a taxonomic puzzle that is on the verge of allowing us to create and share courseware much more efficiently. When you think for a moment about sharing digital educational resources (or "learning objects" in tech industry jargon), you realize that standards for interchange are necessary. Legos from thirty years ago are interchangeable with the products produced today; any light bulb screws into sockets built by a variety of hardware manufacturers; plumbing parts from various manufacturers all fit together (except at my house); your computer and your washing machine can be plugged into the same electrical outlet at your home; and on and on. Of course, I should mention that among most important reasons we are having this conversation about exchanging "learning objects" is that a standard (Internet protocol or "IP" for short) exists for interchanging data on the Internet.

And why is this interchangeability of learning content so important? There are at least two reasons that come immediately to mind, one practical and the other pedagogical. Letís tackle practicality first. Taking a myopic view and focusing just on our environment here in the UW, we are in the process of migrating between versions of all our web learning tools. Web Course in a Box has been "acquired" by Blackboard and Learning Space, and Blackboard and WebCT are moving to new versions. My conversations with faculty, instructional design staff, and others around the system indicate that most of the instructional use of our web tools is for web-enhanced instruction, and the quizzing feature of these tools is among the most used. There is no easy way to move quizzes from one vendor product to another and sometimes it may be almost as difficult to move between versions of products from the same vendor. To add yet another complication, we are being bombarded by a plethora of new web tools coming on the scene. The only constant is change. Without a doubt, we must have a strategy for easily moving our content between these systems and into the next big thing that might come along.

From a more global perspective, our own Department of Defense is playing a huge role in the definition of standards for content interchangeability. In much the same way it did with ARPANET (the 1980s iteration of the Internet), it has identified this as a fundamental strategy in its Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative. To implement this web-based strategy, the DoD (surely you must be tired of "Department of Defense" by now!) is "facilitating" a group of corporate, educational and government entities to work together with international standards bodies to create a set of standards for "shareable courseware objects." The resulting set of standards, the Shareable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM) has been concept tested with version updates due out in the near future. As you read this, courseware "objects" are being created by one vendor, placed in libraries (or "repositories"), and being incorporated into content created by others.

So, what of the pedagogical reasons for interchangeability? My crystal ball says that once the standards mature and the using, reusing and sharing of high quality learning resources becomes easy, there is going to be an analogous growth in this area similar to the Internet explosion. As a community, we will begin using these resources as just-in-time additions to our instructional activities more frequently than we ever have other kinds of instructional resources in the past. The greatest impediment will be "discoverability," if I may use a bit of library jargon. As the Internet continues to mature, the number of resources out there is already huge and increasing by the moment. Digital libraries are being created by a number of very prestigious schools (see, for example, Cornell); more and more very high quality "chunks" of potential learning resources are being created as the result of work being done by projects supported by NASA, NSF and the like; and, of course, individuals or smaller disciplinary groups (like BIOWEB here in the UW) are creating wonderful content. As this gets posted to the web, these libraries become available to us instantly. But just do a web search -- 23 million hits on your favorite topic! But heaven only knows what the quality of any of these is.

One possible avenue to simplifying this search process is to create content-specific libraries that are peer reviewed and are working towards standards compliance. We here in the UW are participating in the MERLOT project. (As you might guess with this clever name, this is an outgrowth of a Cal State Sonoma project, Multimedia Educational Resources for Learning and Online Teaching). This has grown from a Cal State System project focusing on biology to a nationwide project currently involving 23 state systems and institutions that locate, review, and index content in twelve different disciplinary areas. (For more information, see MERLOT: Peer Review of Instructional Technology by Gerard L. Hanley and Cher Thomas of California State Univ. in the Oct. 2000 issue of Syllabus.)

OK, OK. So Iíve given you some idea (I hope!) of what SCORM and MERLOT are, why they are important to the educational enterprise, and enlarged your vocabulary, however incrementally. That still leaves IMS and XML. IMS is actually a trick acronym. The IMS Global Learning Consortium -- IMS for short -- is among the most important of the international standards bodies. Only a few years ago, IMS was an acronym representing the Information Management System as part of an EDUCOM initiative. Now IMS is integral to the name of the organization so it has become its own word. This past August, the IMS published its latest version of its Question and Test Interoperability Specification. Web authoring tools can now interchange quizzes if Ė and this is the big if -- they adhere to this standard. And guess what? WebCT and Blackboard do not yet comply. We must tell them that resistance is futile.

What is the secret for all these various products and content talking to each other? There is a silver bullet called XML (Extensible Markup Language) that has been around since the mid-80s as well. This more flexible variant of HTML (HyperText Markup Language, a free a-word here), which gave us ubiquitous access to webpages, is the language of the programming interface for the meta data (library cards and content transfer information) necessary for this whole system to interact.

So here are examples of all the components at work that impinge on our sharing instructional resources: high-level standards development in SCORM, standards bodies like IMS to further refine and develop more use-specific standards, the languages of content interchange (XML), and finally the content repository development necessary for usability.

I caution you that this is all a work in progress. We are only at the beginning of the steep part of the curve affecting how we deliver instruction. Huge issues exist, such as intellectual property rights and how they affect the whole instructional process from design to delivery. As these are ironed out, we can expect a huge increase in the availability and use of learning materials.

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