E-learning comes of age

It all started in a CRIB in Alberta in 1969. That’s the way Griff Richards remembers it. CRIB was the Curriculum Resource Information Bank, a crate of cards upon which Alberta teachers wrote their best teaching tricks and examples. The whole thing was shipped around from teacher to teacher and it had a very special feature: it was random access and indexed. Around the edge of the cards were holes that could be punched out to indicate grade level, curriculum area, etc. The contraption came with a set of knitting needles and teachers used them to sort out the ideas that were most relevant to their needs.

We’ve come a long way since then, and so has Richards. He’s now at the Vancouver-based Tele-learning Network of Centres of Excellence, in charge of a set of “learning object repositories” called POOL, POND and SPLASH. They do what CRIB did, except there’s no crate and knitting needles and people anywhere in the world can contribute online to the growing collection.

“We just launched POOL for the public last week, and there’s a new build every Wednesday, so it’s best to visit us on a Thursday,” he says, with the typical ease of a software developer who knows there are lots of bugs to be discovered in his system. “We invite anybody who’s interested to download it from www.edusplash.net, and to register so we can keep track of them and send them news about updates.”

Why should we care about learning repositories? Because they take a great idea from the computer field – object reuse – and apply it in the critically important and usually under-funded area of education and training. A recent Government of Canada white paper ( Knowledge Matters, available at www.innovationstrategy.gc.ca, sets the aggressive goal of moving the percentage of Canadians with a post-secondary education from 39 per cent to 50 per cent over the next decade. This will require radically new approaches, both pedagogical and administrative. If we play our cards right, some of the answers may be sitting in front of our noses in these repositories.

Lots of educators develop neat teaching objects. I’ve seen a Java applet that simulates a race car going around a track. Students can vary the speed, coefficient of friction and track angle, sometimes with spectacular results. There’s a simulation game for population growth that teaches students some important facts about our planet’s future in less than an hour.

The problem is, these great ideas usually don’t get spread around much. CANARIE, the not-for-profit company that develops the high speed Internet in Canada, has sponsored the development of educational objects through matching grants. Now CANARIE is supporting the repositories to bring them together. In addition to the ones at the Telelearning NCE, there are thriving CANARIE-sponsored projects at the Netera Alliance (see alexandria.netera.ca and belle.netera.ca).

At the Second Canadian National e-Learning Workshop held in Montreal Feb. 25-26, these projects and many more strutted their stuff before an audience of online learning enthusiasts. These people are almost all optimists, but at least one was also cautious. David Porter, COO of YouAchieve Inc warned the group to constantly think about the users.

“If you have to be a principal investigator to understand the tools that are being built, they’re not going to do the job,” he warned. He also reminded e-learning developers to think about issues like adding “tacit knowledge,” the things that people may know about a subject but don’t usually articulate in a formal way. And he drew analogies to Napster, suggesting that we could do a lot with peer-to-peer technology for e-learning. “Just because Napster allowed people to give away music illegally, don’t assume the idea is bad” He also exhorted the developers to think about lightweight tools and the ability to “skin” (that must be a verb now) learning applications to make them look and feel just right for each user.

Right now, the learning repository operators are all hungry for content. They’re virtually begging people to visit and post their stuff. It’s about like the early days of the Internet. But we all know what will happen next. The repositories will fill up with objects, many of them junk, and it will be hard to find the diamonds among the piles of pony-poop.

To head off that problem, cooler heads in the e-learning community are spending their time on metadata and tagging systems. These are the 2002 equivalents of those cards and knitting needles, and they allow creators to tag their objects with all kinds of information from length (if, say, it’s a video clip) to appropriate grade levels. As you might have guessed, there are competing standards out there but the folks at the Workshop seemed to be converging on the CanCore system as presented by Rory McGreal of Athabasca University and Sue Fisher of UNB. The US military has created its own “ready, fire, aim” standard called SCORM, so people who want to sell to them need to keep that in mind too and perhaps work to both standards.

Oh, did I forget to mention that there are huge issues around intellectual property and copyright? Well, there are. What if I post a brilliant learning object and next year I see that somebody is selling it for $19.95…do I have any rights? The basic answer is still “stay tuned” though digital rights management a hot issue.

One hopeful sign is CanLOM at TeleCampus in New Brunswick, a project that will allow you to register that you are the original creator of a particular learning object. And the CanCore/ Splash system allows for some rights enforcement. For example, the Alberta government has licensed a whole bunch of National Geographic content, but only for use within the province’s education system. They could put it into a learning repository in an encrypted form. The metadata tags would still show what it is, but to watch those lions mating you’d need to acquire a decryption key from a third party “honest broker.”

Anybody who thinks that e-learning is a good place to make a fast, easy buck should have been at the Montreal conference. It’s a labour of love, with the accent on the labour. Luckily for Canada, we have a lot of very bright people willing to take up the challenge, and CANARIE to help them along the way.

Dr. Keenan, ISP, is Dean of the Faculty of Continuing Education at the University of Calgary, and teaches a course called Hot Issues in Computer Security.