Approaching Academic Digital Content Management

Content management systems can be used not only to publish and maintain course content electronically, but perhaps more significantly, to help coordinate the use of learning objects across disciplines or levels and to tailor content to meet individual student needs.

An increasing amount of digital content—from individual simulations on cellular biology to complete online courses—is being produced by higher education institutions. There is an unprecedented opportunity to reuse or share this content between course sections, in other courses, and even among institutions. Yet, regardless of the model used to generate the digital content—whether created by faculty, by instructional design teams, or through departmental templates—most institutional structures and even course management systems have typically facilitated content sharing only within individual course boundaries.
Institutions generally have not had the ability to globally store, share, and search for content from courses. As a result, content is often used by only one course or even just one section of a course. As institutions seek to recognize a return on their e-learning investments, as well as to increase the quality and consistency of their course offerings, the ability to identify, share, and reuse exceptional learning content becomes a high priority. A related need is for digital rights management so that contributors to content repositories feel that their efforts are being appropriately credited or compensated.

Academic Content Management
Institutions are seeking ways to make content more modular so that material that is applicable to a specific skill or task—not necessarily to a specific discipline—can be leveraged across many courses and departments. These smaller learning modules are referred to as learning objects. Learning objects are "chunks" of content that contain learning materials, which may include lectures, interactive activities, or assessments. The learning objects can be assembled to achieve a specific educational goal. Metadata, organized as descriptive fields surrounding the learning object, may describe what the object contains and how it might best be used. In addition to information about the author and form of the content, institutions can label their learning objects to include information about how long the material will take to complete, prerequisite knowledge or skills, and even applicability to a specific learning style.
Cost concerns, time commitment, and desire to improve student learning encourage colleges and universities to think long and hard about new ways to use and reuse learning content. Content management systems can offer ways to create digital content, tag it for appropriate uses, store it, control access to it, search for it, and reuse it effectively. Institutions can potentially assign roles and permissions to content, facilitating the efficient use of learning components across the educational enterprise. To encourage reusability, a content management system should facilitate metadata search capabilities, the ability to selectively release content based on multiple criteria, and flexible options for content authoring and delivery.

Putting the System in Place
Ohio State University has embarked on a project that uses an enterprise-wide content management strategy. The project calls for a learning object repository and the development of learning objects and curricula to assist students in developing competencies in scientific and information literacy. The curricula will be created in eight broad disciplinary contexts and will consist of what the science-oriented Ohio State developers have dubbed "learning molecules"—objects that include primary materials, student activities, and assessments.
After the repository of learning objects is developed among the OSU faculty, the templates, search engine construction, and content will be made available through the Ohio Board of Regents to other Ohio institutions to extend sharing of content across the state. This will be a standards-based environment with templates available for the creation and sharing of learning molecules. The system proposes to leverage WebCT Vista, a new e-learning platform that features enterprise-level content management.

Creating Learning Molecules
Faculty at Ohio State, working in concert with reference librarians and instructional designers, will identify the learning materials, student activities, and assessment processes needed to teach a specific skill or lesson. Information technologists will then incorporate these items to create digital learning molecules, giving faculty the ability to reuse these learning objects when creating their online courses.
Ohio State's digital library system will be incorporated to simplify the creation and documentation of course content for faculty, as well as provide a search engine for the discovery and reuse of existing materials, activities, and assessments. In addition, teaching resources and strategies will be extended across disciplines, allowing for a more robust exchange of content and ideas. For example, a statistical reasoning learning molecule may be used by a pharmacy class to evaluate drug interactions; the same learning molecule may also be used by a food science course to assess allergens in hybrid crops. Long term, one of the major benefits of the system will be access to the information accrued about the relationships among and coordination of learning objects.
The learning molecules will be framed for use within three dimensions: (1) by discipline, (2) by curricular level, and (3) according to learning style preferences. Faculty will have the ability to select molecules that are customized to the preferred learning style of their students. For instance, a visual learner in nursing might prefer an interactive animated simulation of a patient's body mass to drug metabolism, while a verbal learner in organic chemistry might prefer a text narrative in bi'energetics. Neither the content nor the learning styles are "pure," but reflect preferences for information processing and predominance of how the content is displayed, e.g., an animation may well contain a descriptive paragraph, but the dominant sense modality for transferring information is visual.

Creation of Learner Profiles
A key part of the project is the development of detailed learner profiles, which collect information about each student with respect to current knowledge attainment, learning style, and disciplinary interests. Faculty at Ohio State will have the ability to match specific learning objects to learner profiles and course goals. For example, if a faculty member determined that every Biology I student should successfully attain an application knowledge of ethics, he or she could identify learning molecules that match these specific learning criteria. Learner profiles are updated as students successfully complete each learning molecule. As a result, faculty can create highly customized learning paths for students and automatically track their achievement. This strategy allows an instructor within a given class to assist individual students by addressing gaps in their knowledge, as well as permit classes to build on prerequisites for students.
Meeting the Mission
The goal of Ohio State's project is to establish a model for the storing, discovery, sharing, and reuse of learning objects. Each year, higher education institutions produce vast amounts of digital content, and they have significantly increased the number of online courses they offer. A single online course can contain an unlimited number of content pages—which means that the potential amount of digital content that could be produced in an academic year is staggering. There has been no simple way to manage, store, and share digital course content. By using an enterprise-level content management strategy, hopefully this project will demonstrate one that has wide-ranging applications.

Stephen R. Acker is an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Communication and director of Technology Enhanced Learning and Research (TELR) at Ohio State University.

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