Managing Storage on Your LMS: Learning Objects

As the acceptance and utility of learning management systems grows, so d'es the need to store their digital content. Waiting for the next advance in storage technology is not enough—storage management strategies that involve the use of reusable content objects can help.

Recently, a faculty member here at Purdue University decided to surprise some of the IT support staff by uploading several gigabytes worth of movie clips to our learning management system (LMS). Thanks to the reliable system monitoring tools that are in place, a disk space alert was immediately sent out to all system administrators. Disk space was quickly added to the relevant servers resulting in a temporary fix to a potential storage problem.

As a stream of e-mails related to the above incident flew back and forth among members of the IT team, I asked myself, “We have so many media streaming servers…Why did this faculty member decide to throw a ton of media content inside our learning management system?” One might also ask how instructional designers might help educate faculty members on the appropriate use of space on the university’s learning management system. What type of sound content design strategies can provide a foundation for effective storage management with respect to learning management systems?

Storage problems related to learning management systems are real, and if not addressed immediately, are an imminent resource bottleneck for colleges and universities. According to Casey Green, founding director of The Campus Computing Project (2003), “... a third (33.6 percent) of all college courses now use course management tools, up from 26.5 percent in 2002, 20.6 percent in 2001, and almost double the level in 2000 (14.7 percent).” He elaborates further that the course management system (CMS) is now “a core component of the institutional instructional infrastructure.” Given the rapid increase in the adoption of learning management systems at universities and the central role they play in content delivery, storage alerts will only become more widespread, many times approaching crisis levels.

More Than a Hardware Problem

Disk space is a relatively cheap commodity today. While it is true that storage technology continues to evolve and improve, simply adding increasing amounts of storage is not a long-term, scalable solution for very large systems. If we are beginning to think that faculty members who upload big media files into the LMS are the source of this problem, we have not even scratched the tip of the iceberg. It is only a matter of time before students figure out that the same system that allows them to save drafts of their assignments is yet another storage space for all the wonderful MP3s that they downloaded for free.

I can already hear many people saying—“just impose space quotas.” The bad news is that as of today, even leading course management vendors like WebCT do not provide the innate ability to impose quotas on disk usage. And a critical argument against imposing space quotas that holds a lot of intuitive appeal is that if we expect faculty members to use learning management systems to deliver cutting-edge materials to their students, we cannot restrict them from using digital media, which are by their very nature bulky. Also, imposing space quotas has the potential of restricting the quantity of content that faculty can use for their courses. IT staff, who are clearly not content area experts, cannot dictate to faculty members what constitutes the “appropriate amount” of content utilized in a course.

The underlying fact is that no matter how much storage space is added, no matter how efficient the storage area networks (SANs) are, or how well planned the data backup strategy is, demands on storage will only continue to push IT planners into a corset small enough to suffocate the system. At most higher education institutions, there is an evolving understanding that the issue of storage for learning management systems cannot be solved by treating it as a hardware problem alone. Content design and delivery strategies have to be an intrinsic part of this solution. Instructional designers need to consciously adopt a digital content creation and deployment strategy that aggressively promotes content reuse. The ability of IT planners to respond to storage needs for learning management systems will hinge on the success of a strategy that is based on object reuse—keeping in mind that storage strategies derived from ill-conceived instructional design principles will only be detrimental to the instructional mission of an educational institution.

The Role of Reusable Content

It is beyond the scope of this article to detail, in depth, how learning objects can be designed such that they are reusable. However, the concept of “reusability” is central in defining a storage strategy. Systems that are SCORM-compliant by very definition provide the capability to reuse digital content. Reusability of content is achieved by assembling a variety of digital assets into “learning objects” (LOs) that provide the appropriate level of granularity. Clearly, the capability of learning objects to morph themselves to suit the context of teaching and learning holds a lot of potential for instructional designers.

SCORM and IMS Specifications

In a discussion of reusable learning objects and instructional design standards, it is helpful to define the fundamental differences between two terms, namely, IMS specifications and SCORM.

IMS specifications are developed and promoted by the IMS Global Learning Consortium. The specifications as released by IMS can be viewed as being in their raw form. (http://www.imsglobal.org)

Shareable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM), developed under the Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) initiative, is an actual implementation of the IMS specifications combined with other standards and can be used as a framework for interoperability. (http://www.adlnet.org)

Most enterprise learning management systems today are compliant with SCORM. For example, starting with version 2.1, WebCT Vista allows users to import SCORM modules directly into their courses. From a storage strategy perspective, this is a very important capability that should be exploited by instructional designers.

For an excellent introduction to SCORM aimed at instructional designers, see:
Spigarelli, B. (April, 2004). Introduction to SCORM for instructional designers. Retrieved on May 10, 2004, from http://www.adlnet.org/index.cfm?fuseaction= developer&pageview=viewarticle&ID=4&pcatid=15

The significant advantage of adopting LOs is highlighted in the following statement by Acker, Pearl, and Rissing (2003). They state that “The context for learning objects is their juxtaposition with other learning objects. They may well be used within a discipline, but their generative power is in novel combinations rather than disciplinary lineage.” This means that faculty members not only gain access to content from experts within their own discipline, but also from experts across various disciplines. In addition to improving collaboration, the continued sharing of learning objects reduces the need for content duplication. This is good news for storage management. Given sufficient time, institutions that promote the use and sharing of learning objects will see a proportionally reduced investment in storage technology. Initially, these savings in terms of space and resources may not appear to be much, but over a prolonged period of time, the savings will reach significant levels.

Global Specifications and a Learning Grid

As the design and deployment of learning objects are grounded in global eLearning specifications, many institutions can easily collaborate on content co-authoring, sharing, and storage. At Purdue, for example, the idea of a “learning grid” is starting to take shape. This notion, which is fairly new to the teaching and learning space, has its roots in research computing. One of the fundamental ideas behind the “grid” is that several organizations/entities pool their resources to reduce the overall computing costs for each of the individual organizations, while simultaneously maximizing computing cycles available to all. The learning grid has at its heart the same collaborative and sharing strategies that have enabled significant innovation and progress in scientific research. While the grids that are currently used in the research computing space have gone far beyond just storage and content-sharing considerations, it is important for instructional designers at college and university campuses to take a page out of the research computing book.

Learning objects provide the perfect foundation from which teaching and learning technology groups start moving towards a learning grid. The beginnings of such collaborative strategies in conjunction with learning management systems can already be seen in the fruition of system-wide storage strategies. The Purdue University system, for example, is comprised of four different campuses. However, the strategy to accommodate the storage needs for all of Purdue’s campuses for their enterprise LMS is composed of a single integrated approach. This integrated storage strategy facilitates the movement of content among faculty members at various campuses seamlessly while simultaneously cutting down on storage-related spending. With the evolution of such integrated storage strategies, learning management systems can also begin to serve as institutional repositories of learning objects.

Tools for Authors and Developers

One of the positive side effects of an integrated storage strategy is that avenues for sharing digital content creation tools, consultation methodologies, and also support strategies open up for content developers. The result of such collaboration can also be seen in the type of licensing paradigms that Purdue has started to use for purchasing off-the-shelf digital content creation tools. Whereas previously each of the regional campuses licensed products individually, there is a new awareness that consolidating licensing for digital content creation tools relieves valuable IT dollars for other mission-critical purposes. The benefit to faculty members lies in the ability to share digital content in predictable, and more importantly, institutionally supported formats with colleagues in various areas across the institution. Furthermore, it is important to point out that content sharing eventually leads to reduced class preparation times for faculty.

Tools to Support SCORM-Compliant Content

Institutions are beginning to invest in tools that promote the use of SCORM-compliant learning objects. In response, many software vendors have recently indicated a shift in tool design by implementing the ability to output SCORM-compliant content. Notable examples are:

Macromedia Breeze provides users with the ability to convert Powerpoint into full-fledged learning objects with ease. (http://www.macromedia.com/software/%20breeze/)

Trivantis Lectora Publisher is an authoring environment for creating and delivering custom interactive multimedia content, and can help authors create SCORM-compliant learning objects without programming knowledge. (http://www.trivantis.com/product_info_overview.html)

With the proliferation of tools for producing SCORM-compliant learning objects, instructional designers and faculty members will start to become more comfortable with the notion of creating reusable learning objects as opposed to simple PowerPoint presentations. At Purdue University, one of the critical conditions that is used to evaluate any digital content creation tool is its ability to create SCORM-complaint packages. As this rationale is explained to faculty, the notion of learning object reuse will begin to enter into their consciousness and into course planning considerations. As Purdue moves towards full-fledged deployment of a single enterprise learning management system, it can be predicted that the awareness about learning object reuse will eventually infiltrate mainstream policymaking. It is not unimaginable that the number of reusable learning objects faculty contribute to repositories will become a factor in tenure and promotion. Learning object repositories such as MERLOT (http://www.merlot.org) have already paved the way for such innovative institutional policies by implementing peer-review based rating schemes for evaluating the quality of the learning objects contributed.

Planning Considerations

It is not my purpose to claim that the diffusion of reusable learning objects into mainstream teaching and learning is without problems. Clearly, there are several serious issues that must be addressed, such as digital rights management, integrated tool design, and faculty education about global eLearning standards. These issues not-withstanding, there needs to be a concerted effort towards involving instructional designers and faculty alike to have any chance of tackling the storage problem before it assumes epidemic proportions. The solution lies in adopting innovative, bold, and aggressive strategies like the learning grid. Clearly, global eLearning specifications such as those proposed by IMS provide an excellent backdrop to begin this charge. The time to act is now—not after the next major storage alert has crushed resource planners at educational institutions.


References

Acker, S., Pearl, D., & Rissing, S. (2003). Is the academy ready for learning objects? Retrieved on February 12, 2004, from http://www.syllabus.com/article.asp?id=7886.

Green, K.C. (2003). Tracking the digital puck into 2004. Retrieved on March 30, 2004 from http://www.syllabus.com/article.asp?id=8574.

Masie, E. (2003). Making sense of learning specifications & standards: A decision maker’s guide to their adoption (2nd Ed.). Retrieved on April 5, 2004, from http://www.masie.com/masie/default.cfm?page=standards.

Wiley, D.A. (2000). Connecting learning objects to instructional design theory: A definition, a metaphor, and a taxonomy. In D.A. Wiley (Ed.) The instructional use of learning objects: Online version. Retrieved on March 27, 2004, from http://reusability.org/read/chapters/wiley.doc.

Spigarelli, B. (April, 2004). Introduction to SCORM for instructional designers. Retrieved on May 10, 2004, from http://www.adlnet.org/index.cfm?fuseaction= developer&pageview=viewarticle&ID=4&pcatid=15.

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