Academic Computing: The 'Object' of Content Management

Broward Community College set out to create a digital content repository, and encounters true 'proof on concept' along the way.

IN THE ARTICLE, Content Reuse in Practice (Step Two Designs Pty Ltd. 2004; www.steptwo.com), knowledge management consultant James Robertson notes that few institutions practice content management and re-use—even as their investments in academic digital resources grow and beg for economies of scale and coherent management and reuse strategies. Clearly, improved content management has everything to do with improved institutional performance.

One of two strategies for such improvement—the common course redesign strategy—assigns a faculty team to redesign a high-enrollment course to improve learning effectiveness and cost-efficiency, knowing that all future post-pilot sections of the course will rely on the redesign team’s pedagogy and course resources. The redesigned course is common not only to a large number of enrolled students, but also because it adheres to a common, evidence-based quality standard assured by continuous assessment and improvement.

Understandably, course and program redesigns raise the issue of how to manage digital instructional resources. These resources are being used and improved over time, at scale, by multiple instructors—even multiple institutions. The issue is layered, and views digital content/digital assets (HTML pages and other disparate digital files representing notes, slide-show presentations, video, images, audio, etc.) as the building blocks of learning objects. Learning objects consist of lesson-oriented “chunks” of self-study materials, learning assessments, and frameworks for learning interactions involving students and instructors. Many academic technologists enthusiastically refer to content repositories of reusable learning objects to capture the open community vision of developing, storing, sharing, and improving digital content, and the learning objects that can be assembled from it.

A digital content repository, like a library, has a hierarchical structure determined by its “librarian,” and can be easily searched, provided that each of its learning objects and digital assets is tagged with metadata adhering to common standards such as IMS (instructional management system), SCORM (sharable content object reference model), and others. Some CMS (course management system) vendors, such as Desire2Learn (www.desire2learn.com) and eCollege (www.ecollege.com), provide tools for creating a digital content repository within the CMS. Other companies, such as HarvestRoad (www.harvestroad.com), focus solely on tools to create and support a digital content repository.

A systematic effort to parse all courses in a degree program (or a cluster of key courses) into well-designed learning objects (based on more granular digital resources) can result in cost-and time-efficient options for 1) delivering and updating the program and its courses, 2) ensuring consistency in instruction when adjuncts or new instructors are part of the instructional staff, and 3) recombining learning objects to create differentiated versions of the program. But to drill more deeply into the application of these ideas, I asked Russ Adkins and Jeff Larson, instructional technologists at Broward Community College (FL), for enlightenment, based on their proof-of-concept experience there.

Proof of Concept

Broward created one of the nation’s first online nursing AS Degree programs in 2000-2001. As part of a continuous- improvement effort for this program, the college recently parsed, captured, and stored the digital content from the program’s 12 nursing courses. The result was a Nursing Program Content Repository in which digital content has been stored, retrieved, and assembled into learning objects to reduce the time and cost of improving courses, and to permit the creation of specialized program variations.

Instructional design process. Working with an instructional designer, a group of nursing faculty created schemas (content organizers) based on surgical-medical topics. The content was “chunked” into granular assets based on faculty recommendations. For example, a complete PowerPoint lecture on gastrointestinal diseases was broken down into smaller units of no more than two slides. The content was then converted to HTML in Dreamweaver MX (www.macromedia.com) using templates and style sheets for consistency of look and feel. Images essential to the content were embedded within the content HTML and also unbundled from the content as separate assets. The digital content repository contains more than 3,000 assets—HTML files without images, HTML files with images, and images as stand-alone assets.

Using a course management system as a content repository: one example. Chunked content initially was stored in a CMS. Designer/developers created a course shell, used topic modules as schema organizers, and uploaded the content into appropriate schemas. The content had no metadata assigned to it, but could be searched via keywords. Still, downloading the content to build a course proved challenging. Users had to obtain the original HTML files by locating them in the designated schemas, and then downloaded them using the CMS’s file management function. Another glitch: If the content asset contained an image, it had to be downloaded separately.

As it stood, the CMS supported the export of content in an IMS package, but limited the process to massed content within each schema (or topic module). Users couldn’t selectively pick individual pieces of content for reuse. Overall, the CMS provided acceptable short-term storage for content, but using it to store and retrieve content for course building was not a viable, scalable, long-term solution.

Using a dedicated content repository. The Florida Distance Learning Consortium (www.distancelearn.org) licensed HarvestRoad Hive, a “CMSagnostic” digital content repository and was looking for a proof-of-concept project. Broward partnered with the FDLC to house the Nursing Program Content Repository. The Hive repository is server-based and “lives” outside the CMS. Content can be assigned several levels of metadata tags using IMS metadata schemas. Users can browse or search content using simple keyword searches or complex metadata searches. Content can be retrieved in several different ways and downloaded or can be accessed virtually on the Hive Server via a hyperlink. Content also can be packaged via IMS or SCORM to assure interoperability among course management systems.

Lessons learned. From Broward’s proof-of-concept effort to create, store, retrieve, and reuse granular content assets to assemble and manage learning objects via a content repository, administrators there learned:

  • Start small. Focus efforts around a single program or small cluster of courses. Don’t try to figure out the big picture; start with a project of manageable scale.
  • Put someone in charge. Select and assign someone to become “the expert” in digital content management and repositories.
  • Network with other pioneers. Find other institutions tackling content management, and make connections with peer pioneers/practitioners to learn about their efforts.
  • Pay attention to metadata. Tagging content is time-consuming and need not be comprehensive; identifying metadata issues early on will minimize the overall effort as it matures.
  • Focus on instructional design. Consider using templates and style sheets when converting content to HTML. They can be edited later on when the goals becomes clearer and the repository matures.
  • Involve faculty and course designers. With them, from their perspectives, discover what works and what d'esn’t.
Worth the Effort
From the lessons learned at Broward and elsewhere, it’s clear that the vision of assembling and managing learning objects through a well-managed content repository is well worth the effort. Simply put, we need to create a mature community of practice, and broadly shareable content. Fortunately, this draws on policy work underway via the Educause NLII Learning Objects Community (www.educause.edu).

comments powered by Disqus