Academic Computing: The 'Object' of Content Management
- By William H. Graves
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.
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
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