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Learning Object Repositories, Digital Repositories, and the Reusable Life of Course Content

Course management systems have gone mainstream. If your college d'esn’t have one, it will. Richard Katz, director of the EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research (ECAR), describes this as an evolution from “…small, often sub-rosa tools used by quirky faculty to streamline efforts or to illustrate points with students in new and novel ways…” [Educause Review, July/August 2003] to a dominant component of today’s education technology landscape. Thousands of faculty are creating content and putting them in CMSes. They’ve worked hard to create new digital learning exercises or convert problem sets and lecture notes to digital format. The products of these efforts are now scattered on the hard drives of faculty computers and the representations of the online courses they teach.

Institutional Repositories

California Digital Library
eScholarship Repository
(last accessed March 29, 2004)

DSpace - a digital library system to capture, store, index, preserve, and redistribute the intellectual output of a university’s research faculty in digital formats.
(last accessed March 29, 2004)

The Fedora Project,
An Open-Source Digital
Repository Management System
(last accessed March 29, 2004)

Because the work to produce online learning objects is more visible, often involves effort beyond that which would have been expended to prepare traditional course content, and frequently engages more people, its value has appreciated over its former paper-and-chalk-board counterparts. Managing these pieces of digital course content so they don’t have to be recreated every term and can be reused by faculty has increasing appeal.

Most course management systems began with some form of content management. Usually they provide a means of moving content from one instantiation of a course to another. Getting the content out so that it can be used elsewhere, in another system, for example, is another matter. However, as CMSes have proliferated, so have the issues surrounding the management of the materials faculty prepare for their courses.

The Intersection of Information Services and Learning Content

The suppliers’ interests traditionally organize the resources created by faculty, acquired by libraries, and purchased from information vendors. They are stored and managed in systems that require distinct access characteristics, usually include different logins, and are structured in different ways, making it difficult to exchange content among them. They are conceived and designed as standalone systems instead of parts of a cohesive information resource fabric. Rarely are course management systems organized to maximize scholarly or pedagogical value, let alone configured to align with user preferences.

The situation is rapidly becoming more complex. The list of places vying to provide a home for “learning content” is expanding. Besides course management systems and library-managed institutional repositories (e.g., Fedora and DSpace), digital learning materials may find themselves in Web server file directories, content management systems (e.g., Zope), enterprise file systems (e.g., OpenAFS), and newly emerging learning object repositories (see representatives in the ADL Directory of Learning Object Repositories, or the University of Texas LOR Directory).

The current linkages between library systems and course management systems are weak. Students may have URL links in their CMS to a library system to get content they need for their course, usually having to login to the library system in the process. To put content into their CMS-based course, both students and faculty generally have to create or independently find and upload the digital content into the CMS. This leaves little opportunity to interact with digital content and the learning activity (encapsulated in modules of learning objects) dynamically.

Work is going on to make it easier to bring content from libraries into CMSes. The learner perspective, however, has been largely neglected. What do learners need? They should be able to draw on digital assets from any resource, or repository, that strikes them as useful—even if the rationale is serendipity—at the exact moment when the learning activity calls for it. Today they can’t do that.

Lightweight Digital Assets and Heavyweight Stewardship
Libraries tend to view their responsibility toward managing digital repositories with robust, call them heavyweight policy guidelines. There are rules about who can put things into the library repositories, what metadata is required for submitted content, acceptable formats, and the implications of these formats on the library’s ability to guarantee that they’ll be there and accessible years later.

While there are a few institutional digital repository projects (e.g., the California Digital Library eScholarship Repository, along with DSpace and Fedora, previously mentioned), there is a rapid proliferation of lightweight digital repositories (DR-Lite). These are learning object repositories (see sidebar) holding ephemeral learning assets that characterize the majority of what faculty and students use in online learning environments.

Learning Object Repositories

ADL - Directory of Learning Object Repositories

Belts Project - The Basic eLearning Tool Set (BELTS) has been developed by The Le@rning Federation (TLF) to demonstrate the distribution, management, and use of learning objects and to aid investigation of requirements for eLearning environments by Australian and New Zealand school jurisdictions.

Intrallect: Intralibrary learning object management system,

The Learning Federation - The Le@rning Federation is an initiative of State and Federal governments of Australia and New Zealand. Over the period 2001-2006 the Initiative aims to develop online interactive curriculum content specifically for Australian and New Zealand schools.

University of Texas LOR Directory

By referring to these materials as ephemeral, I don’t mean to diminish their value or the work that went into their creation. Nevertheless, from the library perspective they aren’t permanent and therefore are typically treated differently.

Learning is loosely guided, as much directed by the learner as it is by the intentions of the teacher. Therein lies the problem. Effective course management systems will need to access multiple repositories (which will likely have different policy frameworks) and determine which repositories are available and for what purposes they can be used. The interactions among library repositories, learning object repositories, and course systems are rife for misunderstandings of language, policy, and purpose.

Content Lifecycles

Complex problems are like ecosystems. Understanding ecosystem dynamics provides a window into their behavior, the process cycles, and the flow of critical nutrients that sustain them. In this case, one critical indicator can help illuminate the problem: to examine how digital content is created, organized, and managed throughout its lifecycle.

Learning Object Definitions

“...a learning object is defined as any entity, digital or non-digital, that may be used for learning, education,
or training.”

From IEEE P1484.12.1/D6.4, “Draft Standard for Learning Object Metadata.”
Dalziel (2002) describes a learning object as “an aggregation of one or more digital assets, incorporating meta-data, which represents an educationally meaningful stand-alone unit.”

The JORUM+ project adopted the following definition: “A learning object is any resource that can be used to facilitate learning and teaching that has been described using metadata.”

This ecosystem view cuts across the boundaries between library and eLearning communities. The islands of content have little migration or emigration. To establish pathways among them requires attention to both the functional and technical attributes of their systems. The challenge is to take a step back and look beyond the subsystems. All components of the ecosystem must follow common rules. This analogy suggests that institutional infrastructure must share functional and technical services. Information system services are made of components like authorization, authentication, group management, and digital repository communications.

Only by taking a step back and expanding the scope of the system can we start to see it as made up of components that share services rather than idiosyncratically using their own. It’s time to look at learning content lifecycles to gain a new understanding of eLearning and library co-existence.


Content Resolution and Repository Services for Distributed Digital Libraries, Carnegie Mellon Learning Systems Architecture Lab

EduResources Portal

McLean, N., and Lynch, C., (2003). "Interoperability between Information and Learning Environments—Bridging the Gap: A Joint White Paper on behalf of the IMS Global Learning Consortium and the Coalition for Networked Information" accessed March 28, 2003)

OpenAFS, a distributed file system based on a client-server architecture for file sharing, providing location independence, scalability, and transparent migration capabilities for data (last accessed March 29, 2004)

Zope, an open source application server for building content managements, intranets, portals, and custom applications (last accessed March 29, 2004)

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