Managing Storage on Your LMS: Learning Objects
- By Krishna Madhavan
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
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.
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
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
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
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=
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
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
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
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,
Spigarelli, B. (April, 2004). Introduction to SCORM for instructional
designers. Retrieved on May 10, 2004, from http://www.adlnet.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=