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Achieving a True Networked Learning Environment

Pittinsky offers a re-vision of course management systems as access points to a true networked learning environment. The goal is to enable students, teachers and researchers to access any learning resource at anytime and from anyplace.

In my view, the best mission statements are those that are never quite achievable, even as they define a clear objective against which progress can be measured. As the p'et Robert Browning wrote: "A man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for." [From Robert Browning's 1855 p'em Andrea del Sarto available on the Web at:'em264.html.]

At Blackboard, I thought we coined just such a mission when we founded the company in 1997 with the vision: "To transform the Internet into a powerful environment for the education experience." This was a clear goal, and one against which progress could be made. But with the capabilities of the Internet always changing and the imagination of educators always expanding, it was a mission sure to keep us busy for a while; maybe even a lifetime.

Recently, I found myself having to defend the position that our mission is not accomplished; not outdated. Yes, it is remarkable what has been accomplished in just a few years, and the Internet is a powerful tool for education today, thanks to the work of millions of people with many different visions. However, eLearning has largely focused on only one thing: putting courses online. Clearly there is a bigger goal not yet within our grasp; achieving a true Networked Learning Environment.

The Networked Learning Environment is about more than putting courses online; it enables students, teachers and researchers to access any learning resource anytime, anyplace. Whether that resource is a learning object, another educator or student, or a scholarly database or application, it is about an infrastructure and architecture that integrates courses, libraries, labs, other schools, the Web and multiple other resources. Above all, it has the potential of creating infinite educational possibilities for those who are connected. In many ways, I consider the vision of a Networked Learning Environment to be Version Two of Blackboard's raison d'etre; the new measuring stick of our mission.

Both in scope and nature, the Networked Learning Environment is a very big idea. Not surprisingly, we will have to deal with many big challenges to make it a reality-for example, how to leverage the steadily growing reservoirs of content objects being created by institutions, individuals and publishers around the world.

How we develop, discover and share content, metadata, and learning objects is clearly in a state of flux, affected in particular by three sweeping trends that will define the content landscape in the coming years and perhaps determine the shape of the Networked Learning Environment: digitization, dis-aggregation and disintermediation.


More digital tools bring more digital learning materials, and educators are demanding resources that are more flexible and interactive. Not only are instructors developing these materials themselves, digital content has become a competitive requirement for commercial publishers as well.

The publishing industry's initial response has been to use digital content as supplemental material for the physical textbook. As they become more adept, however, there is a longer term opportunity to add stand-alone digital resources to their bundled text offerings.

Through our ChalkBox runtime technology, Blackboard is working with publishers such as Pearson, Thomson, and Houghton Mifflin to make these kinds of Web-hosted, interactive learning applications seamlessly accessible to instructors and students. An early example is Pearson Education's MathXL (, which tightly integrates interactive content to provide immediate feedback and has been implemented in a ChalkBox pilot program at the University of Alabama. Instructors import a "Chalk Title"-a content package with hooks to the Pearson-hosted MathXL learning application-into their Blackboard course. When presented with content supported by a MathXL exercise, students are authenticated into the MathXL application from within Blackboard without requiring additional log-ins or passwords. On the MathXL side, the learning application leverages the Blackboard enrollment information to maintain up-to-date authentication during drop-add periods. Additional possibilities include having the learning application report results and grades back to the Blackboard gradebook.

Dis-aggregation and Re-aggregation

The old content model was based on monolithic packages such as books or journals. Revised infrequently, their size and scheduling were a direct result of the expense and complexity involved in getting them printed and distributed, and a particular revenue model driven by the nature of the print marketplace.

Digital resources escape those limitations. Anyone can publish enormous amounts of digital content and distribute it worldwide cheaply, quickly and easily. Rather than monolithic, these objects can be highly granular, down to a single equation, graph, p'em or photo.

They also can be re-usable. The real power of dis-aggregating content comes when it can be re-aggregated in personalized forms. Supporting these possibilities are independent collections and indexes of reusable learning objects (RLOs), like those available at MERLOT (, and custom publishing opportunities, like the SafariX ( collaboration between O'Reilly and Pearson Education, which allows eBooks or physical texts to be generated on demand from content repositories.

More and more course Web sites are combining commercial resources from multiple publishers with free resources from RLO repositories. This is supported by new tools such as the Learning Object Catalog in Release 2.0 of the Blackboard Content System, which allows institutions to manage their library of RLOs.


Digitization and dis-aggregation feed into the larger trend of disintermediation. As Catherine Candee, Director of Scholarly Communication and Publishing Initiatives at the California Digital Library, wrote in the May 2004 issue of Syllabus Magazine, "The scholarly publishing system is broken. At research universities everywhere, scholarly work-in the form of articles, books, editing, reviewing of manuscripts-is handed over to commercial publishers, only to be bought back by the libraries at huge cost." Technologies for producing, distributing, aggregating, and consuming digital content are becoming cheaper, easier to use and widely available. Combined with emerging standards like SCORM and IMS, they accelerate the democratization of publishing begun by the Internet.

As schools and libraries launch academic-to-academic open access models, like the Open Archives Initiative (, the role of commercial publishers and eEducation platform providers must evolve. Blackboard is working with library system vendors, content providers, publishers and our clients to assure that seamless discovery and inclusion of digital resources takes place.

Increasingly, providers of commercial digital content fear "Napsterization"-widespread copying and re-distribution of digital content, and, the industry recognizes that publishers need an adequate, affordable digital rights management (DRM) solution to maintain effective business models in the face of disintermediation. However, any kind of DRM solution, particularly as applied to educational content, must also be easy to use for both teachers and students and not create new barriers to incorporating educational content into online teaching and learning. Perhaps what we need is an Apple iTunes for digitized educational content-a consumer-friendly approach that encourages access to a wide range of content for the end user, but, through effective application of DRM, d'es so in a way that preserves a business model for the commercial content providers.

A New Face for Content in the Networked Learning Environment

I believe there are multiple transformations taking place simultaneously around learning content. On the technology side, the mechanisms for creation and distribution of content are opening up the process to participants and to previously unimaginable scales, both large (world-wide distribution) and small (granular RLOs). Concurrently, the ways in which teachers, learners and researchers combine and use these resources are transforming our approaches to instruction, research and evaluation. We cannot separate these two revolutions, because each feeds the other.

The journey to transform the Internet into a powerful environment for learning is far from over. While the education community may have successfully addressed the initial goal of getting courses online, that's merely a first step, a foundation that prepares us for grasping a grander goal ahead. While aggregating and re-purposing the mix of commercial and noncommercial resources remains challenging, the technological and pedagogical revolutions taking place around learning content move us closer to the vision of a Networked Learning Environment, where any teacher, student or researcher has the ability to access any resource any time from anywhere.

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