Educational Technology & Society 2(2) 1999
ISSN 1436-4522

Objects in Education: from Courseware Widgets to Virtual Universities

Douglas Siviter
Assisting Collaborative Education research group
South Bank University
Borough Rd, London SE1 0AA, United Kingdom
Tel: +44 171 815 7432
Fax: +44 171 815 7499


Consider the phrase 'developing and implementing computer-based resources to support education'. This describes a widespread craft that has been maturing within educational institutions for a long time. In a wide range of scenarios, people working in this area now find themselves adopting various roles and engaging in a variety of challenging activities ranging from technology-oriented development work to audience-oriented implementation work. Within these scenarios the categories of educational objects with which people work are more diverse than ever before and hence include objects like: - low-level software widgets and tools used for developing courseware resources; high-level on-line services provided as part of managing the delivery of courses; collaborative educational networks of facilitators, teachers, and learners operating as virtual universities, global campuses, and so on.

This paper offers some categorisation of the various components that populate these scenarios. So, in an arbitrary rather than authoritative framework, the paper highlights some typical roles that people adopt and some kinds of educational objects with which they interact. One of the motives for this tour of roles and objects is that descriptions of scenarios can help practitioners to shed some light on what it means to pursue standards. The need for standards in areas like courseware engineering has long been appreciated by many educationalists and, as the diversity of objects in education continues to grow, significant efforts are finally emerging to address the need for standards.

How mature is the craft?

If you browse through journals and conference proceedings in the area of educational technology for the last ten years or so you can find reports from hundreds of projects that have made contributions to developing and/or implementing computer-based resources to support education. The people employed on those projects can be legitimately proud of their collective achievements in attempting to solve challenging problems, and yet from the end-users' perspective what we mostly have is an enormous catalogue of failure. Most students and most lecturers still regard most computer-based educational resources as a waste of time. For illustration, let me describe just one small issue in which I have personally had a long-standing interest. Imagine the scene ten years ago in 1989, while adopting the various roles of software developer, courseware developer, and lecturer, I made a recurring complaint, i.e., "I can't easily pick and mix with this computer-based educational stuff". With older technology like books and photocopiers I found it trivially quick and easy to audition potentially useful teaching and learning resources and to quickly produce customised resources to support my teaching. With computer-based resources the excessive time taken to locate what I wanted to use, and the near impossibility of picking and mixing just the bits and pieces that I really wanted, meant that by and large it was easier to just not bother. Now, ten years on (an eternity in technology time scales), I have witnessed the craft of developing computer-based resources maturing dramatically. Lots of things have changed but my original complaint has been only marginally revised to - "I still can't easily pick and mix with this Computer, Communications, and Information Technology based educational stuff".

So why is that particular problem still here? Why can I not easily and quickly audition computer-based teaching and learning resources and then just as easily pick and mix the bits and pieces that I really want and rapidly customise them for my own local educational needs? Attempts to answer that question fully would necessarily involve both cultural and technical aspects. Within just the technical discussions one would need to observe the increasingly complex nature of the objects that make up the educational landscape and observe the progress being made with the specification of standards for various aspects of educational technology.

A tour of roles and objects in education

Figure 1.

There are software developers, courseware authors and developers, academics picking and mixing from courseware resources, teams of academics and learning resource managers providing on-line services, managers of virtual learning environments, etc. People adopting or sharing these roles are required to interact with many of the object types listed in figure 1. The remainder of this paper provides a very brief tour through these roles and objects (from bottom to top in figure 1.) and offers some observations and references to further reading. In particular, the tour is biased towards the issue of standards. It is a reasonable question for anyone adopting any of the above roles to ask, "how do standards affect my work?" and "how can I take steps towards adopting standards?".

Role: developers of lessonware widgets and lessonware tools

Programming is dead - long live programming! A curious cyclical trend that recurs over and over again is for a new niche in the computer industry to begin with the practitioners being involved with low-level highly technical software development and then produce higher-level tools that seem to shield practitioners from the intricacies of coding. A wave of optimism follows which predicts how coding skills will become redundant and generations of less technically skilled people will be able to join in. The final irony is of course that the coders find even smarter tricks to perform and they raise the stakes such that users' expectations are satisfied only by products that again require highly technical contributions from programmers. This cycle has happened in many areas of computing including the generation and exploitation of high-level multimedia authoring tools used for education and more recently with web development tools. It is simpler than ever before for non-coders to dabble in innovative development work but someone always pushes the frontiers and raises expectations. Hence, to produce today's sophisticated interactive educational products still requires software development skills and I comfortably predict that this will still be true in decades from now.

To what extent are educational software developers concerned with standards? Presumably they would wish to contribute to producing 'educational nuggets', or 'lessonware' [26], or tiny pieces of interactive educational material that can be easily re-used in many contexts, or even contribute to producing authoring tools that allow other practitioners to produce open courseware resources [11]. These developers with their software backgrounds are usually very familiar with the software engineering principles that can enable re-usable software modules, but these ideas have not yet effectively migrated upwards from software engineering to courseware engineering. Hence, from the world of software developers, the subset of developers that work in educational contexts find themselves dealing with software standards but not courseware standards. Ask these software developers which standards might affect their work and they are more likely to quote standards for inter-operable software components (like CORBA[20, 21], and OLE/COM/ActiveX[18, 21]) or standards for web technologies (like DOM - Document Object Model, XML - Extensible Markup Language, SMIL - Synchronised Multimedia Integration Language, and many more emerging under the stewardship of the W3C - World Wide Web Consortium[33]) A significant point here is that these standards initiatives are progressing for reasons that have nothing at all to do with education, they are being driven by the much larger commercial software industry. Educational software developers, as a tiny subset of the world's software developers just have to wait and see when it comes to adopting software standards. The educational world has an almost negligible impact on what these standards are.

Role: members of courseware development teams

There is a difference between members of courseware development teams and the 'software-oriented lessonware developers' described in the previous paragraph (at least there is a difference in this caricature tour of roles and objects in education). Courseware developers are assumed to be people that like to use high-level authoring tools and avoid being pre-occupied with low-level coding. They also like to extensively re-use existing courseware components and to elaborately pick and mix and customise their own resources. They like to distinguish between 'Hollywood values' in their productions (where they spend a fortune on durable products) and 'newsroom values' (where the shelf life of the product is very short). They are also one step closer to the audience, e.g., whereas a lessonware developer can build a general purpose multiple choice assessment instrument without caring too much about who is going to use it, a courseware developer would be acutely aware of who the intended audience was when auditioning those general purpose multiple choice instruments and turning them into actual learning instruments.

Historically, this group of people worldwide has laid the foundations for what might be called Courseware Engineering. This group has wrestled with the requirements of providing computer-based learning to real audiences. They have a mixed track record, with pockets of ingenuity and many examples of informative failure. It is from this background that real efforts are starting to emerge in formulating standards for open courseware and standards for courseware management systems. For a tour of this area, the following annotated references (in roughly chronological order) can be followed.

  • See references [25, 26, 27] for early but proprietary solutions that involve: -
    • Exploiting hypermedia to develop large-scale courseware and build courseware management systems.
    • HyperCourseware as a conceptual framework for developing computer-based flexible-learning material.
    • Tools and techniques which support the practical craft of courseware development.

  • See references [28, 10, 11] for miscellaneous projects that involve: -
    • Taking steps towards specifying Standards for Open Courseware
    • Comparisons of courseware management systems that support picking and mixing of educational components.
    • Identifying user scenarios that courseware management systems need to support.

  • See references [29, 31, 17, 2, 9, 12, 34, 22, 23, 7] for miscellaneous projects that involve: -
    • Focussing on re-usable educational components and enabling resource libraries.

  • See references [15, 16, 2, 13] for current standards initiatives that involve: -
    • Large scale consortium-driven efforts to identify and develop standards for many areas of educational technology.

Current attempts at specifying standards

The scope of the current standards initiatives is very ambitious but wholly justified. A minimal sketch of the area can be inferred just by examining the working group titles from one prominent initiative, i.e., the IEEE P1484 standards initiative (now renamed as the Learning Technology Standards Committee [15]). Their working group briefings during March 1999 were presented under the following headings: Architecture and Reference Model WG, Learner Model WG, Glossary WG, Task Model WG, Course Sequencing WG, Tool/Agent Communications WG, CBT Interchange Language WG, Computer Managed Instruction WG, Learning Objects Metadata WG, Student Identifier WG, Semantic and Exchange Bindings WG, Data Interchange Protocols WG, HTTP Bindings WG, Content Packaging WG, Platform and Media Profiles WG, Quality System for Technology-Based Life-Long Learning WG.

One can see from the above list that these are new layers of standards over and above the software engineering standards referred to earlier. Hence, there is no major contradiction or conflict here. All of the educational technology standards initiatives recognise that they are building educational layers upon emerging software standards. So, for example, in the software arena the World Wide Web Consortium [33] proposes XML as an suitable standard vehicle for expressing metadata and hence XML emerges as a standard. In the educational arena, standards need to be defined for metadata that describe educational objects and the obvious choice is to follow the software industry and specify the educational metadata using XML.

The IEEE-LTSC initiative described above is not the only game in town. There are several large-scale efforts now underway and the good news is that they do appear to be talking to each other and they do appear to have the resources required to make a real impact on this problem. The Educause Instructional Management System (IMS) project [16] is a consortium with scores of academic and commercial partners including all the leading computing industry companies. I remember commenting to the head of the IMS project that I compared 'developing standards within an educational community' to being like pushing a sleeping elephant uphill. His reply was that he agreed but was recently starting to enjoy watching this particular elephant wake up and start to trot. Both of the above initiatives are US in origin. However, both are wide open and amenable to participation from anywhere in the world. Some European involvement is now evident - there is dialogue with some EU projects [2], there is a UK branch of the IMS project [16] and the EU has, after what seems like an eternity, finally issued a 'Memorandum of Understanding' [13], a kind of recognition of the importance of the issues and a statement of intent to do something about it. Given the inherent mismatch between the speed of technology development and the giant bureaucracy of the EU approach, it remains to be seen whether this will have any real impact or not.

Role: facilitators of resources and services

Meanwhile as the various standards initiatives make greater strides towards specifying standards, one has to offer sympathy with their plight. Developers of computer-based educational resources have a long history of creating legacies. Academics were creating courseware resources long before standards were proposed and this has left legacies of useful but hard to re-use courseware [17]. Now the standards bodies are carefully mapping out the range of educational objects that constitute courseware (and finding that it is a bewildering range of objects) but users are moving on to create the next generation of legacy nightmares. If you have noticed how courseware objects are complex then stand by for the next wave of educational modules, modules that incorporate not just resources but also services, modules that embrace computer mediated communications and models of participants in addition to the courseware resources. The rapid rise of the World Wide Web is enabling academics and service providers to meddle with much broader modules than the previously relatively small courseware resources. For want of a better term, I refer to these modules very generally as 'Modules that support Distributed Collaborative Education', also known as 'Distributed Collaborative Education Modules' or abbreviated to 'DiCEd Modules' [4]. These objects are sufficiently broad in scope to embrace at least the following interpretations of 'distributed'. A module may be accessed by a distributed cohort of students and a module may be facilitated by a distributed group of providers, and yet it should appear to everyone as a coherent module. Many objects can qualify as DiCEd Modules including, for example, web sites to support teaching of course units [30, 6], on-line conferences [24], virtual laboratories, digital libraries, information or resource gateways [23], student registries, and many composites of such objects. As excellent new technologies enable educationalists to develop these 'super modules' one can expect the whole cycle of problems to start again. Each of us will build our own DiCEd Modules [4] that form part of Collaborative Educational Networks [7] and use them to realistically support Asynchronous Learning Networks [5] and we will face a new raft of 'pick and mix' problems for which solutions will be improvised until new standards can be defined - the game goes on.

Role: policy makers for virtual institutions

For this section, to the people responsible for policy making, I feel inclined to simply say 'good luck'. It is clear that Computer, Communications and Information Technology is opening up very many new possibilities in work practices [19, 32]. University-based education is evolving towards a state where distributed learning strategies will be necessary and ubiquitous. As this evolution progresses, universities face a requirement for their course units to be deliverable in both a live mode and in a distributed learning mode and in various hybrids of the two modes. Currently inter-institutional sharing of resources (and sharing of students) is a relatively minor activity, mainly because those resources are physical, and sharing physical resources is difficult and not cost effective. As more resources and more students become on-line entities then it becomes technically possible for very fluid sharing of resources between institutions. This fluidity also challenges the monopoly status of higher education institutions, initially is small subversive ways like students discovering that better lecturing materials are being provided free of charge by magazine publishers on the web. Managing the regulated sharing of on-line resources and students raises many issues and poses challenges, technologically, pedagogically, and culturally. This is probably the trickiest 'pick and mix' problem of all. In [8] the author J.Duderstadt refers to 'the ubiquitous university' and suggests a number of themes that will likely characterise the higher education enterprise of the near future: - lifelong learning, a seamless web, asynchronous learning, affordable, interactive and collaborative, diversity.


Just as a personal conclusion, it is sometimes difficult to decide which is the more rewarding activity - contributing to the specification of standards or creating a new mess to which standards can be applied. It has always been a challenge to grapple with current and emerging technologies and apply them to educational goals. It is obvious that the application of standards to educational technology can help with making educational resources more usable and re-usable and hence help to expand the culture of exploiting educational technology for the benefit of teachers and learners. However, it is also true that the definition of standards is a laborious process and one that always seem to lag behind the latest technological opportunities. We can comfortably rely on academics (myself included) to meddle creatively with the latest technologies and to create yet more legacy nightmares, and it seems we can now say thank-you to a few serious standards initiatives that are desperately attempting to provide us with the brooms to sweep up the mess we leave behind.


1. ADLN - Advanced Distributed Learning Network
2. ARIADNE, Alliance of Remote Instructional Authoring and Distribution Networks for Europe,
3. Assisting Collaborative Education publications.
4. Assisting Collaborative Education workshops.
5. Asynchronous Learning Networks,
6. Darby, J., McIntyre, B., Gilham, A., Cantlet, A. & Beale, H. (1998). Lifelong Learning from a connected Oxford. Active Learning, 10, University of Oxford: CTISS Publications.
7. DisCourses and NooLearning - Collaborative Educational Networks, and
8. Duderstadt, J. (1997). The Future of the University in an Age of Knowledge. Asynchronous Learning Networks Web Journal,
9. Educational Object Economy.
10. EPOC - Enabling the Provision of Open Courseware, A Report of the TLTP Working Group on Open Courseware, 1995.
11. EPOC - Steps Towards Open Courseware, A Report of the TLTP Working Group on Open Courseware, 1996.
12. E-Slate: a kit of interoperable educational components,
13. European Union, The new co-operation framework in the form of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU): 'Multimedia Access to Education and Training in Europe - A Partnership for a Common Approach to the Production and Delivery of Learning Technologies, Content and Services',
See also: - Standardisation mandate to CEN, CENELEC and ETSI in the domain of Learning and Training Technologies & Educational Multimedia Software,
14. Hawkridge, D. (1998). Cost-effective support for university students learning via the Web? Association for Learning Technology Journal, 6 (3), 24-29.
15. IEEE Learning Technology Standards Committee, P1484,
16. IMS - Instructional Management Systems,
See also UKIMS
17. King, T. (1998). Towards a strategy for the re-use of legacy teaching materials in web based courses. Active Learning, 9, University of Oxford: CTISS Publications,
18. Microsoft, COM - Component Object Model, and DNA - Windows Distributed interNet Applications Architecture,
19. National Grid for Learning
20. Object Management Group - CORBA.
21. Orfali, R., Harkey, D. & Edwards, J. (1996). The Essential Distributed Objects Guide, John Wiley & Sons.
22. O'Sullivan, U. (1998). ROUTES - developing a collection of internet resources for Open University students. ALT-C 98 conference, lifelong learning on a connected planet, University of Oxford, and
23. Pinakes - subject launch-pad to UK National Gateways,
24. Pincas, A. (1998). Successful online course design: Virtual frameworks for discourse construction. Educational Technology and Society, 1 (1),
25. Siviter, D. & Brown, K. (1992). HyperCourseware. Computers and Education, 18 (1-3), 163-170. See [3] ACE publications.
26. Siviter, D. & Ling, E. (1993). Using HyperCourseware for Computer Assisted Education: an Example using Simulations of Computer Networks. Proceedings of the CAEE 93 Conference on Computer Aided Engineering Education, Bucharest, Romania, 201-206. See [3] ACE publications.
27. Siviter, D. & Siviter, P. (1994) HyperCourseware Developments in ToolBook. Proceedings of the ToolBook User Group Conference, University of Bristol, England, 77-89. See [3] ACE publications.
28. Siviter, D. & Siviter, P. (1995). Issues in Making Courseware Exploitable and Issues in Making Exploitable Courseware. Association for Learning Technology Journal, 3 (1), 22-28. See [3] ACE publications.
29. TooMol - ToolKit for the Management of Learning.
30. TSAD Learning Zone, Web resource to support teaching of Techniques of Systems Analysis and Design,
31. Twining, P., Stratfold, M. & Kukulska-Hulme, A. (1998). SoURCE: Software Use, Re-use & Customisation in Education. Active Learning, 9, University of Oxford: CTISS Publications, and
32. University for Industry
33. W3C - World Wide Web Consortium.
34. World Lecture Hall at University of Texas,