||Educational Technology & Society 2(2) 1999
Objects in Education: from Courseware Widgets to Virtual Universities
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
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
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
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' , 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
. 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)
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
- HyperCourseware as a conceptual framework for developing computer-based
- 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 ). 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  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
 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 , there is a
UK branch of the IMS project  and the EU has,
after what seems like an eternity, finally issued a 'Memorandum of
Understanding' , 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 . 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' .
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 , virtual laboratories,
digital libraries, information or resource gateways ,
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  that form part
of Collaborative Educational Networks  and use
them to realistically support Asynchronous Learning Networks
 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  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.
||ARIADNE, Alliance of Remote Instructional Authoring and Distribution Networks
for Europe, http://ariadne.unil.ch
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