Common cartridge – the future or five years too late?

A large part of the recent IMS quarterly meeting in Heerlen was devoted to their new Common Cartridge specification. Heavily backed by publishers and vendors (including Pearson, McGraw Hill, Thompson, Angel, Sakai,Desire2Learn and Blackboard to name a few) this specification claims to “define a commonly supported content format, able to run on any compliant LMS platform.” which will “enable content providers to achieve lower production costs whilst expanding the effective market by eliminating platform dependency. This will both stimulate production by larger content providers and open up the market to their smaller counterparts. The LMS providers in turn, will have a stronger business case to take to their customers, as schools, colleges, universities, training departments and certification programs will have available a broader catalog of offerings reaching deeper into the curriculum.”

But wasn’t content packaging supposed to do that, weren’t we being promised this five years ago . . . Well yes, but as the CETIS codebashes showed, making packages interoperable wasn’t just as easy as implementing the specifcation, particularly when the specfication is able to be implemented in many different ways.

In essense the Common Cartridge specification is a profile of IMS Content Packaging which is begining to tie down many of the issues which imlementors and codebashes have highlighted. As well as IMS Content Packaging, this new specifcation also supports a number of other commonly used specifications including IMS Question & Test Interoperability v1.2, IMS Tools Interoperability Guidelines v1.0, IEEE Learning Object Metadata v1.0, SCORM v1.2 and SCORM 2004. Perhaps reflecting the more business (and dare I say pragmatic make up of the working group) support for newer versions of exsiting specifications such as QTI 2.0 is not being included in the initial release, as it was felt that there isn’t enough widespread adoption of these yet.

So, is this just another case of ‘old wine in a new bottle’ or can this specfication actually offer true interoperability? In the brave new world of webserivces are IMS Tools Interoperability guidelines relevant? Well, for me the jury is still out. If publishers and vendors back this and there are large numbers of cartridges available, then it will have an impact on certain parts of the education sector. But as for teachers/learning technologists creating/using/reusing them . . . I guess that will depend on the tools that are around to create the cartridges and aren’t we all just self generating content in wikis and blogs now anyway 🙂

To help gain a clearer understanding of the potential impact of the Common Cartridge, Kevin Riley from IMS Global Org, is giving a presentation at the next Educational Content SIG meeting on 7th December at Glasgow Caledonian University. There will also be a presenation about the recently launched OU Open Content Initiative from Patrick McAndrew. Following in the footsteps of the MIT OpenCourseWare project, this UK based project is offering free online materials. It was hinted at the Heerlen meetings that Common Cartridge could be a potential format for this project. Watch this space for more details, or better still come along to the meeting and find out more.

Learners Experiences of e-Learning projects – update @ e-pedagogy experts meeting

An overview for the ‘understanding my learning’ (the learners experience of e-learning projects) was presented at the recent e-pedagogy experts meeting by Greg Benfield and Ellen Lessner of the support project from this strand of the pedagogy programme.

As part of the synthesis of the projects, a number of guides have been produced for learners, authors and designers, support staff, managers and tutors. The guides make extensive use of the case studies and interviews with students collected during the project. Lots of ‘real’ quotes from ‘real’ students are used to highlight each issue. An overview and links to project outputs including the LEX Final Report are available on the JISC website

A number of interesting messages are coming through from the work in terms of learners beliefs of elearning, including the fact that student’s have very strong emotional attachments to their own technology:

“ … and I was lying on the beach with my iPod and it just had been through so much,
like you remember lying on beach…with iPod. You remember on the plane…with iPod, so
it was an emotional attachment, sad, but I loved that thing.”

but don’t have the same attachment to institutional hardware and indeed software/ learning environments.

“… what annoys me with this is that you have to swipe your card to get into the
building, enter your password to get onto the intranet and then for every individual
thing enter your password. So if I do it at home it’s all set up and I just press OK, but
this time it asks me and I have to do it five times, ‘What is your password?’, and every
time I’m like, ‘It’s still me, I’m not doing anything different!’”

An argument for a PLE if ever I heard one 🙂

It also seems to be the case that students have mixed views on the benefits of e-learning, and do still need and value guidance on how to use VLEs. Students expect technology to enhance their learning experience and won’t engage with it unless they see a clear benefit.

I would recommend the final report as it really does give an real insight into the student’s point of view, which unfortunately we are all guilty of forgetting about at times, and isn’t it really the one thing we should all be working towards making as good as possible?

Inspirational -v- runnable designs – some thoughts from d4l meetings last week

The latest JISC epedagogy experts forum meeting took place in Birmingham last week, 26th October and included sessions from three of the projects in the current design for learning programme. (As you know we are providing the support project for this programme.) The projects involved were Mod4l, Pheobe and User-oriented Planner for Learning Analysis and Design. The former is concerned with developing practice models and the latter two with developing pedagogic planning tools.

The experts meeting was followed the next day with a smaller meeting for the three projects, the CETIS support team, JISC and Glenaffric ( programme evaluators). One interesting articulation from both days and coined by Isobel Falconer (MOD4L) is the difficulty in distinguishing and representing an inspirational design – one that really grabs teachers attention and imagination – and a runnable design – one that is machine (and sometimes human) readable but often lacks any information about the design which would motivate a teacher/course designer.

So when we are trying to produce generic models and tools such as pedagogic planners how do we represent examples of good designs ( if you can ever really know what a ‘good’ design is). How can we represent different types of designs in a conceptual way? Can there be a common abstraction(s), which is decontextualised from a subject specifc area, which still makes sense to all teachers? Patterns are one potential solution, but how are they actually implemented in the tools currently available? It seems that LAMS 2.0 may be able to create patterns but that is only one possible technical solution.

This discussion led onto a debate on what the three projects and indeed the programme as a whole is trying to achieve. Should the planner projects provide tools which help plan their teaching (taking into account institutional drivers such as room availability, class time, staff time etc) or should they be changing practice by providing examples which inspire, encourage self-reflection, and ultimately transform teaching practice. Or is it about providing tools to which help with more effective planning skills taking into account institutional factors such as room availability, staff availability, class size, time contraints, tools available through institution etc. Of course, the programme is trying to do all of these, and serendipitously each of the planners has taken a slightly different approach.

The User Orientated Planner (aka the London Project) is looking far more like a high level whole course planner which takes into account all the institutional issues and forces the user to include them. At the moment it has an excel prototype which the team are using with practitioners and there is a more interactive version (in Director) in development. The Pheobe project is taking a wiki based approach and what looks like (in the initial demo of the early prototype shown ) a softer approach with less of an emphasis on the higher level institutional issues – however they are included. The London project is closely tied into LAMS however Pheobe isn’t tied to any tools and would like to be flexible enough so that if any instituion wanted to use it they could list the tools they provide/support. Another interesting aside brought up by the Pheobe team was in relation to searching and the possibility of using personal recommendations as a search criteria, maybe based FOAF, as many practitioners would look at a design just because they knew who had created/and or recommened it.

The one common difficulty all the projects are having is when they want their tools provide examples of designs similar to those being constructed by users. There is still a dearth of examples and this leads us back to the representation issue.

The support wiki is starting to gather examples of designs and already has a discussion topic on the issues involved. Hopefully we can start to unpack these issues in more detail in the coming months.