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Learning content. Theirs, yours, mine and ours.

On the 30th of September, MIT's Open Course Ware (OCW) initiative will make the first batch of MIT learning resources available to the world. Free of charge. On the other side of the pond, the CELEBRATE project has just started to establish a digital repository to see, among many other things, what kind of model will generate a viable stock of learning objects for Europe's schools. Meanwhile, projects like the universal brokerage project and the UK's National Learning Network (NLN) are maturing nicely. The question that arises, then, is where all that learning content is going to come from, and, more importantly, who is going to make it.

Though far from a run course, we pretty much know what form elearning content will take: learning objects. While the debate about the term's exact definition continues to rage, it is clear that chunks of content smaller than a complete module or course, but still large enough to be more or less self-contained will be easiest to insert into any specific course. This is what makes them re-useable in other courses. The trickier question is where the learning objects come from in the first place, and who is allowed to re-use it.

The received answer is that a number of large repositories or brokerage systems will aggregate lots of finished learning objects, and then make them available to whoever has an agreement with the creators. The commercial content industry hopes that they will be those creators in the majority of cases, and that the agreement involves money. The object remains theirs, and you pay for its use.

The revolutionary aspect of the OCW initiative is that the money part will be foregone. Other than that, the model is fairly similar to the received view: The finished resources will be put online in a central repository, they will be owned by their creators (mostly individual MIT faculty) and they will be licensed to you under some softish conditions. In other words, the content is still theirs, you just don't have to pay for it. Still, one of MIT's goals is for OCW to be the first move in a general opening up of learning content by other institutions. Ideally, we would reciprocate by making learning objects that are yours and mine available in the same way.

So what about learning objects that are ours? Is there a place for them, and what need would they fulfill? For those questions, we need to look a bit closer at the other models.

Learning objects that are paid for and theirs have the advantage of being polished, fancy and robust. For widely used content that involves a lot of multimedia development, the model makes a lot of sense. The high upfront development costs and risks are born by the developer who, in an ideal, interoperable world, can get their money back by charging a lot of people relatively little. Rolling your own is not practical or cost effective. Where the model will not work so well is in highly specialized contexts, or situations where content needs to be updated very regularly. Economic realities also mean that not every institution will be able to buy in all their content, or even need slick animation and video in every learning object.

Learning objects that are theirs and not paid for address these economic constraints very well, even if they leave the context, updating and specialization issue relatively unaddressed. If the rest of the world follows MIT's example, a greater variety of niche learning objects could become available, but at the cost of reduplication of effort. Or rather; avoiding of effort, because keeping a specialized learning object current on your own will either not be possible or not worth it.

Which is where the 'ours' comes in. As the founders of the Harvey project for the development of on-line medical courseware already realized a couple of years ago, pooling development effort and time among educators should be quite effective. The experience of open source software developers certainly suggests so. For example, many webmasters in the early days of the web found that existing webserving software didn't address their needs adequately, and that they couldn't modify or improve many of these packages either. Developing a new webserver from scratch on their own was out of the question economically, so they started the Apache project. Many geeks contributing a bit of their time and effort resulted in a piece of software that powers roughly half the web today. More importantly, it is easily adapted to meet even the most esoteric needs.

So why --pace the Harvey project-- has the same not happened in education? As webmasters tinker with webservers, educators make learning content. But most webmasters live by serving webpages, not by selling server software, just as most educators live by educating people, not by selling learning objects. Why not pool the effort?

Three reasons spring to mind: one technical, one economic and one cultural. The technical obstacle is that the larger and well known learning object repositories and brokerages do not (yet) support open course development very well. Apart from their own role as intermediaries, they presuppose or stipulate at least two other roles: provider and customer. And never the twain shall meet. Even if provisions are made for the right of the customer to modify the provider's learning objects, there is no robust and orderly way to put these modifications back to the copy of the object in the system. This problem can be addressed by borrowing another concept from the software world: a Concurrent Versions System (CVS). This is a system where many participants can work on the same objects at the same time, without either overwriting each other's work, or deleting all previous versions. That, and many other functions that allow a disparate group of people to work on a complex artefact at the same time. And it is this complexity that leads directly to the economical difficulty: expertise.

Even without having to deal with a CVS, producing interoperable learning objects (which is absolutely necessary for anyone's learning object to be re-useable) can be a difficult and time consuming task. Which is why content publishers and well resourced institutions pay specialists to do the technical bits for them. It is not, as yet, worth an educator's while to learn to do that themselves, even if such skills may eventually become as commonplace as the ability to handle a wordprocessor and a spreadsheet is now.

That still leaves the cultural shift that only some software developers have attempted thus far: relinquishing control over what is 'mine'. As the existence of brokerages (as opposed to open, web connected repositories) already shows, not many content producers of any kind are happy to put their work on a machine that is not under their control. The prospect of having to argue with droves of other equally opinionated professionals over what should happen to the learning object you initiated is not going to make this any easier.

There is, of course, no magic bullet that gets rid all these obstacles. Still, there are some developments that, given time, may make surmounting them a bit easier. One is Edutella, a semantic web based project that addresses the most difficult issue --that of control-- by getting rid of the server - client relation that is a feature of most present content sharing systems. Rather than having the learning objects stored in a central system, or even just having discovery and access to the objects regulated by a central system, it moves control and ultimate storage back to users' own machines. That is, it is a peer to peer technology, much like Napster was in the music file sharing area. Combined with ongoing efforts to develop technologies that will allow users to edit content and information about content (metadata) collaboratively, this could help ad hoc, subject specific communities to pool resources. It won't make the learning object editing process all that much easier, nor will it magic time and thus money out of thin air, but for some teaching material and for some educators, the rewards are bound to outweigh the effort. At the end of the day, our learning objects can suit me better than yours, theirs or even my own.

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