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Connexions on the Creative Commons

Fine grained learning objects? Check. Separation of content from presentation via XML? Check. Storage in a repository? Check. Open Source tools? Check. Free content? Check. Collaborative content development? Check. Standard compliant? kind of. So what is new about Rice University's Connexions? Its all of these things in one well funded project.

Borne out of one lecturer's frustration with the disconnected and often redundant nature of traditional textbooks, Connexions' goals probably reads like an educators' dream of what learning technology should do: A one stop shop for small bits of content, free to use, combine, modify and add to, with proper persistence and author attribution and control combined with tools that are just there. Though the technological solutions brought to bear on the problem by the project are hardly original, the combination of everything and the focus on content could represent a bit of a challenge for established learning technologies.

What the Connexions project specifically aims to deliver is a respository of learning objects and a set of open source tools to author, combine and navigate them. The repository is based on a home-grown XML application --cnxML-- which, though DTD based, can be combined with other XML dialects. At present, that's MathML and another homegrown educational testing language, QML. The tools developed so far include a content navigation toolbar for browsers ('Roadmap') and a Course Composer. As the name implies, Connexions will develop more tools to establish connections between 'modules' (i.e. learning objects). Envisaged are 'lenses' that focus on particular concepts, kinds of content, degrees of popularity or stages of post-publishing peer review of content.

More important than the specific technologies is the model of collaborative development. Like, for example, MIT's OCW, Connexions' content is freely accessible over the web. The difference is that the system has been designed from the ground up to also facilitate colloborative course content development. Authors can submit modules, and license it with the Connexions Open Content License, which basically states that "... anyone may freely use or modify the content, including commercially, as long as the original source is credited, and as long as the resulting materials carry the same license as the Connexions content." The content itself is authored and stored in a development group- even if the group consists of just the one author with editing privileges. Any modification to a published module will have to be done either by the original author, or by someone else publishing the modified module under combined names- unless the original author objects to the use of his/her name. The whole scheme uses the set of licences of the recently launched Creative Commons initiative.

While undoubtedly a very valuable idea, the big question with any of these initiatives is whether they'll have a chance of taking off. On the technological side, the home grown XML formats smack a little of reinventing the wheel, and creating unnecessary barriers to interoperability. On the plus side, translating the content to, say, IMS formats ought to be possible with some XSL transformations and there is already a move to make relevant parts of the system OKI compliant. Also, since the whole thing is open source, one of the primary aims of interoperability standards --avoiding vendor lock-in-- is not an issue. Particularly since the project looks well funded enough by Rice, HP and The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to not just leave users stranded. The really crucial point will be whether enough early adopting authors will take to the content licences.

More information is available from the Connexions website.

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