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Learning Design inspiration

After months of demos, talks and an increasing buzz, WebMCQ and MELCOE have made the Learning Activity Management System (LAMS) public. The IMS Learning Design "inspired" editing and playback system is said to revolutionise the way eLearning is done: by focussing on the process of learning, rather than just shovelling content.

The heart of the system is a visual editor that allows educators to choreograph a whole learning activity around a particular topic. By dragging and dropping acts like synchronous discussion (chat), web polls, students posting material and structured debates, a series of online lessons can be planned much like a conventional lesson. The player part of the system then allows a group of students to take part in all these activities, and presents the right tools at the right time, and divides the group into smaller groups, if that's what the teacher designed.

This approach contrasts rather with the dominant focus on content in eLearning so far. A typical elearning experience today consists of an individual learner going through a pre-determined series of pages or videos, punctuated by simple tests, at her own pace. IMS Simple Sequencing -which is part of the forthcoming SCORM 1.3 specification- introduced some more sophisticated ways of specifying a path through a collection of content, but is not meant to ditch the 'single learner trudging a path through stuff' model.

The IMS Learning Design specification was designed to go beyond this approach. Based on work by the Open University of the Netherlands' Educational Modelling Language (EML), it was conceived to capture as much as possible from what is common across many different pedagogical approaches. Using people in roles, chuncks of content (learning objects), resources and acts as the basic building blocks, it allows educators to facilitate all kinds of interaction between not just content and the learner, but also learners and other learners, the teacher or virtually anyone else. It is also designed to integrate online activities with offline, face to face activities. In a word, it focusses on context, rather than just content.

That also means that an existing learning activity can be easily adapted for a different topic. In the case of LAMS, according to its project leader, James Dalziel, an activity can be changed from one topic to another in five minutes or so- provided the educator already has the raw content for that topic. As with designing the learning activity itself, swapping out content is a matter of dragging out the existing stuff, and dropping in the new.

Though LAMS is not an implementation of Learning Design, it is "inspired by, and heavily based on, IMS Learning Design and EML". The main difference between a fully IMS Learning Design compliant system and LAMS is that LAMS was mainly created for one specific use: the "What is Greatness (in a human being)" use case or serie of lessons. It can accommodate other learning activities, but not quite so many, in quite so many ways as the IMS specification envisages. Also, the technical implementation of LAMS differs from what the spec says.

According to James Dalziel, LAMS is expected to be IMS Learning Design compliant in the future, once the system (and the spec) is more mature. Also in the future is a range of new services that can be integrated into a learning activity.

The LAMS system itself is currently being beta tested in a wide variety of primary and secondary schools, colleges and universities across Australia, Canada and the UK. Preliminary, informal results indicate that the system can help increase the participation rate of some students dramatically.

The system will be fully released in the beginning of 2004, at which point much more will be made public about the licensing terms, present and future functionality and standard compliance.

How the "What is Greatness (in a human being)" use case works in LAMS will be outlined by James Dalziel at a half day workshop at the ASCILITE2003 conference. A paper about the use case is available from the MELCOE website; it gives a good picture of what LAMS can do and what the Learning Design approach to eLearning looks like in practice.

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