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LionShare peer-to-peer project kicks off

image:LionShare peer-to-peer project kicks off

When the Visual User Image Study at Penn State looked at the use of images by students and staff they discovered a good many hidden treasure troves. How, then, to share these and other digital assets without taking control away from the owners? The LionShare peer-to-peer project aims to reconcile the two. We talk to the project's lead, Penn State's Mike Halm.

In both further and higher education, a good many teaching & learning and research material are either home grown or 'home tweaked' out of material shared with others. Most of these things sit on PC hard disks. Nothing wrong with that, but a good many people have tried to make that process a bit easier and more efficient- especially since the growth in the amount of eLearning material.

But the proposed solutions are nearly always a version of getting people's content off their PCs and into silos that belong to 'them'. 'Them' could be your friendly local techy, the librarians, the college administrators, a company- whatever, but not 'us', or, most importantly, 'me'. And that may be a problem, because I know best with whom I want to share my articles, learning objects or other digital assets.

The idea behind LionShare is to give people that control by providing them with a program that runs on their own machine, and allows them to create shared communities. That can be a local department, the whole college or a group of researchers in the same field, wherever they may be.

Such peer to peer (P2P) technology, however, tends to put the fear of Napster (or, more accurately, the lawyers of the RIAA) into administrators. Not just that, in a conventional P2P network such as Napster or its descendants, once a resource has been put out there, there is no way of finding out where it goes, or what someone does with it. For that reason, LionShare integrates authenticated access into the client, so that users are never anonymous on the network.

One other practical consideration for any resource network is the availability of a decent collection of resources right from the start. A library without books is not very useful, after all. To this end, LionShare will incorporate the technology to interoperate with major existing learning object networks and digital libraries, much like the conceptually very similar SPLASH tool from Simon Fraser university interoperates with the rest of Canada's eduSource network. LionShare networks will also be able to talk to SPLASH networks, as its makers are involved in the development of LionShare.

To find out a little more about LionShare and the ideas behind it, we talked to Mike Halm, chief architect of the project.

The outline of the project says that "if they [regular users] could find these resources, it is not clear whether they could use the materials or how they would get permission to do so." Why not solve that problem by using a Digital Rights Expression Language (DREL) and some access control and authorisation function on a dedicated repository?


Because we want to focus on the individual, to let them make the decision with whom they want to share, and make it easy, without the overhead of a whole digital rights infrastructure.

What we want to do is get rid of the anonymity [of P2P networks, WK]- the LionShare application started as a kind of personal information manager. We found that a lot of people had trouble keeping track of all their stuff. The trick was to make making metadata as easy as possible; you authenticate, the program harvests lots of metadata about you from the LDAP server, and from the files that are being organised, templates for specific kinds of objects and from re-useable profiles. That means that we'll only need to collect a couple of fields direct from the user.

We want to foster communities- hence the peer server. Access is controlled via the peer server- stuff is persisted there. So if you take a laptop with a LionShare peer home, authorised people will still be able to get at the resources. A department can have a server, and only grant access to that department. There would be a Shibboleth [common network access function, WK] 'lite' authorisation engine on the server.

The idea is that wide spread communities can still be properly integrated- via federated access control.

How will you be going about the problem of searching a number of different collections with one single search?

We will make use of eduSource's work on IMS DRI [Digital Repository Interoperability], which enables us to talk the Z39.50 and OAI [Open Archive Initiative] protocols that the big libraries use. They can also get back in to the P2P network- if the LionShare peer allows it.

We're also looking at OKI [Open Knowledge Initiative] interfaces for authorisation and federating searches among multiple Learning Object Networks- that's were our real focus is. The LionShare network will have an OSID [OKI interface, WK] that will help do that.

Another important thing is to build a development community right from the start. With every release of the tools we'll have a requirements bucket. If its out of the scope of our project, developers can build it with support from the open source community, unlike, for example, OKI.

Which main protocols are you looking at for LionShare itself?

The P2P protocol we have used so far is Gnutella, but we've had to alter it so that you have to authenticate first. Dartmouth is also doing a PKI [Public Key Infrastructure] implementation of the Gnutella protocol- that might be worth pursuing. We'll evaluate other ones like JXTA, which has some security already built in.

With that kind of control, it could even be feasible to use LionShare for authoring and controlling an ePortfolio. The UK's learner information profile, for example, envisages that the Personal Development Record, at least, be controlled by the learner herself. Which is fine, but leaves the problem of where to store these things in a predictable way. A peer to peer client with the whole UK Learner Profile on it could be quite attractive. Particularly if it comes complete with a means to check the authenticity of the transcript and check the authorisation of, say, a particular employer to look at a relevant portion of the profile.

For now, though, the project is mostly concerned with sharing learning objects, images and other multimedia material among communities that you define. More information on the project can be found on a LionShare web site. To find out more about Splash, go to the EduSplash site.

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