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Fostering interoperability, Japanese style

Japan's Advanced Learning Infrastructure Consortium (ALIC) has been promoting e-learning interoperability standards in their part of the world, much like Industry Canada, SURF SiX or CETIS. Except that it funds single open source implementations of specifications. By Japan's main educational software vendors themselves. We ask ALIC's Kyoshi Nakabayashi about their experiences with the approach.

ALIC operates under the auspices of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI)- the part of government generally regarded as the architects of Japan's post war economic boom. ALIC was set up to promote an e-learning infrastructure for Japan, and colloborates with all major Virtual and Managed Learning Environment (MLE/VLE) vendors in Japan.

ALIC has, amongst other things, made an application profile of the LOM, translated a number of e-learning interoperability specs to Japanese, and has been particularly active in the adaptation of the SCORM test suite and other specs for double byte languages (i.e. the encodings of Japanese, Korean and Chinese characters). They also have a conformance programme and they hold seminars and tutorials on standards.

WK: Why did ALIC commission the development of open source modules or libraries?

Nakabayashi: First of all to make the implementation of standards easier: if the major functionality of a standard is available as software, vendors can just put it into their tool, and customise it to suit their needs.
Second reason is that it helps achieve interoperability: if all vendors in the Japanese market have to, at least, make sure that their tools behave like the open source implementation, we can be sure that content can be exchanged. For those vendors who make use of the open source modules, it is even easier: the look and feel will differ per LMS [learning management system, WK], but the behaviour of the content will be exactly the same.
Third reason is that it helps spread expertise: it is the vendors who get commissioned to do the library implementation, so when the project finishes, the engineers take all their expertise with them back into the companies, where they often train their colleagues in the use and implementation of the standards.

What kind of response has their been from the vendors?
Quite a few like it, and make use of it, but there will always be companies who prefer their own implementation. There's also a few universities who have used the open source libraries in their own tools. It is important to realise that the vendors are quite free to add their own user interface and extra functionality.

What kind of modules have you already developed?
Nakabayashi: the SCORM/CMI JavaScript API [the adapter that passes interaction data from content to a VLE] and IMS Simple Sequencing 0.7.5. We are working on an update to Simple Sequencing 1.0 and SCORM 2004. This will be available in 1 or 2 months, and be made available under an LGPL-like open source / free software licence. Most vendors are waiting for that one, rather than use the draft standard. At the same time, we hope to release an IMS QTI [Question and Test Interoperability] engine we've been working on, under a similar license.

What technologies do you use?
Nakabayashi: Both the Simple Sequencing engine and the QTI engine are Java libraries- we have a demonstrator of the present Simple Sequencing implementation that runs as a servlet in the open source tomcat server, though other servlet containers should also work. It has a basic user interface, but that's not the main point. We have tested it in Windows 2000, and we will test it on Linux. At the moment all the JavaDoc documentation on the libraries is in Japanese, though.

In the demo, the present, IMS Simple Sequencing 0.7.6 version of the sequencing engine is fully functional, and correctly allows learners to skip parts of an activity, depending on the results of a test. It also gives learners a free choice of Sharable Content Objects (SCOs) where required.

More information on ALIC and its activities is available from the English version of the ALIC website

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