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LAMS to be open sourced, partnership programme announced

After an announcement of the imminent open sourcing of the Learning Design 'inspired' Learning Activity Management System (LAMS) at a special meeting held by the Department for Education and Skills in London last week, LAMS lead developer James Dalziel announced the beta partnership programme at the Alt-I-lab interoperability conference in Redwood City, California. Both moves are designed the make the popular and pedagogically innovative tool readily accessible, sustainable and convergent with the IMS Learning Design interoperability specification.

In a paragraph, the LAMS tool, like the IMS Learning Design specification that inspired it, seeks to offer a learning experience away from content & tests to the whole learning activity. It also shifts the focus from a single learner interacting with content to groups of learners with various roles collaborating with each other. In short, it teachers to plan online lessons that are varied and harness group dynamics, and enables learners to participate in learning activities that address many more aspects of the learning process than just content.

The announcement of the open sourcing of LAMS and the beta partner programme is part of a complex-ish strategy designed, in the words of Prof. Dalziel, to put the pedagogic benefits of Learning Design in the hands of as many teachers and learners as soon as possible.

Readily accessible

Step one is to make the programme free to use, modify and distribute under a GPL licence in February 2005. That doesn't just mean that people can simply download it and use it, it also means that other programmers can look at what LAMS does and extend it, or customise it or help improve it.

James Dalziel expects that most of the modification and extension that will be done on LAMS will focus on extra collaboration tools for the system. A fair few are already included with the system, but more can be added relatively easily both by the LAMS team and anyone with a particular need or itch to scratch.

The core LAMS platform itself is expected to remain mainly the preserve of the original LAMS development team. It is reported to be a complex and tightly coupled piece of software, that requires a fair bit of experience to work on, so third party contributions will be closely vetted by the LAMS team before they are incorporated into the main tool. James expects to remain the 'benevolent dictator' of that process, much like Linus Torvalds is of the open source Linux operating system.

Sustainable

Still, even if few people will mess around with the core code of LAMS, the open nature of the code means that the tool is less dependent on its creators: whatever may befall them, the programme can continue to be developed and supported.

That may sound a little harsh on James Dalziel's team, but it is an important consideration for people who are responsible for letting their staff invest a lot of time and effort into creating learning activities with LAMS. As further re-assurance, the rights to the LAMS tool have been put under the not-for-profit LAMS foundation.

But many adopters will feel that just being able to download the tool and having access to the code is not enough for a viable exit strategy or even enough to make a tool widely deployable in an institution with a lot of users. This is what the beta partner programme has been set up to address.

For a minimum investment of $15,000 in LAMS International Pty Ltd, educational institutions can get a package of support, training and other services and the warm feeling of contributing towards the further development of the tool. The contribution will get you access to the tool prior to the 1.0 release in February too. LAMS International Pty Ltd is also the place where commercial vendors can go to get a conventionally licensed version of LAMS for integration in their own Virtual Learning Environments, much like the popular, dual licensed MySQL database software. Existing beta partners from the closed source era will be migrated to the new programme.

In organisational terms, then, LAMS was designed and developed by WebMCQ Pty Ltd, but, following negotiations with Macquarie University, the tool and the team moved to the two new entities —LAMS International Pty Ltd and the LAMS Foundation—, both of whom are supported by Macquarie. The team is housed in the Macquarie E-Learning Centre of Excellence (MELCOE). Any commercial work is undertaken by LAMS International, including general Research and Development on the tool on behalf of the LAMS foundation. To all intents and purposes, any outside contributions intended purely for LAMS development will take the form of donations of money or development time to the LAMS foundation.

As James will readily admit, this is an, erm, innovative construction that is designed to combine the strengths of open and closed source development. For those that require a little more reassurance, the GPL could be a welcoming comfort blanket.

Convergent

A little more reassurance should also come from the fact that the 1.0 version of LAMS is scheduled to support level A of the IMS Learning Design specification. That level is one of three, and covers only fairly basic functionality. Aspects of learning activities will be lost in the translation to other IMS Learning Design tools such as the equally open source CopperCore engine, or tools that are based on it.

Beyond that, James Dalziel hopes that both the spec can be updated in the light of his and other people's implementation experiences, and that LAMS can be adapted to support the full specification.

The new UNFOLD learning design implementor community of practice will, among other things, address extensions and modifications to the specification, and the LAMS team intends to fully participate in that process.

Resources

Most information about LAMS and the activities of LAMS International Pty Ltd are available on the LAMS International website.

More information about the open source aspects of LAMS can be found on the new LAMS Foundation site.

General information about e-learning at Macquarie is available from the MELCOE site.

The documents that inform the discussions about Learning Design and other topics at Alt-I-Lab, are available from the IMS site.

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