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NLN material plugs OK

*update* Prototype materials for the latest round of National Learning Network (NLN) content development have been successfully tested. After a round of trialling and testing by a number of different colleges and educational centres, the interoperable packages were presented in Birmingham by the six content vendors. Unlike previous batches, this round of content procurement by the NLN will be aimed exclusively at Adult and Community Learning (ACL).

The NLN materials are a collection of bite size chunks of e-learning content that are free for use in the FE and ACL sector in the UK. They're centrally held and commissioned from professional content vendors, but are meant to be used in any college or centre's VLE. 'Use' doesn't just mean 'play', as a fair few people also modify and repackage them to meet their purposes.

In short, the content needs to be interoperable, and that was one of the main purposes of the content developer forum and plugfest.

The event brought together the NLN materials team, five content vendors (Desq, Line, BTL, Plato, EPIC and Tata) and a number of representatives of the colleges and centres that are going to use the materials. At this stage, each of the vendors had a prototype content package that had already been trialled with learners up and down the country and tested by many volunteers in as many different VLEs as possible.

A new audience

This fourth round of materials procurement was a little different from previous rounds in that it introduced both a learner audience that was new to the NLN materials, often to e-learning in general, and frequently to computers full stop. For that reason, some stringent new criteria had been introduced to ensure that the interaction and features of the materials are relatively consistent, and to ensure that everyone can access them, no matter what their abilities.

The people who take ACL courses and the reasons for the taking them vary from anyone with an interest in learning per se to people who want to brush up on their literacy and numeracy skills with a view to (re-)enter the job market. The prototypes, therefore, included anything from a taster foreign language course to a guide for learning together with your child.

One other characteristic of this type of education was pointed out by Alastair Clark of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE): most ACL course are not accredited. Hence no formal diploma at the end. For that reason, there is some push for using other means of recording achievement. One such means that is of increasing interest to that community is blogs, particularly in conjunction with digital pictures.

The plugging

One other difference for the content vendors was a more stringent interoperability standards conformance requirement. Experience from the previous rounds has made the NLN team quite well aware of what does and doesn't work in the average VLE, and a SCORMish profile of IMS Content Packaging has been tweaked to suit.

In the event, the approach and experience paid off: the profile works almost without exception. That's also because of the volunteer interoperability testing by a fair few colleges on their own VLEs. That method was partially born of necessity, since some of the vendors of the most widely used VLEs in the sector weren't always forthcoming in setting up testing accounts for the content vendors.

The good thing about that approach is, of course, that you get a pretty direct picture of the real-life interoperability issues that the users face. In this context, it also gave a particularly interesting insight in the kinds of VLEs that people use in the sector: most tested by far was Moodle. The open source system outranked the runner-up by four to one. As soon-to-depart NLN materials Technical Project Manager Luke Bennett remarked, Moodle also has the advantage that, if some content doesn't work, and it's down to Moodle's implementation of the standards, you can go right in and fix it.

As it happens, Moodle did choke a little on some of the content, with some navigation buttons throwing a couple of errors, but working otherwise. Other than that, the only other issues had to do with some VLEs not parsing the IMS Content Packaging manifest at all, not doing the SCORM learner tracking and one choking on the namespace of the 1.1 version of the IMS Meta-Data spec that is used in the NLN profile. Given the range and age of the VLEs involved, that is as good as it could possibly get.

The people from Xtensis eLearning will be working hard to resolve or work around those last few issues. They have been tasked by the NLN team to develop and support the NLN profile, and they also provide the content management platform for the content developers. A new version of the Xtensis platform was announced at the NLN event that takes feedback from the content vendors into account. The metadata editor will be focussed more tightly on the NLN profile, and by enabling plug-in vocabularies. File handling will be made easier by being able to mount the repository as a network drive via WebDAV. Most importantly, the process of checking materials against the whole content profile has been largely automatised.


More information about the NLN Materials can be found on the NLN website. The prototype materials are highlighted in a new issue of NLN Materials World.

Note that the round four materials will not be available until winter 2005/2006, but that the materials of round three will be available very soon.

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