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Alt-I-Lab 2005 Demonstrators

The Alt-I-Lab conference has a regular demonstrators session where participants can show off their latest interoperability wares to the assembled crowd. This session tends to be held in an informal market-style which lends itself to a great deal of informed discussion between participants and really is at the core of what the Alt-I-Lab conference is about.

To ensure that the demonstrations are good examples of interoperability, Alt-I-Lab lay down some general ground rules:

  1. The demonstration must involve three or more participants.
  2. The demonstration must address an interoperability issue of concern to the community
  3. There must be three or more implementations of the scenario available for demonstration
  4. The means of implementation must be documented and available for potential release to the public.
This year there were three tables set up in the hall hosting demonstration sessions on Learning Design, Repository Interoperability and Tools Interoperability.

Learning Design

The tools being demonstrated for the Learning Design session were the OUNL's CopperCore, iClass ASK-LDT and the RELOAD LD Editor produced by CETIS. Colin Tattersall from the OUNL and Colin Milligan from CETIS/University of Strathclyde presented the demo which aimed to show the life cycle of a learning design from creation, through editing, configuration and actual classroom-style use. One of the participants, Pythagoras Karampiperis of CERTH unfortunately could not make it to the conference due to injury.

The educational scenario chosen was a reasonably complex one involving several different roles - two students and a facilitator engaging in a group activity, in this case a discussion of the merits of the new EU Constitution. Learners were expected to give opinions and respond to each others opinions while being monitored by the facilitator.

Colin started by showing ASK-LDT which provides a tree-like interface for editing and creating learning designs - to set up the roles and learning activities detailed in the scenario. A Unit of Learning (UoL) which in true Blue Peter style had been prepared earlier was produced from under the counter still steaming and we examined it's various nodes. As far as I can tell, ASK-LDT is not generally available at the time of writing - for more information see http://www.iclass.info/

The completed UoL contained in a IMS Learning Design package was then uploaded into CopperCore and validated, which declared it syntactically and semantically correct. A little setup work using CopperCore’s rather un-friendly command line interface assigned users to the various roles defined in the UoL after which the scenario was ready to roll.

People from the crowd were selected to fill the various roles – two learners got down to entering initial thoughts on the EU Constitution watched by the beady eyes of the facilitator who was able to view the various comments.

CopperCore Screenshot
CopperCore capturing thoughts on the European Constitution

Following this it was decided that the learner contributions should be changed so to be anonymous – and the design was opened up in the RELOAD editor to make the appropriate tweak before being loaded back into CopperCore and played through for a second time. Like ASK-LDT the RELOAD Learning Design editor uses a tree-like view with forms to fill in for each node. Both editing tools are aimed at people who already have some understanding of the specification - and while it takes out much of the effort of typing angle brackets and remembering which attributes go where, the fundamentals of needing to know what is meant by a play or a role still apply.

All the tools being demonstrated could take some refinement from a user-interface perspective, removing some of the more mechanical tasks of pushing files around from a designer’s workflow (perhaps by employing the Repository OSID) and creating a graphical interface for role-assignment in CopperCore should be high on the priority list.

Tools Interoperability

The IMS Tools Interoperability spec came out of a need for Virtual Learning Environments to be able to “hand over control” to other systems. These could be anything from Assessment engines to simulations or even content authoring environments. The goal is that these bolted-on tools appear to become part of the VLE - in a manner “invisible” to the learner even though the systems are actually separate. It goes without saying that these separate systems must also have the ability to exchange data between each other.

Tools Interoperability makes use of a combination of WebServices at the back end with some clever web proxying and iFrames in the browser to make the whole thing appear reasonably seamless. The configuration, launch and deployment services which negotiate the delivery of the content are complimented by an outcome service to send any necessary messages back from the embedded system to its host.

A range of systems were tested including the APIS QTI renderer from Strathclyde, Questionmark Perception, Sakai SAMigo and ConceptTutor from the University of Wisconsin - Madison. The host systems used were Sakai, Moodle WebCT and Blackboard VLE systems - which represents at least a good proportion of the Institutional LMS systems in use at present.

ConceptTutor Screenshot
ConceptTutor being invoked from WebCT

In general the demonstrations of this lived up to expectations, though it wasn't always quite as seamless as it could have been - as often happens with demos. When everyone's servers and laptops were behaving themselves it was clear that the approach works and that launching specialised learning applications from generic VLE systems can finally be achieved in a replicable manner.
The implications are that through use of the Tools Interoperability Runtime and associated WebServices it will become ever more possible to integrate new kinds of learning applications within VLE systems without relying on custom integration work being undertaken for each tool employed.

Repository Interoperability

This demo was particularly successful in that it showed how interoperability can allow new and innovative re-uses of both content and resources such as repository systems. It also highlighted the fact that consumers – in this case learners and educationalists have a greater degree of choice in how they make use of the resources which would never be possible if they were not interoperating.

At the Giunti end of the table, IMS Content Packages were created using Giunti Labs eXact Packager and then were uploaded to their repository application eXact LOBSTER. Similarly the Harvest Road representatives created materials in CourseGenie and using their Hive Explorer for RELOAD uploaded them to the Hive repository.

As both of these repositories make use of MIT's Open Knowledge Initiative (OKI) Repository Object Service Interface Definition (OSID) the packaging tools have gained the ability to not only be interchangeable, but also one can create a new learning object with the eXact Packager using materials pulled directly from the Hive repository – or for that matter any other online repository which supports the standard, including the RDN and Fedora.

The good gentlemen from OKI were on hand (accompanied by some huge flat screen monitors) demonstrating a variety of applications capable of consuming the materials from the various repositories. A Mac-based repository search tool called SearchParty, developed by MacLearningEnvironments (who seem slightly elusive... so no link) uses the Repository OSID to enable querying of these same OSID-enabled repositories and display the results with all the consistency and friendliness one expects from the Macintosh platform.

To crown the lot, Tufts University’s VUE was shown. This is a very instantly usable tool for creating concept maps – the nodes of which can contain text and images or links to web-pages, files from the local machine and resources pulled from a repository. You can add custom data-sources in a matter of moments – not only to OSID enabled repositories but to Google or even an FTP server. It has a very straightforward panel for searching the data-sources and the results can be dragged straight onto your concept map and linked to any other nodes as you see fit. The maps themselves may not be stored in a standard format but it sounds like they are working on TopicMap compliance for future versions. Educationally speaking I can see this being great for teachers and lecturers during classroom use and a much needed alternative to PowerPoint. Equally for students re-constructing their learning, cataloguing resources, reflecting and revising. In fact I was so pleased with it I used it to map the resources involved in writing this article:

VUE Screenshot
Tufts University VUE - Concept maps with repository searching

Coupled with quality content such as MIT’s Visualizing Cultures image collection or materials from the RDN (both of which were shown merrily interoperating) these tools all prove the benefits of interoperability, being able to create, store, re-use and deliver materials in a variety of ways - and that it can work simply and effectively to really enhance learning and teaching.

A final thought...

The crock of tools on display at Alt-I-Lab was testament to the increasing ability of standards and WebServices to create new possibilities for combining functionality and resources in e-learning software. As the ecosystem of standards, software and technologies mature the possibilities are becoming far more tangible. The next generation of offspring will prove that interoperability is not only possible - but that it is also really useful and worthwhile. Bring on the brave new world!

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