Report on E-Learning from Richard Law of PerModum
This report gives an overview of the AT2 e‑learning prototype developed by Richard Law at PerModum.
It summarizes the background, conceptual basis and general parameters of the project, and outlines the main features of the system.
Current development status
At the time of writing (2005.01.10) the AT2 e‑learning system has successfully passed its proof-of-concept milestone.
It currently contains six principal exercise types, 30 derivative types as well as a range of ‘testbed content’ designed to verify and demonstrate the functionality of the system, but without any immediate didactic purpose.
By the time of the meeting of the e‑learning working party in Bremen on 2005.01.31 the system will be made accessible for assessment to the members of the working party and will contain a wider range of ‘real-world’ materials.
Our aim with the AT2 e‑learning project was to develop an e‑learning system with a high level of interactivity that could operate as a stand-alone system or that could be integrated into all the major course management systems seamlessly and without significant additional effort.
Each of these requirements deserves some further explanation.
What is an e‑learning system?
Most of the software packages that are called e‑learning systems are more correctly called ‘course management systems’ (CMS). Major examples of these would be Blackboard and WebCT (both commercial) and Moodle (open source), although there are a number of smaller systems. At the time of writing it appears that Moodle has been chosen as the e‑learning platform for ACCENT.
All the CMS packages offer various combinations of student and curriculum management, as well as ways of defining and presenting web-based materials to students. Most of them have some token testing or interactivity capability, but this generally takes the form of varieties of multiple choice ‘quizzes’.
A CMS has little impact on the presentation of material, being just a platform for serving up particular web pages to particular groups of people at the right time, and almost no influence on the learning process itself. In addition, it is difficult to understand at the moment what role a CMS package will play in an environment such as that of AT2, which has no defined student body, no tutors, and is not offering classes or courses at particular times to particular students.
What is a high level of interactivity?
High interactivity systems should be contrasted with presentation systems. A presentation system presents information to the learner and requires the learner to process this information in some way (that is learn or internalize it). This processing (i.e. the learning task) is entirely the learner’s responsibility. Examples of presentation systems would be traditional textbooks and most information-based websites.
The presentation system can help the learner by serving up information in a clear, easily understood and interesting way, but the task of turning this information into useable cognitive knowledge (i.e. something the learner ‘knows’, and knows well enough to be able to apply independently) is the responsibility of the learner. On the whole it can be said that the ‘best learners’ in the traditional context of presentation systems are those that have mastered – consciously or unconsciously – the techniques of processing information into cognitive knowledge.
An interactive system, on the other hand, not only presents information in clear, easily understood and interesting ways, but also attempts to support the learner in the learning process. In effect, an interactive system starts where the presentation system stops – at the interface between the information and the learner.
How does an interactive system differ from a testing system?
Interactive learning is not just another form of testing. The traditional educational process consists of two main stages: presentation of information followed by testing to see whether and how well that information has been learned. The processing (i.e. the learning) of the information is still the sole responsibility of the learner, being sandwiched between these two stages.
An interactive system, on the other hand, attempts to lead the learner through the processes of assimilation. Whereas the presentation system will just confront the learner with, say, a chemical equation or a mathematical formula, an interactive system will encourage the learner to process and manipulate the information in ways that lead to understanding and retention.
It is true that an interactive system will often ask questions of the learner, apparently in the same way as a testing system would. The difference is that questions in an interactive system are intended lead learners to solutions and/or to show learners themselves whether they have learnt the information effectively. Evaluation is immediate, scoring is volatile and therefore unthreatening, and, most importantly, learners are encouraged to improve their performance and scores. In a testing system this is called ‘cheating’; in an interactive system ‘improving’. If, after a number of attempts a learner has not managed to get the right answers, an interactive system will show the learner the answers. An important corollary principle of the AT2 e‑learning system is that, at the close of an exercise, only correct information is left on the screen.
The paradox of testing systems is that, as far as learners are concerned, such systems are only useful and motivating to people who get high scores and succeed within the terms of the test. A bad test score is unlikely to motivate any normal human being. It is fair to say that testing systems mainly encourage those who least need help and discourage those who most need help.
What is a stand-alone system and why is it needed?
There is very little compatibility or interchangeability of data between current course management systems. In the particular case of Moodle, it is possible to migrate presentation content in and out of Moodle – since this is just a collection of conventional HTML pages or links to external webs – but there is currently no way of importing or exporting student and course data nor any ‘quizzes’ authored in Moodle (which would be of particular interest to us).
It would therefore be difficult physically to share or distribute AT2 e‑learning modules except by linking to the single AT2 Moodle site. Any institutions running Moodle or any other CMS could not integrate the AT2 e‑learning modules into their own CMS.
Progress is being made in defining and establishing internationally accepted standards for representing and marking up educational materials for e‑learning (IMS, SCORM etc) but at the moment the standards are still largely ‘work in progress’ and many contradictions have yet to be resolved. They have hardly been implemented at all in viable software solutions. Most CMS products offer some rather unpredictable import facilities from external data formats, but provide almost no facilities for exporting data.
Because of this it seems prudent to develop a stand-alone system which offers presentation and interactive learning and which can be integrated as a collection of HTML pages into Moodle or indeed any of the major CMS products. The stand-alone system can be used with full functionality without needing a CMS platform, or can be integrated seamlessly into the CMS system of any institution wanting to offer the AT2 modules in the context of its own programme. The core of the system we have developed is a set of XML structures that are easily transformable into any current and future open standards for e‑learning (which are all based on XML).
In sum, the stand-alone AT2 system is therefore future-safe, it offers complete portability and CMS compatibility, it conforms to or is easily adaptable to the new XML standards for e‑learning. It is web-based, but makes no special demands on the internet server. It will also run with full functionality on very small scale, low performance intranets as well as single stand-alone or off-line computers.
Authoring e‑learning modules
The authoring of content for presentation systems, which display static text and images (whether static or animated), is straightforward – although not always simple. The author is required to divide up the source material into manageable sections and present these sections and the information within them in a way that makes the material as accessible and comprehensible to learners as possible. There is a wide range of tools (text processors, web-authoring packages) that authors can use for doing this task and their use is usually intuitive.
Testing systems are significantly more complex to author, since the principal task is to devise questions that best reveal whether the learner has understood the material. The questions must also be capable of unambiguous validation by a computer. For this last reason, narrative text input is impossible, most systems relying on ‘quizzes’ using the popular multiple choice question type. The author has to specify all the components of the question for the computer. Their are many different and incompatible proprietary systems for authoring test materials; each system has its own way of accomplishing the task. The Moodle quiz authoring system, for example, allows authors to create multiple choice questions (and, with restrictions, some other types).
High interactivity e‑learning content is even more complex to author. A range of question types is required with functionality that is appropriate to the type of information that is being taught. Considerably more planning and tactical didactic thinking is required to create effective interactive e‑learning content. The content itself is ‘richer’ and more densely structured, and putting it into a form that a computer can use requires a methodical approach. Authoring for interactive e‑learning is not difficult, but it does require a more systematic and methodical approach than, say, constructing a web presentation of some information would.
Unlike a presentation system, it is not possible to author interactive e‑learning by just putting a normal text into an authoring system and allowing the computer to do the rest: the information density of interactive materials is much higher than static text and there are no rules that the computer can use to add information without considerable help from the author.
In the AT2 system, two main methods of authoring are available:
– Exercises can be created and directly edited in XML, the core of the AT2 system, using templates. This procedure is not a complicated as it sounds, since the XML representations of AT2 materials are very uncluttered and intuitive, and there are good – and free – XML editors available that help by highlighting tags and content. Once the author comes to terms with the structural nature of XML, working directly in XML can be almost as easy as using a text processor.
– Exercises can also be created using the existing LexEOS ExerciseBuilder tool. ExerciseBuilder and the AT2 web-based e‑learning system both use XML formats that are bi-directionally compatible; AT2 materials can be imported into and exported out of ExerciseBuilder without any modification. It is also possible to author exercises in ExerciseBuilder and generate the corresponding HTML web page directly, avoiding the XML export procedure.
We propose that in Phase 2 of this project the materials created by AT2 authors are processed into interactive modules by PerModum, allowing us to build up a corpus of exercises to which AT2 authors can refer when they begin to author their own interactive modules.
Authors are, of course, completely free to participate in the processing of their interactive modules and to take over this task partially or completely.
Summary of the main parameters for the AT2 e‑learning system
– The modules of the e‑learning system are web-based, self-contained, easily portable and can be hosted on any website.
– The modules not only present information to the learner using text, images and animations, they also use numerous techniques of interactive learning, testing, verification and reinforcement.
– AT2 modules can be integrated easily and with full functionality into the Moodle system (chosen by ACCENT), but are be completely independent of particular Moodle versions or implementations. The AT2 modules can be used with or without Moodle, and also with any other currently available Course Management System (CMS).
Maintainability and compatibility statement
– The program code that creates the interactive functionality is well-documented, open-source and accessible for any programmer with basic coding skills.
– Content is also accessible and easy to modify and extend.
– All interactive content is stored in XML format, and is therefore future safe and extensible. The use of XML makes the modules portable into any of the multiple XML e‑learning standards currently available or under development.
– All the other elements of the system are in conventional HTML files.
– Where server-side code is required an appropriate open-source language (e.g. PHP) has been used.
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