Learning Object Repositories 2.0

I (still) spend a fair amount of time thinking about the learning object repositories work that was done back at the turn of the century. A bunch of folks (myself included) took up the task of building software to let people easily publish, describe, share, find (and hopefully use) digital assets or learning objects (assets with a bunch of metadata tacked on the side).

I think it’s fair to say that the experiments failed pretty dramatically. The only content that was added to CAREO was done under the auspices of Large Projects and/or Institutions. Individuals, by and large, didn’t spend much time with it, or its ilk. Why is that? Why have other applications and platforms gone on to be much more successful, by any definition of the word? Well, here are some reasons:

  1. Sharing. With all of the talk about interoperability, all that really happened was some loose agreement that “metadata is important, for some reason, and that people will want to write lots and lots of stuff to describe every resource, for some reason.” We wound up with a bunch of quasi-standardized metadata, but no real way to share it – sure, there was the OAI. That’s a pretty powerful end-user strategy.
  2. API. The closest the Learning Object Repositories got to an API would be either OAI or EduSource. Name 3 apps that you use today that use either or both of those. Both are rather cumbersome to implement, and not too mashup-friendly. Nowadays, as David Wiley is fond of saying, people “just use RSS”. Sure, you can add other APIs if needed (atom? custom?), but RSS is good enough for most interaction between systems.
  3. Social. Sure, CAREO had a threaded discussions feature, and a wiki for every resource in its database, but without PEOPLE, it was just a bunch more empty web pages. One of the lessons I’ve learned from David Wiley’s recent presentations is that we should be leveraging what people are already doing, where they are already doing it. Don’t make them come to CAREO to comment on something. Let them comment on del.icio.us, or digg, or wherever. And work on ways to tie those conversations together. That’s not to say that this functionality isn’t necessary, but that it shouldn’t be exclusionary. Play well with others (see points 1 and 2 above).

I’ve mentioned before that much of the functionality of a “learning object repository” could be implemented for free with Google and del.icio.us. That’s a bit facetious, but not that far off the mark. I’m seeing some recent stuff that is really promising. Most recently, fOUnd It, from the Open University. It’s just a Pligg install. That’s it. But it lets people add resources (“news items”) that can be tagged, referencing any web page. And it supports rating/reputation (thumbs up/down, promoting to front page, etc…) and discussions. This takes care of 99% of CAREO’s functionality. For free. And, because it’s not a Learning Object Repository project, there are more developers working on it (because it’s more generalizable – there is NO need to build special apps just for education).

Or, you could just grab a copy of Drupal, install a couple of modules, and have a learning objects community site that could connect with del.icio.us, flickr, or any other app/platform that supports RSS. And have full-on blogging, forums, etc… for free, out of the box. Without any focus on metadata, or interoperability, or any of those other helpful things that just get in the way of individuals connecting. If we’d just waited 5 years, the “learning object repository” work would have been completely different, and would have been able to focus on important stuff, like content and context.

17 thoughts on “Learning Object Repositories 2.0”

  1. And I would note that CAREO’s RSS support and wikis were things you added more or less on your own, as you were one of the few people involved in the whole LO thing that saw the writing on the wall fairly early on. Lots of money got spent after that point.

    But the LO repository model refuses to die. I’m still being asked to participate in discussions and efforts on the old school repository model of content management because it’s the only “serious” alternative. I wish they would just read your blog. But please keep these periodic reflective posts on LOs coming, if only for my own sanity.

    You didn’t ask for it, but I recently wrote this for another venue:

    Susan Metros stated in a 2005 EDUCAUSE Review article: “Learning objects have not fulfilled their promise of transforming education.”8 Little has changed since then to contradict that assertion. The question is, why should a culture of remix take hold when the learning object economy never did? What’s the difference? I would argue that for one thing, the standards/practices relationship implicit in the learning objects model has been reversed. With only the noblest of intentions, proponents of learning objects (and I was one of them) went at the problem of promoting reuse by establishing an arduous and complex set of interoperability standards and then working to persuade others to adopt those standards. Educators were asked to take on complex and ill-defined tasks in exchange for an uncertain payoff. Not surprisingly, almost all of them passed.

    Meanwhile, in the online world, millions of bloggers were gleefully sharing their materials and forming fluid communities of interest without any central coordination or organizational incentives or standards whatsoever. The practices were easy to adopt, the benefits were immediate, and there was fun to be had. Relatively simple standards such as RSS enabled a great deal while requiring very little. (Remember Stephen Downes’s exhortation for standards to “enable, not require”?) Around the same time that the statement “users will never add metadata” was becoming a mantra at gatherings of increasingly frustrated learning object promoters (again, I was present at many of those gatherings) and when most learning object repositories were floundering, resource-sharing services such as del.icio.us and Flickr were enjoying phenomenal growth, with their user communities eagerly contributing heaps of useful metadata via simple folksonomy-oriented tagging systems.

  2. Brian, I wrote this at least partially because I’m still receiving periodic emails from folks asking about CAREO. Can we include it in a survey of learning object repositories? Can we get a copy of the source code so we can launch a national repository? Can we mine the metadata to see what fields are used? Can we have access to the stats?

    I get frustrated, partially because the software is obviously unused – the “featured object” dates from 2004 (I’m deliberately NOT updating that). The “recent objects” have been a series of obvious dummy data by tire-kickers for the last 3 years.

    And now there is talk on campus about building an institutional repository.

    I agree, that the culture of sharing is much more important and potentially change-affecting. LORs languished partially because of the lack of the sharing culture – the “I’m not putting my stuff up there where some punk can download it and do gods-know-what with it!” mentality.


    And Stephen Downes understood this all many years before the rest of us. I remember him talking at the EduSource planning meetings, and he was proposing some way-out stuff that really blew my mind. But The Group wanted to focus on metadata specifications, and creating our own National Fork of IMS LOM just for that purpose.

    One of the lessons I’ve learned is to pay attention to what Stephen talks about. Some of it might not be immediately implementable, but it’s almost always the way things should be.

  3. I was at one of those eduSource meetings where Stephen was raising hell. I remember just enough to acknowledge that he was right on at least 90% of the stuff I disagreed with at the time. (I recall him saying that RSS would end up being way more significant than IMS — and I didn’t disagree with that, just hoped he was right.) I still disagree with him now and then, but like you I’ve learned enough to extend considerable benefit of doubt his way.

    And yeah, Pligg is pretty cool. I seem to recall Reverend Jim has set up a version over at learningparty.net…

  4. Yup. Rev. Jim set up video.learningparty.net, running Pligg a couple of months ago. I actually wrote up a description of that but wound up killing it because I was rambling too much. Rev. called the ball on that one early. It’s still not QUITE as cool/flexible/active as Drupal, but it’s pretty cool nonetheless. I even had a shot in the nuked section saying how surprised I was that Rev. Jim didn’t just stick with WordPress, which could probably handle much of a LOR nowadays, too (between posts, pages, links, blogroll, and various extra modules…)

  5. Did somebody say my name?

    Hallelujah Pligg! I always knew that little sinner would turn miracles for open content and learning repositories alike. And as the lord is my witness, I shall smite the philistine that rises their hand against the king of digg clones.

    Ahem, sorry friends, just channeling a little open source spirit.

    Also, for some reason I just love it when you all sit around and tell Stephen Downes stories, this is the ver coziness of this technology that a learning repository might have never accounted for. I almost feel like I am in the Cocina di Lamb listening to my ed tech heroes talk about a history I can only learn through spaces like these.

  6. James, that’s an excellent point. Learning Object Repositories were designed and built to satisfy (real and/or imagined) needs of an Institution.

    If I look at the most successful web apps that I use, I use each and every one of them because they’re helpful to ME. I don’t use them to be social (well, maybe Twitter), or even to share (as the primary goal of the activity). By and large, I use them because they’re useful to me. They help me archive stuff. Or organize it so I can find it later. Or learn new things, or refine my understanding of things. That anyone else might benefit from my use of these apps is really just gravy.

    OK. It might not be quite as cut-and-dry as that, but it’s an aspect that was completely overlooked by the LOR work. Why would anyone contribute? What needs were being met? If its only goal was to satisfy the Institution, that’s fine, and that’s what happened. But that’s also why it failed, from a wider perspective.

  7. At the risk of getting villified for a blatant plug, may I draw your attention to a counter-example? Yacapaca (see http://demo.yacapaca.com ) has 14,354 school teachers creating, sharing and using a repository of 18,941 quiz questions. 2,478 quizzes, and 1,467 free-text tasks all organised into 1,217 courses. This all serves the learning needs of 416,053 students (all data as of this morning). So it can be done.

    I certainly agree with you about the core dynamic. The biggest mistakes we have made have been when we have tried to appeal to the altruism, or even enlightened self-interest, of users. Wrong! Yacapaca has only grown by appealing to the _unenlightened_ self-interest of our target users. They just want to get their teaching job done, and they really don’t give a stuff about metadata, discovery, and all the rest that we thought was so important early on.

  8. Ian, thanks for the counter-example. Altruism and the Greater Good get in the way more often than not. We need to be taking advantage of people’s need to satisfy their own needs. Yacapaca sounds very cool. I’ll be checking it out.

  9. We installed a careo application and installed a variety of content. We then asked a group of students and a group of teachers to evaluate the use of the LOR and the potential for various uses. Results were overwhelmingly positive from both groups.

    Much of the content consisted of archival material with local historic and educational value in addition to the regular links to materials, documents, and web based media. There was also a perceived need to record and store more local material, some which had been in storage in various formats for many years and not accessible by anyone. As such, the institution has a central role in managing and directing this archive. However, regular use of the material is another matter and requires a culture of students and teachers who have ready access to and use of the Internet, as well as a regular use of the computer in educational activities. Part of this is learned behaviour and it is just a matter of time (we already have examples, as the above acapaca.com).

    The LOR eventually had a hardware failure on our new Apple server coupled with a backup failure. Rather than reinstalling the Careo we are currently looking at installing new software to carry on with this project. For us, the storage of the archival media is as important as the use of the LOR. However, usability and use is the other side of the coin and this makes the choice of software and the user interface perhaps more important, as is creating a culture of LOR use.

    Of special interest within this new educational paradigm are the online educational management platforms such as Moodle coupled with a repository such as DOOR or similar platform. But that’s another discussion!!

Comments are closed.