Last month we looked at the distribution of learning resources. Three types of systems were considered, which a preference being expressed for a harvesting system. The output of such a system is a set of topic-specific resource feeds. These feeds can be read and integrated into remote websites.
Here is an example of such a feed. It is the Learning Objects feed from Edu_RSS:
|Learning Objects |
Harvested and compiled feeds can be used for a wide variety of purposes. Daypop, for example, harvests thousands of feeds from across the web. It counts the number of times these feeds refer to a given resource, and then compiles a Top 40 list of news and commentary for any given moment on the web. Other services display similar information differently; BlogStreet constructs a graphical 'neighbourhood' of related feeds; Globe of Blogs pinpoints new items on a map of the world. I use this information to provide additional research information about any given blog post. And in a different content, I have used this system to create live coverage of the recent MERLOT congference.
In learning, instead of harvesting news items and blog posts, we can harvest metadata about learning objects. Already, a number of learning object repositories are providing RSS feeds of current content. This allows harvesting services such as DLORN to obtain this information, sort it, and present it according to category. Repositories providing RSS feeds include EdNA, MERLOT, CAREO, Creative Commons, UK Centre for Materials Education, Maricopa Learning eXchange, and Humbul. A similar set of repositories is or will be soon providing OAI feeds as well.
The dynamic syndication of learning content allows designers a wide range of flexible design techniques. Most learning designers create traditional online courses, and syndicated content can be inserted into course pages to present learning content in a number of ways. Linked here, for example, is a mock-up of a course page on learning objects. Working with a standard template, the author has provided feeds to the most popular introductory content, a relevant image, news about learning objects, and a list of recent posts in a discussion area. This has the effect of placing all relevant content in a single, easily used, web page.
But syndicated learning content also allows for the possibility of providing learning resources outside the traditional course. Because learning object metadata may be distributed using web services, access to materials may eventually be found inside application software, for example. Scholarly publications, news artilcles, and other online content may provide access to relevant learning resources. Appliances connected to the internet, such as fridges and microwaves, may teach purchasers how to use them alongside useful content such as manufacturers advisories and weather reports.
What is worth noting for learning designers is that while they may be used to thinking in terms of reusing specially designed learning resources, access to distributed content resources greatly enlarges the palette of tools available for online learning. For example, in courses where discussion is required, the syndication of contributed comments may allow designers to integrate comments with course content. This technique is alreay widely used on the world wide web; articles such as this one display reader comments on the same page as the article. Since RSS supports forms as well as text, the comment area can be syndicated along with the learning content, allowing comments to be gathered from a large number of readers.
In the last few months I have tried several experiements involving the dynamic merger of content and communications. For example, the Edu_RSS Chat service imports syndicated content into a synchronous chat engine. Readers view a new article once every few minutes and discuss the contents. At the end of the time period, the contents are collected and added to the metadata describing that object. In another experiment, Edu_RSS Ratings, readers search or browse through syndicated content and rate the item on a scale. These ratings are collected and stored as additional learning object metadata. The ratings are then used to sort the display of the 'most popular' resources for a given topic.
When we start thinking of content as something that can be placed inside any online resource, the possibilities expand. For example, weather forecasts and climactic information are posted online by stations around the world. This data can be harvested and inserted into any web page. This is what weather.com curently offers as a paid service, but as designers' knowledge of syndication increased, will likely become widely available and free. Other (currently commercial) services offer stock quotes and other data driven websites. And governments are just beginning to look at offering syndicated content such as statistics, press releases, economic data, and more.
It is important to understand the advantage offered by dynamic syndicated content. The idea is that content is maintained and updated in one place, which relieves any users of that type of content from the burden of making sure the content is up to date. If, for example, a learning object on (say) linear functions is offered by a university and used by dozens of schools around the country, and if the learning object is updated or replaced, then a small change in the XML file distributed to these schools can implement the change; in this way, the schools themselves need not worry about updating links or being sure they are using the most recent version.
Dynamic content syndication is only in its infancy. Few content providers have made their material available in RSS or similar formats, and fewer still have learned how to use the content in an educational setting. Understanding how such content will soon be more widely available, however, should prompt in designers' minds many new means of providing learning online. Once the leap is taken, from the idea of online learning being static pages designed well in advance, to dynamic aggregations of syndicated content, the very idea of course design is challenged and a wide open world of possibilities opens up.
All articles in this series by Stephen Downes
What do we know about knowledge?
So What is Knowledge Management Anyway?
From Knowledge Management to Learning on Demand
Learning: More Than Just Knowledge
Designing Learning Objects
Learning Objects Standards
Distributing Learning Objects
Using Syndicated Learning Content
How Learning Communities use learning
Beyond Learning Objects
Learning in Communities
Creating and Capturing New Knowledge