Towards next generation activity-based learning systems.
During the last years, several tools have been developed in order to support the process of web-based authoring and several learning systems have been implemented tailored to specific pedagogical approaches. Several systems already exist supporting the process of web-based authoring for providing active learning, constructive learning, collaborative learning, intentional learning, conversational learning, contextualized learning, and reflective learning (Jonassen, Hernandez-Serrano, & Choi, 2000; Marra & Jonassen, 2001; Carr, 2001; Melis, Andrus, Bodenbender, Frishauf, Goguadse et al., 2001; Gonzalez, Suthers, & Escamilla De Los Santos, 2003).
Currently, there are several educational e-content repositories and networked infrastructures available ranging from federated or distributed learning repositories to brokerage platforms (Duval, Forte, Cardinaels, Verhoeven, Van Durm et al., 2001; Guth, Neumann, & Simon, 2001; Friesen, Roberts, & Fisher, 2002; Nejdl, Wolf, Qu, Decker, Sintek et al., 2002; Olivier & Liber, 2003; Quemada & Simon, 2003, Simon, Dolog, Miklos, Sintek, & Olmedilla, 2004). Nevertheless, the level of learning content reusability remains relatively low, due to the fact that sharing of learning activities across systems has not been addressed yet. This limitation prevents systems from reusing the same learning scenarios, leading to significant extra pedagogical effort for reusing learning content in different contexts. On the other hand, existing Learning Management Systems (LMS) provide tools for web-based authoring that are tailored to the capabilities of the specific system in hand. As a result, reusing and repurposing of learning activities and content is not supported in a consistent manner (Brusilovsky & Nijhawan, 2002).
In this article we first examine the limitations of the current state-of-the art learning systems and authoring tools and investigate how the Learning Design framework can be incorporated in the architecture of a SCORM-compatible authoring and runtime system in order to address those limitations. To this end, we define an abstract high-level architecture that utilizes the Learning Design principles to provide the means for designing pedagogical scenarios that can be reused in different contexts and across different web-based educational platforms.
The article is structured as follows: in the second section, we discuss the problem of sharing learning activities based on the current state-of-the-art learning systems' architecture, investigating the limitations of those systems. The third section presents the principles of the Learning Design framework, emphasizing in modeling of learning activities and briefly discusses the need of standardizing the low-level notation schema used to describe learning activities. In the fourth section we present an architectural definition of a SCORM-compatible authoring and runtime system that addresses the identified limitations incorporating the Learning Design framework. Finally, we discuss the use of ASK-LDT, an authoring system for learning scenarios developed to implement the proposed architecture, in the design of complex learning activities.
Sharing Learning Activities
Currently, there are many systems which are intended to collect, share and reuse the dispersed learning resources and present the end-user with a uniform interface to search, access and evaluate the resources, including the ARIADNE Knowledge Pool System (http://www.ariadne-eu.org/en/system), the Campus Alberta Repository of Educational Objects (CAREO) (http://www.careo.org), the U.S.-based Science, Mathematics, Engineering and Technology Education Digital Library (http://www.smete.org), the Educational Network Australia (http://www.edna.edu.au), the Gateway to Educational Materials (GEM) digital library (http://www.geminfo.org), the Scottish electronic Staff Development Library (SeSDL) (www.sesdl.scotcit.ac.uk), the LearnAlberta Portal (www.learnalberta.ca), the COLIS (www.edna.edu.au/go/browse/0), the Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching (MERLOT) (www.merlot.org), the Universal Brokerage Platform for Learning Resources (www.educanext.org), the World Lecture Hall (www.utexas.edu/world/lecture/), the Globewide Network Academy (www.gnacademy.org), the McGraw-Hill Learning Network (MHLN) (www.mhln.com) and others. Most of them offer high quality resources in the form of learning objects (Richards, 2002; Littlejohn, 2003; McGreal, 2004) that are also metadata tagged (Friesen et al., 2002; Olivier & Liber 2003; Sampson, Papaioannou, & Karadimitriou, 2002; Sampson & Karampiperis, 2004; Sampson, 2004).
Nevertheless, although the available content repositories offer high quality learning objects, and moreover, those objects are tagged using a common metadata schema, (that is, the IEEE Learning Objects Metadata standard (IEEE, 2002)), reusing learning content in different contexts requires significantly extra pedagogical effort (Mohan, Greer, & McGalla, 2003). The authors of this article believe that this is due to the fact that most existing state-of-the-art web-based educational systems architectures rely on the content delivery and the metadata used for describing it, but come short in supporting the proces of web-based authoring of learning activities and their inter-exchanges.
Current State-of-the-Art Learning Systems
For the purpose of our work, a learning activity can be formally defined as a triple containing the content that is delivered by an educational system, the actors participating in the learning activity (such as the learner or a group of learners, the tutor, etc.) and their corresponding interactions. These interactions include three types, namely, interactions with the learning content, interactions with the educational environment and interactions between the participating actors.
In this section we present the current state-of-the-art learning systems' architecture investigating the limitations of those systems in the process of sharing learning activities.
Currently, there are several vendors that provide learning platforms, such as such as Blackboard (Blackboard, 2005), WebCT (WebCT, 2005), Lotus Learning Space (IBM Lotus, 2005) and Learn eXact (Learn eXact, 2005), being standard conformant. Those platforms are based on the IEEE Learning Technology Systems Architecture (LTSA) standard (IEEE LTSA 2001; O'Droma, Ganchev, & McDonnell, 2003). This standard specifies an architecture for information technology-supported learning, education and training systems that describes the high-level system design and the components of these systems, using a five-layer structure. The LTSA Layer 3 specifies the main components and interfaces in the architecture of learning systems. These components (shown in Figure 1) form a model that describes how the different entities in the learning system interact with each other.
There are three types of components defined in the LTSA Layer 3:
* Processes (depicted as oval shapes in Figure 1) are the boundaries, services, inputs, and outputs of the learning system. Processes refer to users' and system components that cause changes in the state of the system.
* Stores. Two types of stores (represented as rectangular shapes in Figure 1) are described in the reference model. These relate to repositories of data that can be accessed by users using search, retrieval, and updating methods. In practice, the stores correspond to the system's database structures.
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* Flows are described in terms of connectivity and the type of information exchanged. These are illustrated as arrowed lines between the processes and stores in Figure 1. Essentially, flows depict the interactions that take place between the various processes and stores of the IEEE LTSA system design.
In the LTSA reference architecture the element "content" of a learning activity is represented as a store called learning resources and the interaction of a participating actor with the content is represented as a flow called multimedia. This flow is a unidirectional flow from the delivery system to the actor. This means that interactions from the actors to the content are not supported by the reference architecture. Moreover, the element "actors" of a learning activity is represented in the reference architecture as two processes called learner entity and coach respectively. The learner entity represents an abstraction of a human learner and the coach entity an abstraction of a human teacher. The interaction between the learner and the teacher is represented directly as a flow called learning preferences and indirectly through the process of evaluation and the behavior and assessment flows. The IEEE LTSA architecture considers two actors, namely, the learner and the teacher and defines interactions between them. Interactions between individual learners are not described in the system components layer. Instead, they are abstracted in layer 1 (see Figure 2)
From Figure 2 we can notice that interaction between the environment and the learner entity is unidirectional, while interactions between individual learners are abstracted with no reference on how the learning system should support those interactions.
ADL Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM) refines the IEEE LTSA reference architecture by specifying missing interactions. More precisely, the SCORM 2004 (ADL SCORM, 2004) provides a reference interaction model between participating actors and learning content, and describes within a common technical framework for computer and web-based learning the creation process of reusable learning content as instructional objects called sharable content objects (SCOs). SCORM describes that technical framework by providing a harmonized set of guidelines, specifications, and standards based on the work of several distinct e-learning specifications and standardization bodies. SCORM consists of three parts:
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* Content Aggregation Model (CAM). The SCORM CAM describes the content components used in a learning activity, how to package those components for exchange from system to system and how to describe those components to enable search and discovery. The CAM promotes the consistent storage, labeling, packaging, exchange and discovery of learning content. The SCORM CAM model contains information on Metadata, Content Structure and Packaging.
* Run-Time Environment (RTE). The purpose of the SCORM RTE is to provide a means for interoperability between SCOs and LMSs. SCORM provides the means for learning content to be interoperable across multiple learning systems regardless of the tools used to create the content. The three components of the SCORM RTE are Launch, Application Program Interface (API) and Data Model. Launch includes defining the relationship between learning systems and SCORM content such that all SCORM-conformant content is dependant upon a SCORM-conformant learning system to be delivered and displayed to the learner. The SCORM API provides a set of predefined methods for purposes of communication between a learning system and the SCOs it launches. The SCORM Run-Time Environment Data Model, provides the data elements that can be used to get and set data from and to a learning system.
* Sequencing and Navigation (SN). The SCORM SN covers the essential learning system responsibilities for sequencing content objects during run-time and allowing SCOs to indicate navigation requests. The SCORM SN is based on the IMS Simple Sequencing (SS) Specification v1.0 (IMS, 2003), which defines a method for representing the intended behavior of an authored learning activity such that any conformant learning system will be able to sequence discrete content components in a consistent way. It defines the required behaviors and functionalities that SCORM-conformant learning systems must implement to process sequencing information at runtime. More specifically, it describes the branching and flow of learning content in terms of an Activity Tree, based on the results of a learner's interactions with launched content objects and an authored sequencing strategy. The SCORM SN describes how learner-initiated and system-initiated navigation events can be triggered and processed, resulting in the identification of learning content for delivery.
Based on the definition of learning activities as triples, the IEEE LTSA reference model with the refinements introduced by SCORM can provide learning systems that are capable of representing learning activities that engage learner and tutor and define interactions between them and interactions with the content. The open issues in modeling of a learning activity include the description of interactions between the participating roles and the environment, as well as, the definition of multiple participating roles (e.g., multiple learners working together) and the interactions between them.
Current State-of-the-Art Authoring Tools
Nowadays, there are several vendors that provide Learning Management Systems incorporating authoring tools that are based on the SCORM reference model.
The main limitation of the SCORM-based courseware authoring tools is that they are based on a single learner model. This model assumes that a learner interacts only with content objects and that the learning activities are content-based activities engaging the learner in the learning process. Thus, the support provided by SCORM-based courseware authoring tools in the authoring process is limited in supporting the creation and sequencing of single learner, content-based learning activities. To this end, such authoring tools exclude the design of activities based on state-of-the-art pedagogical approaches such as constructive learning, collaborative learning etc. Moreover, since interactions between individual learners and/or between a learner and a tutor are abstracted in the SCORM reference model with no reference on how a learning system could support those interactions, SCORM-based authoring tools limit the interoperability between systems to only content interoperability. These tools do not allow the description of such interactions leading to possibly different interpretation of learning activities between different systems.
On the other hand, a wide variety of non-SCORM conformant systems exist providing specific pedagogical approaches including active learning, constructive learning, collaborative learning, intentional learning, conversational learning, contextualized learning, reflective learning, such as Active-Math (Melis et al., 2001; Libbrecht, 2004), MetaLinks (Murray, 2002), NetCoach (Weber, Kuhl, & Weibelzahl, 2001), DCG (Vassileva & Deters, 1998), Interbook (Brusilovsky, Eklund & Schwarz, 1998). The main drawback of those systems is that they are closed, self-contained systems that cannot be used as service components (lack of reuse support) (Brusilovsky, 2004). Additionally, due to their close architecture they cannot support all the required functionalities in a learning process since they cannot use external services (lack of integration). On the other hand, even if an open and scalable environment has been implemented, the supported content and learning scenarios are a-priori designed to serve and support a specific pedagogical approach. As a result they are non-flexible in supporting different pedagogical approaches and they require extensive redesign effort in order to be used in different domains.
Modeling Learning Activities
The Need for Standardization
Reusing learning activities across different learning systems requires that all components of a learning activity can be modeled in a commonly understandable form (Rawlings, Van Rosmalen, Koper, Rodriguez-Artacho, & Lefrere, 2002; Koper, 2001; Koper & Manderveld, 2004) and that those platforms include the structural components required for the support of learning activities (Koper & Olivier, 2004). A first step is to agree on common ways for representing learning scenarios and describing the interactions between participating roles (learners, tutors, etc.) and educational systems' services. The ultimate goal is to structure the learning scenarios in such a way that separates them from the learning resources. Thus, learning resources can be reused within different scenarios and scenarios can be also reused when populated with different resources. Moreover, repurposing of learning activities in a consistent manner requires authoring tools that are capable of handling the machine understandable representation form of learning activities (Koper & Tattersall, 2005).
To this end, standardization efforts on learning technologies have led to the IMS Learning Design specification (IMS GLC, 2003) which provides a standard notation language for the description of learning scenarios. This specification promises the capability of describing a wide variety of learning activities based on different pedagogies. IMS Learning Design has the ability to define the role of different actors in the learning process, enabling the definition of both teacher-led and student-led scenarios. This specification builds upon the IMS Content Packaging specification, thus can integrate single learner (SCORM-compatible) activities in more complex activity-based learning scenarios.
The Learning Design Framework
The core concept of the Learning Design framework is that regardless of the pedagogical strategy, learners attain learning objectives by performing a specific order of learning activities. Multiple roles can participate in learning and/or support activities of the training process. This formalization has the potential to describe a wide variety of learning activities based on different pedagogies.
The core components of the Learning Design Framework are shown in Figure 3 and summarized below:
* Role component specifies the participating roles in learning activity. There are two basic Role types: the Learner and the Staff. These roles can be sub-typed to allow learners to play different roles in certain types of learning activity such as task-based, role-play and simulations. Similarly, support staff can be sub-typed and given more specialized roles, such as Tutor, Teaching Assistant, and Mentor. Thus, Roles set the basis for multi-user models of learning. The name that a certain role is given depends on the underline pedagogy and the setting in use. In some instances a learner is called a student, whereas in others a participant. The names of staff roles can be even more diverse (e.g., teacher, trainer, tutor, facilitator, mentor, assessor).
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* Activities are one of the core structural elements of the learning work-flow model for Learning Design. They form the link between the roles and the services in the learning environment. They describe the activities that a certain role can undertake within a specified environment. They also specify their termination conditions and the actions to be taken upon termination. There are two basic types of activities: Learning Activities and Support Activities. A Learning Activity is directed at attaining a learning objective per individual actor. A support activity is meant to facilitate a role performing one or more learning activities.
The Learning Design framework is implemented in the IMS LD specification at three levels. Learning Design Level A includes the following elements: a series of activities (assessment, discussion, simulation), performed by one or more actors (learners, teachers, etc.)--roles, in an environment consisting of learning objects or services. Level B adds properties (storing information about a person or group), and conditions (placing constraints upon flow). Level C adds notifications (triggered events--e.g., if a student asks a question, the teacher needs to be notified that a response is needed).
Towards Next Generation Activity-Based Learning Systems Architecture
The Authoring System
In this section, we present the high-level architecture for authoring of learning activities that combines the components of a SCORM-compatible authoring system with the Learning Design framework. The key design principle in this architecture is the separation of the learning design process from the content packaging process. This separation enables the design of learning scenarios by defining the participating actors, the response of a learning system to their interaction with the learning content and the services provided by the learning system in such a way that is independent from the learning content. Thus, it enables the same learning scenario to be used with different content, as well as, different learning scenarios to use the same content objects.
Figure 4 presents the proposed authoring architecture based on the Learning Design framework described in the previous section of the article. This figure shows the structural components of the authoring system and their interconnection paths. Interconnection between components is modeled by associations (directed arrows). These associations represent direct connections or they abstract away details of more complex connection and communication patterns (e.g., indirect communication based on events).
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The main components of the proposed architecture are the following:
* Learning Design subsystem. This part of the authoring system is based on the use of IMS Learning Design specification in order to provide the pedagogical designer with the environment for defining learning scenarios. The main scope is to enable the definition of generic, domain independent learning scenarios that can be used by the content packaging system in order to create learning activities based on the use of the learning objects stored in the content repository.
* Content Packaging subsystem. This part of the authoring system enables the population and packaging of learning scenarios with the learning content. In our system implementation, the development of such packaging tool is based on the commonly used IMS Content Packaging v1.1.3 specification and the supported metadata for indexing the content components of learning activity is based on the IEEE Learning Object Metadata standard.
* Learning Resources Metadata Authoring & Management subsystem. This part of the authoring system supports the metadata authoring and repository management. The main goal of this component is to provide an easy-to-use and accessible from anywhere platform capable of authoring, storing, managing and deliver the educational metadata produced for supporting searching and retrieval of learning resources.
The Runtime System
In this section, we present a high-level architecture for the Learning Design runtime system. The key design principle of the runtime system architecture is the capability of invoking distributed services defined in the design of learning activities. The distributed services can be activity-based services, that is, services that have embedded a learning scenario (e.g., a simulation game with specific learning objectives and guidelines on how to achieve the learning goal), or content-based services, that is, services providing educational content without specific learning objectives.
Figure 5 presents a service-based architecture for LD runtime system that supports the integration of distributed services in the design of learning activities. The main components of the proposed architecture are the following:
* Roles Activity Handler. This part of the runtime system is responsible for setting up the different runtime instances (runs) based on the role part definitions in the Learning Design manifest. This handler controls the different activity scripts for the different participating roles in the learning process.
* Sequencing Rules Handler: This part of the runtime system controls the sequencing information (flow of activities) defined in a runtime instance based on sequencing rules (conditions) defined over learning and support activity properties. These rules represent the method which will be used for navigating over the flow of activities defined in the Learning Design manifest.
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* Environment Controller. This part of the runtime system is responsible for controlling the required environments for each activity defined in the activity sequence. At design time (authoring phase) the software environments, which an activity utilizes are defined. The environment controller will initiate a search request for the corresponding services (e.g., forum, chat, etc.) and will initialize them using the corresponding parameters defined at design time.
* Resource Controller. Similarly to the environment controller the resource controller is responsible for requesting the resources associated with a specific learning activity at design time.
* Runtime Rendering Module. This part of the runtime system invokes the services retrieved by the environment and the resource controller in order to provide the actual services. The rendering process uses the corresponding rendering schemas retrieved from the Rendering Schemas Pool.
ASK-LDT: An Authoring Tool for Learning Activities Based on IMS Learning Design
Description of the ASK-LDT
The ASK Learning Designer Toolkit (ASK-LDT) (Sampson, Karampiperis, & Zervas, 2005) is a tool supporting the proposed architectural approach for learning activities authoring (see Figure 6).
The ASK-LDT is based on the use of IMS Learning Design specification in order to provide to a pedagogical designer the environment for defining complex learning scenarios. The produced learning scenarios conform to the IMS Learning Design v1.0 Level B specification. The ASK-LDT also supports metadata for learning resources that conform to the IEEE Learning Object Metadata 1484.12.1-2002 standard.
Based on the Learning Design framework principles, the authoring process that the ASK-LDT supports consists of the following steps (Figure 7):
* Definition of Pedagogical Elements. At this step the ASK-LDT supports the pedagogical designer in defining the activity types he/she wants to support in a learning scenario, as well as, in defining a notation schema for each activity type specified. During this step the designer has the ability to characterize each activity type as learning or support activity.
* Definition of the Environment. At this step a designer defines the participating roles in the desired learning scenario, as well as, the environments in which the activities are taking place. An environment can be a virtual environment (such as a virtual laboratory, an online chat, a discussion forum, etc.), or a software tool exposed as a service (such as an annotation tool, a search engine, etc.).
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* Learning Scenario Design. During this step the designer specifies the activity sequence of a learning scenario using a graphical user interface. For each activity the designer defines the participating roles, the environment in which the specific activity is taken place, as well as, the method by which this activity will be completed and/or terminated (user choice or time limit).
* Statistical Analysis. At this step the ASK-LDT provides statistics of the use of each activity type and environment in the learning design specified, in order to visualize the designer's decisions.
* Content Packaging. This is the final step in the authoring process, in which the content components required to support the designed activities are specified. The output of this step is content packages conforming to the IMS Content Packaging v1.1.3 specification.
The core design concept of the ASK-LDT is to provide a graphical user interface for the design and sequencing of learning activities, which, on one hand uses a standard low-level notation language for the description of learning scenarios (so as to be able to inter-exchange learning activities between different systems), and on the other hand enables pedagogical designers to use their own design notation (high-level notation) for the definition of learning scenarios (see Figure 8).
The ASK-LDT supports the learning design process by allowing the design of sequences of learning activities, as well as, the definition of the participating roles and the corresponding environments for each part of these activities. It provides several advanced features (Figure 9) including the capability to define participating roles based on specific attributes of a user model and offers advanced control of learning activities sequencing based on the definition of properties and conditions upon learning flow.
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The following section presents the use of the ASK Learning Designer Toolkit in the definition of learning activities following the principles of the Learning Design framework.
Collaborative Creation of Concept Map Scenario Using ASK-LDT
An example of a learning scenario which can be defined with the use of the ASK-LDT is a scenario for collaborative creation of a concept map. In this scenario several participants are trying to collaboratively create a concept map based on their experiences on a specific subject. For each concept or relation defined on the concept map they are asked to explain (by annotating the corresponding concept or relation) the reasons for adding this information.
Following the authoring process supported by the ASK-LDT the pedagogical designer has to follow the following steps:
* Definition of Pedagogical Elements. In this learning scenario the activity types in use are brainstorming, annotation, discussion and knowledge expression.
* Definition of the Environment. In these activity types two roles are participating: the moderator and the users. The environments in which these activity types are taking place are discussion forum, online chat, annotation tool and concept representation tool.
* Learning Scenario Design. During this step the designer specifies the activity sequence presented in Figure 9, representing the desired learning scenario. For each activity specified the designer defines the participating roles and the corresponding environments.
* Content Packaging. In this step of the authoring process, the content components required to support the designed activities are specified (e.g., an introductory text-based component presenting the objectives of the whole activity).
The output of this process is a content package conforming to the IMS Content Packaging v1.1.3 specification that can be delivered through an IMS Learning Design conformant learning platform.
In the literature, a number of systems implementing this scenario exist (Kay & Miller, 2003; Mirlad, Spector, & Davidsen, 2004). The main limitation of those systems is that they are closed systems. Thus, they support only the specific learning scenario and that those systems due to their architecture cannot be used externally from other platforms to support the learning process. By using the ASK-LDT, pedagogical designers can specify their desired learning scenarios in an abstract way that enables system designers to implement required software components as services. As a result, software components can be reused to support different learning activities (e.g., the same annotation tool used in the above mentioned scenario for concept map creation can also be used in a collaborative peer reviewing scenario).
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Moreover, since the learning scenario is not hard-wired in the specific learning platform, but acts as a script delivered by the learning platform, learning platforms can support several pedagogical scenarios enabling at the same time reusability of learning activities across different platforms
In this article we discussed the limitations of the state-of-the-art of learning systems and authoring tools and discussed open issues and problems concerning the support of learning activities. Based on this discussion, we investigated how the Learning Design framework can be incorporated in the architecture of a SCORM-compatible authoring and runtime system so as to address those issues. Then, we presented a high-level system architecture that utilizes the Learning Design principles to provide the means for designing activity-based learning systems. Finally, we examined the use of ASK-Learning Designer Toolkit, which implements the presented architectural approach, in the definition of a complex learning scenario, namely, the collaborative creation of a concept map.
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The work presented in this article is partially supported by European Community under the Information Society Technologies (IST) programme of the 6th FP for RTD--project ICLASS contract IST-507922.
DEMETRIOS G. SAMPSON AND PYTHAGORAS KARAMPIPERIS
University of Piraeus & Informatics and Telematics Institute, Center for Research and Technology--Hellas, Greece
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|Publication:||International Journal on E-Learning|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2006|
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