Digital deluge eLearning strand

Last week (5 & 6 June) I was in Manchester for the JISC “Digital repositories: dealing with the digital deluge” conference. Most of my time was spent as rapporteur in the Sharing digital materials for eLearning strand, so that’s what I’ll cover here.

The eLearning strand was structured in four sessions dealing in turn with repositories as formal systems within the institution, informal sharing, teaching and learning issues and embedding project outcomes. Andrew Rothery, one of the strand co-chairs described the area covered in terms of two orthogonal dimensions, one spanning the formal to informal spectrum the other describing the relationship with the institution as ranging from integrated to independent. So for example and institutional repository is a formal system integrated into the institution’s other systems whereas a staff choosing to use a wiki might be described as taking an informal and independent approach.

I would like to focus the following themes that emerged during the course of the strand:

  • the repository as an underlying base or foundation onto which versatile services can be built to meet specific requirements and to respond to new challenges and opportunities.
  • The level at which repositories seek to work, on a spectrum from global through national to institutional and departmental and finally on to personal. This was related to the issue of meeting user requirements, since these might be articulated at a personal, discipline or institutional level.
  • Achieving change as a result of embedding lessons learnt in repository projects, and the difficulty of doing this.

The repository as a foundation

This theme emerged in contrasting the formal but stable nature of repositories as institutional and national systems with personal approaches that are by nature varied and given the explosion of interest in Web 2.0 technologies over the last couple of years, currently undergoing rapid change. Among the many examples which came up during the course of the two days were:

  • Andrew Rothery in a presentation about the DRaW (Developing Repositories in Worcester) project outlined the benefits of an repository of learning materials as including the ability to store resources independently from the VLE (which the institution might choose to change), and so provide access for teachers and learners through multiple paths (e.g. embedding the resource into the VLE, or linking to it through blogs and emails).
  • Steve Loddington, speaking about the Rights and Rewards project at Loughborough University, described pedestal, a user-oriented service built on resources contained in content-oriented repositories, and providing informal routes to discovering content in formal systems.
  • Both Howard Noble, talking about the ASK project at Oxford University, and Iain Wallace of the Spoken Word project at Glasgow Caledonian University highlighted the appropriate use of Service Oriented Architectures as a means to allowing innovative and flexible development in response to varied and changing user expectations.

All this was summarized nicely during the discussions when Iain Wallace said that the institution could decide on its core business and maintain services to support that. On top those core services can be built a layer that may change or vary; some elements of this layer may be provided by other existing services elsewhere (he gave the example of del.icio.us) which the institution needn’t develop for themselves. A couple of comments from the audience pointed to how the institutional and personal web 2.0 approaches could complement each other: the institution providing the authority and quality assurance, and Web 2.0 services providing the creativity and responsiveness.

Global, National, Institutional, Departmental and Personal levels of operation

Many of the speakers were from projects relating to repositories that operated at an institutional level, or like Jackie Carter of the Jorum, a national service that worked through agreements with institutions. However there was frequent mention that new services had to meet the needs of individual users and a strong recognition that these needs were personal and varied, and user expectations were shaped (and met) by global services such as Google. Furthermore, the self-identification and requirements of many users is bound up with the subject discipline they they teach or learn, so within an institution different departments may require different approaches.

When asked what will the repositories of the future look like, Colin Milligan said that “better will mean more personal, more suited to the needs of the user”. Ascertaining these needs and meeting them within an institutional context are both problematic. When talking about ASK, Howard Noble had mentioned that is was difficult to elicit user requirements for novel services; however users mental models are shaped by what they see on the web, so it could be productive to look at the websites that users prefer and aim to work in a similar way. Anne Gambles of the Prowe project (which investigated the use of wikis as personal and informal repositories for part-time tutors) said the tutors they spoke to are diverse in background and the strategies that they adopt. Jackie Carter said that identifying user communities was still a challenge for the Jorum.

Users of institutional services also have access to their own preferred services for resource discovery and sharing through on the web. Anne Gambles said that there was a reluctance from people already using Web 2.0 sites to move to locked-down institutional systems. Colin Milligan said that students shouldn’t be forced to use second rate institutional systems when something better was available.

Dave White spoke about the Spire project at Oxford University, which had started by trying to implement a peer-to-peer network for informal sharing within the formal bounds of the institution. They had however found that the institution’s tendency to lock-down systems broke the peer-to-peer model and concluded that they couldn’t take the informal paradigm form the web and put it into a formal institutional setting. The project went on to adopt web 2.0 approaches to sharing and look at the cultural issues around adopting these for academic use, and found few problems. Tom Franklin (author of a recent report about Web 2.0 services) argued that Google and other sites such as del.icio.us would meet the requirements of sharing eLearning resources better than formal institutional repositories.

There was a recognition that for many academics (and students) the primary focus of their work is on their subject discipline rather than their institution. The DIDET project, about which Carline Breslin spoke, is an example of a repository project where learning technologists and information specialists work with teachers and students in a department-based, discipline-focused project. The main technology used is a wiki-based learning environment which has been designed in-house to support the pedagogic approach used in Design Engineering (students working as teams on design projects). Resources are collected by students in an informal repository to support their design project in a way which captures the normally tacit design process (but also leads to the exploration of some interesting IPR issues). At the end of the project work some of those resources and processes that are worth keeping for future years can be transfered to a more formal repository under the control of librarians working with the DIDET project.

In describing the findings of the Community Dimensions of Learning Object Repositories (CDLOR) project, Colin Milligan contrasted a repository curator’s view of a community of people using their service differed with the view of users who saw a repository service as just one of a number of resources that might help them with what they were interested in doing. Colin ascribed the strength of the DIDET project to the way that curators had worked closely with users so that the curators and users views were well aligned.

Change and Embedding

When asked what it takes to embed services developed by a project into institutional practice, Iain Wallace said that it was important to make sure that lessons learnt by the project team outlived the project by instigating changes in attitudes, culture, behaviour, policy and structures across the institution. This emphasis on change was picked up by others in that discussion: Caroline Breslin agreed but suggested that change didn’t have to be at an institutional level. John Casey suggested that IP ownership could be a driver for change since it represented a recognition of value, linked to a recognition on the part of Institutions that teaching and learning is their core business.

Interestingly, during the preceding presentations and discussions such change had been identified as difficult to achieve. For example, Howard Noble talking about ASK pointed out that Institutional services such as VLEs are managed by people who are wary about changing components of those systems on the [reasonable] grounds of cost reliability and quality. Anne Gambles talking about personal strategies of users studied by the Prowe project said that these were deeply embedded and that to change them represented a risk to the person in question (though there was interest in taking this risk if the process was robust and transparent). Iain Wallace said that one of the challenges facing the Spoken Word project was that institutional IT support services could see innovation as a challenge.

That said it was clear that change and embedding does happen, sometimes it is imposed from outside: as Jackie Carter said, the web is now embedded in institutions’ practice. It was said that change will happen if it meets user needs (rather than being purely driven by technologist’s desire for something new). Dave White suggested that this can happen when technology offers a facsimile of an existing paradigm, as do for example shared calenders. VLEs might also fall into this category, being focussed on an institutional-level problem of course management that is recognized by the staff who use them. As mentioned before eliciting user needs that go beyond existing paradigms is difficult.

John Casey said that that interoperability technology was “pregnant with different ways of working” but if you keep doing the same thing you’ll get the same result. He and others suggested that senior management at institutions should identify their strategic focus and reward staff who take the risk of changing practices.

Conclusion

I hope that in picking on these three themes I have done some justice to the presentations and discussions of the two days, but the notes I took come to many pages, with too many interesting and useful points to cover here, so I can only apologize for having to omit so much. Finally I’ld like to thank the organizers of the conference and chairs of the eLearning strand for their efforts in putting on this event.