JISC Learning Registry Node Experiment

Over the last decade the volume and range of educational content available on the Internet has grown exponentially, boosted by the recent proliferation of open educational resources. While search engines such as Google have made it easier to discover all kinds of content, one critical factor is missing where educational resources are concerned – context. Whether you are a teacher, learner or content provider, when it comes to discovering and using educational resources, context is key. Search engines may help you to find educational resources but they will tell you little of how those resources have been used, by whom, in what context and with which outcome.

Formal educational metadata standards have gone some way to addressing this problem, but it has proved to be extremely difficult to capture the educational characteristics of resources and the nuances of educational context within the constraints of a formal metadata standard. Indeed it is notoriously difficult to formally describe what a learning resource is, never mind how and by whom it may be used. Despite the not inconsiderable effort that has gone into the development of formal metadata standards, data models, bindings, application profiles and crosswalks the ability to quickly and easily find educational resources that match a specific educational context, competency level or pedagogic style has remained something of a holy grail.

A new approach to this problem is currently being explored by the Learning Registry, an innovative project being led and funded by the U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Department of Defense. In a guest blog post for CETIS in March this year ADL Senior Technical Advisor Dan Rehak explained that the Learning Registry intends to offer an alternative approach to learning resource discovery, sharing and usage tracking by prioritising sharing of second-party usage data and analytics over first party metadata.

Dan set out the Learning Registry’s use case as follows:

“Let’s assume you found several animations on orbital mechanics. Can you tell which of these are right for your students (without having to preview each)? Is there any information about who else has used them and how effective they were? How can you provide your feedback about the resources you used, both to other teachers and to the organizations that published or curated them? Is there any way to aggregate this feedback to improve discoverability?

The Learning Registry is defining and building an infrastructure to help answer these questions. It provides a means for anyone to ‘publish’ information about learning resources. Beyond metadata and descriptions, this information includes usage data, feedback, rankings, likes, etc.; we call this ‘paradata’”

Paradata is essentially a stream of activity data about a learning resource that effectively provides a dynamic timeline of how that resource has been used. As more usage data is collaboratively gathered and published the paradata timeline grows and evolves, amplifying the available knowledge about what educational resources are effective in which learning contexts. The Learning Registry team refer to this approach as “social networking for metadata”.

The Learning Registry itself is not a search engine, a repository, or a registry in the conventional sense. Instead the project aims to produce a core transport network infrastructure and will rely on the community to develop their own discovery tools and services, such as search engines, community portals, recommender systems, on top of this infrastructure. Dan commented; “We assume some smart people will do some interesting (and unanticipated) things with the timeline data stream.”

The Learning Registry infrastructure is built on couchDb, a noSQL style “document oriented database” providing a RESTful JSON API. The initial Learning Registry development implementation, or node, is available as an Amazon Machine Instance, hosted on Amazon EC2. This enables anyone to set up their own node on the Amazon cloud quickly and easily. As CouchDb is a cross-platform application, nodes can be run on most systems (e.g. Windows, Mac, Linux). The Learning Registry plan to produce zero-config installers to simplify the process of adding nodes to the network with the aim that developers should be able to set up their own node within a day. These nodes will form a decentralised network with each participant configuring their own rules regarding access permissions and what data they gather and share.

Although the Learning Registry will encourage users to produce their own tools and services on top of the network of nodes, the development team have defined a small set of non-core APIs for integration with existing edge services, e.g. SWORD for repository publishing and OAI-PMH for harvesting from the network to local stores.

A key feature of the Learning Registry is that it is metadata agnostic; it will accept legacy metadata in any format and will not attempt to harmonise the metadata it consumes. The team have also developed a specification for sharing and exchanging paradata which is inspired by the Activity Steams format.

As a leading innovator in digital infrastructure for resource discovery JISC have followed the development of the Learning Registry with interest, and in keeping with our remit as a JISC Innovation Support Centre CETIS have fostered a strategic working relationship with the Learning Registry team. In addition to maintaining a watching brief on the project, participating in the technical development working group, and submitting position papers to the Learning Registry summit, CETIS have also liaised directly with the project’s developers and technical advisor and communicated relevant strategic and technical developments back to JISC and the community. The Learning Registry team have also engaged closely with the JISC, CETIS and the UK technical development community by participating in two DevCSI hackdays, contributing to several CETIS events, and attending a number of JISC strategic planning meetings.

JISC have now extended this innovative collaboration with the announcement that they will fund the development of a Learning Registry test node, the first to be developed outwith the US. The node will be developed at MIMAS with input and support from JISC CETIS.

In a press release JISC’s Amber Thomas commented,

“This international collaboration will see us contributing the UK’s expertise to the Learning Registry. We are working with Mimas and JISC Cetis to support the Registry’s vision of gathering together the conversations, ratings, recommendations and usage data around digital content.”

And Steve Midgley, Deputy Director, Office of Education Technology at the US Department of Education added,

“I am greatly encouraged by the collaboration and opportunity presented by our work with JISC on the Learning Registry.”

The Learning Registry project has already generated considerable interest in the UK. We believe that technical developers, infrastructure managers and resource providers will have much to learn from the JISC Learning Registry test node development and we hope that ultimately educational communities in both the US and the UK will benefit from this innovative project.

Further Reading

Event: Advances in Open Systems for Learning Resources

Interested on new developments and advances in open systems for managing learning resources? Yes? Good! Because CETIS are running an event on this very topic as part of this year’s Repository Fringe in Edinburgh. Repository Fringe 2011 takes place on Wednesday 3rd and Thursday 4th August with the CETIS “Advances in Open Systems for Learning Resources” event on Friday 5th August.

Encouraged by recent initiatives promoting the release of openly licensed educational resources there have been considerable developments in the innovative use of repositories, content management systems and web based tools to manage and share materials for teaching and learning. This event will bring together developers and implementers of open repositories, content management systems and other tools to present and discuss recent updates to their systems and their application to learning resources.

The speakers lined up for this event will cover a diverse range of topics that relate to “open systems”. These include open source repository system software, repositories of openly licensed content, open access repositories, open standards and open APIs.

Confirmed speakers include:

  • Patrick Mc Sweeney, University of Southampton, talking about “Community Engagement in Teaching and Learning Repositories: ePrints, HumBox and OER”.
  • John Casey, University of the Arts, presenting the ALTO OER Ecosystem.
  • Dan Rehak of ADL, outlining progress on the US Learning Registry initiative.
  • Terry McAndrew, University of Leeds, “Getting Bioscience Open Educational resources into ‘Academic Orbit’. Tales from the OeRBITAL launchpad”.
  • Charles Duncan, Intrallect Ltd, will discuss the development of an item bank repository.

More speakers are still being confirmed so keep an eye on the agenda for updates.

Both the Repository Fringe and the CETIS workshop are free to attend and you can register for either or both events via Eventbrite here.

DevCSI OER Hack Day Report

I am woefully late in amplifying this, however Kirsty Pitkin has produced an excellent summary of the joint UKOLN CETIS DevCSI OER Hackday that took place in Manchester last month. The two day event drew a wide range of participants from the UK and US including delegates from the Universities of Leeds, Newcastle, Oxford, Bolton and Nottingham, East Riding College, Harper Adams University College, the Open University, the US Learning Registry Initiative, Open Michigan and ISKME, together with colleagues from JISC, CETIS and UKOLN.

Kirsty’s report includes video interviews with many of the hackday participants and also presents a comprehensive summary of the projects developed at the event. These included:

  • The Course Detective – a Google custom search engine to search over the undergraduate prospectus pages for all UK universities.
  • WordPress tools, hacks and workflows for OER
  • Generating Paradata from MediaWiki – how to contribute paradata back into the Learning Registry by building a simple data pump that mines MediaWiki and transforms it into a paradata envelope for the Learning Registry.
  • Sacreligious – an OER version of Delicious, built on Django.
  • Xpert / Learning Registry Connection – working with the Xpert search API to parse it and push it into the Learning Registry

You can read Kirsty’s full report here: OER Hack Day, and I can also recommend the OER Hack Day Social Summary

Ranking and SEO – light on a dark art

Search engine optimisation can seem like a bit of a black art, particularly given that search engines can and do change their algorithms with little or no prior warning or documentation. However there is growing awareness that if institutions, projects or individuals wish to have a visible web presence and to disseminate their resources efficiently and effectively search engine optimisation and ranking can not be ignored. Indeed at the JISC HEA OER Phase 2 Prorgamme meeting in January the projects flagged up SEO as being an area where they would appreciate more support and guidance.

Coincidentally the day before the programme meeting Jenny Gray of the OU raised a query on the oer-discuss list about an unexplained drop off in traffic to OpenLearn from google, which she suspected was a result of a change to the google algorithm. Several people responded with helpful suggestions including Lisa McLaughlin of the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education (ISKME) who forwarded some invaluable advice on search engine ranking and optimisation from her colleague Julie Walling.

Julie has now written a similar post on the ISKME Research blog: Trouble shooting a Drop in Search Engine Rankings. This helpful blog post outlines a set of questions that can be used to troubleshoot whether a drop in rankings is the result of a change in a search engine algorithm, or due to an issue with the website in question. Recognising that SEO can be extremely complex and that the cause of ranking changes elusive, Julie sets out some basic principals to bear in mind. These include:

1. Structure sites so they are as content rich as possible
2. Pick one keyword per page and stick to it
3. Include your keyword in the anchor text of internal links
4. Attract high value external links

I can highly recommend Julie’s blog post to anyone interested in learning more about google ranking and search engine optimisation more generally and as an added bonus she also provides links to other useful resources on this arcane but important topic.

This is not a blog post…#lwf11

Earlier today while listening to the livefeed of Learning Without Frontiers #lwf11 I had the misfortune to hear Katharine Birbalsingh presenting. Not since a recent Alt-C keynote have I seen such a vitriolic twitter backchannel. And in my opinion it was justified. Several people in my twitter feed missed the presentation but picked up on the backchannel and asked me to blog a summary of the talk. We’ll I’ve written a short summary but I’ve decided not to post it because that would just be providing publicity for opinions that I actually find quite objectionable. So if you want the summary let me know and I’ll send it to you. I don’t really want such nonsense on my blog.

Dan Stucke has blogged a short sumamry of the presentation on his blog here.

OER 2 Technical Requirements

Following the experiences of projects funded under the HEFCE / Academy / JISC Open Educational Resources Pilot Programme CETIS have made some minor revisions to the technical guidelines for the current OER 2 Programme. These guidelines reiterate and hopefully clarify the guidelines provided in the Programme Circular and presented at the Programme Start Up Meeting.

Resource Description

As with the OER Pilot Programme, the OER 2 Programme will not mandate the use of one single platform to disseminate resources and one single metadata application profile to describe content. However projects still need to ensure that content released through the programme can be found, used, analysed, aggregated and tagged. In order to facilitate this, content will have to be accompanied by some form of metadata. In this instance metadata doesn’t necessarily mean de jure standards, application profiles, formal structured records, cataloging rules, subject classifications, controlled vocabularies and web forms. Metadata can also take the form of tags added to resources in applications such as flickr and YouTube, time and date information automatically added by services such as slideshare, and author name, affiliation and other details added from user profiles when resources are uploaded. Consequently the OER 2 Programme only mandates the following “metadata”:

Programme tag – ukoer

Project tag – each project should devise a short tag for use in conjunction with the programme tag. e.g. projectname

Title – of the resource being described

Author / owner / contributor – Most systems, whether repositories, vles or applications such as SlideShare, YouTube, etc allow registered users to create a user profile detailing their name and other relevant details. When a user uploads a resource to such a system these details are usually associated with the resource.

Date – This is difficult to define in the context of open educational resources which have no formal publication date. Most applications are likely to record the date a resource is uploaded but it will also be important to record date of creation so users can judge the currency of a resource.

URL – Metadata must include a url that locates the resource being described. The system must assign each item a unique url.

Licence information – Creative Commons is the preferred licence for programme outputs. The cc:license element can be used to provide a URI for the licence chosen and the dc:rights element can be used to provide general textual information about copyrights, other IPR and licence. Embedding the license within the resource is also recommended where practicable. Projects may refer to the OER IPR Support Project for further guidance

Technical information such as file format, name and size may be added but is no longer mandatory.

The hash symbol # should be added to the programme and project tag for use on twitter. E.g. #ukoer for twitter, ukoer for blogs etc.

Projects are also encouraged to think about providing additional information that will help people to find and access resources. For example:

Language information – The language of the resource.

Subject classifications – Specific subject classifications vocabularies are not mandated for the OER Programme. However if a controlled vocabulary is required, projects are advised to use a vocabulary that is already being used by their subject and domain communities. It is not recommended that projects attempt to create new subject classification vocabularies.

Keywords – May be selected from controlled vocabularies or may be free text.

Additional Tags – Tags are similar to keywords. They may be entered by the creator / publisher of a resource and by users of the resource and they are normally free text. Many applications such as flickr, SlideShare and YouTube support the use of tags.

Comments – Are usually generated by users of a resource and may describe how that resource has been used, in what context and whether it’s use was successful or otherwise.

Descriptions – In contrast to comments, descriptions are usually generated by the creator/ publisher of a resource and tend to be more authoritative. Descriptions may provide a wide range of additional information about a resource including information on how it may be used or repurposed.

It’s also useful for projects to be aware that once OERs are released they can easily become separated from their metadata descriptions, if this information is recorded in an associated file. Consequently projects are encouraged to consider embedding relevant descriptive information within the open educational resource where practicable. For further discussion of this approach see Open Educational resources, metadata and self description.

Delivery Platforms

Projects should deposit their content in JorumOpen and in at least one other openly accessible system or application with the ability to produce RSS and / or Atom feeds; for example an open institutional repository, an international or subject area open repository, an institutional website or blog, or a Web 2.0 service.

The RSS / ATOM feed should list and describe the resources produced by the project, and should itself be easy to find. Where a project produces a large number or resources it may not be practical to include them all in one single feed. In such cases it may be necessary to create several feeds in order to list all the resources. If a number of feeds are required to represent the whole collection, the discovery of the complete set of feeds should be facilitated. A number of approaches to enable this are possible, e.g. by creating an OPML file and using multiple instances of the element in the HTML header, or simply listing all feeds in a human readable web page.

There are many other approaches that projects may choose to investigate and use to facilitate resource discovery including search engine optimisation, site maps, OAI-PMH or APIs for remote search (SRU, OpenSearch, ad hoc RESTful search). CETIS will provide further guidance on these approaches in due course.

Projects will be expected to report to JISC on resource use so it is highly recommended that if the chosen delivery platform has tracking functionality this should be switched on and monitored.

For an overview of the wide range of delivery platforms used by the OER Pilot Programme projects may find it useful to refer to the UKOER Technology Overview

Content Standards

The OER 2 Programme is expected to generate a wide range of content types so mandating specific content standards is impractical. However projects should consider using appropriate standards for sharing complex objects e.g. IMS Content Packaging, IMS Common Cartridge and IMS QTI for assessment items.

What We Hope To Learn

We have learned a great deal from the technical choices and experiences of the OER Pilot Projects but we still have much to learn about how to describe and distribute open educational resources most effectively on the open web. Consequently we strongly encourage projects to share their comments, queries, successes and frustrations with CETIS and with other OER 2 projects. CETIS OER Programme Support Officer R. John Robertson will be undertaking informal technical review calls with all OER 2 projects over the course of the programme. Feel free to comment here, or contact John with comments, queries and suggestions.