Developing Learner-Centric Content
White Paper

1 Overview

1.1 Purpose of the paper
The purpose of this paper is to address the concept of developing learner-centric instructional content. Methods for supporting individualized learning will also be addressed. This paper will discuss new ways in which learner-centric content is designed, developed, accessed, identified, customized, shared, localized, stored, and "chunked" into small units, all of which reflect a major shift in the training industry. This paper will also discuss ways in which existing content can be re-purposed for this new concept.

1.2 Audience
This paper is intended for courseware designers and developers who will be utilizing the Online Learning Infrastructure (OLI) content model.

1.3 The need: Changes in the learning industry

1.3.1 Meeting needs
As the demands for training increase daily, companies are under great pressure to provide relevant, up-to-date, individualized training with the ability to cater to the specific needs of each learner. The next century demands effective use of technology-assisted training. The industry is facing demands to meet training needs resulting from the ever-increasing skill gaps. Technology changes rapidly, and the training industry is challenged to keep this pace. As a result, skill gaps are widening and training cost are skyrocketing.

1.3.2 Current Situation
There is a saying that time in the training industry is passing in 'internet' years. As soon as a product is released and training begins, a new technology develops, revisions begin, and the cycle begins again without ever completing. Taking time to learn technologies takes time away from productivity. The industry has addressed these issues with new approaches to development and delivery methods. Even with today's innovations, training developers are faced with dilemmas such as:
Currently, there is an upsurge of new development and delivery methods for web-based training becoming available. While web-based training has potential to address many of these issues, there is still a need for comprehensive methodologies that allow the reusability of the content.

1.3.3 How the current situation impacts instructional design
It is not content that is changing, but the way it is packaged and accessed. Instructional designers using Empower's Online Learning Infrastructure must now consider ways in which content is developed, how learning strategies are utilized, and how the content is reused. The learning paradigm is shifting and is redefined within the OLI content model.

1.4 Problem: Move from courseware and instructor centered to learning objects and learner centered

1.4.1 Demands for individualized learning
The terms 'just-in-time' and 'on-the-fly' are becoming the universal buzz words for a new kind of learning. The terms themselves can sound a little like the 'fast food' of the learning world.; which implies that somehow the 'on-the-fly' notion does not equate with quality learning. This is not so. The shift in the learning paradigm has to do with access of information- to meet the immediate and specific needs of a learner. More and more as learners converge and begin a unit of study together, their individual experiences and previously acquired knowledge cover a widening span. Not everyone needs the same information at the same time. Here, we discuss how the housing and structure of information have to shift from the current methods in order to meet the increasing demands of the work force.

1.5 Solution: Access to learning and reusing content

1.5.1 Learner-Centric methodology
The term 'learner-centric' refers to a change in the focus of learning. Instructional methods can be viewed on a continuum that ranges from directed learning to facilitated learning. An example of directed learning would be a traditional instructor lecture without interaction or participation by the learner. This view of the learner soaking up information as the instructor imparts it is referred to as 'teacher centered'. At the other end of the continuum there is a 'student-centered' approach that involves active participation and facilitation of learning. It is at this end of the continuum that learner-centric methodology is evolving.

Learner-centric is not just about student directed learning. It is also about the availability of knowledge - how and when it is accessed. Learning in a traditional sense comes from a time when information was stabilized for longer periods of time. There was a notion that schooling took place in an intensive period of a few years, sufficient for many to last a lifetime. Actual information seemed more finite and adequate for the industrial age.

This is no longer holds true for today's educational needs. The rapidity of change in information/ technology today presents challenges to educators. The traditional learning system is no longer adequate. Learners cannot possibly learn enough information to prepare them for careers in technology with the traditional approach to schooling. Learners need the skills to continually access information in order to be successful in this next century. The term 'Life Long Learner' is currently being used to describe this phenomenon that demands we change the way we structure learning and the way people access information.

The learner-centric approach to instruction supports collaborative and individualized learning, and provides access to learners that can meet specific needs. The learner is responsible and actively involved in gaining new knowledge. The OLI Model supports the learner-centric approach by storing learning content in ways that are standardized and therefore easily retrieved and shared and reused.

2 A model for developing and accessing content: Online Learning Infrastructure

2.1 How content is identified and 'tagged'
Within the OLI content model, knowledge is stored and cross-referenced with a certain degree of consistency. In order for knowledge to be stored for eventual reuse, the format includes properties (also known as metadata). This is information about information. In essence, the knowledge is 'labeled'. Consumers read labels to determine the inside contents of a package; users will access knowledge in a similar fashion.

In order to access and reuse content, properties are attached to fields describing each content item within the OLI system. These fields provide basic information about the object such as location, keywords, title, author or ID, etc. In addition, content "tags" may also be created and utilized to further describe specific content elements and their relationship(s) to other content or description elements. Data stored within these fields and tags allows the OLI system to provide content developers a variety of sophisticated search and reuse capabilities.

The EDUCOM Instructional Management Systems Project, an NLII initiative is supporting the creation of standards. IMS Metadata Specification proposes methods for managing and accessing metadata. The OLI content model also supports the standardization of the common properties of content:

Abstract, Author, Title, Objectives, Learning level, Globally Unique ID, Location, and Subject are representative of about thirty-six common fields supported by OLI and IMS.

2.2 Reusing content
Courseware designers need to consider the aspect of reuse as they plan and design learning content. This requires somewhat of a paradigm shift. Instructional designers have to take on a mindset that has them thinking about creating learning objects for reuse. They must plan to develop learning objects that are independent of other content and learning objects that can be recombined for various outcomes. In this manner, learning objects become `chunksą of knowledge stored in a database that can be presented as units of instruction.

2.2.1 Object dependencies
Developing content in a modular structure has some inherent considerations:
2.3 Learning objects
In the field of instructional design, the use of the term 'learning object' has not been used consistently, and therefore has been open to interpretation The semantics surrounding the concept of 'learning object' has led to confusion and differing approaches to its structure. A highly structured definition would be too restrictive from the point of view of instructional designers. For this reason a learning object is defined as any specific type of content that has been bundled together as a single unit.

The basis of any learning object should be instructional objectives. The objectives are core to the learning system and give meaning to the grouping of other learning resources.

The structure of a learning object is not static in the sense that each object has to have the exact same properties. A learning object can be made up of any number of learning resources, information, data, objectives, and assessment items, for example. The learning object becomes a unit containing any number of these learning resources.

2.4 How do instructional strategies relate to developing learning objects?
Learning strategies describe approaches to presenting material that is conducive to learning. For example, learning about a new concept is different from learning a new skill, and information is presented to the learner differently. Instructional strategies are intrinsic to the way a learning object is constructed. The strategy is imbedded in the content and the way it is presented within a learning object.

A typical instructional strategy to teach a new concept is to relate new information to past knowledge. For example, in a math lesson on prime numbers, an instructor may review the concepts of factors and multiplication before introducing the concept of prime and composite numbers. A learning object housing this information may include background content on multiplication and a classroom activity that illustrates to the learner the concept of factoring numbers. The same content could be included in another learning object, with a different activity described. In essence, two learning objects could contain the same content, yet vary in how the content is delivered.

As learning objects are created by the instructional designer, the strategies relaying how the information is revealed to the learner are defined as a part of the learning object. In order to meet a particular learning goal, a unit of study may incorporate any number of learning objects. Within the OLI model a collection of learning objects grouped to meet a particular instructional goal is called a course.

2.4.1 Use of templates and databases
Tools can be developed that contain templates for building learning objects. These templates can provide a structure for incorporating instructional strategies within the collection of learning objects. An example of instructional strategy would be Gagne's nine instructional events designed to present information and engage the student in the learning process. A template can provide the structure for developing learning objects that follows a specific format. The template also provides structure for identifying the properties of the content, which can be stored in a database.

A benefit of the use of templates is to ensure consistency in the development of learning objects. When a learning object is created for potential reuse in another project, following a particular formula or strategy makes it much easier to recombine. For example, an instructional designer might decide to reuse a series of 'match the column' assessment items already existing in various learning objects. As these items are recombined, the format remains consistent. Templates should be viewed as guidelines to building a comprehensive learning experience and not as simple formulas to 'fill in'. Instructional designers should use the various tools and templates available at the application level, but also have the flexibility to construct learning objects individually to meet specific needs.

2.5 Defining parameters of chunking
The term 'chunking' is a common term in the instructional training field that refers to the notion of modularity. In this usage, learning is viewed as independent modular chunks of knowledge that can be recombined to suit individual needs. Typically the word 'module' is synonymous with 'lesson'. Rather than viewing chunks of knowledge without any parameters, think of chunking as a module or lesson that has objectives, content, and assessment. Using the OLI content model, instructional designers shift their focus toward developing content that is developed in these 'chunks,' allowing knowledge reuse.

Chunking information and building learning objects is at the core of the learner-centric approach to building content. By creating content in such a manner that it is easily retrieved and reused, training evolves to another level, meeting the demands of technology expansion.

3 Creating learning within the OLI content model

3.1 Managing content
A learning object must be further broken down into components. These individual components are referred to as learning resources. The resources can be individual items such as an assessment item, a graphic display, or text. Alone, these individual items are not learning objects, yet they are valuable resources that must be labeled so that future reusability and access are assured. An example of this reuse is when a document from a particular learning object is located and used to support another instructional objective in a different learning object. In order for an instructional designer to locate that specific content, it has to be labeled. For the purpose of locating specific learning resources, descriptors must be attached to each of these content objects.

Metadata can be broken down into fields or categories that can include title, subject, or description, for example to help organize individual learning resources. Metadata specifications allow content to be organized into broad categories to differentiate types of content. Locating a specific person is different from locating a graphic or an activity.

Content that is associated with metadata can be tracked and reused through a database. A database can store the learning object properties, allowing content to be retrieved and reused.

3.2 Using current content
Existing content can be incorporated into this model in a variety of ways. To maximize the benefits provided by the web-based delivery system, the recommended option would be to chunk existing content into OLI-compliant learning objects to be stored and tagged within the OLI content model. This could be performed relatively easily for content that is available in standard source formats such as HTML, DOC, or RTF.

In cases where content has been packaged using a proprietary tool format, the entire package component can be referenced from within the data structures and tagged appropriately. The major constraints with this approach are:
3.3 Creating new content
Kaleidoscope, a performance management system, provides collaborative tools for the systematic analysis, design, development, evaluation, and distribution of learning objects. This suite of tools developed by Empower is one of the many plug-and-play GUI-based tools that allow instructional designers to develop new learning objects.

3.4 Assessment
A learning object may have one or more assessment items. These items are linked to the learning object, and as the learning object is reused, the assessment item can also be accessed. This model supports the learner-centric approach by tying individual performance to specific assessment items. From the learner point of view, learning objects can be assembled that are based on previous performance outcomes. An example of this is when a learner completes a series of learning objects and the assessment points to areas that are in need of remediation. The learner does not have to go through all of the learning objects again, only those indicated by performance.

The learner-centric model supports and uses assessment in both a formative and summative fashion. As the assessment is compiled and tracked within a database, all learning objects can be tracked for individual performance and outcomes. In this manner recommendations to the learner can be made based on performance objectives mastered. Learning objects that have prerequisite requirements attached to them may also have assessment requirements attached. Stipulations may be made such that a learner must meet specific performance requirements in order to proceed in a given series of learning objects.

4 Business aspects of reusing learning objects

4.1 Protecting your content
The potential for reuse of learning objects to form new units of study is great; so is the potential for an author's work to be reused within the same-shared database. Imagine a framework housing thousands of learning objects. Whenever a new unit of study is developed, potentially much of the content may exist within the framework. As with any intellectual property, the author of the content is identified. As learning objects are stored, they are stored with certain properties attached, including author and copyright information.

All content developed within the OLI content model implies its reuse, and content developers are aware that content is available to other developers. If content is not available for reuse, this information is noted within the basic property fields.

4.2 Proprietary formats
Existing course materials can be incorporated into this content model. The materials may not have been originally developed to fit the model, but existing content can be tagged for future access and reusability. In a sense properties much like 'book ends' are attached to the proprietary format so that content can be retrieved. Recombining proprietary content with new learning objects is limited as the content is tightly embedded; however, this content can be included within the model.

4.3 Where do I go from here?
The development of new tools designed to build and access learning content offers a major improvement over the traditional approaches to building training. All phases of design and development can now be utilized from one central repository. Instructional designers will have tools that will enable them to deliver training, whether it is in the classroom or online, that is easily updated and individualized.

Probably the biggest impact of this new infrastructure is in the way learning content will be packaged and utilized. Instructional designers will develop new materials from the perspective of building learning objects. Instructional strategies and presentation of material still follow sound instructional design principles, yet knowledge is easily accessed, updated, and reused.

Catherine Connolly</b


Note: Original site is no longer available, unable to find contact information from author to receive permission to repost.  7/29/04 CM