Moveable objects

November 21, 2003

With lecturers already uploading learning objects to the web for their students, the logical next step would be to pool these resources in a searchable online library for constant reuse. Olga Wojtas and Pat Leon report

Work for Charles Duncan and Martin Morrey is not so much about e-learning as “e-vangelising”. The founders of Edinburgh University spin-off company Intrallect have developed a learning object management system (Loms), called IntraLibrary, and are busy converting people to the cause of pooling and sharing.

All lecturers devise and use “learning objects” for their teaching - although they tend to skip the jargon and just call them handouts, video clips, photocopies, PowerPoint presentations and so on. The advent of both the internet and university intranets means that lecturers are uploading more of this material online for students through virtual learning environments (VLEs).

Many of these learning objects are not unique to the lecturer, the course or discipline. They could easily be stored digitally in a library or central repository to be reused and even modified by others, thus saving staff time and universities money.

Duncan, Intrallect chief executive, says the difference between a Loms and a conventional library is that people can deposit materials as well as borrow them. “It encourages people to share,” he says. “You can have a university, faculty or departmental digital library that is closed to outsiders but you can also have digital subject libraries, such as that run by the Learning and Teaching Support Network, that are free.”

On an international level, Duncan says, subscription-based libraries are the way forward. Members of Universitas 21, for example, will receive access to a repository of learning objects as a benefit of membership.

Duncan and Morrey cut their digital teeth in Edinburgh’s meteorology department when, with former colleague Peter Douglas, they developed EuroMET, a €2.8 million (£1.9 million) web-based project funded by the European Union’s Fourth Framework programme. Their work enabled 18 national meteorological offices and seven universities to produce between them two multilingual digital libraries.

“Our work is enabling technology systems to talk to one another. Loms are very new, and we are one of two UK companies involved. We compare our position to that of VLEs some years ago. In 1998, only seven universities had them, now everyone has one and some have three,” Duncan says.

Most academics think of their teaching aids as their babies. Whereas some are flattered if someone else wants to use them, others are possessive. Duncan says: “In universities in the UK - with the sole exception of Cambridge, as far as I’m aware - everything any lecturer produces is owned by the university. The trouble is that universities have no idea what [these objects] are, what they’re worth or how they’re managed. They don’t appear in the balance sheet.”

Duncan believes that if universities were to use Loms, the time saved in terms of preparing material to go online could be worth £1 million in an institution with 1,000 academics.

But how reusable are these objects? It tends to depend on size, as they can be as simple as a video clip or as large as a module or even a whole course. “It is easier to re-use small things, which have much less context,” Duncan says. “You use your skill as a teacher to put it in context.”

Academics already use material created by other people - for example, few write their own textbooks. Duncan, however, predicts that academics with access to a Loms will prefer to create learning objects themselves (possibly through collaboration), rather than rely on the private sector to provide content. Academic collaborations are already producing high-quality material: Warwick University staff interested in theatre studies have developed a virtual representation of the theatre at Pompeii.

“You could use it in archaeology or in virtual reality modelling in computer science. Because there’s nothing that says Ôthis is a course in such and such’ - you can lift and reuse it in different settings,” Duncan says.

A Loms can also be an aid to conventional teaching. “We have a little pumping heart with a graph that shows changes in blood pressure and the electrocardiogram. You can hear how the heart would sound through a stethoscope. A lecturer, for example, can go into a class with a laptop and let the students see and listen,” Duncan says.

Many people query the benefit of a Loms over using Google to find learning objects. But a Google search is restricted, so won’t detect many teaching aids, and it cannot distinguish whether an object is suitable for self-assessment, a tutorial, primary or postgraduate level. However, Loms does require librarians who do this type of indexing.

Users can also give quality ratings. “Just like Amazon, anyone who uses an object can critique it online: one person may say it was good for a tutorial, another bad for groupwork,” Duncan says.

The risk of learning objects being lost through technological mishap is about the same as that of a library burning down, Duncan says.

“Loms is a secure system because learning objects are backed up every night,” he explains. “But the real beauty is that the library, if so programmed, can be kept up to date because the system will do nightly trawls of other useful repositories.”

ICT in Higher Education No.2 index page  

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