You earn as they learn

September 18, 1998

Learning technology experts gather in Oxford next week and they will not be talking about lecture videos. This year's thing, says Jonathan Darby, is learning environments. Oleg Liber foresees (below) a global learning market fuelled by electronic payments

Despite many years of experimentation and considerable investment, learning technology has yet to realise its promise. Traditional teaching and learning methods still predominate at all levels of education - the classroom and the textbook prevail over the virtual learning environment. The reasons for this are straightforward; the education system was designed to use these old technologies, and there is a well defined set of standards that makes it work. Textbooks and journals conform to a standard format, and libraries classify books similarly across the world. It is relatively simple for course developers to find and assemble learning resources to create customised courses.

The software world has none of this. There is no common method of classifying computer-based learning materials, so searching for materials is a hit-and-miss affair, as anyone who has used search engines knows; and because of the lack of standards, it is impossible to construct courses by integrating different pieces of content, because they cannot interoperate. It is as if every town had a different gauge for its railway lines, making travel between towns impossible. The lack of standards forces developers to produce large, monolithic pieces of software, which are costly to produce and so require a large market. Unfortunately, it is their monolithic nature that makes them more likely to fail, since academics like to teach their courses their own way, and not conform to the dictats of technology. The effect goes beyond learning content. Learning management systems, student record systems and other university systems also have no standard way of representing their information, and cannot easily exchange it with other systems. This may be the most serious of all issues, as it stands in the way of trans-institution learning, upon which lifelong learning depends. If people are to do so, taking different courses at many locations, then management systems need to support this process. Without interoperability, there will be chaos.

Academics are also being discouraged from producing learning software because it represents a cost to universities, not a benefit. Unlike the production of text, which earns research credit for university and individual, writing learning software takes up time for no immediate reward - there is no external reward or acknowledgement for this activity.

The Instructional Management System (IMS) Project, part of the American multi-million dollar National Learning Infrastructure Initiative, has set out to remove obstacles to a global education marketplace by establishing a specification that addresses all of the issues raised in this article - how learning software should be classified using "metadata", how it should be written to allow interoperability, and to establish standards for student profiling and record systems. It is examining micropayment systems to encourage those writing learning software to trade on the Internet. It has generated enormous interest in the United States, and most large IT companies, publishers and government agencies have become investment members.

The United Kingdom has joined the consortium though JISC's Technology Applications Programme (JTAP), and has established an IMS Centre to represent the UK viewpoint, and to disseminate the results of its work thoughout higher education. The centre is managed by the University of Wales, Bangor and the Open University, and will be launched at the Association for Learning Technology Conference in Oxford on Monday. The OU has long been active in the development of online learning, and in recent years, Bangor has developed a strong reputation in learning technology through its CAL Unit and related developments.

It is crucial that the IMS project succeeds if initiatives like the University for Industry, the National Grid for Learning, and the move towards lifelong learning are to not become yet another set of failures; but if it succeeds, then the UK can potentially be a major player in the emerging global education marketplace.

Oleg Liber is co-director of the UK IMS Centre. He is based at the University of Wales, Bangor.


* IMS (Instructional Management Systems) is a US initiative directed by Mark Resmer, vice principal of Sonoma State University.

* A UK IMS Centre, managed by the University of Wales Bangor and the Open University, will be launched next week.

* IMS includes a metadata specification for learning materials. If pictures, movie clips, text and web pages are the soup in the can, the metadata is the information on the label.

* Standard information includes title, author, learning level and educational objectives.

* IMS content is not locked into one software package. It should be accessible through any software which complies with the standard.

* E-commerce features will help owners of content to collect fees from students electronically.

* IMS metadata can be expressed in XML, the new language of the Web.

* IMS and the Internet potentially create a global learning marketplace.

* Industry supporters include Apple, AT&T, IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, Peoplesoft, Sun Microsystems and Unisys.

* Also backed by several publishers, universities and US government departments.

* Websites (US), .uk (UK, under construction), (UK, temporary).


Critical mass: like any standard-setting effort IMS needs a critical mass of support; what higher education institutions and the software industry think of IMS could make or break it.

Quality: customers will be concerned not only with honest labelling but with those aspects of the educational product which, like the taste of soup, cannot be described on the label.

Campus wars: if IMS succeeds there will be losers as well as winners in the global learning market; English-language institutions with strong brands have an advantage.

Product focus: human interaction is an essential component of education but cannot easily be described in an electronic product-labelling system.

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