Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Problems and Issues in Online Learning

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Oct 01, 2002

This Magazine Column published as Problems and Issues in Online Learning in Learning Place online Oct 01, 2002. Education Queensland [Link] [Info] [List all Publications]

In general the issues surrounding the location, distribution and reuse of learning resources online have to do with system architecture and resource based on what I call the "silo model." On the silo model, resources are not designed or intended for wide distribution. Rather, they are located in a particular location, or a particular format, are intended for one sort of use only.

The silo model is dysfunctional because it prevents, in some essential way, the location and sharing of learning resources. In an important sense, such resources or architectures are broken because they require some additional step, usually involving manual labour, in order for developers or learners to make use of the material. The requirement of such a step adds significantly to the cost of a learning resource and in some case may prohibit its use altogether. In fairness, this cost or prohibition may be imposed by design. But from the point of view of a learning object economy, the resource or architecture is unusable.

There are numerous ways a learning resource or architecture may follow the silo model. In this section, a number of these are listed. Few products embody all of these problems. But most contain instances of at least one of these problems. And even a single instance of the silo model is enough to prevent a learning resource or architecture from being used as part of a network.

Proprietary Standards

A standard is proprietary when it is secret or when patents, copyrights or other restrictions prohibit its use. The standard is created by a commercial entity and specifies "equipment, practices, or operations unique to that commercial entity." (National Communications System, 1996) With the advent of the internet, proprietary standards are much less of an issue than in years past. Nonetheless, proprietary standards continue to abound, especially in the realm of multimedia formats.

The use of a proprietary standard divides a distribution network into those people or systems able to use the standard, and those people or systems unable to use the standard. For example, a document created using DXF for Autocad may not display properly in Cadkey, which uses CADL, or ACIS, which uses SAT. Another example is XrML, a digital rights management language developed by ContentGuard. Developers have been reluctant to use the standard because of Microsoft's control over the standard. (DRM Watch, 2002)

Proprietary standards pose numerous risks to developers. One risk is that the standard will cease to be supported in new software. Documents encoded in older MS Word formats, for example, need to be converted before they can be used. There is the risk that licensing terms may change, and as a consequence, require that user pay unexpected licensing fees. If the standard is not widely shared or distributed, as is the case, for example, with Microsoft Windows, it is difficult to develop new applications, and the holder of the standard enjoys an advantage over competing products. Additionally, the choice of viewing software may be limited. Because of these risks, it is difficult to encourage wide adoption of proprietary standards.

Several of the systems listed in the previous section depend in whole or in part on proprietary standards. Course packs designed for Web CT, for example, cannot easily be used in competing learning management systems. It is necessary to use a content migration utility (some versions of which are no longer supported) to obtain interoperability.

Overly Strict Standards

Even when a standard is non-proprietary, it may be the case that the standard is too limiting for widespread use. If, for example, a standard requires that only a limited type of data will be transported by a data transmission system, then novel applications using different types of data will be impossible to develop.

Much of the criticism around the Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM) was focused on this sort of objection. SCORM was developed to support self-study modules designed for use by the U.S. Military. Learning objects defined using SCORM are mutually independent, meaning that only the most basic sort of sequencing is enabled. This has led critics to suggest that SCORM is not flexible enough to allow for a variety of pedagogies. (Welsch, 2002)

In a similar manner, transport protocols may also be too strict. Just as, for example, a road is much less strict (and therefore much more widely used) than a railroad, so also a distribution network that delivers only learning objects (and not, say, journal articles) is less likely to be used than a network that delivers both.

Some of the systems described in the previous section adhere to standards that are too strict. Any system requiring SCORM compliance, for example, will be viewed in this way. So also will repositories that list learning objects only, such as Merlot.

Standards may be unreasonably strict in other ways. The GNU General Public License (GPL), for example, requires that any product developed using GPL software must also be GPL. Since the GPL is intended "to make sure the software is free," all modifications of GPL software must also be free. (GPL. 1991) While the purpose of this condition is to ensure that developers cannot convert a GPL application into a proprietary application, the interpretation is that GPL prohibits the development of any proprietary applications within a given application environment. (Microsoft, 2002)

Another issue related to the strictness of standards in the complexity of the standard in question. If the standard is too complex, use of the standard requires an involved process or development tool. Legacy content, which might have met a laxer standard, must be converted to the new standard. XrML has been criticized because of its complexity (DRM Watch, 2002) as has SCORM (Welsch, 2002).

Monolithic Solutions

Under the name of "enterprise solutions," learning content management systems have become tightly integrated monolithic software bundles. Such integration is even touted as a benefit by many software companies. Saba Software, for example, promises to "replaces today's ad hoc processes and disparate systems with a single system and a unified view of everything your organization needs..." (Saba Software, 2002)

Purchasers of such systems are as a consequence committed to a single solution for all aspects of learning management. If, for example, you don't like the discussion board or quiz generation tool in WebCT, perhaps finding it too complicated to manage (Shelangoske, 2002), there are no alternatives; third-party products cannot be simply 'plugged-in' to replace the WebCT default installation.

The purchase of such a system additionally requires paying for much more than may be desired. Because an essential component of learning content management systems is a database of learning objects (Nichani, 2001) a purchaser is committed to buying hardware and software support (for example, a database system such as Oracle) that may be well beyond their needs. In a tightly integrated system there is no means to deploy third-party or hosted services to manage part or all of the database; it must be located in-house.

Closed Marketplace

A closed marketplace exists when an owner of a learning content management system has only a limited selection of content to choose from. This limitation occurs when the LCMS vendor reaches an exclusive agreement with a content publisher to distribute materials. Such agreements formed the bulk of press announcements through 2001 and 2002.

One of the major distributors establishing priority in learning management systems, XanEdu has reached distribution agreements with a number of vendors, including Blackboard, Fathom, Microsoft, America Online, and Gallileus.

And such agreements make it more difficult for content publishers to sell to users. Unless affiliated with a publisher (and consequently willing to accept publishers' terms and conditions), content providers are unable to make their material available for selection by LCMS users. Because LCMS content selections are offered as a bundle, often from LCMS vendors, content providers not selected to become part of this bundle are excluded from selection.

The consequence of such a Byzantine marketplace is that established publishers with large content libraries are favoured. Because of the overhead involved, and because established publishers are wary of the competition, free content is discouraged and generally unavailable. This has the consequence of increased prices for content consumers.

The combination of monolithic systems and closed marketplaces tends to favour large educational institutions over smaller colleges and independent study. If it is necessary to purchase a large LCMS and pay premium prices for educational content, a smaller institution with fewer students cannot compete with institutions with enough students to distribute the cost. Independent study in such an environment is increasingly difficult, with most choices for potential students difficult to find or simply unavailable.


A system is disintermediated when there is no form of assessment or review guiding the selection of learning resources. The purchaser's only guide to the quality of learning material, in such a system, is obtained directly from the vendor. In a disintermediated system, there is no independent third party available to filter selection, assess or certify materials, or to comment on their potential use.

The contrary to disintermediation is intermediation. Some systems, such as merlot, attempt to provide a rudimentary for of intermediation through the provision of peer reviews of educational materials. Merlot's system, however, is closed in the sense that only a select group of people may provide reviews. And it is limited in the sense that reviewers evaluate only materials found in Merlot.

The need for some form of intermediation is evident from the numerous ad hoc mechanisms already in place. Such systems are typically institution-specific and involve the use of proprietary forms and assessment criteria. The system provided by dlnet, for example, provides a specific set of criteria and a review form. It is used only by reviewers rating material for inclusion in the Digital Library Network for Engineering and Technology. (dlnet, 2002) Similar systems are employed by the Peer Review of Instructional Technology Innovation (PRTI) program in the Broadband Enabled Lifelong Learning Environment (BELLE) project and the Development of a European Service for Information on Research and Education (DESIRE) project. (Place, 2000) In both cases, the purpose of the review is to establish a scope and selection criteria for the repository.

Systems where a review process is intended to select materials for inclusion in a specific repository may be described as "gate-keeping" services. Such services are undesirable for several reasons. First, they create significant overhead by requiring that each item be reviewed manually, causing a backlog in the addition of materials to the repository. Moreover, the results of the review are unavailable to third parties; the reviews are available only to users of a specific repository. Moreover, there is no means in such a system for third party or dissenting reviews.

In the case of many other systems, there is no review mechanism available at all. A purchaser of online articles or journal publications from a subscription service has only the article abstract available to guide selection. The reader must pay the access cost in order to determine that the abstract is misleading or that the content is not relevant.

Selective Semantics

Though progress has been made recently (with, for example, the IMS Re-useable Definition of Competency or Educational Objective (RDCEO) (Kraan, 2002)), there is a tendency to view the network of learning objects and repositories as a stand-alone service on the world wide web, not integrated with or compatible with many other resources and services available.

This is an issue mostly of perception rather than implementation. It results from the presumption that an application profile, such as SCORM, is a standard, and thereby the presumption that SCORM sets out the one and only way to describe learning objects. This has been the basis for much discussion, including heated exchanges surrounding the idea that "SCORM is for everyone." (Rehak, 2002) In fact, many application profiles, even in the educational arena, exist. (Friesen, 2002)

In fact, SCORM is an application profile, which in turn are "schemas which consist of data elements drawn from one or more namespaces, combined together by implementors, and optimised for a particular local application." (Heery and Patel, 2000) Understood as such, it is therefore unreasonable to expect that any given application profile, even SCORM, would be widely used in multiple contexts.

The issue of selective semantics arises when a network application, such as a network of learning object repositories, standardizes on a given application profile. Such specialization restricts the usefulness of such a network to the application envisioned by the designers of the application profile, and thus precludes different (even closely related) applications. A repository network, for example, that standardized on SCORM would preclude from consideration resources which are useful to course designers, such as journal articles, but which may not be described as learning objects per se. Though it is not possible to find a network designed along such principles, there is no shortage of learning content systems proclaiming themselves to be "SCORM compliant." Viewed in this light, unless such systems are designed to manipulate RDF data, rather than only SCORM data, such systems are announcing merely that they are not suitable for a wide array of applications (though they may be ideal for environments envisioned by the designers of SCORM).

Digital Rights Mismanagement

The issues related to digital rights management (DRM) are legion and need not be reviewed at length here. That said, since DRM will be an essential component of any network of learning object repositories, it is necessary to survey some of the major issues.

The first and probably the most significant concern is that no simple DRM solution has been widely implemented. This is because in many implementations, digital rights management has been conflated with the idea of digital rights enforcement. Thus, for example, the first widespread of proprietary electronic content required the use of specialized devices, known generically as eBooks.

Though eBooks satisfied the need to enforce digital rights, they were generally considered a failure because they required the purchase of specialized hardware and could not interoperate with anything else. As Hillesund (2001) notes, "Today there are two factors working against e-books and hindering diffusion. These factors include the overall poor quality and high prices of reading devices and the lack of proper and interoperable digital rights management (DRM) systems." Insisting on physical control of digital materials stymies the exchange of these materials. (Lyon, 2001)

The state of digital rights management for web based resources is not much better. In order to access content, it is typically necessary to negotiate access with each separate supplier. A person dedicated to purchasing online content, for example, may have to obtain separate accounts with Corbis (an image service; ), Lexis-Nexus (a clipping service; ) , Salon (a magazine; ), and so on and on. In many cases - the most notable being the online distribution of music - there is no means to obtain access to a full catalog of material.

The use of clearing houses that characterized first generation digital rights management is insufficient for the wide variety of materials and business models desired in online content exchanges. No trusted fiduciary agent, as described by Lyons (2001), exists to facilitate the exchange of learning resources. Consequently, a fractured and distrusting system of credit-card deposits, proxy servers and disabled file formats has emerged. This has resulted in content that is difficult and expensive to obtain and impractical to use.


Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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