Standards such as IMS and SCORM, which define a common language for describing and linking learning resources, are designed to promote interactivity among course components. The advent of such learning object protocols thus holds the promise of shared courseware. The idea behind shared courseware is that high-quality educational materials would be produced by publishers and integrated into online courses. To date, however, colleges and universities have focused on producing complete online courses, not course components, and while learning management system providers such as WebCT are talking about IMS compliance, the course components they provide are little more than wrappers for printed texts. (See, for example, WebCT's E-pack service.)
Some projects are in development—for example Blackboard's building block initiative and Michigan State's Learning Online Network, an open source instructional management system—but the development of a complete menu-driven system for integrating learning materials, assembling course packages, and distributing them to students has been left to the private sector. Such systems are called Learning Content Management Systems (LCMS) and are produced by companies such as Avaltus and Global Knowledge. One of today's leading LCMS content providers is Bell and Howell's XanEdu.com, this issue's Spotlight Site.
XanEdu's home page provides a slick graphical interface with two major sets of offerings: one for faculty (the default view), and one for students. XanEdu's purpose is clearly stated at the top of the page: "Applications and content for university teaching and learning." The site promises thousands of copyright-cleared, full-text publications, millions of articles, case studies, and more—all free for faculty, and all ready for insertion into customized courses.
To get a feel for XanEdu, click on the course packs link on the home page. From here you can view a Flash demo of how a course pack is created or see a sample course pack. The Flash demo is annoying but informative; a five-minute viewing will effectively outline the concept. The demo—a course pack for a course in classroom management—looks plain but accurately previews the final product.
XanEdu's course packs are essentially lists of readings and resources. The classroom management course pack, for example, is a list of 17 articles from such journals as The Education Digest, English Journal, and the Journal of School Health. Clicking on the link opens the full text of the article in large, easy to read text, suitable for printing or online reading.
To get a good overview of the site, click on the site map link at the bottom left of the home page. In addition to information about course packs, the site content listing will also provide access to XanEdu's "research engines" in MBA or education studies. The site map page is also a good jumping-off point for academics who want to create or review online course materials.
XanEdu limits access to its course pack creation tools to professors and course designers. To get access to the tools, users must fill out a registration form that is reviewed by XanEdu staff. Approval can take up to two days. It is worth the effort, even for people not planning to use the service, because entry into the tools section grants users access to the course pack creation engine, a menu-driven service that offers excellent content selection, preview, and one-click insertion into customized course packs. [Note: the URL to the tools section is not available because of password protection. -Ed.]
At the heart of the course pack service—and what makes it attractive to publishers—is that the subscription cost of a course pack is calculated automatically as items are added to the package. There is a base fee of $5 per course pack; this cost may increase as articles are added. The instructor does not pay this fee; students are billed directly for access to course packs. The resulting per-student cost is comparable to that of an inexpensive textbook; students create an account with XanEdu and are charged a subscription to access a XanEdu course pack. Access is limited to 180 days.
XanEdu provides access to a huge repository of online materials, sorted and searchable by category. The collection includes AMACOM books, John F. Kennedy School of Government cases, additional ProQuest periodicals, Literature Online, Blackwell's British Romanticism, MPI Video, Early English Books Online, NACRA Cases, Gerritsen Women's Collections, the National Security Archive, INSEAD Cases, Thunderbird Cases, and Ivey School of Business resources. XanEdu has also recently acquired Campus Custom Publishing and its full portfolio. The result is an impressive concentration of learning materials.
As many commentators have pointed out, online learning requires much more than a set of readings. It requires interaction, activities, testing, and feedback. But nothing prevents more dynamic objects from being added to the offerings in the future; XanEdu's HistoryPacks include streaming video, dramatic photography, materials from special collections, timelines, maps, illustrations, graphics, and original documents, for example. Faculty are also encouraged to customize and personalize their course packs. Many of these already include notes, activities, assignments, exercises, and additional information which may be modified or deleted as needed.
XanEdu also offers—again on a subscription basis—a resource called CoursePacks+ that combines its research engine and customizable CoursePack products. The purpose is to allow new materials to be added to CoursePacks as they are added to the XanEdu database, making course materials as up-to-date as possible. As a XanEdu staff member pointed out in an email, "this combination allows for a mix of authoritative, instructor-selected material and a constant up-to-the-minute feed of related material, making it possible to integrate breaking news immediately into classroom discussion and analysis."
As a tool for online learning, XanEdu is open to numerous criticisms. As rich as the resources are, they are not courses. And while XanEdu staff reported in an email that CoursePacks can be imported into learning management systems, what we do not see is a means for instructors to import learning into the XanEdu content—no way, for example, to annotate an article or insert a discussion other than via the notes added before and after the link in the CoursePack.
Of more significance is the implication of a fee-for-content service for online learning. XanEdu's system leaves existing publishers in firm control of the content to be offered for sale, and it is not clear that authors are paid for contributing to this service (or even whether they are informed that their work is being sold). More to the point, it does not appear that authors can contribute to the system directly; they must work through a publisher. This reduces their access to the marketplace, as publishers will want to limit the number of resources. It also means the publishers get a significant proportion of the revenue. And for course providers, it means that prices for course resources will remain high and the selection limited by publishers' priorities.
Services like XanEdu have not created a great deal of comment in the academic community. But they should, and soon.
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