IMS Global Learning Consortium, Inc.
Duncan and Ekmekcioglu begin their chapter with the ritual observation that learning resources (i.e., library assets) are becoming ever easier to reproduce and distribute. So they are, and many commenters have been content to attribute the source of change to the death of place or the digitization of knowledge assets. These authors fortunately do not submit to being mesmerized by the epiphenomena of e-change. After making only brief comments about better infrastructure for databases and inter-repository communication and the persistent value of custodianship, cataloguing and retrievability, they conclude succinctly that there will always be big, little, and personal repositories of mixed types of assets, as well as a need to federate them.
They then move on to the more valuable and provocative discussion of how users of libraries and librarians themselves are better enabling their time honored symbiosis by exploiting computer and networking technology. Like other kinds of e-commerce or e-government, the mutual services that comprise the dialogs between librarians and their "customers" can now be performed quickly and cheaply at a distance. As a result, this performance can now involve more intricate, more frequent, and more direct interaction between provider and user. Some parts of it can even be automated, and some roles can be shared or transferred from provider to user and vice-versa.
The resulting changes are more in the delivery of service than in the nature of the service, and in the style of user-provider interaction than in the intent or substance of that interaction. Following this theme, Duncan and Ekmekcioglu rightly organize the body of their chapter around the roles of librarians and users, the interface that library systems provide to other systems, and the integration of those roles and interfaces.
Decomposing and Recombining Roles
Disintermediation and customization are marching through education and training as inexorably as they have through other systems for exchanging value. The lines between user and librarian and between library systems and the systems with which they interact are being redrawn. Learners and teachers expect, as consumers, that access to learning resources will be as personal, immediate, and unimpeded as access to a book or CD on Amazon. Authors expect that their work will be made globally and persistently available; yet they still expect to make ad hoc revisions. These expectations can only be met if some of the responsibility for indexing and maintaining assets migrate to users and their systems.
No less do librarians expect to be solely back office custodians and archivists. Duncan and Ekmekcioglu point out that librarians expect to take proactive "responsibility in user education, knowledge management, organisation of networked information resources, electronic publishing and curriculum development." If such expectations are to be met, then such activities as searching, alerting, etc. will be based on collaborative behaviours by users, librarians, and software agents.
User Needs: The MERLOT Project
The Multi-media Resources for Learning and On-line Teaching (MERLOT) project provides a perspective on technical and sociological issues involved with the dynamic growth and use of learning object repositories used for teaching and learning.
MERLOT (www.merlot.org) is designed primarily by and for the faculty and students of higher education. Its system infrastructure provides links to online learning materials and environments for adding annotations to those materials such as peer reviews and assignments. MERLOT is an open community, and community members help MERLOT grow by contributing or evolving materials and adding assignments and comments.
These materials may be added by the people who created them or by any member of MERLOT. Peer reviews of material are contributed by qualified faculty members in the relevant discipline(s). Peer review editorial boards in 14 fields ranging from biology and business to mathematics, teacher education, and world languages are responsible for developing evaluation standards and conducting peer reviews of materials for that discipline. Editorial board members also monitor and contribute to the MERLOT collection in their discipline.
MERLOT begins to address part of the problem of collecting resources created by individual teachers or authors from local storage and rating their quality to make them both available to and usable by other teachers and to learners. How will the assets created by this process be made persistent, maintained over time, and distributed reliably?
Functional Requirements: The COLIS Project
The Collaborative Online Learning and Information Services (COLIS) project has focused on specifying the functions that an integrated learning-library system environment would entail. www.colis.mq.edu.au The services that the COLIS participants have identified include:
- Authoring tools which enable all types of contributors to create, edit, annotate, etc.
- Learning/teaching interfaces for a variety types of interaction
- Facilities for importing and exporting content (assets)
- Robust authentication and authorization of users
- System interfaces that support automatic and manual interaction with a variety of learning management, asset management, and administrative systems
- Facilities for search and discovery by both expert and amateur users
- Asset management functions and interfaces
- A rights management and version control capability
- Application profiles which support deployment, maintenance and use in a variety of domains
- Interfaces to networked distribution and delivery systems
Enabling Interoperability: Work by IMS and Other Consortia
The COLIS list of necessary functions is complex, and ensuring that individual functions can interoperate with one another to provide the integrated environment necessary to realize the MERLOT agenda is truly daunting. Work on specifications which will support the overall framework is being conducting by a number of organizations.
The work of IMS brings together end-users, consumers, vendors, and policy setters and focuses on the aspects of interoperability required to deliver interoperability in such functions as finding resources and retrieving them, putting objects into repositories, and supporting interactions between repositories. This work has delivered a first basic specification. A special interest group is now formulating projects to provide solutions to immediate interoperability issues. Joint work that involves participants from IMS, the Center for Networked Information, the Digital Library Foundation and the Online Computer Library Center is addressing the deeper issues on which innovative redistribution of function depends.
In addition work on such standards as MARC and Dublin Core continues, and the learning technology community has developed and released such standards as the Learning Object Metadata of the IEEE, and the IMS Content Packaging specification.
Some key tasks have not yet been addressed. Even if they are designed to be interoperable and meet the requirements of many sectors of use, individual, general purpose standards must be integrated and profiled to support the various interactions characteristic of particular systems in specific application domains. This task involves producing a "complete solution", rather than a collection of parts, and it will require participation from many communities. How will the collective effort be organized and led? Will projects like the COLIS project be expanded, or will new projects need to be organized? Will consumers or vendors take the lead to organize this joint activity?
New capabilities and new roles are being enabled. Many components of an integrated learning and library environment are subject to external forces. At least temporarily, the genie of change will behave unpredictably. Technical evolution and information science and pedagogy will proceed in parallel with development activities. Organizational environments are likely to be out of synchronization with the state of the art. How will the design of library and other systems and the development of staff and organizations build in capacity for flexibility or change in response to these trends and constraints?
The broad need to fix individual responsibility for assembled functionality that enables many kinds of users to create, maintain, distribute, and use learning resources reliably, is such an overarching issue that it is worth speculating what model of "charging" or metric of accountability and credit will eventually emerge from the process of re-implementing and redistributing these services among provider, user, and system behaviors. The authors offer us an intriguing peek at the way through the many thickets of this issue when they refer to the "quality control" that is implictly associated with the cost (or perceived value) of a service.
They observe that a 'free' service is a (lower) boundary condition,
"There is a perceived value ... when some form of "quality control" is implied. ... where no charge is made ..., there is often a question mark over the quality of material."
How will this question mark be removed? Is it possible that some sort of "certificates of quality" will emerge as a standard of value to complement traditional " right to use" as a monetary or non-monetary metric of value added? Many states between the intrinsic worthlessness of chaotic openness or the isolating proprietariness exist.