Posts Tagged ‘learning’

There seemed to have been rather a lot of discussion in 2009 about whether the VLE or Virtual Learning Environment was alive or dead (including the ALT-C 2009 debate), and the rise of the PLE (Personal Learning Environment).

I’m very interested in PLEs and informal learning and have blogged and vlogged about the concept.

I’ve perhaps been less interested in VLEs. They seem to serve an institutional purpose, but always seemed to constrain the means students use to express their learning and, therefore, the learning process itself.

However, I’ve recently had cause to look at the area of VLEs. Doing this process I asked myself, “What if you wanted to use VLE technology to provide an environment for open learning?” Well, two things have caught my interest in answering this.

The first is ATutor. I began to amass information about ATutor and rather than let that work go to waste, I decided to write it up here in the hope that it might be useful to others.

When considering the available VLE products, I was interested in the potential of utilizing OpenLearn resources; this led me to consider interoperability standards. The significant standard on the rise for educational requirements is the IMS Common Cartridge, driven by the IMS Global Learning Consortium. This seems to be more significant to education than the SCORM standard, which from my reading of the information, is more appropriate for distance learning and training, and is primarily significant for the US Government and Military training purposes. Common Cartridge aligns much more with a blended learning approach, though is still useful for distance or purely online learning.

Well, by early January 2010 there were only two products that conformed to the IMS Common Cartridge standard, one of which was ATutor.

First I needed to look at the content from an OpenLearn module, so I downloaded one in Common Cartridge format from the Open University site, and then something to look at it with. I found the use ‘as is’ Common Cartridge Builder software (zip file) and downloaded it. I was able to easily unzip and import the OpenLearn module, look at the folder structure and add to the content if I wanted. That seemed very easy.

So how would the same module load into an open demo version of ATutor? I logged into this demo version, and even without unzipping the module was able to import it into ATutor. That too was so easy. Atutor comes with a Common Cartridge editor built in, so creating interoperable content should be easy (I haven’t tried this out yet). I was beginning to think I was onto something here. What if I could create a community using ATutor and import Open Educational Resource (OER) modules and allow access to anyone who wanted to learn from them? Plus I could create my own courses and then make them available as OER. This could possibly encourage others to do the same.

As ATutor is developed out of the Adaptive Technology Resource Centre (ATRC) at the University of Toronto, accessibility of the software is a primary concern. So ATutor conforms to these accessibility standards:

  • W3C WCAG 1.0 (AA)
  • W3C WCAG 2.0 (pending release)
  • W3C ATAG 2.0 (pending release)
  • Section 508 (US Rehabilitation Act)

There is also an ATRC Web Accessibility Checker so content can be check for accessibility as it is being developed.

ATutur runs on Apache, PHP and MySQL, so nothing too surprise there. I installed a working version of ATutor onto a server running Apache 2.0.63 – PHP 5.2.10 – MySQL 5.0.85 in a little over two hours. The only problem I encountered was that I couldn’t log into the Super Administrator account, not sure why, but I amended the password in the database and everything was fine.

Core releases occur in June/July and December to not interfere with general institutional run courses.

Because of the open ethos of ATutor, there are links from their support website to Open Educational Resources (a vlog post about OER). And significantly, there is a module available to integrate MERLOT resources into ATutor hosted courses.

MERLOT is a leading edge, user-centered, searchable collection of peer reviewed and selected higher education, online learning materials, catalogued by registered members and a set of faculty development support services. MERLOT’s vision is to be a premiere online community where faculty, staff, and students from around the world share their learning materials and pedagogy.

MERLOT’s strategic goal is to improve the effectiveness of teaching and learning by increasing the quantity and quality of peer reviewed online learning materials that can be easily incorporated into faculty designed courses.


I’m interested in using ATutor to create an open learning environment open to anyone to use; with OER course content and with the integrated social network facility for collaborative learning. This could become yet another componet of someone’s PLE. I’ll play around with my installations some more and then start to populate it with some courses.

Which leads me on the second system that has caught my interest. At the time I’m writing this there doesn’t seem to be a vast amount of information available about NIXTY (it’s not publically released yet; I’m on the list for the private beta), but what I have come across has made me very interested in the concept. NIXTY is another Learning Management System (LMS). However, it seems to be going to offer an environment that provides a place to integrate formal and informal learning. The learning processes can be sheltered for an institutions needs, but there is also the potential that learners informal activities can be brought within the NIXTY environment. Also, with a view to the way learning could be going, there is the potential to integrate other Web 2.0 technology with this LMS. It gives learners a place to present their informal work as well.

I was trying to think of a metaphor for NIXTY this morning, and what popped into my head was an old pirate galleon. The main part of the ship is the institutional section, with all that contains, but should you want to walk the plant there is a vast ocean of other resources to you investigate and use for you learning. I await developments in this area with eager anticipation.

Oh and I read NIXTY is working to becoming IMS Common Cartridge compliant.

Additional Links via Diigo:

Some VLE is Dead links:


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The concept of a Learning Community for Students (LCS) parallels and links to the idea of a Personal Learning Environment (PLE). The PLE envisages learners exploiting existing services to enhance their learning process. I’ve witnessed directly this happening as some of the more ‘tech savvy’ students harness the advantages of Web2.0 technologies. Whilst the services provided by these Web2.0 technologies aren’t necessarily directly aimed at education, they do provide many opportunities for personal organization of tasks that are directly beneficial for institutionalized learning. So one element of what the vision for LCS wants to achieve is to consider how a student body as a community can corral existing services to directly benefit learning as a whole, through coordination of technology not centrally provided by an institution.

Key to the LCS philosophy is the idea that students must now develop their skills to enable them to rapidly make use of new technologies as they emerge to meet their needs in different areas of their learning and social activities. It is believed that students who develop additional skills to use technology beyond institutional provision are more open to further learning opportunities, placing the them at a distinct advantage over their peers. So they need to engage with the idea of using a technology for a limited period and adapting to newer, more useful technologies as appropriate. This is why a community approach is essential; no one individual is capable of identifying the tools of most use to his/her activities any more, and by sharing experiences with the rest of a learning community everyone should benefit. (This community approach can be witnessed already succeeding in many areas of Web2.0 technology.) So the community would share information about what tools are useful, explanations of how to use the tools at the basic level, and also examples of how tools can or have been used for learning or research.

Also, arguably the complexity of these technologies is increased for the individual, which can be overwhelming; it is hoped that by structuring an LCS with an intuitive front end some of these feeling can be alleviated, (and also some of the seduction of the technology at the expense of deep level learning sometimes encountered by the more tech savvy students can be tempered). Therefore, it is envisaged that through an LCS students will empower themselves to use informal learning resources beyond what is provided by a university. This develops an emphasis centred on the individual learner’s needs and capabilities of a student, provides accessible learning opportunities without time and place constraints, prioritizing of the social elements of learning by using effective tools aligned to existing behaviour, and continuation and consistency of resources beyond graduation. It is also debated that a shift towards personal ownership of technology increases engagement and alleviates problems of accessibility, usability, learner mobility and pedagogical integration. This is a departure from the traditional approach where institutions coordinate the infrastructure of learning technology for use by the learner. And for an LCS to be successful it must provide a means of accessing and harnessing Web2.0 in a way that matches students’ existing patterns.

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Online bookmarking tools mean that all your bookmarks or favorites are kept in one place. This has the advantage of being able to access them from anywhere. If you use more than one computer or portable device to access the Internet, using one central bookmark store is a very good idea. Not only that, these tools tend to make it much easier to manage your bookmark list.With several of these tools you can easily create groups to categorize your bookmarks. But more importantly you can give then descriptions that are useful and memorable for you; this is tagging.

is associating one or more words or phrases to an object (in this case a web page link) so that you can easily do a search or look through a list to find what you want.

Examples of these online bookmarking tools are:

Leave things there and these are really useful tools. However, there’s even more. These bookmarking tools have a social aspect to them as well. Whilst you can keep your bookmarks private to you by clicking a setting, you can also make them public. This means that you can share your useful bookmarks with other interested people and they can share theirs with you. Collectively you can develop groups or communities around a set of bookmarks. And because you’re all sharing tags a more useful categorization (or taxonomy) develops called a folksonomy.

Not only that. The bookmarks can be shared using an RSS feed, so those interested can keep track of what you’re adding to your bookmarks.

Advantages to learning

From a learning perspective, social bookmarking means that you can share resources with other researchers or collaborators on a project, with other students on your course or similar courses both where you are studying and around the world, and you can combine material from faculty and students. Students can actually be contributing to the course materials. As such, this is a technology tool for all levels.

There are significant advantages to this approach. Students who contribute directly to the course materials have a greater engagement and a more authentic experience of the subject, as they are applying research techniques and participate in genuine inquiry. It fosters a lifelong learning approach, as the materials they develop can be continued passed their formalized education; they may continue the interest and participate in the work of an ongoing community. This could lead to a community of practitioners, which could be beneficial to subsequent student cohorts; tapping into the massive potential of your own alumni. Unlike resources and teaching environments provided by teaching institutions, students don’t lose access to this space or resources when they have finished their courses.

Institutional level

There can be useful implementations of social bookmarking on an institutional level as well; if the institution is progressive enough.


  1. institutionally set tag categories,
  2. libraries administrating an implementation of a social bookmarking site.

At the University of Pennsylvania they have implemented PennTags so the whole university community there can identify and organize web resources, journal articles and online catalogue content. Also, subject librarians could work as active participants, integrated with the course to supply excellent resources directly feeding into the course content.

Course level

At the course level, difficulties can arise when faculty don’t readily want to relinquish any control of the course or it’s content and may lack the skills to effectively integrate social learning activities and collaborative, dynamic content generation into the teaching environment. Social Bookmarking can provide a bridge for this gap by allowing an easy to use, engaging tool for managing web resources on course topics, with minimal implementation cost or barriers. An added bonus is that it can overlap with faculty research areas thus appealing to faculty’s desire to include their own scholarly activities in their teaching.


  1. an instructor can use it as a framework for students to explore the web,
  2. push out resources specific to a course of discipline,
  3. use it as an assignment to get students to find relevant resources to share with the entire class.

Students need to be able to critically evaluate what they are reading. They have to be able to justify their choices for selecting those resources. Social Bookmarking is great for teaching Information Literacy with an instructor led discussion about a set of resources and then what is a quality resource. Students learn more when they are actively engaged and have a sense of ownership of these materials in their own learning processes.

At the University of Sheffield, Dr Jamie Wood has used this approach with his first year undergraduate History seminars.

Another use

Social bookmarking can be used as an additional resource for any presentation, report, etc. If you’re already using social bookmarking fully, then you’ll have a comprehensive set of tagged links. You can provide a URL from a search of tags for the subject in question.

For example if you’re using delicious you could provide a URL http://delicious.com/tag/term1+term2
where term1 and term2 are your separate tag search terms that have been combined (using the +) to produce a list of bookmarks relevant to the subject you’re speaking or writing about.

This means that your presentation or report no longer needs to be static, because as you add additional resource links to your online bookmarks whoever reads or accesses your report (or online shared presentation) can also access the latest information on the subject via your link.

Additional links

Social Bookmarking appeared in the 2007 Edition of The Horizon Report as ‘User-created content’ with a one year or less adoption horizon.

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