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The “open source” perspective in planning eLearning

materials

Pierfranco Ravotto
ITSOS “Marie Curie”in Cernusco sul Naviglio
pierfranco.ravotto@tes.mi.it
http://www.tes.mi.it/pfr

Abstract

There are several models of online learning. Some, following the traditional distance learning
mode, focus on learning materials more than on relational contexts. Some others, on the
contrary, are more based on learner-teacher and learner-learner relationships. This model looks
more like face-to-face learning and it may represent its natural empowerment. Also in this case it
is necessary to provide learning materials purposely planned and developed.
Recent researches on the production of learning materials recommend to develop Learning
Objects that are accessible, adaptable, durable, re-usable, sharable and transferable.
Such LOs – according to the author - are instruments also suitable to be used in a relation-
based eLearning model and with constructivistic methodologies. Schools and teachers willing to
widen up their learning offers by providing their trainees with eLearning activities need to be
equipped with a rich collection of Learning Objects from which they could get the learning
materials needed.
It is just the lack of such a collection that currently prevents a significant spread of online
learning in schools. The OpenSource/Free software model suggests a possible solution: schools
and teachers could co-operate placing the Learning Objects developed at the others’ disposal so
that the collection will be likely to boost and develop: “people improve it, people adapt it, people
fix bugs”.
Our attempt to tread this path is represented by our collection of Free LOs called “OpenDida”
and accessible at the address www.tes.mi.it/opendidaweb.

The aim of the present contribution is to


propose schools and teachers to co-operate 1. A premises: learning is a social activity
producing Free Learning Objects in the view
of integrating face-to-face learning with Socrates addressed the passers-by in
eLearning. Athens squares in order to make their
Such an aim bases itself on two strongly knowledge emerge, in a maieutic way.
believed points that I’ll try to motivate: Aristotle discussed with his pupils strolling
• online  learning   is  not   a  field  of  interest   only  for  along the road, Peripatos, around the temple
those who have been involved in distance learning, of Apollo.
• Learning Objects are essential not only to deliver  Medieval masters, in their workshops,
learning contents in a sequential way, as it happens  taught their apprentices mainly through
examples and the assignment of tasks
in   courses   aiming   to   the   acquisition   of   a   well­
increasingly more and more complex.
defined   and   focussed   set   of  In any case, learning always occurs in a
knowledge/competencies. On the contrary they are  relational context, where the relations both
necessary also where the learning focus is on the  with the teacher and the group of peers are
development   of   critical   thought,   communication  central.
Such a concept is clear to any teacher
and problem solving skills.
whatever methodology he/she employs -
lessons, guided activities, problem solving – The Internet is, for its own nature, a social
and whatever learning content he/she is environment. Thus it is, for its own sake, a
delivering – may be maths, or philosophy, potential learning environment like an agorà
law or a sport activity. in Socrates’ Athens, the tree-lined path
where the Peripatetics discuss, a medieval
workshop, like those buildings with
2. Online learning between distance classrooms, libraries and laboratories where
face-to-face learning is usually carried out.
learning and face-to-face learning Thus, we can say that online learning, in
some ways, looks more like face-to-face
In traditional distance learning the learning where the relationship between
didactic materials have been designed, as learner and teacher and between learners
much as possible, not only to deliver and learners is central rather than to
learning contents, but also to perform those distance learning where the main role is
functions that are usually carried out by the played by the learning materials.
teacher in a face-to-face learning Just for this reason online learning can
environment: to support motivation and become a natural, almost spontaneous,
check trainees’ learning progress. Hence it extension of face-to-face learning.
appears that learning materials play a Online learning can be meant as an
central role and require to be strictly enrichment of face-to-face learning as it
structured, complete and self-consistent. allows to extend human relations beyond
Nevertheless, also traditional distance
• school scheduled time,
learning has always tried to establish
contacts between the trainee and the • school premises, 
teacher by mail and/or telephone. Also • the   limits   of   the   group   of   schoolmates,   as   more 
periodical meetings are organised in order to contributions from other teachers and learners are 
provide a more significant relationship with available on line,
the tutor and the peer group.
• the   time   and   space   limits   that   narrow   down   the 
The development of the Internet has
provided a new, bi-directional possibilities of providing tailored learning paths.
communication tool that overcomes time
and space barriers. The ones who are This is the reason why ITSOS “Marie
involved in distance learning have Curie”, the school where I teach, is
immediately made the most of it: e-mailing, interested in the themes that are going to be
chatting, videochatting are suitable to dealt with in this Seminar. As an upper
guarantee relationships between the trainee secondary school addressing 14-18 aged
and the tutor and to allow the trainees students, we are studying and
themselves to benefit the support and the experimenting the integration of online
feedback provided by the group. learning and traditional face-to-face learning
By distance learning of third (and work-based learning).
generation one generally means an
upgrading of traditional distance learning 3. Four online learning models
where the Internet provides communication
opportunities hugely superior to the past. The term online learning is often used
referring to experiences that are very
But the Internet is not only a different from one another.
technological priceless tool. We have identified – in a pilot project
“… the net is a social place that we, the named SOLE developed under the European
human beings, have voluntary created Programme Leonardo da Vinci
starting from our own passions in order to (www.tes.mi.it/sole) - four different models.
show the others how the world appears to Two of them refer to individual activities,
each other's eyes …In the web there are and another two deal with group activities.
only passions, words and the presence of
the others in an inextricable jumble of
relations continuously changing.”
[Weinberger - 1].
suitable for simple topics. Under certain
circumstances there may be no alternatives.

3.2 Supported self-learning

The learner is provided with online


materials and individual tutorial support that
provides answers to questions, correction of
exercises, feedback, assignment of new
tasks, further explanations, …
The increased tutor presence in the
learning path, reduces the need to develop
complete and self-consistent learning
materials, as they are not required to
perform the functions that , in this scenario,
are performed by the tutor him/herself.
3.1 Self-learning

The trainee is alone with the learning


materials. Tutorship can be foreseen, but it is
generally limited to guidance aspects
concerning the definition of the course and
the use of ICTs.

It is equivalent to a one-to-one
relationship, that is a learner-teacher
relationship.
There are two limitations:
• high costs, unless the relationship with the tutor is 
occasional   (leaving   the   achievement   of   results 
Learners are “alone” in their learning path as
mainly to self­learning activities), 
there is no peer group they can establish
relations with and from whom they can • the  absence  of any communication  with  the  peer 
receive support. Actual learning occurs only group, namely those with whom the learner shares 
thanks to learning materials. his/her learning path. 
Supported self-learning can be particularly
Learning materials obviously need to be suitable for online adult learning, where it is
“complete” and “self-consistent” as they are important to provide tailored paths and the
required to perform several functions: tutor intervenes as a counsellor, above all, in
• to   deliver   content   (possibly   in   an   interactive/  the definition of the learning path.
dialogue form),
• to provide and support motivation,
3.3 Virtual Class
• to foresee and provide feedback . The learner is not alone in this activity. He
belongs to a group, a virtual classroom that
The main advantage of such an is provided with online learning materials
environment is a reduced requirement for and tutorial support.
trainers/teachers/tutors. But at the same
time the lack of this support is a limiting
factor.
This kind of online learning is the same as
the traditional study of a book: for some
learners it could be sufficient and may be
learning strategy considerably changes.
While in the previous models the content
to be learnt is substantially pre-defined, here
learning becomes the result of a collective
search where each learner becomes the
creator/provider of the content to be learnt.

The group shares the same learning


objectives, or each learner follows his/her
own learning path.
In any case the existence of a group of The role of learning materials changes
peers performs important functions both of since the learning content does not pre- exist
objective and psychological kind: exchanges the activities but it is the result of them.
of advice, suggestions, solutions, sharing of Initial “proposals of work” accompanied by
problems and difficulties, reciprocal support some basic materials, will be enriched during
and encouragement. the online learning path, with new materials
As far as learning materials are developed by individual teachers and/or
concerned, what has been said for the groups of learners themselves.
previous model is also valid for this one: the This model corresponds to the one of a
increased tutor presence in the learning class involved in project work activities.
path, reduces the need to develop complete
and self-consistent learning materials. 3.5 Human relations and materials in the four
In particular they do not need to provide models
support and feedback that can be more
effectively provided by direct interactions The figure given below points out the loss
between people. – from a model to another – of the weight of
Furthermore, it is not required that all the the learning materials while, on the
materials are to be arranged before the contrary, the weight of the relations
beginning of the course: among the people increases.
• they may be progressively developed by the teacher 
according to target’s interests and feedback,
• they may be searched and found out online by the 
trainees   themselves   or   even   partly   developed   by 
them in the view of a virtual class that is moving 
towards the collaborative learning model.

Such a model corresponds to the


classroom in the traditional sense: each
member of the classroom profits not only
from the teacher’s attention but also from
the attention he/she gives to others, the The role of the learning materials,
trainee learns not only from materials, but meant as materials fully developed, is
also from his/her classmates, from their maximum in relation to self-learning
mistakes as well. scenario, while it decreases to its minimum
The peer group is a social outlet, as well when we deal with collaborative learning.
as a support and encouragement. On the contrary the role played by the
relations among people increases while
shifting from one model to another.
3.4 Online Collaborative Learning The first scenario is typical of traditional
distance learning (even if it has been
The context is the same as the one just enriched by the latest online communication
described, i.e. with a group of peers, but the tools). The fourth – in the author’s opinion -
better matches the real nature and been successful in re-using what had been
potential of the Internet: it gives more initially developed for them: because of
value to the role played by the single learner technical incompatibilities and development
within a learning environment felt as a procedures.
learning community. Several studies have followed and the
latest research promotes:
• the   development   of   learning   materials   with   the 
4. Learning Objects in a learning context smallest   degree   of   granularity   suitable   to   be   put 
focused on materials together according to different learning paths  and 
targets.     Learning   objects,   or   “chunks”,   namely 
Most of researches and activities
block of knowledge, or Lego blocks,
concerning eLearning1 refer to a context
characterised by: • the adoption of standards that make them 
• large numbers of users,  o “accessible  from   multiple   remote   locations  
• specific   learning   objectives   (well­defined   but  through   the   use   of   meta­data   and   packaging  
limited competencies), standards, 
• a   delivery   methodology   based   on   an   iterative  o adaptable  by   tailoring   instruction   to   the  
model: presentation – application ­ feedback,  individual and organisational needs,
• highly structured learning materials, o affordable  by   increasing   learning   efficiency  
• main   trainee’s   commitment   in   self­learning  and productivity while reducing time and cost; 
activities.  o durable  across revisions of operating systems  
The development and delivery of learning materials  and software;
in   such   a   context   requires   a   large   number   of  o interoperable  across   multiple   tools   and  
professionals: platforms;
• experts on methodology, o reusable  through the design, management and  
• experts on contents, distribution   of   tools   and   learning   content  
• technicians, across multiple applications.”
• tutors.  [ADL initiative ­ 2]
The correspondent production costs are
extremely high, in fact the delivery of an
The standardisation that is establishing
hour of content may require 80-100 hours of
itself is called SCORM, Sharable Content
implementation.
Object Reference Model. Such a model is
But such costs can be met by saving on
proposed by ADL initiative, www.adlnet.org,
the costs concerning people’s mobility ( from
that was promoted in 1997 by the White
work placements to the seat of the course)
House Office of Science and Technology
and tutorship (only if the model foresees a
Policy (OSTP) and by the Office of the
limited number of contacts).
Secretary of Defence (OSD) with other
.
companies and universities.
Nevertheless, it has often happened that
the materials developed have not been
actually used by the large numbers of users
foreseen. 5. Learning Objects in a learning context
Big organisations like NASA and the U.S. focused on human relations
Department of Defence have realised,
already in the 90s, that after years of costly The context and the mission of schools
investments in eLearning they have never and teachers is very different from the one
of the big organisations that promoted ADL
1
The term eLearning refers to the use of electronics (computer) in initiative. It is a context characterised by:
learning. Thus it implies both online learning and off line courses and
tools, for example on CD-ROM. Thus, online learning is a subset of
• small numbers (one class, one course),
eLearning, even if nowadays the two terms tend to be used as • multifaceted learning objectives: the growth of the 
synonyms.
young people both from the point of view of their 
own   personal   development   and   their   own  that is also asked to perform implementation
professional knowledge, and delivery functions.
He/she benefit from the following entry data:
• the shared opinion that a learning model focussing 
• trainee’s features and learning needs,
only on didactic materials is old­fashioned and in 
• learning objectives of the institution,
contrast with the latest pedagogical research. 
• available learning materials and tools, 
• technological aids, in particular a “platform” or a 
“  In the course of the 80s signs of dissatisfaction  
LMS.
become   stronger   and   stronger…   That   particular  
”solidarity”   between   the   knowledge   model  
(knowledge as acquisition­elaboration of data) and  
the   technological   model   (computer­instructor)   is  
about to collapse.

In addition to this, there was a growing
discontent of educators and education
psychologists as far as a strict analitycal-
sequencial approach and psycometric
approaches (objective tests on learning
progress) were concerned: let’s think, for
example, of Gardner’s criticism against the
current evaluation systems and his claim of
manifold intelligence.
All these elements have gathered in a sort
of cognitivism of the second generation, Starting from these data and from the
that is now referred to as “constructivism”. learning model chosen, he/she plans and
… develops:
The main concepts characterising the • the learning environment according to the kind of 
current constructivism are substantially the relational context he/she wants to promote,
three; knowledge is the result of an active
construction of the individual, it is concretely • the plan of activities, 
contextualised, it occurs through particular • the core and supplementary materials to be used.
forms of co-operation and social negotiation
(Jonassen). Main importance is given to the Our experience suggests that the weak
“construction of the meaning”, underlying point is very often represented by the
the active, polysemic and not-prearranged learning materials.
characteristic of such an activity.” [Calvani - Even if in virtual class and collaborative
3]. learning models they are not required to be
highly structured, they need, nevertheless,
Among the four online learning models to be purposely planned to be delivered
afore mentioned, “collaborative learning” is online.
the one that better matches this formulation. Most of the teachers have become
But the choice of the learning model is up acquainted with ICTs and many of them have
to the teacher that is allowed to use even already carried out eLearning activities with
more than ones, according to the different their students. But they can’t go over these
learning contexts. few and limited experiences because of the
Anyway, what concerns us more is the way lack of time to develop suitable learning
how the teacher, on the basis of his/her own materials.
professionalism, plans and runs an eLearning This is the reason why the availability of
activity integrating face-to-face learning materials is essential to encourage more and
(and possibly work-based learning). more teachers to carry out online learning
activities.
The figure below highlights the planning of But learning materials, to be available and
an eLearning activity planned by a teacher used in different contexts, need to have the
typical features of LOs, namely granularity, suitable to be re­used by many users but also (and  
adaptability, accessibility, above all)  the meta­knowledge   developed by the  
transportability/interoperability, re-usability
authors   of   the   learning   activity”.   Such   a   LO   is 
and durability.
named “ design time LO”. [Alvino, Sarti ­ 4]
Criticism against learning paths based on
materials conveying content by means of a Furthermore,   in   a   perspective   of   collaborative 
“presentation- application- feedback” learning the development of LOs may be also  one 
approach has brought a negative evaluation
of LOs as well. of the results of the learning activity. The trainees 
But that is not the only possible way how themselves   may   develop   new   LOs   suitable   to   be 
to employ LOs. Serena Alvino and Luigi Sarti used   –   once   adapted   and   improved   ­   in   other 
of Istituto per le Tecnologie Didattiche del courses.
CNR in Genoa write: “Actually, LOs Here are some possible types of LOs:
developed according to the model based on
the transmission of data can be very often Lessons
unsuitable to provide adequate answers to Texts - accompanied by images, drawings,
many learning needs. sounds and movies, – presenting facts, rules,
In learning situations where the students principles, laws. procedures… in a deductive
are required to develop critical thought, way.
communication and problem solving skills, in
complex and not fully specified areas, we Interactive lessons
often prefer to use constructivist learning (Animations/Simulations)
environments. Guided activities promoting reflections
The use of pre-structured materials, that and encouraging students to search for
in the traditional LOs approach is considered solutions in an independent way by means of
… main element of the learning process, in animations and simulations that allow them
the social-cultural constructivist to “act” (for example maths exercises
environment represents only one of the developed by means of a tool called Cabrì).
several activities promoting the learning
process, that basis itself on cognitive Tests and exercises with electronic
apprenticeship, social negotiation of feedback
meanings, participation to the activities of a Self-check tests and other activities
community …”. [Alvino, Sarti - 4] equipped with electronic help and feedback,
scores and evaluation of results (using for
example a development tool called
HotPotatoes).
6. A Collection of Learning Objects
Individual work
Accepted that teaching/learning does not Open exercises – for example written
limit itself either to the delivery of exercises in a foreign language, or maths
“quantum” of knowledge or even less to an problems - that are to be sent to a tutor, or
individual interaction with packages of to a forum, if it is required that the products
content, a teacher willing to start eLearning are to be seen by the whole class in order to
activities still needs to be provided with make feedback visible and useful for the
specific learning materials, a collection of group as a whole.
LOs, as much diversified as possible in
terms of: Project work
• approach: not only “lesson­ application­feedback”  Proposals of work suitable to
activities, but also “project work activities”, “case  • encourage online discussions,
studies”,…  • develop case studies,
• media: texts, images, sounds, movies; • start   a   research   on   the   Internet   ­   and   once   the 
• type:   Alvino   and   Sarti   suggest  “capturing,   in   a   results have been revised, these can be developed as 
Learning   Object,   not   only   the   learning   material   new online lessons or as a Web site, 
• develop a project.
7. The OpenSource view of sharing Free movement and we have developed a Web
Learning Objects site accessible at the following address:
www.tes.mi.it/opendidaweb/
In order to be able to integrate online .
learning and face-to-face learning, teachers At the moment the site and its content are
should be provided with a wide collection of still in Italian and the available LOs have
LOs from where they could both get what been mainly developed as FirstClass
they need and could enrich it by adding new messages.
LOs. FirstClass is the software that the SIR Net,
comprising numerous Milanese schools, uses
But developing such a wide collection as a communication system. It allows each
goes beyond the possibilities of single student and teacher to be provided with an
schools and teachers. Internet address and a WEB space and to
And why on earth should each teacher, develop a learning environment constituted
each school have to start out again from the by forums/conferences and specific areas for
very beginning developing materials that online learning. Obviously, the LOs have
others have already developed? Why not to been developed using such a support.
start from the existing materials improving The OpenDida conference is mirrored on
them? all the nodes of the Net, but it is also
The OpenSource and Free Software accessible via browser – e.g.
movement have been establishing – in the www.tes.mi.it/opendida2. It contains, dating
software field – a view that, considered from August 2004, numerous conferences
initially utopian, is now proving to be able to concerning ICTs and other subject such as
face the one of proprietary software: maths, physics, organizing systems, …(see
the figure on the following page).
• transparency opposed to trade secret
• copyleft  –   everybody   is   free   to   use   and   modify  The messages contained in the conferences
software/products   provided   that   they   entitle   any  can be considered as LOs: short but
other the same right (Gnu General Public Licence)  complete explanations, exercises, proposals
of work, hints for online discussions.
– opposed to copyright,
Any teacher can:
• co­operation opposed to competition,  • use the whole conference with his/her own students 
• emphasis on the idea of “community”. creating   an   alias   in   the   learning   environment 
specifically created for them,
If such a view has been successfully
established itself in a context like the • use  a   part  of   it  forwarding    only  the  sections   of 
software market, it has all the potential to do interest   to   the   students   ­   in   case   after   having 
the same in the world of schools and modified   and   integrated   them   with   other   LOs 
universities that already represents a developed by the teacher him/herself.
community where the idea of co-operation • ask   the   students   themselves   to   integrate   the 
has been rooted for long.
materials with new contents.
Here is, then, a practicable possibility:
schools and individual teachers can co- This last option is not an unlikely hypothesis at all! 
operate placing the LOs, already developed, The conference dedicated to “Organising Systems” 
at the others’ disposal so that the collection contain 45 LOs entirely developed by the students 
will be likely to boost and develop in line themselves during the course (18­19 aged students 
with the OpenSource movement motto:
attending the fifth form)
“people improve it, people adapt it, people
fix bugs”.
The fact that the LOs, so far available, have been 
As far as we are concerned – as a group of mainly developed as FC messages does not create 
ITSOS and SIR Net teachers – we have 2
The address www.tes.mi.it/opendida provides access to the Open
started putting this idea in a concrete form. Dida discussion conference (and to the conferences containing the
We have called our project OpenDida just learning materials); www.tes.mi.it/opendidaweb leads to the Web Page
to remind the features of the OpenSource illustrating the project (and to the conferences containing the learning
materials).
any   problem   to   re­use   them   on   other   platforms.  first referring to SCORMs – in order to
They are anyway accessible via web.  provide guidelines for the production of new
Even if texts, pdf documents and materials and the adaptation of already
presentations do not properly belong to the existing materials.
eLearning field, it has been decided that
OpenDida will host also this kind of At the moment these are only the very
materials. first development of an idea, but we are
But, above all, we intend to go on aware that others have already started
analysing the problem of standardisation – treading similar paths.
Why not walking together to the goal?

[1]  D. Weinberger, “Arcipelago WEB”, Sperling & Kupfer Editori, Milano, 2002, pp 206,207*

[2]  ADL iniziative, <http://www.adlnet.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=abtadl>, 12 August 2004

[3]  A. Calvani, “Costruttivismo, progettazione didattica e tecnologie”, <http://www.scform.unifi.it/lte/doc/Costruttivimo%20e%20progettazione.doc>, 12 August 2004, pp 

2,3*

[4]  S. Alvino. L. Sarti, “Learning object e costruttivismo” Didamatica 2004, Atti a cura di A. Andronico, T. Frignani, G. Poletti, Ferrara 10­12 maggio 2004, Omniacom 



editore, p 761*
   

* Translation provided by the author of this paper