The “open source” perspective in planning eLearning materials

Pierfranco Ravotto ITSOS “Marie Curie”in Cernusco sul Naviglio

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 relationbased 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 The aim of the present contribution is to propose schools and teachers to co-operate producing Free Learning Objects in the view of integrating face-to-face learning with eLearning. Such an aim bases itself on two strongly believed points that I’ll try to motivate: • online  learning   is  not   a  field  of  interest   only  for  those who have been involved in distance learning, • Learning Objects are essential not only to deliver  learning contents in a sequential way, as it happens  in   courses   aiming   to   the   acquisition   of   a   well­ defined   and   focussed   set   of  knowledge/competencies. On the contrary they are  necessary also where the learning focus is on the  development   of   critical   thought,   communication  and problem solving skills.

1. A premises: learning is a social activity
Socrates addressed the passers-by in Athens squares in order to make their knowledge emerge, in a maieutic way. Aristotle discussed with his pupils strolling along the road, Peripatos, around the temple of Apollo. Medieval masters, in their workshops, taught their apprentices mainly through examples and the assignment of tasks increasingly more and more complex. In any case, learning always occurs in a relational context, where the relations both with the teacher and the group of peers are central. Such a concept is clear to any teacher whatever methodology he/she employs -

lessons, guided activities, problem solving – and whatever learning content he/she is delivering – may be maths, or philosophy, law or a sport activity.

2. Online learning between distance learning and face-to-face learning
In traditional distance learning the didactic materials have been designed, as much as possible, not only to deliver learning contents, but also to perform those functions that are usually carried out by the teacher in a face-to-face learning environment: to support motivation and check trainees’ learning progress. Hence it appears that learning materials play a central role and require to be strictly structured, complete and self-consistent. Nevertheless, also traditional distance learning has always tried to establish contacts between the trainee and the teacher by mail and/or telephone. Also periodical meetings are organised in order to provide a more significant relationship with the tutor and the peer group. The development of the Internet has provided a new, bi-directional communication tool that overcomes time and space barriers. The ones who are involved in distance learning have immediately made the most of it: e-mailing, chatting, videochatting are suitable to guarantee relationships between the trainee and the tutor and to allow the trainees themselves to benefit the support and the feedback provided by the group. By distance learning of third generation one generally means an upgrading of traditional distance learning where the Internet provides communication opportunities hugely superior to the past. But the Internet is not only a technological priceless tool. “… the net is a social place that we, the human beings, have voluntary created starting from our own passions in order to show the others how the world appears to each other's eyes …In the web there are only passions, words and the presence of the others in an inextricable jumble of relations continuously changing.” [Weinberger - 1].

The Internet is, for its own nature, a social environment. Thus it is, for its own sake, a potential learning environment like an agorà in Socrates’ Athens, the tree-lined path where the Peripatetics discuss, a medieval workshop, like those buildings with classrooms, libraries and laboratories where face-to-face learning is usually carried out. Thus, we can say that online learning, in some ways, looks more like face-to-face learning where the relationship between learner and teacher and between learners and learners is central rather than to distance learning where the main role is played by the learning materials. Just for this reason online learning can become a natural, almost spontaneous, extension of face-to-face learning. Online learning can be meant as an enrichment of face-to-face learning as it allows to extend human relations beyond • school scheduled time, • school premises,  • the   limits   of   the   group   of   schoolmates,   as   more  contributions from other teachers and learners are  available on line, • the   time   and   space   limits   that   narrow   down   the  possibilities of providing tailored learning paths. This is the reason why ITSOS “Marie Curie”, the school where I teach, is interested in the themes that are going to be dealt with in this Seminar. As an upper secondary school addressing 14-18 aged students, we are studying and experimenting the integration of online learning and traditional face-to-face learning (and work-based learning).

3. Four online learning models
The term online learning is often used referring to experiences that are very different from one another. We have identified – in a pilot project named SOLE developed under the European Programme Leonardo da Vinci ( - four different models. Two of them refer to individual activities, and another two deal with group activities.

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.

Learners are “alone” in their learning path as there is no peer group they can establish relations with and from whom they can receive support. Actual learning occurs only thanks to learning materials. Learning materials obviously need to be “complete” and “self-consistent” as they are required to perform several functions: • to   deliver   content   (possibly   in   an   interactive/  dialogue form), • to provide and support motivation, • to foresee and provide feedback . The main advantage of such an environment is a reduced requirement for 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

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  mainly to self­learning activities),  • the  absence  of any communication  with  the  peer  group, namely those with whom the learner shares  his/her learning path.  Supported self-learning can be particularly suitable for online adult learning, where it is important to provide tailored paths and the tutor intervenes as a counsellor, above all, in the definition of the learning path.

3.3 Virtual Class
The learner is not alone in this activity. He belongs to a group, a virtual classroom that is provided with online learning materials and tutorial support.

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 peers performs important functions both of objective and psychological kind: exchanges of advice, suggestions, solutions, sharing of problems and difficulties, reciprocal support and encouragement. As far as learning materials are concerned, what has been said for the previous model is also valid for this one: the increased tutor presence in the learning path, reduces the need to develop complete and self-consistent learning materials. In particular they do not need to provide support and feedback that can be more effectively provided by direct interactions between people. Furthermore, it is not required that all the materials are to be arranged before the beginning of the course: • 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 trainee learns not only from materials, but also from his/her classmates, from their mistakes as well. The peer group is a social outlet, as well as a support and encouragement.

The role of learning materials changes since the learning content does not pre- exist the activities but it is the result of them. Initial “proposals of work” accompanied by some basic materials, will be enriched during the online learning path, with new materials developed by individual teachers and/or groups of learners themselves. This model corresponds to the one of a class involved in project work activities.

3.5 Human relations and materials in the four models
The figure given below points out the loss – from a model to another – of the weight of the learning materials while, on the contrary, the weight of the relations among the people increases.

3.4 Online Collaborative Learning
The context is the same as the one just described, i.e. with a group of peers, but the

The role of the learning materials, meant as materials fully developed, is maximum in relation to self-learning scenario, while it decreases to its minimum when we deal with collaborative learning. On the contrary the role played by the relations among people increases while shifting from one model to another. The first scenario is typical of traditional distance learning (even if it has been enriched by the latest online communication tools). The fourth – in the author’s opinion -

better matches the real nature and potential of the Internet: it gives more value to the role played by the single learner within a learning environment felt as a learning community.

4. Learning Objects in a learning context focused on materials
Most of researches and activities concerning eLearning1 refer to a context characterised by: • large numbers of users,  • specific   learning   objectives   (well­defined   but  limited competencies), • a   delivery   methodology   based   on   an   iterative  model: presentation – application ­ feedback,  • highly structured learning materials, • main   trainee’s   commitment   in   self­learning  activities.  The development and delivery of learning materials  in   such   a   context   requires   a   large   number   of  professionals: • experts on methodology, • experts on contents, • technicians, • tutors.  The correspondent production costs are extremely high, in fact the delivery of an hour of content may require 80-100 hours of implementation. But such costs can be met by saving on the costs concerning people’s mobility ( from work placements to the seat of the course) and tutorship (only if the model foresees a limited number of contacts). . Nevertheless, it has often happened that the materials developed have not been actually used by the large numbers of users foreseen. Big organisations like NASA and the U.S. Department of Defence have realised, already in the 90s, that after years of costly investments in eLearning they have never

been successful in re-using what had been initially developed for them: because of technical incompatibilities and development procedures. Several studies have followed and the latest research promotes: • the   development   of   learning   materials   with   the  smallest   degree   of   granularity   suitable   to   be   put  together according to different learning paths  and  targets.     Learning   objects,   or   “chunks”,   namely  block of knowledge, or Lego blocks, • the adoption of standards that make them  o “accessible  from   multiple   remote   locations   through   the   use   of   meta­data   and   packaging   standards,  o adaptable  by   tailoring   instruction   to   the   individual and organisational needs, o affordable  by   increasing   learning   efficiency   and productivity while reducing time and cost;  o durable  across revisions of operating systems   and software; o interoperable  across   multiple   tools   and   platforms; o reusable  through the design, management and   distribution   of   tools   and   learning   content   across multiple applications.” [ADL initiative ­ 2] The standardisation that is establishing itself is called SCORM, Sharable Content Object Reference Model. Such a model is proposed by ADL initiative,, that was promoted in 1997 by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and by the Office of the Secretary of Defence (OSD) with other companies and universities.

5. Learning Objects in a learning context focused on human relations
The context and the mission of schools and teachers is very different from the one of the big organisations that promoted ADL initiative. It is a context characterised by: • small numbers (one class, one course), • multifaceted learning objectives: the growth of the  young people both from the point of view of their 

The term eLearning refers to the use of electronics (computer) in 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 eLearning, even if nowadays the two terms tend to be used as synonyms.

own   personal   development   and   their   own  professional knowledge, the shared opinion that a learning model focussing  only on didactic materials is old­fashioned and in  contrast with the latest pedagogical research.  “  In the course of the 80s signs of dissatisfaction   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.

that is also asked to perform implementation and delivery functions. He/she benefit from the following entry data: • trainee’s features and learning needs, • learning objectives of the institution, • available learning materials and tools,  • technological aids, in particular a “platform” or a  LMS.

In addition to this, there was a growing discontent of educators and education psychologists as far as a strict analitycalsequencial 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, that is now referred to as “constructivism”. … The main concepts characterising the current constructivism are substantially three; knowledge is the result of an active construction of the individual, it is concretely contextualised, it occurs through particular forms of co-operation and social negotiation (Jonassen). Main importance is given to the “construction of the meaning”, underlying the active, polysemic and not-prearranged characteristic of such an activity.” [Calvani 3]. Among the four online learning models afore mentioned, “collaborative learning” is the one that better matches this formulation. But the choice of the learning model is up to the teacher that is allowed to use even more than ones, according to the different learning contexts. Anyway, what concerns us more is the way how the teacher, on the basis of his/her own professionalism, plans and runs an eLearning activity integrating face-to-face learning (and possibly work-based learning). The figure below highlights the planning of an eLearning activity planned by a teacher

Starting from these data and from the learning model chosen, he/she plans and develops: • the learning environment according to the kind of  the relational context he/she wants to promote, • the plan of activities,  • the core and supplementary materials to be used. Our experience suggests that the weak point is very often represented by the learning materials. Even if in virtual class and collaborative learning models they are not required to be highly structured, they need, nevertheless, to be purposely planned to be delivered online. Most of the teachers have become acquainted with ICTs and many of them have already carried out eLearning activities with their students. But they can’t go over these few and limited experiences because of the lack of time to develop suitable learning materials. This is the reason why the availability of materials is essential to encourage more and more teachers to carry out online learning activities. But learning materials, to be available and used in different contexts, need to have the

typical features of LOs, namely granularity, adaptability, accessibility, transportability/interoperability, re-usability and durability. Criticism against learning paths based on materials conveying content by means of a “presentationapplicationfeedback” approach has brought a negative evaluation of LOs as well. But that is not the only possible way how to employ LOs. Serena Alvino and Luigi Sarti of Istituto per le Tecnologie Didattiche del CNR in Genoa write: “Actually, LOs developed according to the model based on the transmission of data can be very often unsuitable to provide adequate answers to many learning needs. In learning situations where the students are required to develop critical thought, communication and problem solving skills, in complex and not fully specified areas, we often prefer to use constructivist learning environments. The use of pre-structured materials, that in the traditional LOs approach is considered … main element of the learning process, in the social-cultural constructivist environment represents only one of the several activities promoting the learning process, that basis itself on cognitive apprenticeship, social negotiation of meanings, participation to the activities of a community …”. [Alvino, Sarti - 4]

suitable to be re­used by many users but also (and   above all)  the meta­knowledge   developed by the   authors   of   the   learning   activity”.   Such   a   LO   is  named “ design time LO”. [Alvino, Sarti ­ 4] Furthermore,   in   a   perspective   of   collaborative  learning the development of LOs may be also  one  of the results of the learning activity. The trainees  themselves   may   develop   new   LOs   suitable   to   be  used   –   once   adapted   and   improved   ­   in   other  courses. Here are some possible types of LOs: Lessons Texts - accompanied by images, drawings, sounds and movies, – presenting facts, rules, principles, laws. procedures… in a deductive way. Interactive lessons (Animations/Simulations) Guided activities promoting reflections and encouraging students to search for solutions in an independent way by means of animations and simulations that allow them to “act” (for example maths exercises developed by means of a tool called Cabrì). Tests and exercises with electronic feedback Self-check tests and other activities equipped with electronic help and feedback, scores and evaluation of results (using for example a development tool called HotPotatoes). Individual work Open exercises – for example written exercises in a foreign language, or maths problems - that are to be sent to a tutor, or to a forum, if it is required that the products are to be seen by the whole class in order to make feedback visible and useful for the group as a whole. Project work Proposals of work suitable to • encourage online discussions, • develop case studies, • start   a   research   on   the   Internet   ­   and   once   the  results have been revised, these can be developed as  new online lessons or as a Web site,  • develop a project.

6. A Collection of Learning Objects
Accepted that teaching/learning does not limit itself either to the delivery of “quantum” of knowledge or even less to an individual interaction with packages of content, a teacher willing to start eLearning activities still needs to be provided with specific learning materials, a collection of LOs, as much diversified as possible in terms of: • approach: not only “lesson­ application­feedback”  activities, but also “project work activities”, “case  studies”,…  • media: texts, images, sounds, movies; • type:   Alvino   and   Sarti   suggest  “capturing,   in   a   Learning   Object,   not   only   the   learning   material  

7. The OpenSource view of sharing Free Learning Objects
In order to be able to integrate online learning and face-to-face learning, teachers should be provided with a wide collection of LOs from where they could both get what they need and could enrich it by adding new LOs. But developing such a wide collection goes beyond the possibilities of single schools and teachers. And why on earth should each teacher, each school have to start out again from the very beginning developing materials that others have already developed? Why not to start from the existing materials improving them? The OpenSource and Free Software movement have been establishing – in the software field – a view that, considered initially utopian, is now proving to be able to face the one of proprietary software: • transparency opposed to trade secret • copyleft  –   everybody   is   free   to   use   and   modify  software/products   provided   that   they   entitle   any  other the same right (Gnu General Public Licence)  – opposed to copyright, • co­operation opposed to competition,  • emphasis on the idea of “community”. If such a view has been successfully established itself in a context like the software market, it has all the potential to do the same in the world of schools and universities that already represents a community where the idea of co-operation has been rooted for long. Here is, then, a practicable possibility: schools and individual teachers can cooperate placing the LOs, already developed, at the others’ disposal so that the collection will be likely to boost and develop in line with the OpenSource movement motto: “people improve it, people adapt it, people fix bugs”. As far as we are concerned – as a group of ITSOS and SIR Net teachers – we have started putting this idea in a concrete form. We have called our project OpenDida just to remind the features of the OpenSource

movement and we have developed a Web site accessible at the following address: . At the moment the site and its content are still in Italian and the available LOs have been mainly developed as FirstClass messages. FirstClass is the software that the SIR Net, comprising numerous Milanese schools, uses as a communication system. It allows each student and teacher to be provided with an Internet address and a WEB space and to develop a learning environment constituted by forums/conferences and specific areas for online learning. Obviously, the LOs have been developed using such a support. The OpenDida conference is mirrored on all the nodes of the Net, but it is also accessible via browser – e.g. It contains, dating from August 2004, numerous conferences concerning ICTs and other subject such as maths, physics, organizing systems, …(see the figure on the following page). The messages contained in the conferences can be considered as LOs: short but complete explanations, exercises, proposals of work, hints for online discussions. Any teacher can: • use the whole conference with his/her own students  creating   an   alias   in   the   learning   environment  specifically created for them, • use  a   part  of   it  forwarding    only  the  sections   of  interest   to   the   students   ­   in   case   after   having  modified   and   integrated   them   with   other   LOs  developed by the teacher him/herself. • ask   the   students   themselves   to   integrate   the  materials with new contents. This last option is not an unlikely hypothesis at all!  The conference dedicated to “Organising Systems”  contain 45 LOs entirely developed by the students  themselves during the course (18­19 aged students  attending the fifth form) The fact that the LOs, so far available, have been  mainly developed as FC messages does not create 

The address provides access to the Open Dida discussion conference (and to the conferences containing the learning materials); leads to the Web Page illustrating the project (and to the conferences containing the learning materials).

any   problem   to   re­use   them   on   other   platforms.  They are anyway accessible via web.  Even if texts, pdf documents and presentations do not properly belong to the eLearning field, it has been decided that OpenDida will host also this kind of materials. But, above all, we intend to go on analysing the problem of standardisation –

first referring to SCORMs – in order to provide guidelines for the production of new materials and the adaptation of already existing materials. At the moment these are only the very first development of an idea, but we are aware that others have already started treading similar paths. Why not walking together to the goal?

[1]  [2]  [3] 

D. Weinberger, “Arcipelago WEB”, Sperling & Kupfer Editori, Milano, 2002, pp 206,207* ADL iniziative, <>, 12 August 2004 A. Calvani, “Costruttivismo, progettazione didattica e tecnologie”, <>, 12 August 2004, pp  2,3*


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


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