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LEARNING ENVIRONMENT AND LEARNING OBJECTS:

A SUCCESSFUL SINERGY
Pierfranco Ravotto, Francesca Berengo, Luisa Farinati, Mara Masseroni, Luigi Petruzziello,
Monica Terenghi, Marilena Vimercati (ITSOS "Marie Curie")

Com'esser puote ch'un ben, distributo


in più posseditor, faccia più ricchi
di sé che se da pochi è posseduto?

How can it be, that boon distributed


The more possessors can more wealthy make
Therein, than if by few it be possessed?

Dante Alighieri, Divina Commedia, Purgatorio: Canto XV


English translation by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Abstract

This article focuses on the reasons why an upper secondary school has decided to get involved in
eLearning and illustrates two of the main activities carried out by ITSOS in the SLOOP project: the
development of learning objects and the planning and delivery of online courses.

SLOOP's outcomes confirm what ITSOS had already experimented on the field as far as eLearning is
concerned: successful eLearning takes place when the learning objects fully exploits all the potential
of the web and the learning environment favours interactions between people.

All this makes learning more effective and attractive.

E-learning in a traditional face-to-face environment

Every morning at 8.10 – from Monday to Saturday, from mid September to mid June – 1.400 students
and 180 teachers start their day at ITSOS, an upper secondary school that delivers training to 14 – 19
year-old students.

If by eLearning we mean the use of electronic devices (computer) in teaching, arguments in favour of
its use in a face-to-face institution are obvious and various:

• students are often fascinated by such a device and this supports their learning motivation;
• computer activities, as any other lab activities, require an active mode that is more suitable to
learners rather than the traditional and more passive way of learning;
• the computer allows simulation activities promoting learning by doing and learning by
discovery.
But if eLearning stands for “online learning”, why should we use it in a face-to-face environment?

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Online and face-to-face isolation
The danger of isolation in online learning is a drawback often denounced by some critics. But
although it may be considered a contradiction, isolation does exist also in face-to-face learning: in fact
students are often alone while studying!

Such a feeling of isolation is often linked to school failure. Students who are absent-minded in the
class, who are not independent, who get lost in the information provided by the text book,….often fail:
they are not able to find their own way in what, where and when to study.

ELearning at ITSOS and the use of FirstClass


Since mid 90s ITSOS has its own net - based on FirstClass software - that is a node within a larger
Milanese school net called SiR. Each teacher or student, who applies, is provided with an e-mail
address, a private mail-box, the access to a “conferences” system based on permissions (private and
public conferences, reading and writing or only reading permission,….) and the possibility to chat
with other users regularly enrolled in the system.

It is years since ITSOS teachers started using such an environment for teaching activities, from a mere
exchange of messages with students to the opening up of class conferences, structured into subject-
conferences that can be further subdivided into topics, modules, activities. Such conferences are work
environments often rich in messages. A survey carried out by ITSOS in 2004/2005 showed that there
were 6 subject-conferences containing over 1.000 messages. [Ravotto 2005].

Students show to appreciate such a communication environment and use it in an effective way:
sometimes in a collaborative way, sharing properly scannerized notes or summaries in preparation of
a test.

Web-based eLearning at ITSOS


Being FirstClass a messaging system, it allows to exchange only lessons made up of texts and
messages, but in a broader perspective of eLearning web potential goes far beyond. It allows to have:

• multimedia, that is a combination of texts, and images with sound and video;
• interactivity, that is the possibility to propose activities where the students can directly interact
with the learning material and be provided with immediate feedback;
• simulation activities, that is the possibility to act and see the results of one’s own action;
• personalisation of learning paths thanks to hypertextual navigation and/or on the basis of the
feedback received.
These are the reasons why ITSOS teachers have decided to get involved in the development of web-
based lessons, a field already explored in other national and European projects, such SiR2 [Bocchetti
2003], SOLE [Ravotto 2003], BiTE [Berengo 2003].

Thanks to these projects ITSOS has realised that, while the creation of a work environment is easily
and quickly done, the development of teaching material suitable to be delivered online requires large
resources. What’s worse such an amount of resources often doesn’t guarantee the re-usability of such
material in diversified learning contexts, with different targets and courses and the possibility to
transfer it onto different Learning Management Systems.

Learning environment and teaching material


ITSOS has chosen to promote the SLOOP project – a project of sharing and developing learning
objects – on the basis of its ten-year long experience of blended learning, that is integration of
eLearning and face-to face learning. Such an experience has highlighted the following crucial points:

• the central role played by an environment that could favour communication between students,
teachers and peer-groups in the view of building a shared knowledge [Calvani 2004];

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• the need of teaching material purposely planned for the net [Colorni 2002];
• the importance of re-usability, from the technological (standardisation) and pedagogical point
of view;
• the benefit of a collaborative mode for the development and sharing of learning objects.

SLOOP production of metaLOs and subject-based LOs

In the SLOOP project, ITSOS staff, along with all the other partners, has been involved in the
production of learning objects. First step was the planning and development of LOs called meta LOs,
namely LOs describing what LOs are, how they can be used and how they can be developed.

The choice has been to develop SCORM 1.2 compliant LOs and to choose IEEE LOM standard for
metadata [Fini, Vanni 2004].

MetaLOs
Eight metaLOs have been developed and translated into the partners’ languages (IT, EN, ES, RO, SL):

• Learning Objects,
• LO: pedagogical approaches,
• SCORM standard,
• The Metadata,
• How to make a LO SCORM compliant,
• The packaging of LOs,
• Communication between LO and platform,
• Sharing free LO.
The first 4 MetaLOs are descriptive, they deal with the “ status of art” on this matter. The eighth, also
descriptive, illustrates the aim of the SLOOP project, that is developing, sharing, using and modifying
LOs in a free way. These MetaLOs are basically hypertexts with self-evaluation tests.

The MetaLOs n. 5, 6 and 7 aim to train teachers with basic computer knowledge, not web masters or
computer experts, to develop SCORM compliant LOs, to save them as Content Package SCORMs
and to upload them on a Learning Management System. These Web-based LOs, apart from texts and
images, are also provided with “film clips” that show, with the help of a speaker, the several activities
to be performed (launching the programme, opening the file, clicking on, ...”). In this case self-
evaluation is provided by the success one gets while performing such activities.

The above mentioned LOs require about one hour of learning – they are formed by 5-7 SCOs
(Sharable Content Objects) of a considerable size.

These metaLOs have been tested by all partners in courses delivered in virtual class or supported self-
learning modes. They are available, in a self-learning mode, in the SLOOP site (www.sloopproject.eu)
and they can be downloaded from the SLOOP freeLOms to be modified and used in other learning
contexts.

Subject-based LOs
ITSOS staff has also developed:

• a few LOs for teachers’ training on mobility initiatives;


• a set of Maths LOs on parabolas addressing 15 - 17 year-old students;
• a set of LOs to learn English as a foreign language;

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• a set of LOs to train students to face ECDL (modules 1, 2 e 3) addressing a diversified target
• two Science LOs on the cell;
• one LO describing three schools of thought concerning company management.

Considerations on the LOs developed

Granularity, contextualisation and re-usability


The term LO is often associated to the idea of a “chunk” of knowledge, that is a tiny-sized LO also
completely de-contextualized. Bits of knowledge and de-contextualization are the key points of re-
usability: the possibility to put together the same objects in different, simple and automatic ways. The
idea is to develop a lesson or a course in a personalised way: just on time and on demand.

The LOs developed in SLOOP are, on the contrary, content aggregation formed by more SCOs and
corresponding to a complete teaching unit. Even a single SCO is not a chunk, in fact it often represents
a set of interrelated and contextualised concepts. All this is in line with modern constructivist theories
that consider the context as a necessary element in the learning process. The value of a learning
object, at the expense of its re-usability, is proportionally related to its integrability into specific
situations where the learners together face real problems [Alvino, Sarti 2004].

The re-usability of our LOs is given by the possibility to use/modify them in a free way so that any
teacher could adapt the learning object to her/his own teaching context.

This happens, for instance, with the metaLOs: they have been developed for a specific course, but they
can be used separately and form other courses as well. For example the metaLO 8 can be used in a law
course dealing with copyright matters as well as in a philosophy course dealing with knowledge
sharing; the MetaLOs 5 e 6 can address both teachers interested in online courses and technicians
involved in the production of SCORM compliant learning objects.

Types of LOs

The LOs developed in the SLOOP project are of various types:

• expository LOs (LOs about mobility, ECDL, the cell and companies management);
• internally interactive LOs (maths and English);
• externally interactive LOs (a few activities within the English LOs);
They can be used in different learning environments: self-learning, supported self-learning, virtual
class and collaborative learning.

Some are designed to include texts, images and self-evaluation tests. Others, like the ones for teaching
English as a foreign language, contain audio files to practise listening skills, some others, for example
the maths LOs, use a dynamic geometry software with a high level of interactivity which favours
learning by doing, while others present clips showing step by step how to reach a result/how to do
things.

The choice of how to develop these LOs has been made on the basis of targets and type of content. It
is obvious, for example, that, to show the features of a parabola, a dynamic graphic is more suitable
than a clip. Such a graphic can, in fact, be handled by the user until she/he gets to understand how a
parabola is connected to its equation parameters. On the other hand, the use of a clip to give
indications on how to perform a set of operations as in MetaLOs 5, 6, 7, is, for sure, better than a text
with static images. It is also clear that an object addressing a group of adult trainers does not need the
“special effects” that are, on the contrary, effective to attract the attention of a young public.

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The SLOOP idea was to develop web-based material able to promote a more active and independent
role of the learner and not simply to transform text books into web pages.

SCORM compliant LOs

The possibility to upload the LOs on platforms enabling the traceability of the activities performed is
considered an added value compared to an independent learning in the Internet. All LOs are SCORM
compliant, that is thanks Java script they are traceable by a LMS. This means that a tutor can check
who has navigated the various LOs, who has completed them and how long it has taken them to do
that.

To make a LO traceable does not demand high technical skills, it is enough to place some java script
files inside the LO as shown in MetaLO5. What’s more, if an already SCORM compliant LO is
available, one can change it and re-pack it (using Reload for example) without having to change its file
structure. This means saving time and resources!

Considerations on the possibility of modifying LOs


While creating LOs special care has been devoted to the possibility of modifying them. An object can
be modified if:

• the file source is available,


• the software used to create it is open source or at least widely used in training /educational
institutions ,
• every SCO can be used separately, that is, it does not contain links with other SCOs outside
the content package in which it is located.
Dealing with MetaLOs translations, the partners have also become aware of the necessity to provide
specific instructions to the translators about which files to translate. This is why both MetaLOs and
subject LOs are accompanied by

• a Readme file containing information on the LO structure as well as on the software used to
develop it,
• a style-sheet,
• a folder containing the sources of tests or interactive graphics (avi files, being heavy, are kept
in a separate folder so that only people interested in changing the LO can decide to download
them),
• a web page enabling the navigation outside a LMS.

Consideration on licences

As the philosophy of the project was to develop objects that could be used and modified freely, the
partnership has chosen to use the licence named Creative Commons Attribution-Share alike.

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Fig. 1 – The "Creative Commons- Attribution, Share Alike" licence

The course for “developers/users of free LOs”

Within the SLOOP project several online courses have been carried out. They aimed to pilot the
metaLOs developed and to get communities of practice involved.

ITSOS, as the promoter of the project has planned and run the first two courses, one in Italian and one
in English. They were for the partners that were expected later on to develop LOs and run “cascade”
courses in their own countries.

The use of MOODLE


The courses were delivered on MOODLE, an open source Learning Management System, born in
Australia, but rapidly spreading all over Europe and the world. This choice has come out from several
reasons:

• the constructivist pedagogy on which Moodle is based and that gives importance to a high
interaction between trainers, trainees and peer groups;
• its open source nature that is coherent to the project’s philosophy;
• its being SCORM compliant thanks to a module developed by the MOODLE Italian
community;
• the existence of several MOODLE national communities, with which it is possible to interact
in the view of promoting a community of users/developers of free LOs;
• the possibility to use MOODLE both for the delivery of courses and the development of
interactive sites like SLOOP - www.sloopproject.eu – which has plenty of forum/courses.
As for ITSOS, this has been an occasion to pilot, after more than ten years with FirstClass, a new
online environment.

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The course structure

Fig. 2 – The work environment of the internal course

The course – both the internal and the “cascade” edition – has got the following characteristics:

• 100% online (only possible solution as the participants were from all over Italy and from
different European countries).
• virtual class: the courses – with two tutors and a common schedule for all the trainees, propose
weekly tasks and the sending of the material developed to an area open to all the trainees.
Forums are provided to encourage discussion and exchanges of ideas.
• methodology: learning by doing and collaborative learning. The trainees are required to
develop SCORM compliant LOs tackling any problems may arise in a collaborative way.

The outcomes of the “cascade” course"


The results of the cascade course have been particularly outstanding. The courses lasted 9 weeks,
partly of the 39 trainees were from supporter schools while most of them came directly from the net.
These latter have been the more active in the course, maybe because they were more motivated and
more familiar with online work.

Very few trainees have not participated to the activities offered and a few have not developed any LO.
23 trainees have successfully finished the course developing 25 learning objects of a certain
complexity and quality.

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The level of interaction that took place is to be considered extremely good:

• in the discussion forum we have had 41 discussions, 14 of which started by the tutors and 27
proposed by the trainees themselves. The forum has hosted 687 messages!
• another two forums, entitled "Send here the title of the learning object you intend to develop”
and “Send here the learning object you have developed" have received 137 messages. During
the 9 weeks of the course 833 messages have been sent, that is more than 13 a day! A sound
proof of vivacity and real participation;
• some of the participants have simply read others’ messages, or sent their own work, many
others have played an active role, answering questions, proposing solutions, launching new
threads of discussion.

The self-learning course


The course in terms of its structure, activities, SCORM compliant LOs, forums (empty of the trainees’
messages) has been exported as a zipped file and made available in the SLOOP freeLOms. Here it s
ready to be uploaded and used on any other MOODLE platforms. The courses as well as the LOs
developed are released under CreativeCommons "Attribution-Share Alike".

The same course – in a self-learning mode- is available in the SLOOP site.

Conclusions

ITSOS as the promoter of the SLOOP project, that is about to finish, is deeply satisfied with the results
obtained. The in-progress development of the project, the relationships with the partners and the many
occasions – national and international - where the project has been presented, have confirmed the
starting hypothesis: it is possible to boost a process of sharing eLearning material, whose quality is the
result of a virtuous circle made up of development, use, modification, re-use.

There are lots of teachers in schools and universities who have developed and are developing material
they would like to share with others. The students themselves have already got used to developing and
sharing digital content: let’s think of the phenomenon represented by You Tube. Lots of students –
especially University students - are able to develop online learning material, that, even if not complete
and complex as the material proposed by teachers, could be in some way attractive and incisive.

They could help us to produce learning material more suitable to them, to their culture of digital
natives. We could encourage them to share their class notes as well as the teacher’s pod cast while he
is reading a poem, or explaining a maths problem, or showing a physics experience.

"Guys, please switch your video mobiles, your pocket PCs, your iPods on, are you ready for the
class?”. Is this fancy or a very near future?

References
PIERFRANCO RAVOTTO (2005) Il potenziale della didattica in rete in una scuola secondaria superiore,
EXPO E-Learning 2005, Atti del convegno (accessibile anche all'indirizzo
http://bbs.tes.mi.it/pfr/italiano/pubblicazioni/articoli2005-06/SLOOP_expoferrara2005_IT.pdf)
PIERFRANCO RAVOTTO (2003) SOLE Project - Guide 4: Methodologies and instruments for planning
and developing online modules, http://www.tes.mi.it/sole/ENGLISH/download/PDF/Guide4_EN.pdf
FRANCESCA BERENGO (2003) Progettazione e sviluppo di tre elementi di matematica, Progettare
materiali didattici per la formazione in rete – Contributi dell'ITSOS al progetto BiTE, ITSOS
(accessibile all'indirizzo http://bbs.tes.mi.it/biteweb2/fascicolo_bite.pdf)
CARLO BOCCHETTI, PIERFRANCO RAVOTTO (2003), Il Progetto SiR2: Intranet regionale per la

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didattica e la formazione in rete. Documento conclusivo,,
http://www.tes.mi.it/sir2portale/documento_conclusivo.pdf
ANTONIO CALVANI (2004), Costruttivismo, progettazione didattica e tecnologie,
http://www.scform.unifi.it/lte/doc/Costruttivimo%20e%20progettazione.doc
ALBERTO COLORNI (2002), Web Learning. Esperienze, modelli e tecnologie, Mondo digitale n°1,
AICA
ANTONIO FINI, LUCA VANNI (2004), Learning Object e Metadati. Quando, come e perchè
avvalersene, I Quaderni di Form@re, Erickson
SERENA ALVINO, LUIGI SARTI (2004). Learning Objects e Costruttivismo. Atti di Didamatica 2004 a
cura di A. Andronico, T. Frignani, G. Poletti, Ferrara 10-12 maggio 2004 (accessibile anche
all’indirizzo http://www.comunedasa.it/elearning/lo_costruttivismo.pdf)
CREATIVE COMMONS http://creativecommons.org
SOLE (2001-2004) http://www.tes.mi.it/sole
BITE (2002-2004) http://www.tes.mi.it/biteweb2
SIR2 (2002-2003) http://www.tes.mi.it/sir2portale

Authors
Prof. Pierfranco Ravotto, pierfranco.ravotto@tes.mi.it
Prof.sa. Francesca Berengo, francesca.berengo@tes.mi.it
Prof.sa. Luisa Farinati, luisa.farinati@tes.mi.it
Prof.sa. Mara Masseroni, mara.masseroni@tes.mi.it
Prof. Luigi Petruzziello, luigi.petruzziello@tes.mi.it
Prof.sa. Monica Terenghi, monica.terenghi@tes.mi.it
Prof.sa. Marilena Vimercati, marilena.vimercati@tes.mi.it
ITSOS "Marie Curie"
Via Masaccio 4, 20063 Cernusco sul Naviglio
http://www.tes.mi.it

Published in Sharing Learning Objects in an Open Perspective, September 2007


SLOOP Partnership - Leonardo da Vinci Programme (I/05/B/F/PP-154194)
ISBN 978-88-903115-0-5