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Matching e-learning products to educational needs

The power of e-learning is often constrained by the disparate technical and usage requirements of local educational systems. Researchers now hope to overcome these disparities with technology that adapts to legacy applications.

The IST-funded TELCERT project has developed software tools and other resources to help authors, suppliers and standards organisations improve the interoperability of e-learning systems and materials. TELCERT gathered a range of partners that include e-learning providers, research organisations and industry from France, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK.

"Some of the research that inspired TELCERT showed that up to twenty five percent of the cost of acquiring new e-learning content goes on testing, and on reworking materials that don’t work together as they should," says project coordinator David Rose of The Open Group, based in Reading, UK.

While some specifications do facilitate interoperability, various learning communities – countries, districts and educational sectors – modify these standards to accommodate their own needs. "So it is common for a major educational publisher, of a maths lesson or biology test let's say, to have to produce the same product in six to seven versions," Rose says. Which makes the engineering process more costly, and thus more difficult for smaller companies to produce a varied product range.

"The governments and public authorities that fund much of education want to level the playing field for all suppliers, so that their materials are more plug-and-play," he says. "Smaller firms can then compete more effectively, and the big suppliers benefit as well. The evidence is that more innovation and greater interoperability help everyone.”

TELCERT participants have created a set of tools that allow learning communities to localise international specifications for e-learning content and services, and enable publishers to create interoperable products.

SchemaProf, for example, is a powerful XML-based tool that allows users to create application profiles defining local cultural and pedagogical needs within an e-learning product. An English specification can be changed to a French one for instance. A plug-in, the Schema Transformation Tool, turns SchemaProf application profiles into localised schemas, avoiding the need to create custom specifications.

The Content Reengineering Tool (developed from the widely used RELOAD editor) helps publishers adapt content to a particular user profile. "It helps make sure that the content matches the profile from the start, like a quality tool," says Rose.

Finally, the TELCERT Test System verifies that content conforms to the profiled specification and provides information for product certification programmes. The system can be reconfigured automatically from any XML-based profile information.

TELCERT's new tools, code, sample profiles, guidelines, reports and tutorials help publishers deliver quality e-learning products and services to users quickly, and for less cost. Instead of constantly making new content, they can quickly adapt what they already have.

The project also researched the complex challenges of interoperability testing for web services, widely seen as the future for e-learning delivery. "We have been able to develop the understanding and approach for these service-oriented architectures," says Rose. "We've found a way to do conformance testing of web-based e-learning services using the automatically configurable test system."

One potential use is to support the design and testing of interoperable electronic CV services, which allow students and job candidates to compile electronic records of their professional and academic achievements. "Let's say an employer wants to recruit an engineer from Romania. For that candidate's CV to be readable across borders and by different recruiters and employers, the information has to be interoperable," he explains.

"Feedback from the communities has been excellent," says Rose." They can do things they couldn't before." He adds that delivery of certified content and trials of electronic CV services could begin as early as 2007.

Jernett Karensen | alfa
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