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Schools swap resources through European exchange

School teachers across Europe can now swap learning resources with each other and collaborate in creating new ones, thanks to a new service launched by a consortium of European education ministries.

Information technology makes it possible for children to learn in a more active and engaged way than conventional teaching methods. But good digital teaching materials are time-consuming and expensive to create, so many ministries of education have set up national repositories of resources that schools can use as they wish.

But why stop at national borders? If an animated simulation of an internal combustion engine is of value to schools in Norway, say, would it not also be useful to teachers in other countries? Small countries, in particular, could benefit from sharing resources with their neighbours.

That is the thinking behind CALIBRATE, an EU-funded project to create a continent-wide swap shop for digital learning resources. It builds on CELEBRATE, an earlier project demonstrating that national repositories of learning resources could be ‘federated’ so that schools could offer and exchange resources across national borders.

CELEBRATE ended in 2004, but so successful was it that the participating governments wanted to take it further. “They wanted to move from a demonstration project to a service that we could actually launch for schools,” says Jim Ayre of Multimedia Ventures, a consultant to the European Schoolnet consortium which is coordinating the project. “CALIBRATE provided an opportunity for us to do this.”

Resources that travel well

The core of CALIBRATE is the Learning Resource Exchange (LRE), a network of 18 content repositories, including 16 from ministries of education, that allows teachers to search for material. The LRE opened in December 2008 and a full public service is expected early in 2009. It already contains more than 128,000 items, all freely accessible through the LRE website.

A sister project called MELT is improving the ‘metadata’ attached to LRE resources, making it easier for teachers to find exactly what they want and add their own metadata or ‘tags’ to resources they have used.

Although anyone can access the LRE directly, the interconnection of repositories offers the option of using familiar national portals to find items throughout the network. Schools in Ireland can already search the LRE through their Scoilnet portal.

Thanks to technical improvements in the brokerage system that underlies the LRE, a new repository can be connected in a matter of days. As a result many new associate partners are joining the LRE federation, including OER Commons in the USA and museums such as Cité des sciences et de l’industrie in Paris.

“We are in active discussions with more than 15 organisations which have expressed interest in becoming LRE associate partners,” Ayre says.

But can something created for use in one country be used successfully in another? Despite differences in languages and curricula, many resources do “travel well,” he points out. “They tend to be more visual, more interactive, with a minimum of text – Flash animations rather than text-heavy lesson plans or worksheets.” By studying how teachers use these resources, European Schoolnet hopes to develop criteria for what will work best on a European level.

Toolbox for teachers

A second achievement of CALIBRATE, which was funded under the ICT strand of the Sixth Framework Programme for research, is a ‘learning toolbox’. “We thought it would be useful to have some sort of authoring tool, so teachers could both adapt resources found in the LRE and create new ones,” says Ayre. “So another focus in the project was the development of a collaborative learning platform called LeMill that was designed as a web community where teachers could find, author and share learning resources.”

LeMill is maintained by the University of Art and Design in Helsinki, Finland, and has become the hub of an online community approaching 4000 members dedicated to the production of teaching materials.

One stumbling block that has hindered the transfer of materials between LeMill and the LRE is differing understandings of how the Creative Commons licences used for open educational resources can best be applied.

“Most ministries want to share content and make it as open as possible but they also tend, almost instinctively, to apply a licence which prevents any commercial use of their resources,” Ayre explains. “This makes it impossible to remix these resources with others that have a more open licence and can actually work against ministries’ longer-term objectives.”

Licensing is one issue that is being investigated in the new European Schoolnet ASPECT project to develop standards and specifications for digital learning resources. Another project, INSPIRE, will use LRE resources to support the teaching of maths, science and technology and encourage students to start scientific studies.

“There is still a lot to do before we have a fully featured LRE service, but I think what we’re doing is quite strategic,” says Ayre. “If we can get a sufficient amount of quality content in the LRE system that travels well across borders we could have quite an impact.”

Christian Nielsen | alfa
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