Creating and Deploying Effective eLearning Experiences Using .LRN

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<ul><li><p>IEEE TRANSACTIONS ON EDUCATION, VOL. 50, NO. 4, NOVEMBER 2007 345</p><p>Creating and Deploying Effective eLearningExperiences Using .LRN</p><p>Rocael Hernndez, Abelardo Pardo, and Carlos Delgado Kloos, Senior Member, IEEE</p><p>AbstractThe significant quality increase in open-sourcee-learning platforms allows for large-scale e-learning courses withsignificantly reduced costs. This document describes a pedagog-ical model enhanced for effectively providing courses to a largenumber of students and producing media-rich content suitable tobe managed by the open-source e-learning platform .LRN. Twocase studies are presented: 1) a course for high school students toincrease the popularity of engineering degrees; and 2) a regular en-gineering course with a blended learning approach. In both casesthe proposed paradigm allowed the creation of successful learningexperiences impossible with conventional teaching methodologiesand tools.</p><p>Index TermsAuthoring systems, learning systems.</p><p>I. INTRODUCTION</p><p>THE evolution of online education (courses with at least80% of the content being offered online) in recent yearshas been closely followed by an equally significant increase inthe quality of e-learning platforms. In [4], Allen et al. show thatonline enrollment in the U.S. for the 20052006 course had itslargest percentage increase of 35%.</p><p>Learning management systems (LMSs) are at the technolog-ical core supporting this type of education. A few years back, theavailable platforms were mainly commercial with a few open-source prototypes with limited functionality. But the landscapehas changed significantly [1]. A growing market is in demandfor open-source LMSs which are being considered as viable al-ternatives to commercial tools.</p><p>This demand stems not only from the increasing number ofonline students but also from the need for sustained innovationin the functionality offered by these platforms. The open-sourceparadigm is known to fit nicely into this type of environment.Once the major open-source LMSs included the main featuresfound in their commercial counterparts, they started to includeinnovative functionality to enhance the learning experience.</p><p>The LMS .LRN [5] is an enterprise-class, open-source plat-form for supporting e-learning and digital communities. Theplatform is tightly coupled with the open architecture commu-nity system (OACS) [6], an open-source toolkit to build com-munity-oriented scalable, Web applications. These tools are sus-tained by a large and active community of developers and userscontinuously adding new features and improving current ones.</p><p>Manuscript received December 29, 2006; revised August 3, 2007.This work was supported in part by the E-LANE Project and GrantUC3M-TEC-05-056-1/2.</p><p>R. Hernndez is with Galileo University, 01010 Guatemala City, Guatemala.A. Pardo and C. D. Kloos are with Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, E-2911</p><p>Legans Madrid, Spain (e-mail: abel@it.uc3m.es).Digital Object Identifier 10.1109/TE.2007.906895</p><p>This document presents a comprehensive paradigm, in-cluding a pedagogical model, content production, and deploy-ment workflow used within the E-LANE project [11]. Theeducational model follows a constructivist approach basedon three stages: conceptualization, construction, and dialog.Content development was enhanced by providing authoringtools to simplify and streamline the creating process. Two casestudies are shown to illustrate the capabilities of the describedparadigm: a fully online nationwide initiative, oriented towardpromoting engineering studies, and a second conventionalcourse, enhanced by including a blended learning scenario.Results show how to apply this paradigm to these two scenariosand its effectiveness.</p><p>II. RELATED WORKOpen-source platforms for educational purposes appeared</p><p>more than 15 years ago. But only recently they started to be seenas a viable alternative to proprietary software. There are severalreasons behind this change of tendency. The requirementsfor technology-enhanced learning platforms are not fixed norstatic. Rather, these platforms are frequently being modifiedby new demands in both technical and pedagogical aspects.Institutions that had chosen a homemade solution soon foundout that their approach was not sustainable on the long run.Commercial vendors also saw this pressure, which translatedinto a significant increase in license prices. Open-source solu-tions, on the other hand, offer a reasonable tradeoff betweencost and maintenance effort and usually offer faster reactionwhen adopting new requirements (if the community behind thetool is well organized).</p><p>As Von Hippel points out [9], open source is a paradigm thatpromotes innovation driven by the user. Quoting [7], clearly</p><p>The information asymmetry between user and manu-facturer provides the user with an inherent advantage in de-veloping certain types of innovation. If a particular productlends itself to modification, a user is more likely to devisea solution that meets just their particular circumstance. Bydrawing on their own need and context of use, users aremore likely as a group to overcome the gap between whata product provides and what the user needs. Also, open-source platforms usually offer a lower barrier for adop-tion, thus, are more adequate for deployment in developingcountries.</p><p>The landscape of available open-source LMS platformsis changing rapidly. There are several websites that offerdetailed comparison among the most important (i.e., www.edu-tools.info), thus, for the sake of brevity, only the most significantones will be mentioned.</p><p>0018-9359/$25.00 2007 IEEE</p></li><li><p>346 IEEE TRANSACTIONS ON EDUCATION, VOL. 50, NO. 4, NOVEMBER 2007</p><p>Moodle [12] is a system simple to install and administer. Thetool requires an interpreter of the scripting language PHP and arelational database such as MySQL or postgreSQL. A construc-tive pedagogical underpinning and very large base of developersand consultant companies are its additional advantages. Alsorequiring PHP and MySQL is Claroline [10], a tool developedfrom teachers to teachers and built over sound pedagogic prin-ciples. Claroline has an intuitive user interface and is currentlydeployed in more than 500 institutions worldwide. Sakai [8]is a collaboration system that supports teaching, learning, andad hoc collaboration. The tool was created as an initiative byseveral highly-ranked universities in the U.S., is based on Java/Tomcat, and currently supports MySQL and Oracle databases.</p><p>An exhaustive comparison among these platforms is a com-plex task and is beyond the scope of this paper. None of themwould cover a hypothetical list of desirable features and each ofthem would be best in class in any of these features.</p><p>The platform considered in this document is .LRN, a com-munity-oriented educational platform that puts its emphasis inoffering enterprise-class scalability. But the main differentiatingfeature of .LRN is that it is communication rather than contentoriented. Almost all the current LMSs were initially orientedto cover the content management part of the learning process,that is, easy access to material and efficient administrative tasks.However, .LRN was conceived to facilitate the communicationand exchange of material among all persons participating in alearning experience. This feature proved to be essential to de-ploy the pedagogical model chosen for the presented experi-ences. A brief description of the structure and functionality of.LRN is described in greater detail in Section IV.</p><p>III. THE PEDAGOGICAL MODEL</p><p>The model used in the described experiences is based on thepedagogical methodologies to deploy e-learning courses pre-sented in [2] and [3]. This model uses a three-stage environment.</p><p> Conceptualization: In this stage, content containing ob-jectives, theory concepts, strategies, etc., are presented tothe students.</p><p> Construction: Resources are given to the students to per-form the tasks required in the material. This state includesall the activities such as assignments, projects, laboratories,etc.</p><p> Dialog: Communication among all participants in the ex-perience is included and purposely motivated.</p><p>This model, which follows a constructivist approach, is basedon activities in which the student becomes the center of thelearning process, the communication among peers is favored,and the teacher becomes a tutor or a supervisor of such com-munication. Nowadays, with all the information available tostudents, a significant amount of collaborative knowledge con-struction is possible with tools such as wikis, knowledge sharingthrough blogs, and several other tools to create online commu-nities. In this new environment, the role of the tutor is centeredon shaping the knowledge process through tasks such as cre-ating, investigating, and helping to assemble a set of online ac-tivities to allow critical thinking, greater levels of engagement,</p><p>Fig. 1. Conceptualization, construction, and dialog model.</p><p>and more effective learning. Fig. 1 depicts the proposed modelwith its three stages.</p><p>Each course is contextualized using instructional design prin-ciples and best distant education practices developed with thetarget audience in mind. The content is divided into didacticunits of an appropriate length, based on students estimated timeper learning session. A general introduction is included in eachcourse in which the method for interacting is described. Further-more, each unit contains its own introduction section in whichthe content to be covered is summarized. Rich multimedia ma-terial such as graphics, animations and videos, are frequentlyused for the most relevant sections. Course content is packagedas shareable content object reference model (SCORM) modules,using the content packaging scheme from the IMS Global Con-sortium for its organization.</p><p>The deployment of this model into real-life courses can beseen from two complementary perspectives: 1) the teaching staffand 2) the students.A. The Teacher Perspective</p><p>Teachers needed to adapt to the special requirements of thismodel. First, adequate material had to be produced for thecourses. The construction stage in the previously describedmodel requires an unusually varied number of activities in-cluding a rich set of resources. In other words, rather thanproviding an extremely exhaustive set of theoretical material,a rich set of activities was proposed to motivate students forthe understanding of such concepts. Second, since the coursesfollowed an e-learning paradigm, activities were releasedgradually to the students throughout the course to maintain ahigh motivation, requiring teachers to be proficient in the useof the platform. Finally, since communication between studentsand teaching staff is an important part of this methodology,effective e-tutoring was an additional requirement.</p><p>To facilitate the adaptation of the teaching staff to thismethod, several measures were taken prior to its deployment.Teachers attended a practical training module on the use of the</p></li><li><p>HERNNDEZ et al.: CREATING AND DEPLOYING EFFECTIVE eLEARNING EXPERIENCES USING .LRN 347</p><p>e-learning platform. A seminar on generic e-learning teachingand e-moderation techniques, following the model proposedby Salmon [13], was also organized. Since some teachersalready had course material from their regular courses, a setof guidelines on how to transform this material to the onlinecontext were given. Finally, a short module covering practicalknowledge on the type of graphical assets that can be used foronline courses was also offered. This teacher-training schemeproved to be essential to guarantee a successful deployment ofthe courses.</p><p>While the course is being taught, the teaching staff has two re-sponsibilities: 1) gradual deployment of new material and 2) ac-tivities of the course and e-moderation. Follow-up sessions withthe teaching staff were regularly scheduled where the overallprogress of the course was reviewed.</p><p>B. The Student PerspectiveFrom the students point of view, the proposed model trans-</p><p>lates into a learning environment with a low barrier to the com-munication and exchange of information with both tutors andpeers. Courses may include an initial module to familiarize stu-dents with the communication features offered by the platformand to indicate how are they expected to use such features. Thismodule is suppressed if students have already used the platform.At regular intervals, new additional material accompanied by aset of activities is published. Each student is given a private anda public virtual folder to store documents related to the course.</p><p>During the time allotted to the activities, tutors and studentsexchange information through several communication tech-niques (forums, blogs, wikis, etc). The teaching staff maintainsthis constant evaluation throughout the course.</p><p>IV. COURSE CREATION AND DEPLOYMENTThe enterprise-class, open-source platform .LRN supports</p><p>e-learning and digital communities. The tool was originallydeveloped at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cam-bridge, as a virtual learning environment and then evolvedinto a comprehensive platform including not only e-learningsupport but also generic Web resources.</p><p>The platform is based in the OACS [6], a toolkit for buildingscalable, communication-oriented Web communities and appli-cations. The toolkit structure is highly modular, and .LRN is aset of modules providing the additional features to deploy ane-learning platform.</p><p>The virtual community around .LRN/OACS currently in-volves nearly 11 000 registered users. The community portal isbased on this platform and coordinates the interaction betweendevelopers, users, technology personnel employed by highereducation institutions, or anybody interested on exchangingideas, solutions, and information.</p><p>The platform is in production in several educational insti-tutions such as MIT Sloan School of Management, with over11 000 users; Harvard University E-Government Executive Ed-ucation Project, which needed an effective platform to handlecommunication and information management for company ex-ecutives; Vienna University of Economics and Business Ad-ministration, which gives support to 20 000 users and containsaround 26 000 learning resources; and Universidad de Valencia,</p><p>Spain, with a community of 40 000 users. See [5] for a more de-tailed list, including case studies.</p><p>A. The Functionality of .LRNSeveral features make .LRN a powerful e-learning platform.</p><p>Its modular structure allows for very fast customization andprototyping of new applications. The user space is organizedthrough a customizable set of portlets, each of them offeringaccess to one of the various services available. The underlyingOACS toolkit provides an ever increasing set of basic Web func-tions, most of them suitable to be adopted by the e-learningplatform.</p><p>Because OACS is a community-oriented toolkit, it has influ-enced and shaped .LRN into a communication oriented LMS.Most of the current LMSs focused at the beginning of their ex-istence in providing content management for teaching staff a...</p></li></ul>