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Exploration and Innovation in E-learning Resource Center Construction
Prof. Yan Bing & Prof. Shan Congkai
Abstract: This paper sheds light on the purpose and significance of constructing an e-learning resource center. It further discusses important issues related to construction of the center including establishing resource standards, constructing a common platform, disaggregating and aggregating high quality resources, exploring sharing mechanisms, etc., Finally it puts forward solutions and directions for future development, and probes problems that need to be resolved next.
Keywords: digital resources; sharing; standard; platform; mechanism
With the rapid development of information technology and the Internet, the amount of digital information worldwide is increasing exponentially. According to IDC (International Data Corp.) data, the total amount of global digital information was 800 EB in 2009 and increased to 1.2 ZB in 2010. Jim Held, head of Intel Corporation's scale computing research project, believes that the annual growth rate of global digital information exceeds 60% at present. As education is one of mankind's most important activities, information technology and the Internet have of course penetrated every aspect of teaching and learning. More and more instructional resources are produced, delivered and stored in digital form. Nevertheless, most resources are scattered across different learning platforms, websites and teachers’ PCs, and adhere to different technical standards, which makes the aggregation, reuse and sharing of digital learning resources difficult.
Educational and scientific institutions have launched many research projects and practices in order to address the above problems and meet the urgent need of joint construction and sharing caused by the rapid proliferation of digital learning resources. The Open University of China （hereinafter referred to as the OUC） has contributed to this effort as well, successively undertaking the National Modern Distance Education Resource Repository Engineering Construction Project of the Ministry of Education (hereinafter referred to as the MoE) and Network Education E-learning Resource Center Construction Project of the MoE and Ministry of Finance hereinafter referred to as the MoF). The development of these projects has given great impetus to the construction of an e-learning resource center and the joint construction and sharing of high quality e-learning resources.
1. The Goal and Significance of E-learning Resource Center Construction
Resource sharing has been a long-standing issue in the educational field. The main problem is the lack of uniform resource standards and application platform interfaces between educational institutions (including colleges and universities, enterprises and professional training organizations), which results in difficulties in resource integration and sharing, and lack of interoperability between application software. Furthermore, different administrative divisions lead to administrative fragmentation; educational institutions lack the necessary channels for timely and open communication regarding resource construction and sharing. Thus, existing high quality resources fail to be deployed effectively, and a large amount of redundant resource construction occurs. This not only wastes money and resources but also hampers the improvement of the quality of education.
State educational departments have always attached great importance to the construction and sharing of high quality learning resources. Since 2003, various research and implementation projects related to resource sharing have been approved at the national level, boosting the efficiency and effectiveness of distance education resource sharing. As one of the public system construction projects under the Undergraduate Teaching Quality and Teaching Reform Project in Colleges and Universities, the Network Education E-learning Resource Center Construction Project was initiated in March 2008 by the MoE and MoF. The project aims to integrate quality network education courses and various quality e-learning resources that have been built by the state and institutions of higher education, build the relevant systems and public service platform for these resources, promote the opening and sharing of high quality e-learning resources, reduce low-quality redundant construction, provide quality instructional resources to educational institutions, teachers and students, and thus improve the quality of education. The overall goal of the project is to construct a national e-learning resource center, effectively integrate various educational resources, promote the opening and sharing of high quality e-learning resources and provide resource support for network education and lifelong learning. It serves the needs of higher education, vocational education and continuing education, and ultimately promotes a learning-oriented society. Specific goals include constructing a distributed storage and repository system with unified administration; establishing an efficient resource management and application system, connecting major learning platforms and instructional management systems, and supporting a scale of millions of users; integrating no less than 5000 courses with a data volume of 50 TB; establishing the initial mechanism and mode of resource sharing and providing resource sharing services to institutions and members of society.
After the National Outline for Medium and Long-term Education Reform and Development (2010-2020) (hereinafter referred to as the Outline) was issued, many people including interim project inspection experts lauded the project's farsightedness. Based on the strategic goals for education development put forward in the Outline, from the reform of personnel training to the "overpass" of exploring lifelong learning to the enhanced use of IT in education, the project has had a special significance. The next phase of implementing the Outline revolves around two key terms: one is equal access to education, which is often reflected in the sharing of high quality educational resources (not simply teaching resources) with the public. The other is improving the quality of teaching. How to make full use of high quality resources to improve teaching quality and how to build a new quality improvement mechanism in a developing country lacking quality educational resources such as China — these are issues that will significantly determine the future development of education.
In the long run, the most fundamental goal of implementing the project is to build a national e-learning resource center, which is important in the following five aspects:
Firstly, to support the construction of degree education and non-degree education of the OUC, and provide socialized services.
Secondly, to provide resource support and services for degree education and non-degree education at local open universities and network education schools.
Thirdly, to provide e-learning resource support to various educational and training organizations such as regular institutions of higher learning and vocational colleges.
Fourthly, to provide diversified e-learning support services to the public, for instance, support individualized study for community learners. This type of direct-to-learner service is of public benefit, which becomes increasingly evident as the service develops.
Fifthly, to promote international transmission and sharing of high quality e-learning resources, that is, bring foreign high quality e-learning resources into China while offering our e-learning resources abroad.
Therefore, the construction of an e-learning resource center plays an important fundamental role, not only in the development of open universities, but also the development of modern distance education in China and the construction of a learning-oriented society.
2．Basic Thoughts about E-learning Resource Center Construction
The implementation of educational resource sharing is influenced and restricted by many factors including participants' views, resource content, sharing technology, service mode, profit distribution, policy orientation, etc. Thus, for the construction and long-term operation of a national e-learning resource center that integrates massive amounts of resources and serves millions of users, it is necessary to analyze and clarify the following five related factors and their interrelationships: users, resources, system, procedure and structure.
The e-learning resource center serves as a public service entity providing e-learning resources to the whole society. Its users include resource users as well as resource providers. Resources are not limited just to educational and teaching resources but cover resource repository systems, various application systems and key technologies for supporting efficient operation, and even cover policies related to promoting learning resources into the sharing platform. Procedure and system refer to the mechanisms, control systems, business and service regulations, implementation plans and organizations formed during the course of resource sharing, service and management. Structure refers to product structure, functional structure of the platform and business structure developed in response to the needs of the market. The interaction between these five factors influence the development of the e-learning resource center (Figure 1).
Figure 1 Factors Influencing the Construction and Operation of Network Education E-learning Resource Center
In other words, the construction and operation of an e-learning resource center is neither a purely technical problem nor a simple physical aggregation task; it involves many complex problems in terms of technology, environment, economy, management, culture, etc. To solve these problems, it is necessary to have a clear thought process and an overall plan, achieve breakthroughs in key areas and make coordinated advancement. The construction process should focus on the research and implementation of e-learning resource sharing mechanisms, standards, technologies and platform, addressing in particular the most fundamental and critical issues affecting resource sharing. The detailed tasks are as follows:
Research of user demand, resource status, resource standards and sharing mechanism models; design of resource repository, repository application system and learning platform; research in related areas such as key technologies, credit banks, resource evaluation, intellectual property protection, information security, etc.
Research and development of resource repository system, repository application system and learning platform; formulation of resource integration standards and specifications; integration and collection of course resources required by demonstration centers; completion of projects such as resource evaluation and credit bank development.
Application demonstrations were conducted showcasing phased accomplishments in the areas of resource sharing and application mechanism design, development of the public service platform, standardized integration of e-learning resources, etc.
3．Key Problems in E-learning Resource Center Construction
3.1 Mechanism and Mode of Resource Sharing
Many educational institutions in China have invested heavily in constructing and accumulating large scale quality educational resources during their long term operation. Generally these remain in information "islands". Resources that each institution builds can be only used by its internal staff or fewer people, resource supply and demand is poorly communicated and resources are not fully and efficiently utilized, which inevitably leads to redundant construction and waste of society's resources. Meanwhile, "high investment and low utilization" raises the cost for learners and also increases the investment risk for resource builders, decreasing the incentive to build high quality resources. This is neither good for educational institutions nor for learners. The above phenomena can be attributed to various factors such as philosophy, technology and funds, but the root cause lies in the lack of a high quality educational resource sharing mechanism able to attract the widespread participation of educational institutions and learners.
The basic way to solve these problems is to change attitudes, acknowledge the product potential of e-learning resources and gradually establish effective channels of transacting and exchanging e-learning resources. Specific measures include creating a membership system and resource sharing application fund. The master center and sub-centers would be equal members of the resource center and each member would pay a certain amount of membership fee every year, which, together with other funds (e.g. endowments, etc.) constitute the resource sharing fund. In principle, every member should also contribute a certain amount of shared resources as member resources. Through the resource center platform, member resources would be open to sub-center members free of charge. Member resource suppliers would receive a sharing fund bonus every year according to their contribution rate (resources provided by the member as a percentage of total member resources) and utilization rate (member resource usage as a percentage of total usage). In addition, a fixed portion of member resources would be converted each year to free resources open to all users in order to encourage the update of member resources and provide free shared educational resources for the whole society.
Besides member resources, the resource center would expand resource sources and allow non-member institutions to provide a large volume of free resources and paid custom resources. Member resources, free resources and custom resources might be interconverted during actual operation (for instance, member resources may become free resources), which would drive the flow of resource users and bring users to those institutions participating in resource sharing (Figure 2).
Figure 2 Constitution and Characteristics of Resources in Network Education E-learning Resource Center
3.2 Design and Development of Software System for Resource Service Platform
In recent years, various educational institutions in China have built a considerable number of educational resource repositories. However, owing to great differences in development standards, management specifications, structural framework, adopted hardware and software platforms, etc., resource repositories are mutually independent and lack uniform standards and interfaces. There is no interoperability between application programs, which make intercommunication and resource sharing difficult between systems. To solve these problems, design and development of the platform software system must include a thorough study of the application goals and client demands of the platform, a sound overall framework for the platform and subsystem functions, and specialized research on key related technologies.
3.2.1 Design and Development of the Platform
Based on the resource center's integration and application features, we structured the system as a two-level platform, that is, the master center level and sub-center level. The system offers uniform management of directory information and distributed storage of resource entities, provides users with customized service, and facilitates data exchange between the platform's two levels including user information, directory information, supply and demand information, transaction information, resource recommendation, interactive communication, resource promotion, etc.
This system design accommodates the demand for sub-centers to manage their own resources autonomously while facilitating connectivity by implementing identical standards and interfaces for the master center and sub-centers. The design is distributed, standardized, interoperable, and offers transparent user access. (Figure 3).
Figure 3 Framework of Network Education E-learning Resource Center Platform
The platform consists of such subsystems as a resource repository system, learning platform, transaction system, navigation system, credit bank, individual development files and a human resources marketplace. It also contains tools such as on/offline cataloguing tools, import and export tools, directory harvesting tools, network course authoring tools, statistics tools, certification management of sub-centers and external application interfaces (Figure 4).
Figure 4 Subsystem Constitution and Relevant Tools of E-learning Resource Center Platform
3.2.2 Research & Development and Application of Key Technologies
In the process of developing the platform, we studied and applied the following key technologies: storage and management of massive resource entities, WCF distributed data communication, metadata interoperability, quick search of massive information resources, self-adaption of compound documents, self-adaption of user terminals, self-adaption of layered media, etc.
(ⅰ) Massive Resource Storage
(ⅱ) Metadata Standards Application and Heterogeneous Resource Conversion
(ⅲ) Resource Synchronization
(ⅳ) Resource Retrieval
(ⅴ) Transparent User Access
(ⅵ) Large-Scale Concurrent Users
(ⅶ) Building Interfaces to the Online Learning Platform
(ⅷ) Multiple Terminal Access to Resources
(ⅸ) Network Information Security of the Resource Sharing Platform
In addition, to optimize resource allocation, promote high-quality resource sharing between schools and provide a free, open and lifelong learning environment to students, the project included research for a credit bank system. The credit bank system would bridge degree and non-degree education, accumulate and transfer credits of different education forms, and incorporate main services such as credit certification, credit transfer, credit accumulation, credit retrieval, etc.
3.3 Integration and Evaluation of Massive Resources
3.3.1 Integration of Massive Resources
(ⅰ) Establishing Uniform Standards of Resource Classification and Metadata
Currently, different educational institutions generally follow different technical standards in constructing resource repositories. They use different metadata standards for description and different classifications for storage and management, which inevitably creates difficulties in integrating and sharing resources.
In the process of project implementation, we researched the requirements for resource classification and main classification methods currently used in the field of educational resource sharing. Factoring in the needs of the project, we confirmed the basic principles of resource classification and designed the resource classification system for the resource center. This includes course classification and learning resource classification.
Degree course classification was formulated based on the MoE's catalogue of undergraduate, vocational and secondary disciplines, and GB/T13745-2009 (Classification and code of disciplines). It includes 13 first-level classifications and nearly 200 second-level classifications. Non-degree course classification was based on application research and includes 18 first-level classifications and 108 second-level classifications.
Learning resource classification was formulated based on the Chinese E-Learning Technology Standard (CELTS-41.1), covering media material classification and media teaching attribute classification. It includes 9 first-level classifications and 69 second-level classifications.
As for resource metadata standards, the project team researched domestic and international educational resource metadata standards (Dublin Core, LTSC LOM, ADL/SCORM, etc.) in light of China's actual application needs, and established a resource metadata standard application scheme (defining 44 metadata attributes on the basis of GB/T21365-2008). An application for standards conformance testing has already been submitted to CELTSC.
(ⅱ) Forming a Complete Set of Resource Integration Specifications and Procedures
Figure 5 Procedure of Resource Integration of the Resource Center
(ⅲ) Formulating a Business Mode for Resource Integration and Sharing Services
The integrated resources will be provided to users in the following three forms: courses, media materials and topical resources. Course resources include "course resource packs", split and restructured courses, and URL courses. Media materials refer to resources that have been disaggregated, reducing resource granularity and facilitating partial reuse. Topical resources are media or course resources reorganized around certain topics, which are easier to navigate and use by category.
So far, under the guidance of the above specifications and procedures, we have integrated the course resources of 3600 courses from radio and TV universities, traditional colleges and universities, network colleges, vocational schools, training organizations, publishing organizations, and Hong Kong, Taiwan and foreign educational institutions. The total capacity of the resources exceeds 16TB. Over 45,000 material resource items in the form of video, text, courseware, test/exercise, animation, cases, etc. have been disaggregated, processed, catalogued, and reposited. The content of these resources covers degree education, rural education, community education, etc. As the pilot application of the project progresses, the total amount of resources will be increased substantially.
3.3.2 Evaluation and Certification of High Quality Resources
E-learning resources are diverse in form, vast in quantity, rich in content and are increasing rapidly. However, they vary greatly as to quality and effective lifespan, and are updated frequently. One of the important problems of resource repository construction lies in how to maintain an effective “metabolism” for the resource repository system, promoting the high quality resources and eliminating the inferior resources.
China currently lacks an authoritative, dedicated resource appraisal organization and mature evaluation standard system. Under these circumstances, the project set out to build an e-learning resource evaluation system from the perspective of learners. The details are as follows:
(ⅰ) Study of Learners and Online Learning
(ⅱ) Study of Network Education Resources
(ⅲ) Design of Network Education Resource Evaluation System that Supports Personalized Learning
(ⅳ) Algorithm Study
(ⅴ) Study of Plug-ins in Network Education Resource Evaluation
4．Operating Mechanism and Pilot Application of E-learning Resource Center
In order to build a successful e-learning resource center, it is critical to put in place a long-term operating mechanism, that is, ensure the sustainable growth of resource volume and the sustainable development of resource sharing services. Establishing a mutually beneficial, win-win resource sharing mechanism and "sub-center system" is necessary to achieve this goal.
The sub-center system consists of the master center and a large number of regional, professional, collegiate and training sub-centers. These centers jointly constitute the resource public service platform, the far-reaching resource catalogue center, resource transaction center and resource coalition. Meanwhile, research has been conducted to formulate a public service mode and operating mechanism for improving high quality resource sharing.
In the sub-center system, various sub-centers serve as resource providers as well as resource users. The master center and sub-centers have equal status, and together they form a resource coalition and decide the application mechanism for resource sharing. This guarantees the diversity of the resource sources and the efficiency of resource sharing (Figure 6).
During the actual operation of the resource sub-centers, all educational institutions including radio and TV universities at every level, network education colleges of regular institutions of higher education, vocational colleges, local distance education centers, training organizations, publishing organizations, learning enterprises, learning towns, learning communities and other lifelong educational institutions, may apply to be a sub-center or demonstration center. The master center would provide them with resource repository management and application software, system deployment, application technical support and other services.
Figure 6 Structure of Network Education E-learning Resource Center and Sub-centers
The major tasks of the pilot application of the project are to integrate social e-learning resources from various sources using various methods, formulate the initial mechanism and mode related to the production, flow and sharing of high quality e-learning resources, and verify the effectiveness and feasibility of the designed mechanism and mode in the process of application; achieve preliminary e-learning support through the "resource sharing service platform", verify and optimize functions related to the resource sharing service platform; preliminarily establish demonstration centers capable of effectively using the E-learning Resource Sharing Mechanism and Mode Framework and establish a national e-learning resource center system composed of the master center and sub-centers.
In a sense, whether the pilot application of the project achieves its scheduled goals will decide the success or failure of the project. The value and significance of resource standards, the sharing platform, disaggregation and aggregation of high quality resources and their evaluation need to be verified through the pilot application. During the pilot process, system collision and mechanism conflict are inevitable. It will take a long time to explore how to use the latest information and Internet technologies to turn traditionally hierarchical education institutions into a joint resource construction and sharing network, how to use a sharing fund to incent different resource owners to share resources and continuously expand the scale of resource sharing. Additionally, in the process of joint resource construction and sharing, the issue of copyright protection for digital resources will inevitably arise, and will be a more complicated problem than traditional copyright protection.
With the popularity of computers and networking, e-learning resources are playing an increasingly prominent role in education. It is clearly pointed out in the Outline: strengthen the development and application of high quality educational resources; reinforce the construction of a network teaching resource system; introduce international quality e-learning teaching resources; develop network learning courses; establish an open and flexible public service platform for educational resources, promote the widespread sharing of high quality educational resources. The fine progress on the Network Education E-learning Resources Center Construction project has become a powerful measure of implementation. Constructing the national e-learning resource center system will have a positive supporting effect on the integration of educational resources of every level and every category, construction of a national education public service platform, raising the level of educational informatization, and particularly on the OUC and local open universities under construction. Although the project has been carried out for almost three years with many breakthrough accomplishments, the joint construction and sharing of high quality e-learning resources still has a long way to go in the face of future challenges and tasks.