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The software, now used to deliver all online courses at the Sloan School of ... Because thousands of courses and tens of thousands of users are a norm, multi- ...

OpenACES: the open source solution to e-learning Dr. Rafael A. Calvo The University of Sydney. [email protected] Dr. Jowell Sabino MIT Sloan School of Management Robert Ellis The University of Sydney.

Abstract We describe the development of OpenACES, an enterprise level computer system for elearning. OpenACES is an ongoing open source project to deliver a complete on-line training infrastructure that is scalable, robust, extendable and that contains a number of highly useful features. The software, now used to deliver all online courses at the Sloan School of Management (MIT), is widely used in other commercial and academic environments. In the first section of this report we comment on the aims for the software system and the problems it tries to solve. In the second part we discuss its teaching and learning functionalities as well as its technical requirements.

Aims and outcomes of the OpenACES project. The Arsdigita Community System (ACS) is a platform for building web services, originally built by Prof. Phillip Greenspun at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Due to the success of the toolkit, Prof. Greenspun released the code under a GPL open source license. In 1997 Greenspun and and others founded Arsdigita Corporation to sell services developing Internet solutions with the ACS toolkit. The original system used the Oracle database as underlying infrastructure and the “OpenACS” project started as a project to port the system to the postgres open source database, in order to make the system completely open source. Today the OpenACS project is working to deliver a multi-platform system that runs on any of these two databases and can be ported to new ones in the easiest way possible. The project has almost 3,000 members contributing to its development, and the software is being used on many major websites. One of the Arsdigita projects was to build an e-learning system for the Sloan School of Management at MIT, the system was called Arsdigita Community Education System (ACES) and is today used campus-wide at MIT. We describe here the completely open source version (OpenACES) that is currently in development. Although it was designed primarily with universities in mind, the requirements of other types of organizations were valued highly as well, and eventually became the drivers for many system improvements.

Draft - To appear in “Moving Online” II conference

E-learning: The corporate vision In a knowledge economy, a company is as competitive as the skills of its employees. With market demands changing rapidly, organizations are faced with the challenge of adapting their skill sets at an increasing speed. Furthermore, time and location constraints require that training be flexible, that is, independent of place, and schedule-friendly. The Internet provides a unique communication medium that can enable a teaching and learning environment, and can meet all these demands in a way that can be completely integrated into the organization.

E-learning: The academic vision Universities are looking for innovative ways of improving the learning experience for their students, and the flexibility of online delivery is a big advantage. Universities are also keen on broadening their markets to remote areas and foreign countries. Last but not least, universities would like to reduce the cost of maintaining big infrastructures that result in a low asset/profitability ratio. For some universities, e-learning can contribute to a reduction on pressure on scarce brick and mortar resources. In relation to theses goals the challenge for Elearning is the search for improved scholarly teaching and learning processes.

The OpenACES System OpenACES is an enterprise level platforms that features: • Open architecture that is scalable, modular and interoperable. • A Robust relational database, ACID test compliant. • An extendable and customizable system, so new modules can be added. • Industry standards compliance. Because thousands of courses and tens of thousands of users are a norm, multi-tiered architectures are necessary. Therefore, each of the components uses well-tested technologies (web server, database, operating system, etc.) OpenACES web functionalities include: • Online teaching and learning • Student Communities • Collaboration • Integration with knowledge management systems Teaching and Learning can involve four user types: the student, the instructor/facilitator, the administrator and the human resources manager. Each of these user types has distinct requirements and expectations. Here we will discuss the requirements set up in the project, most of which have already being achieved by the implementation of specific functionalities. Students expect to have: • A learning tool that provides a flexible learning environment. • An easy to navigate environment that facilitates the learning of content. • A system that is location-independent, so any Internet browser will suffice. • A system that is technically reliable. • A tool that supports planning, and integrating training with their own personal calendars. • An environment that makes them feel part of a community. Instructors are looking for: • A tool that helps them produce more effective courseware with less effort.

• • • • • •

A tool that facilitates the seamless delivery of multimedia. A customizable interface. A tool that helps them measure student progress, through online assessment. A tool that facilitates the instructor’s understanding of overall class progress and group dynamics. A way of reusing content modules from other courses or third parties. Processes which produce quality learning outcomes.

Course Home page with class schedule, announcements, forums etc. – MIT Sloan)

Administrators need: • A secure means of managing users (instructors, managers and other types of users.) • LDAP integration. • Easy management of courses and related functionalities. • A robust system. • A Scalable platform.

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(Community Member information page – MIT/Sloan)

Human Resource managers require: • Low cost, high return. • Payment systems that enable charging users or cost centers. • Integration with other HR systems • A system that supports accountability, showing how the training raises the appropriate skill sets of the organization. • Commercial support / Commercial independence.

OpenACES Teaching and Learning Functionalities In addition to quality learning outcomes, Teaching and learning in a flexible environment needs to be supported by software that provides appropriate functionalities and features for the learning context. Some functionalities are common to other Content Management Solutions (CMS). The ease to create folder structures and organize content is a basic one. Authoring content items such as slide shows, directly through a form or by easily uploading files from desktop application are regarded as highly important by most instructors. Sophisticated content management systems like OpenACS allow: • • •

Workflows that assign editorial roles to instructors, instructional designers, graphic designers and publishers. Versioning of the content, so a content unit can be rolled back to a previous state. Templating, so the text and graphics can be assembled together easily, separating the logic and backend functionalities and programming from the presentation of the information.

Most instructors develop courseware with a lot of Multimedia and the delivery platform must support this feature. All delivery platforms usually support uploading and delivering an unlimited number of file formats, such as: Microsoft Office, Adobe Acrobat PDF, HTML, digital images, audio and video, Flash, Shockwave, etc,… Very often, though, the limitations come from the users perspective and not the training server, many users for example do not have video capabilities installed in their machines, this might require additional hardware (e.g. sound cards) or software (e.g. Quicktime). Outcome based courseware also require Assessment Tools that facilitate students and instructors. Assesment engines usually implement several types of assessments such as Multiple Choice Questions (MCQ), option matching, ordering, fill in the blank and essay. OpenACES will support:

• • • • • • •

Easy creation of quizzes and surveys. The inclusion of text and multimedia in any of the assessment tools. The creation of assessment repositories, so questions from the repository can be rotated between related courses or randomly chosen for each student. The possibility of importing such repositories from other sources. Secure means of performing tests. Flexible test format such as time strict/flexible limits. Statistical reporting of the assessments, describing students or course results.

Personalization can become a very innovative tool for training. Following the same rational that e-marketers use for personalizing content and advertising, OpenACES can be used for personalizing the learning experience. There are two forms of personalization: explicit ruling and implicit. The explicit rules may come from information provided by the HR systems or the administrator (e.g. user name, department, etc…) or by the user (e.g. personal interests, personal calendar, personal address book, etc). Implicit rules are learned by the software system from other information sources such as the assessment engine, or the user tracking system. OpenACES may be configured to support one or more of the following Personalization features: •

• • • •

A personalized access point for each student (a portal). The portal could have calendar, a list of courses being taken, news for each course, access to email, chat and other community services, links to other information/news sources and access to a catalog of online resources available in the system. Students from different areas of the organization should have different user experience/interfaces. Instructors should be able to automatically deliver information based on the results of the students’ assessments. Instructors should be able to emphasize specific information on a particular date or to a particular set of students. Students can have different interests and be taking different sets of courses. The system should be able to recognize this and customize their experience.

Draft - To appear in “Moving Online” II conference

(OpenACES personalized portals at MIT Sloan School of Management)

Building Communities Learning is in great measure a social process. Students need to interact with each other as well as with the instructors in order to have a complete learning experience. When the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) announced that all its 2000 courses would be made available for free, Professor Steven Lerman said that “the syllabus and lecture notes are not an education. The education is what you do with the materials”. Kathleen Gilroy, of the Otter group explains how most e-learning programs fail: Since the emphasis has been on the accumulation, organization and delivery of content she asserts that there is “Too much content – too little context”. Students appreciate the interaction with their peers as much as they appreciate lectures. They learn from this interaction, so commercial e-learning platforms must leverage all the possibilities the Internet offers to develop a community. Functionalities that are frequently found in community websites can be used to create and manage the social space. The following are the most common: •

Discussion forums. These are some of the most popular means of communication on the web. In the context of T&L, the instructor can plan forums with a theme that supports the learning outcomes of the course. The students can asynchronously interact around this subject, learning and networking with their peers, but with the convenience of a location and time independent environment.

Q&A. These are similar to the discussion forums but can be designed with the instructor in the center. Students may ask questions that the instructor answers. This Q&A space can be used by the whole class and by others when the course is repeated. Q&A provides the course designer excellent feedback on what needs to be improved.

Chat. Chat is the most popular synchronous communication application on the web. It would allow a team of students to discuss their project form different locations. It could allow the lecturer to meet with the students and answer questions in real time.

Email. Although most people taking courses online would have their own email address, it is often useful that students keep a separate account for their e-learning communications, inside (or outside) the firewalls of the company they work for.

Calendars. People have busy schedules and organizing group activities can be a tiresome task. Online calendars allow students to maintain their own personal calendars and synchronize them with the rest of the course. It also provides the instructor with an easy way to remind students of activities.

(Student Calendar – MIT Sloan)

Draft - To appear in “Moving Online” II conference

Shared files. Students and instructors need a way of sharing files, without restrictions on their file-type. Students/instructors might want to share files with a limited number of individuals (e.g. group members), or the might want to get comments from them. Tools that offer these collaboration functionalities add a lot of value to the learning experience.

(File Storage and Sharing area – MIT Sloan)

Shared directory. So many high quality resources are available on the web that the instructor can not classify them all. Students should be able to share links to interesting sites/pages improving the knowledge base for the course.

Exchange. Most universities have second hand bookstores and markets where students can exchange products of various kinds. These marketplaces often become an important part of the university lifestyle adding to the perception of belonging to a community. This can be implemented in the form of an auctions site or an online exchange inside the elearning community.

(Community Portal at ArsDigita University.)

Licensing OpenACES is distributed under the GPL software license, this means that you can download the code free from and use it for commercial and non-commercial purposes. Internet consultants experienced with the toolkit can customize the toolkit to your particular needs.

Clients and Users of ACS include • • • • • • •

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Sloan School of Management Siemmens Nokia Oracle (Training in Interventional Cardiology and Vascular Medicine) Greenpeace

Requirements OpenACES uses a multi tier architecture. All its components have been tested under extreme conditions. Its web server (AOLserver) is the same one America Online and its 29 million clients use everyday. Although we recommend Linux it OpenACES also runs in other flavors of Unix. Today ACES runs on the Oracle data base, but the system will very soon be running on the postgres open source RDBMS, this is why we are calling it OpenACES. The following are hardware requirements that should help as a reference. Software ACES classic Webserver Aolserver / Apache OS Linux & most Unix Data base Oracle OpenACES will be available in October 2001. Hardware (recommended for any ACES solution) Fewer than 3000 active students Servers 1 Processor Memory RAID Disk

Dual Pentium III or UltraSparc-II 2GB of RAM Depends on courseware

OpenACES Aolserver / Apache Linux and most Unix Oracle or Postgres

Over 3000 active students 1 or 2 depending on usage patterns Quad Pentium III or UltraSparc-II 4Gb Depends on courseware

References Philip Greenspun. 1999. Philip and Alex’s Guide to Web Publishing. Morgan Kaufmann.

Draft - To appear in “Moving Online” II conference

Peter Senge. 1990. The fifth discipline: The act and practice of the learning organization. Random House. Davenport Thomas and Lawrence Prusak. 1998. Working Knowledge. Harvard Business School Press. Kathleen Gilroy. 2000. Collaborative E-Learning: The right approach. Arsdigita Community Journal Caroline Meeks and Robert Mangel. 2000. The Arsdigita Community Education Solution. Arsdigita Community Journal.

The ArsDigita Community System Education Solution,

by Caroline Meeks & Robert Mangel

About the Author: This white paper was written by Dr. Rafael Calvo, Lecturer in E-business at the University of Sydney and Internet Consultant developing solutions with OpenACS. He can be contacted at [email protected]

Copyright Rafael A. Calvo © 2001. The authors assign to Southern Cross University and other educational and non-profit institutions a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The author also grants a non-exclusive licence to Southern Cross University to publish this document in full on the World Wide Web and in printed form with the conference papers.