Monthly Archives: October 2011

IMS Learning Tools Interoperability 1.1 is in “Member Draft”

IMS Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) 1.1 has moved from the working group to “Internal Draft” / “Member Draft”. This means that we consider the specification development 100% done and locked down.

The scope of IMS LTI 1.1 is the addition of grade return from a tool to an LMS using web services. It is simple and easy to implement and we expect pretty rapid market uptake.

IMS LTI is already supported in the trunk of Sakai 2.9 in the BasicLTI portlet, tracked under

Designating an IMS spec as “Member Draft” triggers the implementation activity of our members so we can make sure that there are no little “gotchas” in the spec. Having developers actually implement the spec is a great way to cause them to read it *very carefully*.

If you are not an IMS member, there will soon be a public draft of the specification once we have developed the certification and seen demonstrations of two interoperable products. The standard is pretty simple and mature so I hope that the public draft is ready in two months or less.

You can wait until public draft to see the spec or join IMS to be part of the member draft evaluation. The cost is not all that great to on the Alliance and it can be done online.

If you already are an IMS member – the discussion of the LTI 1.1 Member Draft is here:

Here is an Educause presentation about LTI from this past week:

Let me know if you have any questions.

This is a great time to publicly thank the co-Chairs of the IMS LTI Working Group for their hard work and dedication: Greg McFall of Pearson Education and Lance Neumann of Blackboard. They have put an amazing amount of work into this specification and we all benefit from their knowledge and skill. It has been a great personal learning experience and I consider it a privilege to have worked with them on the preparation of this specification.

Note: I am a member of the IMS staff part-time – but my compensation is not linked to changes in IMS memberships.

What are the Key Challenges for the OER Movement?

The OLNet project ( is assembling a list of the key challenges facing to Open Educational Resources. They ask the question, “What are the Key Challenges for the OER Movement?” in their blog post at

This is my response.

I think that the single largest challenge in OER is the complete lack of a standardized interchange format and free/open software to create, manage, edit, and remix open educational content.

Until we have rich and powerful editing tools in the hands of the people creating the content, we will never reach “escape velocity” in the OER space. We will continue to pay large sums of money to accumulate large repositories of expensively gathered/produced materials that are uneditable.

We need tools that allow teachers to manage their materials in a way that will enhance their teaching as they teach and then as a trivial side effect, produce high-quality reusable and editable content.

Once we accomplish this a repository has a format for its artifacts and many repositories exist (i.e. like YouTube, uStream , Vimeo, etc etc) then we have the ability to actually make OER part of the teaching cycle rather than something we do long after the teaching cycle is complete.

This is a challenging task and will require significant sustained effort. There are four formats that come to mind that might serve as OER exchange: (a) SCORM, (b) IMS Common Cartridge, (c) Connexions CNXML, and (d) PowerPoint.

I add PowerPoint because of the four, it is the only one that does a really good job of remixing. While everyone ridicules PowerPoint, you must admit that it is nice to be able to send a complex, structured content collection to virtually anyone on the planet and know that they can read it, edit it and convert it to a number of useful formats. It is not because PowerPoint is an amazingly elegant file format, it is simply because we all have software to read and edit the format on our computers.

Lets briefly critique the other formats and their shortcomings.

SCORM – This format is aimed at instructional design, not teaching – it is great for training but not so good for teaching. The problem is less the file format and more the ecosystem of products aimed at a training centered market that uses a write-once run without modifications pattern. Also as more advanced features of SCORM are used, the resulting packages are less and less interoperable.

IMS Common Cartridge – IMS CC understands teaching and is designed to allow remixing, but since it is focused on maintaining interoperability of content, it is rather conservative in its scope. It is expanding its scope slowly but it needs to speed up if it is to become a real OER format that teachers would author their original courses in IMS CC. Also there are no good free open source tools that read and write IMS CC. CLosed source tools are better than nothing, but leave innovation in the hands of the software owners.

Connexions CNXML – This is a good start as a format, but it is far too wrapped up in the specialized server code developed by Connexions. Also, the CNXML is a little too focused on book-style resources and sequential ordering. CNXML would need to evolve to be able to represent the wider ranger of interoperable OER materials. I wish Connexions would be funded to start over and build a portable desktop application for authoring and then put a much simpler server infrastructure behind it rather than putting all the rich capabilities in their server software.

PowerPoint – rocks but its pedagogy is a bit limiting.


What would the software look like? Frankly the closest I have seen to the right software is SoftChalk ( It is a word-processor like interface, uses its own internal format, but can export to SCORM, IMSCC, HTML and many other formats.

The weakness of SoftChalk is that it is commercial and as such its requirements are driven by what sells. And OER is not a significant enough marketplace yet to cause commercial product roadmaps to bend in the right direction.

So I think we need to write our own.


Building such a format and software to support the format would take an amazing leap of faith. It would take millions of pounds/euros/dollars to jump-start such a project to the point that it worked well enough to build a self-sustaining community of users and developers who could maintain and innovate in the space.

Given that all the funding seems to be going to building another repository or analyzing usage logs, it is not likely this will ever get funded. But that is the nice thing about grand challenges – they stay grand.

P.S. The second biggest problem is the ability to link content together around learning objects like Khan Academy and enable highly dynamic learning paths through content with great tracking. Maybe the other great challenge is an open, extensible version of Khan Academy.

P.P.S. The third biggest challenge is to have a learning management system that allows for the dynamic formation of cohorts of learning around web content. Such a system needs to have a light touch UI-wise and be easy to figure out. My favorite example here is Edmodo – but again, closed, proprietary, and with an intent to make money off its captive customers. So again, we need to write our own open extensible Edmodo.

Educause: Openness Discussion Session

I will be participating in the Openness Discussion at Educause along with Patrick Masson, Ken Udas, and Luke Fernandez. Here are the details of the session:

Wednesday Oct 19th, 2011
3:30 PM – 4:20 PM
Meeting Room 102A/B

This discussion will focus on the emergence and adoption of principles and methods that can help develop and enable open communities of practice. Topics will include the characteristics, attributes, principles, and behaviors that promote open access; open-source software; open content; open educational resources; open courseware; open research; open standards; management practices like open governance; and more.

Patrick sent the following note to the CIO List about the session:

We are planning our Openness CG for the Educause conference and I was hoping to get a bit of input for the meeting. I have asked Luke Fernandez to “interview” Chuck Severance about his new book, “Sakai: Free as in Freedom.”

Luke has posted a very nice review of the book (, as have others (Jim Farmer: Free Software magazine,

Chuck offers several thoughts about how Sakai, as both an open source project and a foundation succeeded, and where he felt it might have missed stepped. Many of these observations are specific to openness, and as Luke highlights from the text, “My opinion was that the purpose of the Foundation was to have a light touch and focus on nurturing the individual and organizational members of the community. The opposing view held by the majority of the board members was that the Foundation and Foundation staff were a form of command and control with the top of the authority hierarchy as the Sakai Foundation Board of Directors. The…stakeholders were concerned that letting individuals….make their own priority decisions….would be too risky for the adopting schools…..Central control and guidance was needed to insure that the product would move forward according to a well-defined and well-understood roadmap and do so on an agreed-to schedule.”

I think this touches on some of the key aspects of not only openness as a value proposition and operational paradigm, but also how organizations can be challenged to adopt, and thus take advantage of openness. In the past the Openness CG’s have been poorly attended. I think this event could provide quite a draw, and I was wondering if those on the list here might be able to help promote our meeting?

I would appreciate it if folks could respond with suggestions, and volunteer to see those suggestions through for promoting the event. Also if you have any topics of interest for Luke to cover with Chuck, it might help us with ensuring we touch on all of the areas of interest in the openness cg. hopefully we can spark a lively and informative discussion.


Open Source Copyright Thoughts

A colleague asked me the following question:

For software produced here (UMichigan) that is going to be released under an open source license, who should be listed as the copyright holder in the source code? Would it be “The University of Michigan”?

Here is my answer:

I am not a lawyer but I do a lot of Open Source stuff in many projects. This is what I do and what people in Sakai generally do.

(1) If the project is primarily written by me from scratch, I use Apache 2.0 as the copyright in my own name. Anyone can reuse or include the code I build (including me) because of the license with a simple acknowledgement – with the right license the “owner” does not matter. If someone wants to switch the copyright to a GPL license – the copyright owner can give that permission and one person is easier to ask than to ask a university. The answer may be yes or no with a person – with a university you are most likely never to get any answer. Using your own name is not seen as arrogance unless someone asks if they can change the copyright and you say ‘no’. An example of this is if I build a new experimental part of Sakai I will initially make it copyright me Apache 2.0 – if the code matures and ends up in the core of Sakai I voluntarily change the license to be Copyright the Sakai Foundation using the Educational Community License 2.0 as that is the preferred copyright for Sakai core source and it is considered tacky and arrogant to maintain your name in the copyright of Sakai core code. I emphasize that it is not tacky to use your own name initially. It *is* considered tacky to refuse to allow the name to be changed when asked by a reasonable open source organization / project.

(2) If I am writing in the context of a project like Sakai, Moodle, or ATutor I simply use the copyright of the rest of the code with a clear indication of the extent of my authorship where appropriate. If you say anything about keeping your own name in the copyright in their code base – they will punt you as far as they can. They will kick you out of the project and talk about you behind your back for years to come.

(3) If I am writing a tool for an organization that I am doing consulting for, I insist on the code being copyright them, but Apache 2.0 – so I and others can reuse the code with no further permission except for an acknowledgement. I have not faced a situation where a client insists on me building significant code that is not open source – but frankly I would likely not even be willing to write code for such an organization. I do advise closed-source organizations on how they should go about writing code – I just won’t write their code.

(4) If I am building a tool where multiple UMich authors are involved and in particular paid staff are involved and neither (1), (2) or (3) apply, I copyright the code University of Michigan Apache 2.0.

Interestingly, w.r.t. Sakai, UM has a master agreement that lets them take Michigan contributions and change the copyright to Sakai Foundation. Indiana, and Stanford have similar master agreements. To my knowledge, MIT and Berkeley never executed such agreements and so bits of code still have those universities named in copyright statements in the code. You will not see a Stanford, Indiana or Michigan copyright anywhere in Sakai code – that is considered a badge of honor by the cool tribes. Interestingly, deep in one tool, we use some Stanford code for a concurrent hash map that was built well before the Sakai Project and used in Sakai. We did *not* request change the copyright in that utility code because it was clearly not produced as a contribution to the Sakai project.

All this is evidenced by the Sakai acknowledgements page:

The most awesome and giving schools are in the first list because they are the ones that contributed and transferred copyright or simply contributed with the foundation’s name as copyright in their contributions. They of course are in alphabetical order so as not to characterize any contribution as more important than any of the others.

Probably more than you wanted to know :)