As the notion of learning objects has grown in popularity, so too has interest in how they should be stored to promote access and reusability. A key challenge to all repository projects is to understand the various motivations and needs to those wishing to contribute to and access the collection. To date there has been considerable attention given to technical issues of repositories, with much less consideration of how to attend to the needs of those who will use them. This chapter presents a needs analysis framework that was developed to guide the design of a new repository currently being created for the Australian higher education sector, The Carrick Exchange. The project to develop the framework is described, outlining the findings from analysis of literature and existing repositories, with input from a survey of potential users. The purpose of the framework was to distil key issues that should be considered in the design of the repository and we offer it here as an analytical tool that could be applied by others.
With the advent and adoption of the Internet it has become easy to share and distribute information. This has generated considerable interest in how digital resources can be stored and organised. In the early years of the Internet, many had visions of “virtual libraries,” a digital analogy to the familiar physical library. More recently as the idea of reusable and sharable “learning objects” has emerged, attention has become focused on digital repositories.
In higher education, the vision is for learning objects developed for specific teaching purposes to be housed in digital repositories in which they are catalogued and described in ways that make the resources accessible across institutions (Littlejohn, 2003b; Littlejohn & Buckingham Shum, 2003). The activities involved in populating and using these repositories would create an economy in which individual academics design and prepare resources appropriate for reuse by others in exchange for access to a much wider range of similarly reusable resources contributed by other individual academics (Malcolm, 2005). In addition, institutions, government bodies, and commercial educational developers could also contribute to such an economy. There is also considerable interest within institutions to make the most of digital resources, a trend that can be observed in the current move to content management systems, though this issue is somewhat separate from the broader notions of the learning object economy.
It is difficult to define a “learning object” with any precision or authority as there is still significant debate in the literature as to what should be regarded as a learning object (see Agostinho, Bennett, Lockyer, & Harper, 2004). For the purposes of this chapter, the term will be used to encompass teaching and learning materials and guides that range in granularity from single files to full courses. As such, learning objects can be considered items relevant to the teaching and learning process that are made available for others to use and adapt to their own contexts.
Thus, learning objects made available in digital repositories promise a new way of creating learning environments within and outside the traditional boundaries between courses, disciplines, and institutions. Digital repositories that accommodate high quality learning objects could be of assistance to university teaching by increasing the reusability of content thereby:
Saving time and money in course development,
Enhancing students’ learning experiences, and
Engaging teaching staff in a dynamic community of practice.
The basis of digital repositories is the sharing of digital resources. The fundamental premise is that digital resources are submitted according to specified criteria and accessed according to another set of conditions. The submission of digital resources may occur in a variety of ways, for example:
Contributors freely provide digital resources that may be assessed, enhanced, or peer reviewed before being accessed from the repository (e.g., Apple Learning Interchange, Connexions, and iLumina).
Only registered members are able to contribute digital resources that may be peer reviewed prior to being made available to repository users; for example, Campus Alberta Repository of Educational Objects (CAREO), Cooperative Learning Object Exchange (CLOE), EducaNext, Education Network Australia (EdNA), Jorum, and Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching (MERLOT).
An education advocate selects, develops or designs digital resources that are made available from the repository (e.g., Blue Web’n and INTUTE).
Educators design and produce digital resources for a specific higher education course or purpose and use the repository as a means for dissemination (e.g., LEARNet, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Open CourseWare (OCW) and Scottish electronic Staff Development Library (SeSDL)).
Contributors provide details and/or information about the digital resource and a link to the Web address where the resource is housed, external to the repository (e.g., Educause and Learning Resources Community (LRC) Project).
Registered members use tools that are made available through the repository to create digital resources that once developed are described by metadata and added to the repository for other registered members to reuse; for example, European Knowledge Pool System (ARIADNE) and The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (KEEP).
Key Terms in this Chapter
Needs Analysis: A needs analysis is carried out upon the initiation of a project to determine the characteristics and the needs of users of a system or intervention.
Learning Object Economy: The learning object economy refers to the process whereby learning objects are shared and exchanged through mechanisms such as licensing or royalties.
Community Of Practice: Communities of practice are characterised by a shared domain of knowledge, a shared community, and shared practices built up over time. Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder (2002, p. 4) define a community of practice as “A group of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise . . . by interacting on an ongoing basis.”
Granularity: Granularity refers to the “size” or “extent” of a learning object. A fine grained learning object may be a single file, but also be tightly focused on a single concept or idea. A learning object of larger granularity would contain more extensive content, perhaps linking together multimedia concepts or with multiple activities for learners.
Learning Object: The term is often used quite broadly, and for the purposes of this chapter the term refers to teaching and learning materials and guides that range in granularity from single files to full courses. The term also has a very specific meaning in certain research fields. Wiley (Wiley, 2000, p.7) defines a learning object as “Any digital resource that can be reused to support learning.” The IEEE Learning Technology Standards Committee includes nondigital objects in the definition: “Any entity, digital or nondigital, which can be used, re-used or referenced during technology supported learning (The Learning Technology Standards Committee, 2002). A more specific definition is that offered by Dalziel (2002): “An aggregation of one or more digital assets, incorporating metadata, which represents an educationally meaningful, stand-alone unit.”
Reusability: Reusability is essential to the notion of the learning object in that a learning object can be more effectively shared and used if it can be adapted to multiple contexts.
Digital Repository: A collection of items in digital format that can be accessed via an online catalogue. The collection might be colocated on a single server or distributed across numerous locations. The collection may be made available to users within a particular computer network, to registered users or to the public.