We describe a digital learning environment (DLE) organized around sets of concepts that represent a specific domain of knowledge. A prototype DLE developed by the Alexandria Project currently supports teaching at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Its distinguishing strength is an underlying abstract model of key aspects of any concept and its relationship to other concepts. Similar models of concepts are evolving simultaneously in a variety of disciplines. Our strongly-structured model (SSM) of concepts is based on the viewpoint that scientific concepts and their interrelationships provide the most powerful level of granularity with which to support effective access and use of knowledge in DLEs. The SSM integrates a taxonomy (or thesaurus), metadata (or attribute-value pairs), domain-specific mark-up languages, and specific models for learning scientific concepts. It is focused on attributes of concepts that include objective representations, operational semantics, use, and interrelationships to other concepts. The DLE integrates various semantic tools facilitating the creation, merging, and use of heterogeneous learning materials from distributed sources, as well as their access in terms of our SSM of concepts by both instructors and students. Evidence indicates that undergraduate instructional activities are enhanced with the use of such integrated semantic tools.
In this chapter we describe the design and implementation of a digital learning environment (DLE) that may be organized around sets of concepts selected by an instructor to represent a specific domain of knowledge. While such DLEs are applicable to the whole range of scientific and engineering disciplines, the operational DLE described in this chapter supports a core introductory course in physical geography that is currently being taught at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). This DLE was designed and implemented as part of UCSB’s Alexandria Digital Earth Project (ADEPT). The main goal of ADEPT has been the design, implementation, testing, and application of DLEs that take advantage of digital library (DL) collections and services in the construction and use of learning materials, particularly for undergraduate classes (ADEPT, 2003). A further goal for the development of the ADEPT DLE has been to foster the development of a student’s understanding of specific domains of knowledge by organizing and accessing a large array of learning materials drawn from the collections of a DL.