Sunday, 21 March 2010

App Store

If you own a smart phone it is likely that it comes pre-loaded with a suite of programs that cover what most phone users want to do most of the time.

An address book program is a must, and a calendar program is common.

But what if you have more specialized needs than what most phone users want to do most of the time? A currency conveter program, for example? A foreign language dictionary, a simulation game?

Many smart phones now come with the ability to "plug-in" a new program - personalizing the phone and extending it's functionality - and allowing the new program to securely share some of the core data and  functions of the phone. The Apple iPhone App Store is a good example of this approach - with a selection of more that 150,000 additional programs available (March 2010).

The IMS Common Cartridge specification aims to support what what most educational publishers want to do most of the time - by defining a set of educational resources common to educational publishing: content pages, external web links, discussion forums, assessment questions and so on.

But what if you have more specialized needs than what most publishers want to do most of the time? A molecular modelling environment for a chemsitry course perhaps? A foreign language dictionary, a simulation game?

The IMS Common Cartridge specification comes with the ability to "plug-in" new programs also - allowing the new program to securely share some of the core data about the learner's profile. This extensibility is afforded by the addition of the IMS (Basic) Learning Tools Interoperability specification to Common Cartridge.

Here's how it works - in three steps:

First, an educational publisher creates an XML file that describes an external program - and adds this file as a resource within a cartridge. For example, here is an XML descriptor file that references an eBook app:

<?xml version="1.0"encoding="UTF-8"?>
  <title>Organic Chemistry Chapter 1</title>
    <parameter key="ISBN">9780321598745,1</parameter>
      A link to the CourseSmart eBook Chapter 2 
of Organic Chemistry, 
7th edition, by Leroy G. Wade, published 
by Pearson Prentice Hall, copyright 2010.

It's easy to follow along with the description in the XML. There is an eBook app hosted by a vendor called CourseSmart. Note that the vendor can include some custom parameters that have meaning to the eBook app. In our case, the vendor has included a single custom parameter - which appears to be a unqiue identifier for the book (it's ISBN) followed by a chapter index. That's a guess (probably correct) - but the point is that the parameters only have meaning to the publisher and the eBook app - a learning system that implements IMS Common Cartridge does not have to understand these parameters, just honour them.

Second, the cartridge, and its XML descriptor file, are added to an e-learning system that support IMS CC - such as the Icodeon Common Cartridge Platform. The XML file is parsed and the e-learning system sets up a HTML form to be posted to the launch URL defined in the XML, along with the custom parameters. A number of other parameters are added also - such as an indentifier for the user, the course the user is studying, which school the user is attending and so on. But hang on - isn't that very insecure? A user on one system is getting free access to a publisher's valuable eBook! And the publisher's eBook app is being sent the private profile of the user! There's a third step to resolve this ambiguity.

Third, the e-learning system and the eBook app exchange a pair of keys - one public key and one private key. Whenever the e-learning system makes a request to the eBook app, the request is signed - a parameter string is added the request that only a party owning both the public and the private key can decode. In this way the eBook app knows unambigously which system sent the request - because the only party that owns the pairs of keys, apart from itself, is the e-learning system.

You can see how this works in the screen shot below of the Icodeon Cartridge Explorer application (click for full size image):

Details from the XML descriptor file have been made available and the HTML form has been set up with the custom parameters and the user profile. The launch button is clicked, the request is signed, the eBook app decodes the signature and  reads the parameters, and the eBook is made available to the user in a new window (click for full size image):

By using IMS (Basic) Learning Tools Interoperability with cartridges, like using the Apple App Store for the iPhone, there is a great potential for adding new programs to extend standard functionality.

You can see how this might be used within education on our Organic Chemistry page - a demonstration page that shows how a college chemistry tutor might mash-up  YouTube video, Common Cartridge assessments and eBook launch into a single blog page.

See the video by Dr Charles Severance (IMS) introducing IMS (Basic) Learning Tools Interoperability.

IMS Basic Learning Tools Interoperability from Charles Severance on Vimeo.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Distributed Learning Environments

Building on the CETIS 09 composing your learning environment sessions, a meeting on 04 March 2010 focused on the area of distributed learning technologies - to provide a focus for discussion on the future of the learning management systems.

A number of presentations demonstrating various models were shown at the event including the ICODEON CC Platform and Google Wave. See the agenda here.

The background breifing paper is here, previous discussion is here and Twitter stream from the meeting is here.

Slideshare from the Icodeon presentation is below:

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Phone Home

The Icodeon Common Cartridge Platform enables Common Cartridge features to be integrated into different web environments - such as blogs, wikis and social networking sites.

Some Common Cartridge features, such as assessments and discussions, may require a unique user identity, and sometimes this identity can be accessed from the web environment.

For example, look at this integration with the MySpace social networking platform - the user's identity and their social graph are available to be mixed with the content from the Icodeon Common Cartridge Platform.

 But what about web environments where the user identity is not available or inaccessible? In these cases, we can use a technique where the user can "phone home" to another website to "ask for permission" to use their identity "away from home".

There are a number of "home" websites that allow their users to "phone home" - Google (Friend Connect) and Facebook (Connect) are two popular examples - but in principle, any web application can set up a service, using the OAuth protocol for example.

You can see a live example in our Psychology of Faces demonstration page. In this page, the learner is guided through some material on psychology and the human expression of emotions - and then invited to post a comment to a discussion topic from the Icodeon Common Cartridge Platform.

To post a comment, the learner first needs to "phone home" to their "home" Facebook account - and then use their Facebook screen name and icon/avatar in the discussion topic post. All posts are persisted to the Icodeon Common Cartridge Platform. Optionally, posting activity can also be reflected  back to the Facebook wall and activity stream of the contributing users.

Click the screen shot below for full size image.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Why Things Happen

~ Demonstration page using content deployed to the Icodeon Common Cartridge Platform ~

A hammer falls to the ground, nobody falls off continents in the southern hemisphere, and the Earth continues to orbit the sun.

In physics during the 17th century, Isaac Newton described a single Law of Gravity that explained why all these things happen.

But why does a candle burn, and not a rock? Why does iron rust and not gold? And why does water stay at 100 degrees even when you continue to keep heating it up? Why do these things happen?

In chemistry, scientists have decribed Laws of Thermodynamics - that explain why these types of things, these chemical processes, happen.

We might think that we know what everyday words such as temperature, heat and energy mean - but scientists in the 18th and 19th century had to work hard to define these concepts precisely.

The links below introduce some of these fundamental ideas in thermodynamics. These links are for Lesson 1, from a course of 3 lessons in physical chemistry.

In everyday life we might use words such as temperature and heat to mean the same thing - but in thermodynamics the two words have different, and very precise, meanings.

Check your understanding of scientific meaning of the word heat with these questions:

The lesson plan for this page ("Thermodynamics") was developed at The Faculty of Computer and Information Science at Ljubljana in Slovenia (

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Great Britain

~ Demonstration page using content deployed to the Icodeon Common Cartridge Platform ~

What is that island state just across the "English" channel from France?

Is it England? Or the United Kingdom? Great Britain? Or the British Isles? Part of the Commonwealth? (What is that?).

Many visitors would call the island state by the name "England" - but they would soon change their choice of words if they met a resident from Scotland! Or from Wales. And what about Northern Ireland too? So there is some confusion for visitors...

Look at this article about the Union Jack flag - the history of the flag tells us something about the relationships between the regions that make up the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Visitors often asscociate some cultural aspects as uniquely British, and include:
  • the use of satire in humour and comedy
  • the playing of team sports like cricket and rugby
  • the use of politeness and reserve in relationships
Look at this video about a fictional hotel in England to identify some cultural aspects as uniquely British:

Now check your understanding with the quick quiz below:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Nam eros urna, bibendum ut ultricies vel, feugiat sit amet turpis. Etiam quis diam turpis, nec cursus turpis. Nulla gravida augue a urna blandit in ornare ligula cursus.

Explore some of the issues of British identity in our discussion topic below. Login with your Facebook username and password, and add your ideas - what do you think?

Monday, 1 March 2010

The Psychology of Faces

~ Demonstration Page using content deployed to the Icodeon Common Cartridge Platform ~

Who hasn't waited for an old friend at an airport and scanned faces impatiently as passengers come hurrying through the gate?

Finally, your friend appears, face lighting up as you come into view. If a mirror suddenly dropped down before you, there'd be that same goofy smile on your face, the same look of uncomplicated pleasure.

As psychologists now are discovering, the power of the face resides in the fleeting split-second expressions that slip across it thousands of times each day.

Check your understanding of the science of psychology:

You can read the full article from Psychology Today and then explore some of the issues in our discussion topic below. Login with your Facebook username and password, and add your ideas - what do you think?