Fostering Reusability and NSDL

Reusable design guidelines address content, but NSDL projects are more typically involved in the management of collections and in providing services to a community of practice. The question then arises:

What can NSDL projects do to foster the creation and support the dissemination of content that is designed for reuse?

Removing Barriers to Reuse

A frequently asked question is: “How much online content is being reused in educational settings?” From all reports, the answer is “not much.” A better question is, “Why? And what can be done about it?”

There are barriers to reuse that the NSDL can address.

Barrier to Reuse: Rights

Reuse cannot happen without permission. People must be confident that they are permitted to use the content they find though NSDL collections and portals. Here are some possible steps to take in this direction:

  1. Post policies and information about rights. The intent is to increasing the rights awareness of people and organizations whose content is referenced by the NSDL. Most universities have (or reference) sites that discuss rights, but most emphasize what needs to be done by faculty or students using content and few address authoring for reuse or adaptation / modification of existing content.
  2. Review the licenses and rights associated with content from other sources and generated by NSDL projects. This is a necessary step for any steps that involve displaying rights information or enforcing a rights policy. Later we will raise the issue of having reusable content sections within some collections, in which case review would apply only to those sections.
  3. Recommend (or require) that appropriate Creative Commons licenses be used for all content referenced by (or generated by) NSDL projects. This is a policy that would have a good effect but might be extremely hard to agree upon and enforce.
  4. Maintain, expose and allow searches on rights metadata for all NSDL resources. The Dublin Core rights element points to a URL with rights information, whereas LOM rights expresses whether there is a cost and could either contain a reference to rights information or rights information itself (Duval & Hodgins, 2002). A better approach, being taken by Edusource in Canada, might be to use a standardized rights expression language (Robson, 2003) that ensures rights and conditions can be displayed in a human-readable format on NSDL sites.

Barriers to Reuse: Interoperability

There are technical barriers to reuse, even without the need to modify the content. If content is to be modified, or even ported to other servers by the content owners, then still more interoperability factors come into play. Potential NSDL-wide steps to remove technical and interoperability barriers include:

  1. Recommend platforms and software: The NSDL could develop and maintain a set of recommended technical requirements for users and producers of NSDL content. This would include:
    1. Brands and version numbers of operating systems and browsers
    2. Brands and version numbers of plug-ins
    3. Brands and version numbers of end-user applications, including software that is specific to certain disciplines.

    The desired effect would be that content conforming to the NSDL profile could be assumed to be usable by NSDL users and that NSDL users whose systems conformed to the NSDL profile could assume the could use NSDL content. However, recommending software and platforms is tantamount to endorsing some software providers over others, and the task of agreeing on the recommendations itself would be quite difficult.

  2. Recommend standards: The NSDL could develop a recommended set of standards for interoperability. These could include:
    1. Learning technology interoperability standards and specifications (e.g., SCORM)
    2. Standards for formats (e.g., XHTML)

    A recommended set of standards of this nature would address some cross-platform issues and would be useful for content that is intended to be adapted for use in course management systems. Recommending standards might be a lot easier than recommending products.

  3. Maintain, expose and allow searches on technical metadata: Interoperability might be helped by an NSDL policy to maintain better metadata on requirements (e.g., using the Dublin Core format element or LOM technical category).
  4. Review resources for interoperability: See below.

Reusable Design

The Reusable Learning project is intended to promote the creation of digital learning resources that have better reusability properties. There are several ways that NSDL projects can take advantage of this work.

  1. Recommend (or require) adherence to Reusable Design Guidelines. Many significant educational communities could be reached through NSDL projects. The Reusable Learning project Reusable Design Guidelines and Web site are meant to be resources for this.
  2. Develop infrastructure, maintain, expose and allow searches on reusability profiles
  3. Establish portions of collections for:
    1. Modifiable content. Content in this portion of a collection would be downloadable in an editable format, with appropriate permissions granted.
    2. SCORM content. Content in this portion of the collection would be SCORM conformant. The collection would decide if this was to be self-reported or reviewed.
    3. Reusable Learning Objects. Content in this portion of a collection would satisfy both structural and instructional design criteria (determined by the collection).

Sociological Barriers

Legal, technological and pedagogic barriers to reuse may be far easier to overcome than sociological factors within the culture of education. These might include:

  • Absence of a culture of sharing and reuse.
  • Lack of recognition and rewards for developing or using digital learning resources.
  • A need for professional development in teaching with digital learning resources.

The NSDL could take some steps that might help overcome these barriers:

  1. Strive to be a role model for sharing and reuse: The NSDL projects could engage in purposeful sharing, modification and recombination of each other’s resources. Perhaps courses should be labeled like automobiles: 70% of the content in this course was derived from the NSDL!
  2. Track the reuse of content: Defensible and practical metrics are needed if content development is to be rewarded. Adoption and adaptation rates could serve as one such metric. Note that this would ultimately necessitate having persistent unique identifiers for NSDL digital learning resources.
  3. Provide professional development opportunities that go beyond posting guidelines: For example, the NSDL could host online course or seminars on reusable design.

Existing Policies

Many of the issues identified above are being addressed by the NSDL Core Integration team, by NSDL Standing Committees and by the NSDL Program. The 2004 NSF Request for Proposals contains tracks that focus on selection criteria and on end-users, as well as on establishing more support for communities of practice. Efforts to define “Web metrics” will provide data on reuse.