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Repository of (Learning Object) Dreams

There is almost nothing more cliche than a Field of Dreams metaphor “If you build it, they will come”, but it is all so fitting for those that get glaze-eyed at the potential of building a Learning Object Repository (ugh, I despise the connotations of the “R-word”).

But I can guarantee you, that if you build it, they likely will not come, and if they do the pace will be one that gives you heartburn into the night.

However, do not despair. What follows is a tale of our efforts of growing our own collection, the Maricopa Learning eXchange (MLX) story. And what we have tried, including saying “please”, bringing out the dogs and ponies, bribery, competition, and good old fashioned nagging.

After a little over a year of focused effort, the MLX is just a whisker under 700 items. We realized at the get-go, it would take a lot to get this going. This was the way.

Make it friendly
This was a primary goal from day 1- the reason for our use of the “warehouse” metaphor, the concept of the items representing things created for learning as “packages” with shipping labels (a better term than “meta-data”), a place to enter and create new items, the “loading dock”.

A great deal of time was spent creating and testing the creation forms, and all the feedback is unanimous that it is a process that takes no more time and technical skill than to compose a 2-3 paragraph email message with perhaps an included web site address and/or an attached file.

Remind, and remind often
We raised it in every possible meeting context where-ever possible, and communicated a great deal through the key technology and faculty development contacts at our ten colleges. We began a consistent and hopefully not a nuisance, campaign of system wide email updates, using a light writing tone and always including new examples of recently added content.

Take it to the people
We have been presenting and demo-ing the MLX at a large number of college, administrative, and project groups, each time customizing the dog and pony show with relevant examples.

It has gotten outside exposure, a poster and presentation at the MERLOT 2003 conference, it got 5 minutes of Fame at the 2003 New Media Consortium conference, an EDUCAUSE/NLII Learning Object teleconference, and a whole raft more I am too tired to cut and paste links.

Word has spread for us to via the blogosphere, thanks a lot to an early post in February 2003 by Stephan Downes and even a plug by Phil Long in Syllabus magazine.

Bribery and Competition
In late 2002 we decided to create an incentive program, with the first Great MLX Package Race. Between November 2002 and March 2003, we had the MLX tally how many new items were submitted by each of our ten colleges, and weighted this total by the total number of employees (which ranges from 167 to 640). The colleges with the top score got prizes of 25-license copies of Adobe PhotoShop, 10-copy license of Macromedia Flash, etc (we are able to get these at substantial discount via our Second race just ended a few days ago, and we are generally pleased with the 163 new items, many of them just the kind of small, but useful creative things we hoped would get shared.

On closer scrutiny, we are concerned. Out of 163, more than 40 were required, they come from the online reports from our internal grants program ( we built a report system that files results into both the grant site and to the MLX). At least 20 were ones that we actually entered manually in other people’s names, from programs we hope to tie into the MLX. I had about 6 myself.

What we saw were a handful of lone pioneers at one college, where there is one person who alone sent 17, 16, 11, 6 and basically almost no other un-solicited contributions.

Build Value for Groups into the System
The whole foray into RSS syndication for the MLX came from an interest in being able to provide mini web services to our colleges, so they could do things like display a dynamic list of their college’s contributions to the MLX in their own websites..

Three colleges have done so:
Estrella Mountain Community College
GateWay Community College
Mesa Community College

Next we came up with a way to create URLs that produce lists of packages that have been associated with academic disciplines:
Biology
English

And we came up with other links that would provide all the items contributed by a single college OR all the ones created by an individual, a mini-portfolio:
Mesa Community College
Alisa Cooper
Marla DeSoto
David Weaver

even showing in a demo how one faculty could add to her home page links to her colleges and her own MLX items:
Donna’s Home Page 1 (links to MLX to left)
Donna’s Home Page 2 (links to MLX embedded with RSS feed, scroll to bottom)

Recently we also added an optional feature to “tag” packages to be associated with specific groups, so we could have links to MLX Special Collections such as a fellowship program’s final reports. This functionality came with another bonus- we franchise the MLX search routines out to other sites, so that this program can have its own search interface of a subset of the MLX, using the same MLX database and search code.

Where is that tipping point?
We know that at some point, there will be enough items of general and specific interest in the MLX so that people visiting it will find things they can use or generate ideas from, and that in turn should compel them to turn back and share. Where is that point? Is it 1000 items? 2000? 10,000?

At my demos I keep saying if every employee rummaged around their computer or past projects, and shared 10 documents, powerpoints, web sites, we would have a powerful collection (nearly 10,000 employees in our system).

We Regularly Squander, Hemmorage, and Diffuse Our Intellectual Capital
What we ask for in the MLX is a change of culture in how we create and manage the things we create. Currently the most prevalent mode of communication in our system is email. People spend hours of time composing HTML messages for projects and events (rather than creating a working and usable web site), or blast out messages with attached documents. This is information that is diffused and often lost.

One of MLX’s frequent patrons,David Weaver, provided a great example of someone who has his shift together. In July, we attended a conference held in town, the International Conference on Thinking, and in his Weaver-esque style, created a 12 page word document that had his notes, pictures from the conference, and web links to the conference topics. On his own, he said, “Rather than just sending it to my college’s email distribution list, I created an entry in the MLX and then sent a much shorter email with this link.” And now the content has some permanence, is retrievable by our search tool.

Here is another (ironic) symptom of the bleeding of intellectual capital in our system. Every year, there is an Innovation of the Year program, where each of our sites nominates one project or program as its Great Innovation. They complete an application form, and a committee then picks one of these to be the grand innovation awardee from Maricopa. In 2003, the MLX was actually the Innovation of the Year for the District Office.

For the Innovation of the Year application process, this is what you must provide:

1. Names, titles, college, telephone numbers and a photo of the individual or team members who created the Innovation of the Year.
’ÄÝ
2. Title and a description of the innovation not to exceed three pages (all supplementary materials will be considered as part of the three-page description limit). This is where the criteria are to be addressed.’ÄÝ
3. An executive summary of the innovation (not to exceed 50 words). This will be used in the Innovation Booklet. Please submit five printed copies of both the description and the executive summary as well as one copy of each on a PC disk in WORD format.’ÄÝ

This is correct. To submit something as innovative in 2003, you must personally hand on a floppy disk down at the Marketing office.

Last year, I tried to gently suggest that this could easily be done via an electronic process, much as we have done for the application and review of our Learning Grants.

Then during the interview process for the committee’s final selection, they let me know that there was a large number of projects submitted as innovation of the year for our district office site. But no one outside of this committee would ever know this existed because of this process. Now multiply this times our 10 colleges. Can you see the torrent of lost creative capital?

I have suggested with one simple process change they could reverse this trend. If they changed the application process, so that anyone submitting their project as an Innovation of the Year, write it up and post the same application form in the MLX, we would remove the need to drive down here and turn in a floppy disk AND we would be able to capture not only the selected finalists, but all of the programs submitted as innovations. Aren’t they all worthy to know about?

And there are many many programs in our system that involve summer projects, development programs, curriculum infusion grants, sabbaticals, that if they even have a reporting mechanism, that it is often paper based or just emailed Word files, and they just end up rotting alone, un-seen in some filing cabinet.

The Hope
If you got this far in the story, here is the plot turn. We see signs of change. We are getting word that faculty are actually finding and using things from the MLX. One new English teacher reported that she read through 350 different items, and found all of the lesson ideas she would need for her first semester, and we hear of faculty getting teaching ideas from ones submitted for other disciplines. More and more people besides myself are suggesting the MLX at meetings. It is getting recognized as another acronym in the Maricopa language.

(At a demo I did at one college a year and a half ago, someone asked if I was black, getting it confused with “MLK”).

We get regularly feedback that our adjunct faculty use it quite a bit, as they often do not have the time to create new teaching materials.

The Answer
Time.

That is what it takes, like the expression my Dad used to give me on, “Time, Patience, and Perseverance”.

It takes much more time than you would ever think, much more patience, to have a new systemic model catch on.

We are not there yet, but I can feel the ship turning.

Stay tuned.

Profile Picture for Alan Levine aka CogDog
An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at CogDogBlog.com on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person.

Comments

  1. Alan, thanks for the useful and (dare I say it) inspiring tale. You’ve explained much of this to me before, but it’s still so groovy to see this in a single package. There’s so many good ideas here. You should consider repackaging this as a paper.

  2. Yes, but papers are way too much work for me.

    Back when I was a geologist, I spent a year working on a four page publication for the leading journal in the field. By design, “Geology” (the journal) had this limit and at least then, their motto was a nice abstraction of the quote from Blaise Pascal:

    “I would have writtien a shorter [article] if I had more time”

    That was likely the most powerful and valuable lesson of my aborted PhD experience (beyond the time traveling, camping, and drinking around camp fires)

  3. Oops I forgot-

    This is actually largely the topic of an uncoming (and as of now un-prepared) presentation at the League for Innovation confernece, coming to a URL soon.

  4. Alan, are you guys also collecting any stats on object re-use? Or even just ‘views,’ of the entries? Both sides seem tough – getting the ‘objects’ from people but then also getting people to change their ways and actually think of the repository as a primary place to go for instructional material.

    Thanks for the great write up. Cheers, Scott.

  5. Scott, we have only the basic stats. The bottom of each MLX packing slip, e.g.

    http://www.mcli.dist.maricopa.edu/mlx/slip.php?item=127

    displays the “visitor” count, essentially the page views of the “meta-data”. We do some things on different pages in the top right corner that sometimes display the 3 newest items in the MLX, but you can also flip the menu to see the “most popular” (by visit count) or random ones.

    We also display on the slip the number of comments posted and the number of Trackback pings sent (that one will likely not register for a LONG time) and a summary of all TB’s on our system:

    http://www.mcli.dist.maricopa.edu/mlx/tb.php

    I have heard faculty say they are surprised at not getting feedback, and that is just something we need to promote as a part of web activity, We have added redundant reminders in each packing slip such as:

    “Note! As a professional courtesy to the owner of this package, if you use some aspect of this package or have some thoughts about it, please share your feedback via the Comments Tool.”

    A few packages recently provide web URLs to other packages as references– I am toying with an idea of creating some sort of “packaged package” where if you modiy a package you can create something new but provide a credit link/reference to the first one.

    There is re-use going on, but it is taking time to ask and find those people. In fact, while typing this, I am digitizing some video interviews with 4 faculty members who are describing both how they have adopted MLX items and what goes into creating one– this are to be shown next week at the EDUCAUSE/NLII focus session on LOs as well as a League for Innovation conference later this month.

    It only hints at the activity, but my seismometers say there are some small tremors.

    Also

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