Texas Center for Digital Knowledge at UNT to store course materials for Texas colleges and universities

Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Texas Center for Digital Knowledge at the University of North Texas has received more than $375,000 in grants from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to build an online digital repository to store and provide access to newly created and designed undergraduate courses. Educators at public universities and colleges across Texas can freely access and use these course materials in developing and enhancing undergraduate classes that blend traditional teaching methods with technology.

The newest $257,603 grant was awarded in addition to an original $120,000 research and development grant to TxCDK, a research center housed in UNT's School of Library and Information Sciences. The grant supports the design of a learning object repository, an online database that can store and make course materials accessible to faculty at public universities and colleges across the state. Course content housed in the repository is being developed as part of the Coordinating Board's Texas Course Redesign Project. TxCDK researchers used the initial grant to design and demonstrate the potential effectiveness of a learning object repository. The current stage of research and development will bring the learning object repository prototype to a near-production-level system.

"The idea behind the learning object repository is to store course materials in small pieces so they can be used," said Dr. William Moen, TxCDK director and principal investigator on both grants. "Our sense is that they may be used all together as part of a single course, but the individual pieces also are valuable in that they may be used as learning materials in other disciplines not initially intended. The repository can benefit educators with different needs and should be a good way to locate content that can be reused."

The repository prototype Moen and his team have designed includes the course content of a U.S. history course that had been redesigned with funding from the Coordinating Board in UNT's Next Generation Course Redesign Project, an initiative to transform large enrollment undergraduate courses by engaging and enabling faculty members to design, apply and assess innovative instructional techniques. Now stored in the repository, the course's contents are searchable by unit, lesson or topic. A visitor to the repository could even search for a particular object -- an audio or graphic supplement to the content.

When complete, the repository would allow educators at public universities and colleges across Texas to submit their own content and download and use other educators' course content. A history instructor might go to the repository to find materials on a particular topic, such as America before the time of Christopher Columbus, while someone from a different discipline, such as sociology, might search the repository for a lesson about North American Indians. Both educators would be able to use the same content for different purposes.

"They both should be able to search and determine what learning objects best suit their needs for a lesson," Moen said.

In the first stage, conducted last summer, Moen and his research team developed a prototype of the repository to demonstrate the opportunities for storing and accessing course content. They decomposed the contents of the redesigned history course by organizing the discrete learning objects under categories -- course, unit, lesson, topic and object -- that make searching the repository more user friendly. The categories, referred to as levels of granularity, allow an individual to use a broadly defined search to find a particular course or a particular unit from that course and a more narrowly defined search to find information about a particular topic, such as the American Revolution.

The researchers designed and implemented the repository prototype using DSpace, an open source digital repository application, and then tested the repository's usability and functions with a set of users. Users were asked to search for specific information located in the repository and carry out other tasks. The users successfully performed the searches without difficulty, Moen said.

"The test helped demonstrate that the repository concept is a success," he said.

Moen and his staff will now refine the design and functionality of the repository using a DSpace extension called Manakin for interface customization. The repository will also be expanded to include the content of other courses being redesigned with funding from the Coordinating Board. Policy and licensing considerations, such as copyright issues, are also being examined in the second stage. The researchers are also developing a training program for educators submitting course materials, along with a manual to help users search and download repository contents.

"I am excited by this project because UNT is already known for its innovations in distributed learning," Moen said. "This project is another way for UNT's Texas Center for Digital Knowledge to shine and contribute to a statewide initiative."

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