David Davies' Radio Weblog
is linked to my Radio instant outline. I can right-click to add any text in anyone's instant outline to the Manila site's home page and readers of my outline can post new discussion messages via Radio.
I think that's pretty neat. The simple scripts that do this are yours for the taking in my outline.
Maybe what we need are teaching & learning web services. Plug-and-play services that deliver learning objects to the user to meet their needs, whether they're enrolled in a course, updating themselves as part of CPD or just plain curious and eager to learn.
Interoperability would be nice, such that information providers can provide pedagogically neutral content that you can adapt for your own needs, in your own personal VLE. This personal VLE is not just a VLE in the limiting sense of present VLEs. This is your own personal online presence, your lifelong learning record, your weblog, your Memex.
Here's a little bit more detail about what we've done to develop our Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) using Manila. It may not be relevant to most but it'll outline the thought processes we went through that lead to our decision to use Manila rather than WebCT, our corporate system.
Our course is split into around 50 modules. Each is discreet in that it stands alone as far as content is concerned but overall each module is part of a single programme. Students progress through all modules to fulfil the requirements of the programme.
For me the decision of one Manila site per module was easy. Different module leaders and lead teachers equate to MEs and CEs in Manila. Functionally separate content could be kept separate on the web. As an aside, manila's a fairly lousy collaborative environment once sites get beyond a fairly small number of pages. Don't believe me? Try editing a site with >300 stories and 30 editors when the only story list you have is alphabetized by story title.
So each module team has their own Manila site.
A big breakthrough for us was exploiting browser cookies to devise a shared membership scheme that didn't use Manila's built-in authentication but rather an external membership database. Our users also authenticate against a regular HTTP realm in WebSTAR for all the static content serving. The single log-in authenticates against the realm and sets a browser cookie for shared Manila access.
Once in a module's manila site here's what you'll find. Metadata is supplied using both John's excellent plug-in to give Dublin Core metadata but also our own subject-based metadata that we use for interoperability with other VLEs in other institutions (e.g. See http://medweb5.bham.ac.uk/databases/interop/mcqs/). We write our own metadata into a message's table in Manila.
A new project we've developed and are taking further is versioning where the message table is archived every time a story is edited. The editor can restore old versions of a story a la Zope. This is being taken further by being able to version other site content such as templates, navigation, etc.
Much of our teaching & learning content is stored/delivered outside of Manila. So that everything links together I've set up some simple XML-RPCs to link Manila data with external data via subject-based metadata. For example, all learning objects in our system that share the subject content metadata 'myocardial infarction' are linked. This allows us to generate a content-based portal view of our curriculum whereby all related resources are pulled together. By good fortune (or was it good design) the metadata schema we've adopted is shared by other institutions and library-type information services so we're able to interop with these too. None of these other institutions use Manila yet the integration is seamless (e.g. See the example cited above).
The built-in Manila discussion groups and the commentIt plug-in provide valuable pieces of the student aspect of our VLE.
In my opinion it is possible to set up a suite of linked Manila sites that do not necessarily exclude your interop with commercial VLEs though the latter are often less flexible than Manila.
There's a growing user-base of Manila-based VLE developers and a number of new tools such as access control (time release and cohort-based) extend Manila's built-in functionality further.
Our budget? Two Frontier licenses and a lot of my time. Plus the invaluable support of UserLand in developing Manila plus the active developer network.
Training is our big issue as we have to go up against our corporate University MIS team that are offering WebCT as an institutional solution. This is a political battle only as pedagogically there's little contest. The pedagogical neutrality of Manila is a distinct advantage of the constrained commercial systems. Their days are numbered as interoperability renders them obsolete.
After discussing this idea at some length with some other folk for whom versioning would be a useful tool there may be opportunity to consider versioning other site features such as templates etc. However, some more thought needs to go into this as well as some more scripting!
Who'd be interested in such an extension to Manila I wonder?
I run Frontier/Manila to support our undergraduate medical curriculum. I'm an educator, I teach on this course myself, but I'm also responsible for managing and developing the online support for learning and teaching in the course. We have 2,000 students and staff registered to use a set of 60 linked Manila web sites. Each module of the course has its own Manila site with its own local editors. All students are signed-in members of these sites. The 60 sites are linked as I was able to change the way membership works in Manila. Each site shares a membership cookie that's set when a user authenticates against an external database. The external database can be any authentication system you like, just about. That was a major breakthrough for us.
With this number of registered users and Manila sites this is clearly a sizable operation. Manila has been extended to include a great many educational features via custom plug-ins. I owe a debt of thanks to many people for contributing help and ideas for these extensions but the greatest thanks go to David Bayly who's been invaluable as someone who really understand what Manila does, and more importantly, what it doesn't. Overall I think my system is doing a pretty good job.
As an aside, there are a lot of educators using Manila and I think there's great opportunity in trying to assemble a forum, but more about that another time.
Anyway, because our system is not Microsoft, because it's not based upon any of the commercially available virtual learning environments (VLEs) as you might expect there's some question in the mind of others that this system may be a risk. Is it kosher? Does it really work? Is it supportable? Etc.
So for the last couple of weeks I've been in business planning mode and yesterday we had the first of several visits from an external technical auditor, someone with an established track record of using VLEs in higher education in the UK. A technical report will be written by the end of March. The results of that report will dictate whether we can carry on developing this system, or scrap it for one of the commercial competitors.
So there's a lot at stake. I've been trying to give a good account of the way the system works, how the core software is supported by UserLand, etc. You can imagine that this is pretty serious.
So now you know. Thanks for all the support everyone's given me over the months and years. I'm hoping I'll be back with loads of new ideas and projects very soon.