From Contents to Activities: Modelling Units of Learning
(University of Vigo, Spain
(University of Vigo, Spain
(University of Vigo, Spain
Abstract: This paper discusses the modelling of a
Unit-of-Learning (UoL) (e.g. a lesson, a course) in
e-learning. So far, the modelling of UoLs has been heavily focused on
the definition and organization of contents. Currently, social and
constructivist pedagogical approaches are demanding that learners get
involved in more actual activities (e.g. solving problems, pair-work,
group work). Educational Modelling Languages (EMLs) have been
proposed to support the modelling of such activity-based UoLs. In this
way, EMLs enable the definition of learning environments, goals,
participants, etc. Nevertheless, the elements provided by current EMLs
are not sufficient to model certain learning activities, mainly those
involved in active and collaborative learning scenarios. In this paper
we identify a set of perspectives and patterns that should be
considered in an EML to support the design of collaborative UoLs.
Keywords: E-learning, Collaborative Learning, Educational
Modelling Language, Unit of Learning, Learning Object
1 From Contents to Activities
In the past, when teachers had to design a Unit-of-Learning (UoL)
(e.g. a lesson, a course) they used an implicit educational design idea
based on knowledge transmission [Koper, 03a]. They
thought about content, potential resources (e.g. texts, figures, and tools),
the sequence of topics and how to assess the learners. The teacher designed
learning experiences (or more precisely, education) within the context
of a specific environment: the classroom. When using a web-based environment,
they would follow the same design process: decide on content, resources,
the sequence of topics and assessment of learners within the constraints
of the new e-learning environment.
But this rather traditional view of education is rapidly changing. Today
more emphasis is placed upon the design of learning activities,
instead of the content to be transferred. There is a broad range of new
pedagogical approaches that promote this shift often based on constructivist
and social principles [Strijbos, 04].
Examples include collaborative learning, where discussion plays
an important role; problem-based learning, where knowledge is constructed
by learners solving real problems in actual situations; inquiry-based
learning, focused on questioning, problem-solving, and critical thinking;
etc. The key to these pedagogical approaches is to make learners active
by providing them with a broad range of tasks, problems and prompts (referred
to as learning activities) in order to stimulate the process of learning.
This shift from contents to activities is also present in some recent
proposals devoted to the application of pedagogical and instructional principles
into the design of e-learning experiences. We present some proposals that
focus on the features of learning activities:
- In a review about e-learning models [Beetham, 02],
the authors propose a two-level design approach based on theoretical
learning models. At the higher level of planning, a teacher is concerned
with the overall approach and at the lower level with specific learning
activities. The mapping of theoretical into practical models involves the
specification of the flows of learning activities.
- In Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL), the concept
of script [Dillenbourg, 02] is proposed as a way
to structure the collaborative process in order to benefit the emergence
of productive learning interactions. A CSCL script is used as a
story that learners and tutors have to play. Like actors
playing a movie script, learners and tutors perform a certain flow of learning
- The work on Educational Modelling Languages (EMLs) [Koper,
01] is the most important initiative so far to integrate instructional
design principles into the process of learning standardization [Paquette,
03]. As Koper says: "A lot of learning does not come from knowledge
resources at all, but stems from the activities of learners solving problems,
interacting with real devices, in their social and work situation."
The shift towards the specification of learning activities is proposed
as a central part of the EML proposal. The EML proposes a way to represent
Therefore, the design of UoLs requires the modelling of learning
activities. An EML is based on a corresponding meta-model to enable
such modelling (it is referred to as meta-model because it is a model designed
to create models, namely UoLs). The meta-model defines a set of elements
and establishes relationships among them to enable an eventual computational
support for the UoL. In this way, educational designers can create UoLs
that may be supported by appropriate execution engines.
This paper analyzes the features that should be included in an EML meta-model
and considers its relationship with the Learning Object (LO) concept.
Currently, the focus on content promotes a standardization effort in the
e-learning domain to obtain reusable and interoperable learning building
blocks in the form of LOs. At the present time, the focus on learning
activities requires a similar effort to define reusable and interoperable
blocks based on activities, namely UoLs.
In the next section we present how this shift from contents to activities
is being applied to Learning Technology (LT) standardization, transferring
the attention from LOs to UoLs. Then, in section 3,
we identify the main issues that should be included in an EML meta-model.
The paper finishes with a few conclusions.
2 From Learning Objects to Units of Learning
There has been a shift from contents to activities in the design of
learning experiences. Likewise, the LT standardization process is witnessing
a shift from LOs to UoLs as the basic reuse unit. In any case, the UoL
concept requires the same properties of reusability and interoperability
considered previously for LOs. In this section, we analyze the principles
involved around LOs and the new ideas about UoLs.
The main focus on learning standardization has been on developing specifications
for LOs. A standard for LOs metadata exists [Duval, 02]
and there substantial interest in LOs packaging with a view to facilitate
reusability and interoperability. The IEEE Learning Object Metadata
(LOM) Standard defines a LO as: "any entity, digital or non-digital,
that can be used, reused, or referenced during technology-supported learning".
This definition covers a wide spectrum of entities, enabling a great variety
of Los to be considered. However, it is so general and open that it has
very few practical uses [Koper, 03a]. The LO abstraction
does not provide any structure or description of the instructional use
of the resources provided. In this way, the support that can be provided
by a computational system is very limited. For example, a brainstorm session
can not be appropriately specified as a LO, because the interactions that
could be coordinated during the learning process (e.g. floor control) are
not described according to a well-established structure.
The UoL concept was introduced by the IMS Learning Design (IMS-LD)
[Koper, 03b] specification, the most outstanding
EML proposal, as the basic reusable building block for the design of learning
experiences. The central point of a UoL is the task or activity,
conceived as one or more actors (e.g. teachers, learners) working
towards a certain learning goal in a given environment. The
relationship between UoLs and LOs may be established through the environment
element. The environment contains the required resources and services,
also including LOs, needed to perform the proposed task. This is
the basic principle behind EMLs and IMS-LD; they differentiate between
activities and environments. People learn by doing (by performing learning
activities) within an environment, composed by a set of LOs, which
enables and/or supports them. The concept of LO is not lost, but integrated
into the new concept of UoL, where it plays a secondary role.
In this way, the concept of UoL is proposed as the new unit of reuse
for the design of e-learning experiences. A UoL in IMS-LD presents a structure
with an explicit semantic and pragmatic meaning. Therefore, a UoL cannot
be broken down into its component parts without losing its effectiveness
towards the successful completion of the learning objectives. However,
a UoL is a reusable component, and it can contain other UoLs or be integrated
into units of several types and sizes: courses, lessons, etc. In addition
to the learning goals, a UoL is complemented with meta-data and learning
pre-requisites that facilitate its reuse in different contexts.
Nevertheless, the present definition of UoL as it is presented in current
EMLs does not gather all the possible behaviors and interactions that may
be computationally supported during a learning activity. There are
situations related to human-computer interaction and human collaboration
that are not adequately modelled. In the next section we analyze the current
elements included in the description of the UoL and identify what issues
should be considered.
3 Towards a Meta-model for Modelling Units of Learning
We consider a meta-model as a set of elements and relationships that
are used to model UoLs. In this section, we focus our attention on the
set of issues, referred to as perspectives, which should be considered
in such a meta-model to support the design of collaborative learning experiences.
This is not intended to be an exhaustive analysis but does hope to capture
as many issues as possible.
3.1 An UoL According to Current EMLs
According to current EMLs, mainly IMS-LD [Koper, 03b],
a UoL is a method that proposes that participants (learners
and teachers) attain learning goals by performing activities
in a certain order in the context of an environment. The main elements
involved in these specifications are:
- The activities that represent particular tasks to be attained
in order to achieve certain goals. Each activity is associated with
an environment where it has to be carried out and with a certain
role that is assigned to it. Usually, an UoL is composed of a set
of activities that have
to be performed according to a well-established scheme. IMS-LD considers a
theatrical metaphor and the following concepts to support the activity
- A role-part enables a role to be assigned to an activity. In this way it is possible to describe
the activities to be performed by each participant.
- The act concept is used to group several role-parts.
The role-parts defined in the same act may be performed concurrently and have to end
at the same moment.
- A play is used to sequence acts in time. Each act has to be performed just after the previous act
and before the next one.
- The method is the upper level concept used to arrange the different
plays. A method may be made up by several plays that may be performed
- Properties are needed
to store information about a student's progression or specific information
(e.g. learning style, preferences).
- Conditions use properties to express rules to adapt to specific
circumstances or preferences (e.g. students' prior knowledge). They are used
for personalization and customization.
- Notifications are mechanisms to trigger new activities based
on an event during the learning process. For instance: the teacher may
be notified to provide assistance when a particular question is posed by
- Roles are used to specify
the type of participants that will be involved in performing the tasks. There
are two basic roles: learner and staff; but these can be further defined to
allow more specific sub-roles. Groups may be defined but in a constrained way
(e.g. it is not easy to describe the components of groups, to assign
participants to groups dynamically during runtime, etc.).
- The environment is
composed by learning resources and services. Resources may be defined at
design time as LOs. Learning services, such as chat, e-mail, monitoring,
discussion forums, etc., are used for communication and functional purposes
(e.g. a simulator, a shared editor). Some of these services consider
particular roles that have access to special operations in the service (e.g.
the conference service enables the definition of a moderator role, which
controls the participation of the other participants).
- Goals represent learning objectives to be achieved by participants.
These are learning goals that establish the eventual knowledge,
skills or attitudes that the UoL is intended to provide to the learners
involved. These learning goals should not be confused with the goals
of the tasks proposed to the participants in the UoL (e.g. the learning
goal is to gain certain knowledge, and the task involves reading a document
and writing a resume). In addition, prerequisites may be specified to establish
the conditions required to be attempted by the UoLs. Furthermore, meta-data
is included to enable and facilitate reuse.
Using these elements, the proposed meta-model supports the modelling
of learning experiences involving several perspectives. In the next section
these are described and we identify other perspectives not supported by
the current IMS-LD specification, but that should be considered in the
design of learning experiences.
3.2 Perspectives in the Modelling of Learning Experiences
In this section we identify a set of perspectives that should be considered
in the modelling of learning experiences, paying special attention to collaborative
scenarios. We plan to characterize interactions and behaviors involved
in learning situations in a way that they can be computationally supported.
The purpose of identifying these perspectives is to provide a clear separation
of concerns in the development of an eventual EML meta-model. The focus
on collaborative learning is adopted because it involves a rich set of
In order to identify the perspectives, we have studied different works
in the e-learning, CSCL, and Computer Supported Collaborative Work
(CSCW) domains [Strijbos, 04] [Aalsts,
03b] [Pinelle, 03] [Dillenbourg,
02] [Guareis, 00], [Ellis, 99].
In [Strijbos, 04] the authors consider five main
principles involved in the design of group-based learning. Perspectives
for workflow systems are described in [Aalsts, 03b]
for CSCW in [Ellis, 99], and for human-computer interaction
analysis in [Pinelle,03]. In [Guareis,
00] five meta-models for CSCW design (Coordination Theory, Activity
Theory, Task Manager, Action/Interaction Theory, OOActSM) are analyzed
identifying many similarities and differences between them. None of the
analyzed meta-models seemed to be general and complete enough, so they
proposed a new meta-model to exploit the similarities encountered in the
After studying these and other works, we believe that for a meta-model
to support the design of collaborative learning experiences it should be
arranged around a task structure. In the task, participants
work like actors in roles towards the achievement of certain goals
in appropriate environments composed of resources (Figure
1). Our task proposal can be split into several sub-tasks, each
one of which is involved in the three main elements: roles, goals,
and environment. Considering the relationships among roles,
goals, and environments intended perspectives can be identified.
Figure 1: Elements and perspectives considered in learning
The goal is the objective that drives the efforts of the role
or roles in the development of the task. This group of perspectives
is related to the activity concept introduced in section
3.1. We consider that a goal can be indivisible, a single goal
(atomic task), or it may be split into several sub-goals (composed
task). In the latter case the specification of the task may also
be split into several sub-tasks to achieve each of the sub-goals.
Therefore, we consider the following perspectives related to goals
- The functional perspective is concerned with atomic and composite
goals, and as a consequence with atomic and composite tasks.
Composite goals should be supported to any degree of division. This
simple requirement is not completely supported by IMS-LD because it is
possible to include a UoL as part of another UoL, but the correspondence
between the elements of a parent UoL (e.g. roles, environments) and the elements of a child UoL is not
- The process perspective (or control flow) is devoted
to describing the order in which different goals and corresponding
tasks should be attained. Usually, EMLs support some of the more common
types of ordering, but there are others that should be considered [Aalst,
03a]: branching, interaction, optional tasks, etc.
- The temporal perspective is concerned with the temporal relationships
between two goals that have to be attained in parallel (e.g. the
goals have to be developed at the same time). This perspective is
related with the level of coupling identified in [Pinelle,
- The information perspective (or data flow) refers to
the transfer of resources among tasks. Many times the result of
one task must be transferred to another task when the first
finishes, or some data between two parallel tasks must be shared
during their performance [Lonchamp, 98].
The role is an active entity which is responsible for performing
the task. The role can be a single person or a group of several
persons, who must collaborate to achieve the goal. For certain tasks,
the role can be performed by a software agent (e.g. to assess an
exercise). The perspectives considered in this entity are:
- The organization perspective is concerned with the aggregation
of roles into groups and sub-groups. It should be possible to describe
different relationships among them (e.g. tutor, coordinator).
- The assignment perspective is devoted to the allocation of participants
to goals. In our proposal it refers to the transfer of roles
from a parent task to the roles defined in its child sub-tasks.
In this way, it is possible to assign different participants to different
goals. There are different ways to perform such a
transfer (pre-defined, conditioned, a certain role decides, etc.).
- The authorization perspective is concerned with the permission
that roles have to access resources or to use their operations.
A task may involve several roles working in an environment that
aggregates various resources. But it should be possible to describe different
capabilities in the use of the resources for each role. For example,
during a brainstorm session some role may be authorized to moderate
The environment is composed by resources (e.g. LOs, services)
that may be used to carry out each task. The resources can either
be consumed or produced by the task. The service concept represents
any kind of computerized or non-computerized facility that provides certain
functionality (e.g. a chat, a simulator). We identify the following perspectives
in this entity:
- The communication perspective encompasses the process of transfer
and exchange of information that takes place between roles [Ellis,
99] [Pinelle, 03]. Typical communication tools
are: e-mail, desktop conferencing systems, chat, whiteboard, etc. The co-operation
perspective is centered on the access and exchange of a shared set of data
[Ellis, 99]. Examples of
systems that provide these functionalities are shared editors, virtual
whiteboards, shared repositories, etc.
- The coordination perspective is concerned with the management
and control of the resources in the environment. It controls the
interaction with the task, with other resources, and their use by
roles. The functionalities involved in this perspective may be related
with the communication perspective, the co-operation perspective,
or with the use of general tools. For example, in the communication
perspective the conference and conversational models are used as underlying
control mechanisms: the conference model describes the way roles
may gain access to the communication facilities and the conversational
model describes which conversational moves are allowed in the communication.
In co-operation the functionalities involved are: coordination of
simultaneous access (e.g. floor control), versioning of the shared
The task entity is the aggregation point where all the other
entities are anchored. In addition, each task defines the relationships
that it has with its contained sub-tasks. In this way, it is possible
to design complex tasks with a well-defined structure, establishing the
relationships among roles, environments, and goals
required for the definition of the identified perspectives. We consider
three perspectives at the task level:
- The causal perspective describes why the educational
process is performed. It gives educational information about the learning
goal or goals to be attained, the pedagogical approach, the background
required, etc. The causal perspective is concerned with the definition
of the educational features of the task. It is devoted to the description
of the task in order to
facilitate its reuse in different contexts and aggregations (e.g. a course, a
curriculum). In addition to the establishment of a clear educational objective
it also involves the definition of pre-requisites and meta-data.
- The awareness perspective refers to how what the other participants
are doing or have done is made 'visible' or 'available' to participants.
Awareness can be used for educational purposes in many ways. Usually,
teachers need to obtain information about the actions of their learners,
but learners may also require awareness of their mates. In order
to give the information to the right participant and to avoid information
overload, awareness should be focused, customized, and temporally
constrained [Baker, 02]. This perspective may be related with
that of participant portfolios. Portfolios gather all the activities and work
that a learner performs and may be used to assess the learner's progress.
- The decision making perspective describes the way in which decisions
are adopted. During a learning activity there are issues (e.g. when
to finish the task, how to decide who the members of a group are) that
may be decided by a certain role (e.g. teacher) or by a group according
to a rule (e.g. voting, consensus).
These last two perspectives are different from the other ones. Both
awareness and decision making involve the management of elements
considered in the other perspectives. For example, awareness information
can be provided about the participants' assignment, the temporal achievement
and sequencing of tasks or the actions performed on certain resources.
In a similar way, decision making may be concerned with the permission
that is offered to a certain role, the decision between two alternative
tasks, or the way a group of participants may communicate using a certain
4 Description of Perspectives
In the previous section we have identified a set of perspectives that
should be considered in the design of learning experiences. For each perspective
we are working towards the identification of the different forms that may
be involved. We are looking for basic constructions or building blocks
at a lower level, namely patterns, which might be used to arrange the behavior
considered in such perspectives. In this way, it could be possible to combine
these basic building blocks to construct more complex high-level behaviors.
We will use the perspectives and patterns as use cases to drive the development
of a new EML meta-model.
To carry out this work we are using results already present in the literature,
such as the mechanics of collaboration for human-machine interaction collaboration
analysis [Pinelle, 03], CSCW patterns [Lonchamp,
98], or workflow patterns for control and data flow, [Aalst,
03a] [Rusell, 04a] [Rusell,
- The mechanics of collaboration are the basic operations of teamwork,
the small-scale actions and interactions that group members must carry
out in order to get a task done in a collaborative fashion. They cover
two general types of activity: communication and coordination.
Communication is divided into two categories: explicit communication and
information gathering. Coordination is broken into two categories: shared
access and transfer. For each one of these categories various basic actions
have been identified. For example, coordination mechanics for collaborative
management of resources are presented in Table 1.
(to tools, objects, space,
|Obtain a resource
||Physically take objects or tools
Occupy a space
|Reserve a resource
||Move to a closer proximity
Notify others of intention
||Monitors other's actions in area
||Physically give/take object
||Place an object in a place and notify
Table 1: Mechanics of Collaboration for coordination [Pinelle,
- In a similar way, workflow patterns for control flow gather common
behaviors present in the sequencing
of activity flows. These patterns range from very simple patterns such as
sequential routing to complex patterns involving complicated synchronizations,
such as the discriminator pattern, which supports the disabling of one
activity according to a certain result. These patterns are classified into six
categories: Basic, Advanced Branching and Synchronization Patterns,
Structural, Involving Multiple Instances, State-based and Cancellation.
- Object transfer involves the communication of objects among
different tasks. It is related with the information perspective.
Very often, it is directly related to the sequencing of activities, but
in other occasions different behaviors are possible. [Lonchamp,
98] distinguishes between synchronous or asynchronous data flows and
the sharing of documents. Using these basic constructs it is possible to
construct more complex behaviors such as: master-slave, producer-reviewer,
collective synchronization, etc. In addition to collaborative data patterns,
[Rusell, 04a] proposes workflow patterns for data
flow and identifies four categories: data visibility, data interaction, data
transfer, and data-based routing.
- One important issue in the workflow systems is how resources are assigned
to tasks. This is the assignment perspective concerned with the
assignment of participants to tasks introduced in section
3.2.2. The workflow domain is concerned with the manner in which tasks
are advertised and assigned to specific resources (learners and academic
staff) for execution. There are different ways in which a task may be assigned
to a resource [Rusell, 04b]: (i) a task may be offered
to a single role; (ii) a task may be offered to multiple roles; and (iii)
a task may be pre-emptively assigning the task to a resource. IMS-LD uses
a pre-emptive assignation mechanism that has no variant.
During the last few years, learning experiences carried out in e-learning
systems are experiencing a shift in focus from contents to activities.
This situation is promoted by the need to provide better learning events
to learners according to current pedagogical approaches and to recent technological
developments. On the one hand, there is a great interest in constructivist
and social instructional theories that require learners to be involved
in actual activities. On the other hand, current technological developments
allow support and management of the interactions required in general learning
scenarios; computer-based applications may be used to provide a broad range
of functionalities: control flow, data flow, authorization, participant
management, coordination, communication, co-operation facilities, etc.
The challenge to match both issues is to provide mechanisms that enable
teachers to design learning experiences as they desire, and to represent
them in a way that enables the provision of appropriate computational support.
EMLs have been proposed to support the modelling of learning experiences
in a broad way. They provide a meta-model that educational designers may
use to design learning experiences, not simply to consider the modelling
of learning contents, but also to enable the description of learning activities.
This involves a shift in the way LOs were conceived towards a more structured
concept (UoLs), thus enabling the provision of an enhanced computational
Current EMLs consider elements and relationships required for modelling
the more common perspectives involved in learning activities. But they
do not provide a good support to model other perspectives involved mainly
in collaborative learning scenarios. In this paper we have considered the
main issues, perspectives and patterns that should be regarded in the support
of these scenarios, focusing on the achievement of a clear separation of
concerns. It is the first step toward the eventual proposal of an EML meta-model.
We want to thank the Spanish "Ministerio de
EducaciÃ³n y ciencia" for its partial support for this
work under the grant "MetaLearn: methodologies, architectures
and languages for E-learning adaptive services:"
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