Xerte is an open source tool that can be used to create e-learning content that can be delivered through virtual learning environments such as Moodle. This blog post is a summary of a meeting entitled Xerte Project AGM that was held at the East Midlands Conference Centre at the University of Nottingham on 10 October 2012. The purpose of the day was to share information about the current release about the Xerte tool, to offer an opportunity to different users to talk to each other and also to allow delegates to gain some understanding about where the development of the tool is heading.
One of my main motivations for posting a summary of the event is to share some information about the project with my H810 Accessible online learning: supporting disabled students tutor group. Xerte is a tool that is considered to create accessible learning material - this means that the materials that are presented through (or using) Xerte may be able to be consumed by people who have different impairments. One of the activities that H810 students have to do is to create digital educational materials with a view to understanding what accessibility means and what challenges students may face when the begin to interact with digital materials. Xerte can be one tool that could be used to create digital materials for some audiences.
This blog will contain some further description of accessibility (what it is and what it isn't); a subject that was mentioned during the day. I'll also say something about other approaches that can be used to create digital materials. Xerte isn't the beginning and end of accessibility - no single tool can solve the challenge of creating educational materials that are functionally and practically accessible to learners. Xerte is one of many tools that can be used to contribute towards the creation of accessible resources, which is something different and separate to accessible pedagogy.
The day was introduced by Wyn Morgan, director of teaching and learning at Nottingham. Wyn immediately touched upon some of the objectives of the tool and the project - to allow the simple creation of attractive e-learning materials.
Wyn's introduction was followed by a brief presentation by Amber Thomas, who I understand is the manager for the JISC Rapid Innovation programme. Amber mentioned the importance of a connected project called Xenith, but more of this later.
Julian Tenney presented an overview of the Xerte project and also described its history. As a computer scientist, Julian's unexpected but very relevant introduction resonated strongly with me. He mentioned two important and interesting books: Hackers, by Steven Levy, and The Cathedral and the Bazaar by Eric S Raymond. Julian introduced us to the importance of open source software and described the benefit and strength of having a community of interested developers who work together to create something (in this case, a software tool) for the common good.
I made a note of a number of interesting quotes that can be connected to both books. These are: 'always yield to the hands on' (which means, just get on and build stuff), 'hackers should be judged by their hacking', 'the world is full of interesting problems to be solved', and 'boredom and drudgery are evil'. When it comes to the challenge of creating digital educational resources that can be delivered on-line, developers can be quickly faced with similar challenges time and time again. The interesting and difficult problems lie with how best to overcome the drudgery of familiar problems.
I learnt that the first version of Xerte was released in 2006. Julian mentioned other tools that can be used to create materials and touched upon the issue of both their cost and their complexity. Continued development moved from a desktop based application to a set of on-line tools that can be hosted on an institutional web server (as far as I understand things).
An important point from Julian's introductory presentation that I paraphrase is that one of the constants of working with technology is continual change. During the time between the launch of the original version of Xerte and the date of this blog post, we have seen the emergence of tablet based devices and the increased use of mobile devices, such as smartphones. The standalone version of Xerte currently delivers content using a technology called Flash (wikipedia), which is a product by Adobe. According to the Wikipedia article that was just referenced, Adobe has no intention to support Flash for mobile devices. Instead, Adobe has announced that they wish to develop products for more open standards such as HTML 5.
This brief excursion into the domain of software technology deftly took us onto the point of the day where the delegates were encouraged to celebrate the release of the new versions of the Xerte software and toolkits.
New Features and Page Types
Ron Mitchell introduced a number of new features and touched upon some topics that were addressed later during the day. Topics that were mentioned included internationalisation, accessibility and the subject of Flash support. Other subjects that were less familiar to me included how to support authentication through LDAP (lightweight directory access protocol) when using the Xerte Online Toolkit (as opposed to the standalone version), some hints about how to integrate some aspects of the Xerte software with the Moodle VLE, and how a tool such as Jmol (a Java viewer for molecular structures) could be added to content that is authored through Xerte.
One of the challenges with authoring tools is how to embed either non-standard material or materials that were derived from third party sources. I seem to remember being told about something called an Embed code which (as far as I understand things) enables HTML code to be embedded directly within content authored through Xerte. The advantage of this is that you can potentially make use of rich third party websites to create interactive activities.
I understand the internationalisation as one of those words that is very similar to the term software localisation; it's all about making sure that your software system can be used by people in other countries. One of the challenges with any software localisation initiative is to create (or harness) a mechanism to replace hardcoded phrases and terms with labels, and have them dynamically changed depending on the locale in which a system is deployed. Luckily, this is exactly the kind of thing that the developers have been working on: a part of the project called XerteTrans.
When I found myself working in industry I created a number of e-learning objects that were simply 'page turners'. What I mean is that you had a learning object that had a pretty boring (but simple) structure - a learning object that was just one page after another. At the time there wasn't any (easy) way to create a network of pages to take a user through a series of different paths. It turns out that the new connector templates (which contains something called a connector page), allows you to do just this.
The way that things work is through a page ID. Pages can have IDs if you want to add links between them. Apparently there are a couple of different types of connector pages: linear, non-linear and some others (I can't quite make out my handwriting at this point!) The principle of a connector template may well be something that is very useful. It is a concept that seems significantly easier to understand than other e-learning standards and tools that have tried to offer similar functionality.
A final reflection on this subject is that it is possible to connect sets of pages (or slides) together using PowerPoint, a very different tool that has been designed for a very different audience and purpose.
Xenith and HTML 5
Returning to earlier subjects, Julian Tenney and Fay Cross described a JISC funded project called Xenith. The aim of Xenith is to create a system to allow content that has been authored using Xerte to be presented using HTML 5 (Wikipedia). The motivation behind this work is to ensure that e-learning materials can be delivered on a wide variety of platforms. When HTML 5 is used with toolkits such as jQuery, there is less of an argument for making use of Adobe Flash. There are two problems with continuing to use Flash. The first is that due to a historic fall out between Apple and Adobe, Flash cannot be used on iOS (iPhone, iPad and iPod) devices. Secondly, Flash has not been considered to be a technology that has been historically very accessible.
Apparently, a Flash interface will remain in the client version of Xerte for the foreseeable future, but to help uncover accessibility challenges the Xenith developers have been working with JISC TechDis. It was during this final part of the presentation that the NVDA screen reader was mentioned (which is freely available for download).
Alistair McNaught from TechDis gave a very interesting presentation about some of the general principles of technical and pedagogic accessibility. Alistair emphasised the point that accessibility isn't just about whether or not something is generally accessible; the term 'accessibility' can be viewed as a label. I also remember the point that the application of different types of accessibility standards and guidelines don't necessarily guarantee a good or accessible learning experience.
I made a note of the following words. Accessibility is about: forethought, respect, pragmatism, testing and communication. Forethought relates to the simple fact that people can become disabled. There is also the point that higher educational institutions should be anticipatory. Respect is about admitting that something may be accessible for some people but not for others. A description of a diagram prepared for a learner who has a visual impairment may not be appropriate if it contains an inordinate amount of description, some of which may be superfluous to an underlying learning objective or pedagogic aim. Pragmatism relates to making decisions that work for the individual and for the institution. Testing of both content and services is necessary to understand the challenges that learners face. Even though educational content may be accessible in a legislative sense, learners may face their own practical challenges. My understanding is that all these points can be addressed through communication and negotiation.
It was mentioned that Xerte is accessible, but there are some important caveats. Firstly, it makes use of Flash, secondly the templates offer some restrictions and that access depends on differences between screen readers and browsers. It is the issue of the browser that reminds us that technical accessibility is a complex issue. It is also dependent upon the design of the learning materials that we create.
To conclude, Alistair mentioned a couple of links that may be useful. The first is the TechDis Xerte page. The second is the Voices page, which relates to a funded project to create an 'English' synthetic voice that can be used with screen reading software.
For those students who are studying H810, I especially recommend Alistair's presentation which can be viewed on-line by visiting the AGM website. Alistair's presentation starts at about the 88 minute mark.
Closing Discussions and Comments
The final part of the day gave way to discussions, facilitated by Inge Donkervoort, about how to develop the Xerte community site. Delegates were then asked whether they would like an opportunity to attend a similar event next year.
One of the things I helped to develop when I worked in industry was a standards compliant (I use this term with a degree of hand waving) 'mini-VLE'. It didn't take off for a whole host of reasons, but I thought it was pretty cool! It had a simple navigation facility and users could create a repository of learning objects. During my time on the project (which predated the release of Xerte), I kept a relatively close eye on which tools I could use to author learning materials. Two tools that I used was a Microsoft Word based add in (originally called CourseGenie) which allowed authors to create series of separate pages which were then all packaged together to create a single zip file, and an old tool called Reload. I also had a look at some commercial tools too.
One of the challenges that I came across was that, in some cases, it wasn't easy to determine what content should be created and managed by the VLE and what content was created and managed by an authoring tool. An administrator of a VLE can define titles and make available on-line communication tools such as forums and wikis and then choose to provide learners with sets of pages (which may or may not be interactive) that have been created using tools like Xerte. Relating back to accessibility, even though content may be notionally accessible it is also important to consider the route in which end users gain access to content. Accessible content is pointless if the environment which is used to deliver the content is either inaccessible or is too difficult to navigate.
Reflecting on this issue, there is a 'line' that exists between the internal world of the VLE and the external world of a tool that generates material that can be delivered through (or by) a VLE. In some respect, I feel that this notional line is never going to be pinned down due to differences between the ways in which systems operate and the environments in which they are used. Standards can play an important role in trying to defining such issues and helping to make things to work together, but different standards will undoubtedly place the line at different points.
During my time as a developer I also thought the obvious question of, 'why don't we make available other digital resources, such as documents and PowerPoint files to learners?' Or, to take the opposite view of this question, 'why should I have to use authoring tools at all?' I have no (personal) objections about using authoring tools to create digital materials. The benefit of tools such as Xerte is that the output can be simple, directly and clear to understand. The choice of the mechanisms used to create materials for delivery to students should be dictated primarily by the pedagogic objectives of a module or course of study.
One thought did plague me towards the end of the day, and it was this: the emphasis on the day was primarily about technology; there was very little (if at all) about learning and pedagogy. This can be viewed from two sides - understanding more about the situations in which a particular tool (in combination with other tools) can best be used, and secondly how users (educators or learning technologists) can best begin to learn about the tool and how it can be applied. Some e-learning tools work well in some situations than others. Also, educators need to know how to help learners work with the tools (and the results that they generate).
All in all, I had an enjoyable day. I even recognised a fellow Open University tutor! It was a good opportunity to chat about the challenges of using and working with technology and to become informed about what interesting developments were on the horizon and how the Xerte tool was being used. It was also great to learn that a community of users was being established.
Finally, it was great how the developers were directly tacking the challenge of constant changes in technology, such as the emergence of tablet computers and new HTML standards. Tackling such an issue head on whilst at the same time trying to establish a community of active open source developers can certainly help to establish a sustainable long-term project.