The JLeRN Experiment

JISC's Learning Registry Node Experiment at Mimas

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The Learning Registry and JLeRN at the CETIS Conference: Report and Reflections

In late February, the JLeRN team, along with Steven Cook who is working with us from the Jorum team, attended the annual CETIS Conference, and participated in the Learning Registry: Capturing Conversations About Learning Resources session. See this previous post for our presentation slides.

Our intention was that the CETIS Conference would be a significant point of reflection for the project: a chance to evaluate what JLeRN has achieved so far in light of community discussion and feedback, and a chance to get some pointers on how we should spend the next five months, since we finish at the end of July.

This week I’ll be meeting with Amber Thomas, our JISC Programme Manager, to write up an interim report for JISC, so I’m hoping this post will help me start to crystalise what I think personally, and what I’m hearing from the community. Skip right to the bottom of this post to see some bullet-pointed suggestions for further work from participants!

Firstly, can I just give a big shout out to Phil and Lorna from CETIS, and also to John who has now left CETIS but who helped a lot with organising the session. It was great!  Phil was particularly heroic in filling in for Dan Rehak by interpreting his slides for us. Also thanks to Walt Grata from the US Learning Registry team who came all the way to Nottingham just to hang out with all of us for a couple of days: it was absolutely invaluable having him there in person to advise, inform and have a laugh with.

Stepping Back: An Overview

As previously mentioned, Phil started us off with an overview of the Learning Registry. He presented some slides developed by Dan Rehak, which included diagrams peering into the Learning Registry model and concepts from a number of different angles. I’m getting the hang of it now, but I don’t doubt there were some baffled faces in the room at this point (I was at the front, and I didn’t look around). I keep reassuring people that you need to go through this stuff a few times using a few different resources to get a grip on it. However, speaking for myself, it was really useful to step back out of JLeRN and be reminded of how the Learning Registry is conceptualised by its creators.

The best thing for me about Dan/Phil’s presentation was being reminded of the Big Use Case. In the US, massive amounts of federal money is spent on educational resources which are then held in numerous silos, e.g. Nasa, PBS, NSDL, the Department of Defence may all hold different versions of the same resource. And therefore paradata, or usage data, about those resources may also be split into these different silos. Each portal only knows about a subset of what’s happening around their resources. How to pull it all together? The Learning Registry hopes to be a solution. This is highly relevant to Jorum here in the UK, which already shares resources with other services like Ireland’s National Digital Learning Repository.

We were in imminent danger of getting dragged into discussing definitions of paradata versus other kinds of data and metadata but Amber pulled us back from the brink, reminding us that we are not in the business of classifying types of data around resources: the nice thing about the Learning Registry is that it’s all in scope. Walt agreed, noting that “As long as you can express it as a string, and in JSON” it’s in scope. Walt also pointed out that even though there is a paradata specification available in the Learning Registry documentation, it’s not something that is required or validated; it’s just one suggestion to get folk going. “You can make up whatever you want”, he said.

Some Participants Chime In

This discussion led to Fred Riley from the SONET repository at Nottingham University, and Terry McAndrew from TechDIS asking some questions about how they could get involved. Fred would like to publish his repository’s OERs into the JLeRN node. There will be more on this in a later blog post, but the basic upshot is that this bespoke repository coded by Fred himself offers an RSS feed but not OAI-PMH, and until this point we’d been talking about publishing repository OAI-PMH feeds into our node. This was a timely discussion as Pat Lockley had just been working on a way to publish RSS into the Learning Registry, so it was a bit of edtech speed dating there.

Terry reiterated some of his ideas from the Hackday in January, following up with questions about how teachers can pull together stuff they have in a range of places (e.g. WordPress, Delicious, Posterous) to publish to the Learning Registry. All of this prompted some reminders about what an early stage proof-of-concept technical infrastructure project the Learning Registry is: some tools for developers and others are starting to emerge, but at this point just listening to these kinds of requests is all we can do. Walt noted that in the US there is work going on developing a few plug-ins and apps to work with various things teachers use to publish their content. Pat Lockley here in the UK also has some stuff on the go.

Terry also asked at a later point whether we can harvest from JISCmail as a source of data: folk can then see contributions that they’ve already made being used. Amber (from JISC) agreed strongly but noted that there are currently limitations- Brian Kelly has advised JISCmail to make their data harvestable.

Lorna on JISC / CETIS Interest in the Learning Registry

Why are JISC and CETIS interested in the Learning Registry? Folk are asking all the time whether they should get involved: is now the right time? Lorna noted again that this is an ongoing project; it’s being built right now. We don’t know how successful it will be. From CETIS’s point of view, it appears to be an interesting development that’s addressing problem we’ve had for ages.

Just for context, Lorna showed us a new OER timeline resource being developed by Lou McGill, which gives a graphical representation of the history of learning resources within JISC and CETIS. She noted that they used to recommend open standards for educational content, but that they were tricky to implement. Metadata for learning resources has been particularly problematic: describing educational context is very difficult. With the advent of the JISC OER Programmes, they decided to ask for descirptions of a few key aspects of resources, but not in standardised way.

The key questions that are still hard to answer are: How do we know where resources have gone, how they’ve been used, have they been remixed etc. So JISC and CETIS are interested in Learning Registry, because it acknowledges that we can’t normalise the mess of data. We need to get it into a network, and let clever people build services and tools to query the data. CETIS like that it’s dealing with the reality of the way the world is.

Amber on the Wider JISC Context

JISC supports the sharing of learning materials and digital library materials. Amber noted two other JISC Programmes that have looked at this stuff: the Activity Data and Discovery programmes. They are interested in open metadata; encouraging the flow of data. If you have data more openly available, makes resources more visible, this is a virtuous circle making discovery easier.

Andy Powell (who wasn’t present) Tweeted a question asking if we are talking about #bigdata at the Conference. This is about identifying patterns in data; it resonates with the Learning Registry model of the benefits of opening up data. The Managing Research Data programme has similar issues.

There is a question around how much effort are people willing to put into describing, rather than having that data inferred/extracted/derived. Amber name-checked Zoe Rose from the BBC on whether we should even try to describe educational resources, or at least the educational aspects of educational resources: Zoe thinks not, it just gets sketchy.

So, Amber reiterated again: JLeRN is not a pilot, it’s an experiment. Mimas run a node to be point of reference; JISC are not planning to necessarily turn it into a service. The questions starting to arise for her with her JISC hat on are: What are skills issues involved? What sorts of developers can start to learn these skills? It’s a capacity issue, and an appetite issue. Who are the people who want to make apps and widgets? What are their skillsets? JLeRN won’t be sustainable unless people get involved.

JLeRN’s Presentations

I refer you back to our slides and handout here. I like to think we’ve made a bit of a contribution to the resources helping folk understand what the Learning Registry is doing with these, so please do have a look.

Some Projects and Ideas

The next session was presentations on some work folk are doing or hoping to do around the Learning Registry and/or JLeRN. Hope to get some slides and links in here later.

Scott Wilson (Bolton University / JISC CETIS) on SPAWS: Sharing Paradata Across Widget Stores

– There are 3 educational widget stores sharing paradata (reviews, ratings, downloads) using the Learning Registry. The reason why 3 stores have been developed is because they are for different audiences, have different policies etc.
– The same widget in different stores would have paradata in different places. So they want to use the Learning Registry to bring together this paradata.
– Paradata includes downloads, ratings, embeds, reviews. It’s the same structure of information across different stores, so there are no ontology arguments. They are working on a shared architecture.
– Noted: there is a problem with how paradata is managed in Learning Registry. Their question is how to normalise paradata because the Learning Registry isn’t doing normalisation.
– They put in a bid to JISC OER Rapid Innovation for SPAWS.


Terry McAndrew mentioned that we need to identify good reviews of content rather than quick comments. There may be an opportunity for text mining in the middle, to bring out something more useful than Wordles. It worries him that there’s loads of info about resources: but it doesn’t include specifically meaningful stuff.

Scott responded with an example review: “I tried this in IE6 it doesn’t work”, noting that getting any comment is such a struggle, he’ll be happy with anything. If other organisations are interested in more in-depth stuff that’s fine, SPAWS just want enough to make it useful.

Owen Stephens noted that there are also stats about bias in reviews; that you could get many more bad reviews than good, but Scott felt that there is enough context around reviews for folk to interpret them. People don’t just say “oh 2 stars, it’s crap”.. you can leave some nuance to the reader.

Martin Hawksey said that as soon as he publishes anything, he gives himself 5 stars; so the system is open to gaming. Scott responded that if someone games it as positive and you use it and it’s rubbish, you are more likely to review it yourself; it balances itself out.

Phil Barker asked if there would be information on who is providing reviews; Scott noted that this will depend on the policies of the widget stores, whether they ask folk for permission to share their reviews; there may be some tracing of user activity. Some stores have to have control over user experience.

Amber noted that these issues of using paradata are fairly new and require some teasing out. It’s a different sort of architecture: it’s more distributed; it’s different from building a big website with the functionality inside it. We are separating it out; people don’t know how their reviews might be used. It’s still difficult to get our heads round it. People will need to re-calibrate how things are tweaked and used.

Terry McAndrew (TechDis): Learning Registry – Opportunities for Accessibility?

Terry shared some ideas at the Hackday in January about possibly using the Learning Registry to capture accessibility data about resources; perhaps simple reviews by people stating how well a given resource met their accessibility requirements as a start. This time, rather than showing a tool or app, or even a use case, Terry presented a “problem environment”: to enable participants understand what accessibility requirements might be.

– TechDis gives Inclusion Technology Advice across very broad range of education, including offender learning, so there are a broader range of issues and constraints than JISC projects even normally look at. The focus is on issues easily overlooked – accessibility.
– TechDis want conversations between developers, tutors and users about resources to be laterally available- live dialogue rather than end of year review, and available to all, to boost accessible development, and to expose issues around resource and practice early (including good and bad accessibility factors).
– Quality of data is extremely important.
– Terry asked whether we could get Learning Registry output through Google; noted the Xerte philosophy- doesn’t look glossy but gets lots of data through.
– Terry also noted that efforts around visualising OER use needs all the stakeholders’ invovlement. We need graphics that illustrate different types of users in different environments to see how the traffic is moving.


Amber noted the validity of this view being wider: there’s accessibility, there’s usability, there’s mobile. Are there underlying characteristics that can go together? So not about boxing accessibility into one thing? Usability and mobile need similar things as a lot of accessibility.

Terry responded that this is where a controlled vocab would help, but Amber noted that questions of control and vocabulary happen before the data goes into the Learning Registry. The Learning Registry can then get the mass of developers around it to work on it.

Walt Grata from the Learning Registry: Harvesting Tool and Landing Pages

Walt talked about two things he has been working on for the Learning Registry to help developers: a harvesting tool and landing pages.

Harvesting Tool:

This tool can be used to harvest from any Learning Registry node that you want, and cache the data locally for analysis, mashing up, etc. Point the tool at a node’s HTTP endpoint, do a bit of config; it does a periodic harvest. You can get it all out in whatever format you want. He’s working on validation- and he noted that anyone who wants to try it out can raise an issue on GitHub and he will get to it. This work came about because he found he was writing bits of code for developers to use in Java, CSharp, JavaScript, etc., so he wanted to make all this available to just be plucked from GitHub.

Landing Pages:

Walt wanted to make available simple landing pages for resources, including backlinks for SEO, that are indexable by Google, so folk can find Learning Registry stuff through Google.

There was some discussion around the relationship between the Learning Registry work and Google, touching on whether we are trying to create a parallel universe to Google, whether Google was interested in what the Learning Registry was doing, and to what extent the Learning Resource Metadata Initiative work might help (see Phil Barker at CETIS for more on that; Phil also noted that are coming out with other potentially useful vocabularies, e.g. to do with ratings). Lorna shared the interesting background that Google may have had a role in encouraging the Learning Registry project at the highest levels of the US administration: they were concerned about not being able to get to the swathes of educational content in silos.

There is also the question of how to identify unique resources in the Learning Registry given some resources will be available in different silos at different URLs. At the moment resources are only identifiable by having the same URL; Walt noted that they are currently looking at using RDF triples with “sameAs”.

Pat Lockley: Services Built Around the Learning Registry

See Pat’s slides here. Pat talked about two services he’s been working on:

– A Chrome extension for Google searches returning Learning Registry hits, that will display attributes about the resource in your search results. This could be what CC licence is applied to the resources, but as the Learning Registry develops, it could also include paradata, or data from the resource’s activity stream.

– A WordPress plugin that will let you display Learning Registry node content (accessed via “slice”, which is the Learning Registry search function) in your WordPress blog (I know, let’s try that in this blog! Watch this space).

Steven Cook from Jorum: Getting Paradata Out of Jorum and into the JLeRN Node

We’ve published all of Jorum’s metadata into the JLeRN node (that’s >15,000 resources), but we’ve also been looking at how to get paradata, initially just as some simple statistics and usage data, out of Jorum into the node. Steven Cook’s been exploring this as he is Jorum’s resident expert in extracting statistics.

Steven has been working on creating a CakePHP DataSource (“DataSources are the link between models and the source of data that models represent”) for the Learning Registry API, because CakePHP is being used to build the Jorum statistics Dashboard, and because CakePHP is designed for rapid development, is ideal for prototyping Web applications.

The Learning Registry DataSource abstracts away the connection requirements and the intricacies of the API and helps connect Cake developers directly to the Learning Registry, allowing them to simply “plug in” to a node and use the data obtained directly in their developments.

With the read capabilities of the DataSource he hopes to create a simple Web interface that will allow users to search the LR for resources. He also talked about “mashing up” this data with other sources across the internet including Topsy, Twitter, Names, Google, Klout. There are DataSources available for these other services and he has already written one for Topsy for the Jorum Dashboard.

Watch this space: Steven will be blogging on this soon here!


When asked how scalable the CakePHP approach is, Steven responded that he probably won’t end up using Cake- but that it was a good way to gain understanding of how the Learning Registry works. He will probably port it to something else. He noted that the Learning Registry doesn’t give you exactly what you want and is not completely RESTful. In future he would cache on his side.

If You Could Have One Thing From or For the Learning Registry

We had a few minutes left at the end of the session, so I prevailed upon Lorna to ask everyone to say one thing they would like to see happen in the Learning Registry space. Here are the ideas shared, sans attribution! Contributors are welcome to expand on these, or add to them by commenting on this post!

  • Simple software libraries for a range of languages to interact with LR.
  • An OAI Explorer which allows you to poke at a node see what’s there.
  • The ability to get learning resources out by a simple search- e.g. of activity stream; what’s trending.
  • Would like to see my institution release Dynamic Learning Maps data for LR.
  • Developer how-tos.
  • How to deal with backdated paradata; website used for years, all that usage data- do I submit individual records for every single event? Don’t want to crush the node by submitting 50,000 uses.
  • Hide the hard stuff.
  • Can we get some good stuff from Google Scholar?
  • Accessibility dialogue.
  • How can we really make use of Google to get to LR content.

Finally, Lorna announced that JISC are running a DevEd event in Birmingham: a 2-day hackday focusing specifically on educational apps. Keep an eye out for further announcements, and put 29-30 May in your calendar!

JLeRN at the CETIS Conference 2012

The JLeRN Team and Steven Cook from Jorum are at the CETIS Conference 2012 to present on our work, as part of the Learning Registry session there. We’ll expand this post after we’re done and have had some discussion and feedback: in the meantime, here is an updated introductory handout, and our slides:

Communities, Networks, Nodes: Where to next for the JLeRN Experiment?

NB: I’ve prepared a simplified handout version of this post for the JLeRN / UK Learning Registry Contributors’ Hackday, available on Googledocs to print out or download here.

So what’s this all about again?

Are you feeling a bit baffled by the Learning Registry concept? By the JLeRN Experiment? But excited by some of the possibilities that trickle through the confusion as you start to get a handle on what we’re doing? Join the club.

The Learning Registry project worldwide is starting from a very techie place, and we are only beginning to imagine how that might eventually impact on services for teachers and learners, and the support staff who help them with using resources.

We’ve learned from the mis-steps of years past where we fumbled through if-we-build-it-they-will-come and if-only-someone-would-create-one-uber-repository/portal. We’re focussing on what we’ve been told over and over by educators for years: that recording and analysing and understanding and disseminating and using data about use of learning resources should be at the centre of resource provision and management. We’re calling that data ‘paradata’.

So, how will we, the UK-based JLeRN Experiment, take forward our investigations? We need your feedback. Please read on for options and questions.

The building blocks

The Learning Registry folks have produced some well-written and well-conceived specification documents, which outline clearly the kinds of decisions that different participants (not just JISC) could make at a policy level here in the UK. I will summarise below (a) what we’re doing right now, and (b) what some of the wider options are for implementing Learning Registry nodes, networks and communities.

NOTE: nodes, networks and communities are the three levels of togetherness available to educational communities wanting to share resource data and paradata. We can:

(1) share our data with others via a single node;
(2) widen our sharing to a network of nodes that share the same policies about access etc.; and
(3) widen our sharing even further within communities of networks.

More below!

If you really like to read full specs, check out this openly available Googledoc; it’s the main specification document this post quotes from (it’s very readable as specs go): The Resource Distribution Network Model: Learning Registry Technical Specification.

From that document, here is a visual representation of how Learning Registry nodes, networks and communities relate to each other and to external producers and consumers of data. You may need to refer back to it as you read on.

Learning Registry Resource Distribution Model Diagram

The Learning Registry Resource Distribution Model Diagram

The JLeRN Experiment at Mimas

So, Mimas was asked by JISC to set up a Learning Registry node and play with it, with help from JISC CETIS and an informal task group of interested folks in UK education, to see what we could learn. That was about all any of us understood about what was needed at that time.

We’ve had a working node at Mimas for some weeks now, which has led to acquisition of skills and understanding for our devs Nick and Bharti, and we are busy getting our node set up on a dedicated server to allow anyone to experiment with getting their data in and out.

We’ve since discovered that there are a number of options for nodes, and there are also possibilities for networks of nodes, and network communities. These are described in more detail further on in this post. We have implemented a common node, without requiring signatures to push and pull data out of the node (in other words without the basic security restriction available). A common node is defined thusly:

Common Node: A common node MAY provide any of the node service classes listed. If provided, the distribution services of a common node SHALL be limited to connecting to other nodes in the same network (the distribution service MAY connect to multiple destination nodes).”

There’s only one other kind of node: a gateway node.

I bet all that just raised a bunch of questions for you, right? Read on!

Where to from here?

Let’s talk about nodes

Nodes are the building blocks of the Learning Registry. They enable decentralised networks for sharing data about learning resources and their use. Anyone can set up a node wherever they like by installing the node code and making it available to whomever they like*. They can also restrict access if they choose. Those who share data via that node can publish their data to the node, or extract anyone’s data from the node. A completely open node allows literally anyone to publish or access data.

NOTE: There are two kinds of node: common nodes and gateway nodes. Each kind of node supports distinct activities. Basically, a common node can support all the different specific services you need to push, pull, distribute and process resource data with any number of external sources, and within a given network of nodes. A gateway node allows different networks to connect with each other to share data. (Might be an idea to scroll back up and look at that diagram again!).

common node is defined further up the page, and its possible services in the next section. A gateway node simply provides a data distribution connection between one network and another, because nodes cannot belong to more than one network, and a clearly defined pipeline is needed, for security and other policy reasons.

Until the JLeRN Experiment has some pressing use case for testing a gateway node, we’re working with a common node for now.

What can a common node do?

Common nodes can offer five kinds of service:

  • Publish Services allow data to be published to the node from external sources. We can choose which publishing APIs we will support (e.g. SWORD), but we have to (and we do) support the Basic Publish Service. NOTE: we’re talking about how we might get data into JLeRN’s Node at Mimas from a Jorum OAI-PMH feed, which will likely involve some scripting as it’s not provided as part of the core node set-up.
  • Access Services allow data to be pulled, or accessed from the node or the distribution network the node is part of. Again, different APIs (e.g. OAI-PMH) can be, but don’t have to be, supported.
  • Distribution Services allow data to be replicated and transferred between nodes.
  • Broker Services allow us to “augment, transform or process resource data held at that node to produce new or updated resource data for access or distribution”. Interesting!
  • Administrative Services, which “are used to query a node to obtain its status or to trigger node administrative actions.”

So: what kinds of services would you like to trial with the JLeRN Experiment? What do you think should be trialled?


Resource distribution networks

You’ll have noted already that common nodes can be part of networks, and that networks can be connected via gateway nodes. When networks are connected, this is called a network community. Here’s what a network (or resource distribution network) is:

“A resource distribution network is a group of one or more connected nodes, with each node providing node services. All nodes in a resource distribution network operate under the same policies. Multiple resource distribution networks MAY be established.”

Important things about networks are:

  • Any given node can only be part of one network; the node is subject to the policies of that network. A gateway node is necessary for a common node to connect to a different network.
  • Network policies include such things as security requirements for sharing data via nodes in the network, e.g. whether signatures are required, data deletion policies, and so on.
  • A network can be part of only one community (so if you want your node to interface with other communities, you’ll need to set up and connect via a gateway node. Again, scroll back up to the diagram!).

So, what about network communities?

Network communities

OK, if you’ve managed to read this far, you can read the specification document definition! It doesn’t really require paraphrasing:

“A network community is a collection of interconnected resource distribution networks. A community MAY contain one or more resource distribution networks. A resource network SHALL be a member of only one community. Gateway nodes provide the connectivity between resources networks within a network community and MAY provide connectivity between networks in different communities. NB: A gateway node that provides an intra-community network gateway is undifferentiated from one that provides an inter-community network gateway.”

The important thing to note about communities is that open communities, known as social communities, and closed communities are both supported.

These are fairly self-explanatory: social communities can connect to each other via gateway nodes to share data. Closed communities only allow sharing between nodes and networks within their own borders. At the moment, the Learning Registry project itself has both kinds. The Learning Registry is a social community, and The Learning Registry Testbed is a closed community for developers to work on the code and the specs.

NOTE: At the moment, we are thinking about setting up a node to be part of the Learning Registry Testbed closed community, but we are, as previously noted, currently only running a node that is not yet part of any network or community, and that we are making available for anyone to test publishing and accessing data with.

So that’s where we’re at! What next?

We’re taking advantage of our proximity to the Jorum repository of open educational resources at Mimas to start exploring data and paradata around Jorum’s stuff, and how these might interact with the Learning Registry to the eventual benefit of Jorum’s users. There will be a blog post soon on the Jorum team blog saying a bit more about that.

We’re hosting a hackday in collaboration with JISC CETIS on Monday 23 January 2012, here at Mimas in Manchester. We’ve got ca 10 people coming from the UK education community, and we’re going to let them at our node to test out whatever folk want to test. We’ll also be brainstorming ideas for the future, use cases, and what the UK HE community wants from the JLeRN Experiment over the next few months. We’ll try to get a few folk tweeting from the event: follow and ask questions via hashtags #learningreg and #jlern  And there will be a blog post or two reporting back.

Then we’re participating in another session with JISC CETIS at their conference in February where we hope to do a bit more talking about ideas and a bit more hacking and some finalising of requirements on the JLeRN Experiment. This session will include a broader view on the entire Learning Registry project as well. I think there are still places on this so book up if you want to come!

Watch this space, and please comment here on the blog if you have any questions, inputs, or indeed corrections to any misunderstandings on my part in the text above!

* NB: The Learning Registry specifications and software are all still very much experimental and under development. The JLeRN Experiment is running concurrently with Learning Registry developments worldwide. So everything is subject to change, improvement, and undiscovered bugs and issues at the moment.

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