Another attempt at Flexible Provision of courses

Our friends from the Open University of the Netherlands (OUNL) have just had published a very interesting article that seems to be a first step towards helping education and training institutions re purpose their content for multiple audiences.  This is an important, yet very challenging task that requires that courses be created without a single audience in mind. Besides the targeting and language challenges of multiple audiences, the technical challenges are also many and this paper presents a possible  solution.

Just to back up a bit, you may remember the excitement of educational Modeling Languages which evolved into IMS Learning Design. The promise of these efforts was to provide specifications and tools that allowed instructional sequences to be formally described and tagged, thus setting the stage for repurposing, search filter etc.  I was particularly enamoured with the idea that Learning Design would do for education what standard notation from the 11 century did for music. I experimented with some hand coding of content. But the standard had too major problems, notably  lack of markup tools and runtime engines and a very fine level of granularity that required far too much effort to code.  This effort was led by Rob Koper from UNL.

Well Koper is back with what I assume is the major thesis work of the first author, Henry Hermans, a new specification, and a new tool set. The tool set described seems to have two major functions -to identify and tag content at various access levels and to create courses on the fly based upon the access level of the student.  Thus a course content item  (from text, to stimulation, to forum) could be tagged and then later aggregated in  many combinations for many learners – This personalization is NOT based on esoteric (and usually not valid) constructs like “learning styles”, past performances or other components of an individual student model, but rather on the access level allowed by the provider. For example the general public may be able to see some or all of the course content, but quizzes, moderated discussion group, peer reviews assignments etc., could be accessed only by registered students, alumni etc.

The idea is visualized below


Of course things do get complicated and like the earlier IMS Learning Design, this where such systems often fail. Not only must the content be appropriately tagged, but the level of access of the learner must be known. This provision is further broken down to “provisioning level” what level of support do they get based upon factors like their registration status.  Finally any system must be linked to the often tightly guarded registration system, alumni and any other systems from which it draws data.

The wizards at OUNL have of course built a prototype using materials from the OUNL large content of courses. Naturally, the details of how much support and actual content is appropriately tagged and used , remains in the land of the “experimental” for now – and perhaps forever. Adoption in any school is HARD.

However, this system seems to have some advantages over earlier efforts. This is largely due to larger level of granularity of the unit prescribed. I can imagine tagging units or even full courses at various levels and tagging a variety of support services to enhance them.

I also see the need for the application.  At Athabasca University I have long been arguing that all of our course content should be made open but at least the first units of any course should be available for potential students to view. Alas, this hasn’t happened largely due to challenges of disaggregating a course.  The IMS Learning design called for tagging right down to the individual paragraph or learning activity, this was too much. Tagging at a level we are using to create courser (units, chapter, program etc. ) should be more feasible.

In any case I wish the OUNL team the very best of luck in developing this protocol and most importantly in solving the problem of actually getting a research idea into full adoption at their or any other school.


Hermans, H., Jansse, J., Vogten, H., & Koper, R. (2015). Flexible Provisioning Adult Learners. Journal of Universal Computer Science, 21(2).


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