Utilization of Learning Material Resource Databases over the Web

Contents:
Abstract
Introduction and objectives of the project
Rationale of learning material resource databases
End user driven learning material production
Technical environment
References



Abstract

The paper describes a learning material resource database project undertaken with Lotus Domino. The various users were able to use the application by only a browser over the internet and retrieve various learning material elements for their own use. The essential success factors for such a project were seen to be the effective utilisation of metadata, the utilisation of search engines and the provision of various tools and templates for the end users.


Introduction and objectives of the project

This paper is based on a pilot project HCI Productions Oy was undertaking for the Finnish Centre for Occupational Safety. The objective of the project was to develop a comprehensive learning material resource database to be utilised in various Finnish companies and entities.

The changes in the business environment required also fresh solutions to the work guidance and occupational safety in particular. Many indicators were showing that especially young workers were meeting new hazards at the work places in the late 1990s. This was mainly due to two reasons. Firstly, the number of temporary jobs (and as such also new jobs and job rotation situations) had been increasing in the industry and service sectors and thus the expected time for a new employee to work in a single job was limited. Secondly, the work guidance (regarding e.g. hazardous work practices and situations) had been mainly undertaken by the supervisory staff, which was occupied with a number of other duties, and the number of supervisory staff had been cut all the 1990s. However, many companies understood that the high level of occupational safety was an integral part of the total quality commitment of the corporations.

The various Finnish entities had produced during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s a remarkable number of various leaflets, video tapes, work books, guides and manuals regarding occupational safety. If not all, most of, that material was available in an electronic format. The basic understanding during our pilot project was that there was no need to develop new content, but rather to develop a new concept to produce learning materials as close to the actual end users as possible.

The fundamental problem with all these various existing learning materials was that their design was starting from the “end product” – not the knowledge element per se. Thus in the development process to a large extent knowledge and information were “reproduced but not refined”.

The objective of this project was to develop a learning material resource database, which would be used by the various users over the web. It also highlighted that the various end users in companies and entities would themselves decide what the most appropriate delivery format for the information would be used. However, it was understood that some basic tools (such as Word templates) had to be delivered as a part of the learning material resource database.

We did not as such take a position, how the information (or learning material) should have been provided. This was left up to the end users. We did, however, acknowledge that many corporations and units were merely reproducing and rewriting already existing materials to suit their corporate needs. One could only estimate that this was taking place (at the best of the cases) by a 80/20 rule, i.e. only 20 per cent was stemming actually from the company or entity itself. Thus our objective was to provide as effectively as possible the 80 per cent of the content, which already existed and enable the end users to concentrate on the 20 per cent which was their own contribution.


Rationale of learning material resource databases

The rationale of the learning material resource databases can be claimed to be in the paradigm shift from “handicraft process” to “manufacturing process”. The rationale can also be described by the following figure (figure 1 – applied from Mäkelin, M – Vepsäläinen, A: Palvelustrategiat).

Figure 1



The basic problem is often to reach simultaneously the “Economies of Scale” and “Economies of Scope”. A mass product can enjoy easily the scale effect, but not as easily the scope effect. The objective naturally is to make focused products which enjoy mass production advantages. In learning material resource databases in actual business driver is to provide various elements (which can enjoy in their production the mass production benefits) and enable the various end users to take care of the actual tailoring and finishing of the focused products.



The essential idea was for the learning material resource database, that the various users have different needs and different contexts of using the learning materials. Thus the paramount objective was to provide for the end users rich variety of learning material resources they could choose from and direct only lightly (by the provision of templates etc.) the actual design of the various end products. It was understood that as the final responsibility at the workplace was with the various end users (such as supervisors), they should also have control of the actual end product. This would also enable the users to attach actual corporate-specific information to their documents and thus link that with the corporate practices.

As stated earlier, much of the existing material of occupational safety was already in an electronic format – it had also been provided by a number of learning material producers. To be included in the learning material resource database, the additional requirement was to attach metadata to these materials. The essential metadata were the index words (including descriptions of work processes, industry fields etc.) and the metadata concerning the format of the various “resources”.

The learning material resource database in our case (as simplified) looks as follows (figure 2)

Figure 2


End user driven learning material production

As stated earlier, the objective was to provide the various end users with resources of which they could construct individualised learning materials to be used in their particular environment. From the beginning of the project it was highlighted that the end users should have as easy an access as possible to the actual learning material resources.

The end users needed
- an internet connection
- a standard internet browser
- Microsoft Office 95 (optional).

The application included three integrated elements which were
- information highlights of critical tasks in work safety
- checklists, cases of good practice etc.
- links to the learning material resource database and tools (such as Word and Excel templates).

The users were able to get acquainted with the information highlights of critical areas and – if they found they needed these resources – also to search for the various resources and download them to their own desktop. Typically the end user could produce – based on the resources provided – personalised work cards, work books, learning materials for his/her environment. Thus in our case, the web was used as a mass distribution channel for resources, not for end products.

However, without the metadata of the various resources and the search engine, the application would have not been of any use. First the search engine enables the users to locate the required resources from the database. The metadata is required to identify the right resources from the database. It was also understood that this kind of an operation must be a disciplined undertaking – especially the inclusion of metadata to all resources is the focal success factor.


Technical environment

The application was designed using Lotus Notes Domino. Lotus Notes is basically a document database which lends itself easily to these type of projects. The Domino server converts “on the fly” the “Notes” document of the database to a HTML document (to be used by the web browser). This enables the various material providers to concentrate on the essentials – the content – instead of having to work intensively with the actual HTML scripting.


References

Mäkelin, M – Vepsäläinen, A: Palvelustrategiat : Palveluorganisaation kehittäminen ja tietotekniikka. Jyväskylä 1989.


The authors would like to thank Centre for Occupational Safety and especially Training Manager Jukka Mäkeläinen for their active support for the project.