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4. Specification of Distributed Open Learning Environments

4.1 Standards-based specification

In order to develop standards for distributed open learning environments (DOLE), a specification is needed. This specification will function as a reference architecture, identifying necessary standards and their relationship to each other. This chapter presents a high-level specification of DOLE, and may be used as a starting point for a standardised reference architecture.

The specification described here will use language and concepts standardised in RM-ODP (described in section RM-ODP). We can use RM-ODP because DOLE are essentially distributed systems, and RM-ODP provides the necessary modelling and abstraction techniques for such systems. The advantage of using RM-ODP is that there is already significant amount of work and knowledge on distributed systems put into it. There is no sense in duplicating the effort to define another framework or specification technique. The resulting specification will also be standards-based, an important starting point toward standardisation of DOLE. The disadvantage is that because of its generic approach RM-ODP may not fit exactly for the purpose.

The specification describes a generic distributed open learning environment using two viewpoints: the enterprise and information viewpoint. This will give a high-level specification, and further refinement can be achieved by specifying the remaining three viewpoints: computational, engineering, and technology. The next section will provide a general description of a generic DOLE, which in RM-ODP language represents a community.

4.2 General Description

As discussed in section Distributed Open Learning, distributed open learning environments (DOLE) enable one or more learners that are physically distributed to have access to learning materials. These learning materials are called courses. The environment will be operated by an education provider (EP). Courses will be provided to the education providers by specialised course authors. During and after the course, learners will be assessed by assessors, which may also be separate entities, such as national accreditation bodies.

Learners will be able to register at one or more education providers. Learners will also be able to interact with each other, and with the instructor. Furthermore the environment allows learner to be either directly connected to the education provider (online) or only occasionally connected (nomadic). Learners that are connected can interact in real-time through multimedia services such as audio, text, and video. Learners that are occasionally connected can collaborate through asynchronous conferencing system.

Both type of learners have access to the same learning resources. For example, lectures by instructors are attended in real-time by online learners, and are also archived. This lecture archive can be accessed by nomadic learners when they connect to the environments. Discussion forums, both moderated and unmoderated are also available.

The environment will store learning material, schedule of courses, learner details, and learner progress. Archives of learner activities will also be available. All learner activities and progress are stored as learner profiles, which should be portable between education providers. This portability would be important in supporting the idea of continuing education throughout life. A learner profile consists of several parts:

Thus, the learner profile may only be updated by either learners or EP. A typical DOLE is depicted in Figure DOLE.

Distributed open learning environment

4.3 Enterprise Specification

This section describes DOLE from the enterprise viewpoint. The issues addressed are identification of entities, called enterprise objects and their roles, and policies regarding all objects involved. From the general description, we can identify several objects. The enterprise objects and their overall relationship are shown in Figure Enterprise Specification. While generally each object may have several roles, for the purposes of this specification each object has only one role. We will now define each role individually, and present their specification.

Enterprise specification


Definition: Learners are divided further into:

This is one of the main role in DOLE. To start a course, learners need to register at an EP. It is also possible that learners are attending courses offered at several EPs at the same time. After registering, learners are allowed to attend courses. After the course finishes, learners may receive certification from the EP, based on assessment results. This certification will be recorded in the protected part of their learning profile. The specification for the learner role is summarised on Table learner-tbl.


Must be registered on one or more course at one or more EPs.

Provide the EP with previous learning profiles, if available.


Interact with course instructors.

Accessing one or more courses that they are registered on.

Access public section of their own learning profile.

Access and modify private section of their own learning profile.


Cannot modify protected section of their own learning profile.

Learner Role Specification

Course Instructor

Definition: A person or group that delivers the course to the learner, and facilitates the learning process.

Facilitating means that course instructors are not only teacher or lecturers, but may also become moderators, tutors, and counselors. The specification for the course instructor role is summarised on Table ci-tbl.


Facilitates learning by interacting and providing guidance for learners.

Reports course progress to EP.


Access and manage discussion forums.

Course Instructor Role Specification

Course Content Author

Definition: A person or group that writes and develops the course contents.

Course content authors are usually specialists in their field. After providing the initial course to the EP, they must keep the course up to date. This means that authors may access their courses in DOLE. The specification for the course content author role is summarised on Table cca-tbl.


Provide course material to EP.

Update course material as needed.


Access and update courses authored.

Course Content Author Role Specification

Learner Assessor

Definition: A person or group that assess the learners.

The assessment process is an important part of learning. Assessment results will determine the progress of learners. The assessor is responsible for providing EP with assessment materials. The assessor will also be responsible for conducting or supervising the assessment process. The specification for the learner assessor role is summarised on Table la-tbl.


Provide assessment materials to EP.

Evaluate progress of learners at one or more EP.


Access assesment results at one or more EP.

Learner Assessor Role Specification

Education Provider (EP)

Definition: An organisation that manages one or more courses and enrols learners.

Essentially this organisation will operate the distributed learning environment. Course instructors, content authors, and learner assessors are responsible to the EP. The EP may issue course certificates for qualified learners at the end of a course. The specification for the education provider role is summarised on Table ep-tbl.


Provide course content to registered learners.

Issue course certificates to registered learners.


Acesss previous learning profiles of registered learners.

Add course certificates to protected part of learner profile.

Education Provider Role Specification

Discussion on Enterprise Specification

The enterprise specification outlined above deliberately omit at least one aspect: financial issues, such as course fees or salaries for course instructor. This was done to avoid cluttering the high-level view of DOLE unnecessarily. Financial issues can easily be added from the computational viewpoint. For the purposes of this enterprise specification, financial issues are implicitly assumed in the behaviour of each object. For example, fees for learners (if any) are part of the course registration. For course instructors, as part of reporting progress of courses.

4.4 Information Specification

This specification examines DOLE from the information viewpoint. It contains information schemas that specify what should be stored in DOLE, and the relationship between them.

The information schemas can be divided into several categories, according to events in the learning process:

  1. Pre-learning session, when the learner first registers to an education provider.
  2. Learning session, when the learner is attending a course.
  3. Post-learning session, when the learner finishes a course.

On the following sections, we will outline the information schemas, using a notation summarised in Figure Information schema notation. The information entity represents something stored, and the relationship entity is usually built by combining informations from several entities. From now on, we will refer to information entities simply as entities.

Information schema notation

Pre-learning session

At this stage, the main issue is registering learners to courses. This will result in course participants, and together with assigned course instructors, constitutes a course class. Registering learners also means constructing the learner master data, gathered from learner's personal information (name, address, etc.). The schema is presented on Figure Pre-learning Schema. The Learner, Course, and Course Instructor entities builds a Course Class relationship entity. Since the Course entity is also provided by a Course Content Author entity, the schema also shows a relationship between the two entities.

Pre-learning session schema

Learning session

During the learning session the most important information will be the learner's progress. This progress is measured against the course plan. It also includes forum participation and interim assessments. The learning session schema is presented on Figure Learning Schema. The learner's progress is represented as a Learning Profile entity (discussed in section dole-desc), and is built by the Course Plan, Interim Assessments, and Learner entities. The Discussion Forum entity stores information about all the discussion forums available. When combined with the Learner entity, it can build the Forum Participation relationship entity.

Learning session schema

Post-learning session

After completing a course, a final assessment will be done, to determine the level of proficiency of learners. Assessment can also be done during the course as interim assessments (see section Learning session). The assessment results are the main information at this stage. The schema is presented on Figure Post-learning Schema. The Assessment Results entity are built by the Learner, Final Assessment, and Learner Profile entity. The information from Learner Profile used is the learner progress.

Post-learning session schema

4.5 Discussion

Consistency of viewpoints

One of the requirements of the RM-ODP standard is that viewpoints are consistent with each other. This is done by defining relations between key terms in each viewpoint. For the DOLE specification, the enterprise viewpoint needs to be consistent with the information viewpoint. This consistency is demonstrated in Figure Viewpoint Consistency. The enterprise viewpoint is represented by the Enterprise Specification (ES), and the information viewpoint is represented by the Information Specification (IS). The ES was described in section Enterprise Specification and the IS in section Information Specification. Each enterprise objects in the ES has a relationship with one or more information entities in the IS. For example, the Course Content Author object in the ES builds and maintain the Course Content Author, Course Plan, and Course entities in the IS.

Viewpoint consistency

Suitability of RM-ODP

During the development of the enterprise and information specification described above, it became clear that the concepts and language in the RM-ODP standard are quite rich and powerful. The standard tries to be "everything to everyone", so extracting the relevant information was not straightforward, and can be distracting. However, the richness of the standard certainly can be used to specify DOLE in a detailed manner. This detailed specification can assist the standardisation efforts on DOLE.


As it is, this particular specification of DOLE is not complete. It only provides a high-level view of DOLE. However, we can already see some reference points that needs to be standardised:

To use the specification, further work will need to be done on developing the remaining three viewpoints. The primary tasks that needs to be done on each viewpoint are:

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