Volume 11, Number 6 October 31, 2003

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Team to build tools to search web for educational content

U of S computer scientists will receive $1.2 million over the next five years to develop software tools for making sense of vast amounts of online information - work that may extend the reach of universities far beyond their campus boundaries.

"Anyone who has used the Internet knows there is a tremendous amount of excellent teaching and learning material out there," says Jim Greer, Head of the U of S Computer Science Department. "The challenge is finding these materials, evaluating them, then tailoring them to your needs."

The U of S team will research and develop specialized software tools that will be used to mine the world's databases for suitable learning materials and help assemble sequences of "learning objects" into larger lessons or course modules. Learning objects are pieces of information that are reusable, small, and have some instructional goal such as tutorials, exams, video clips and other multimedia resources.

NSERC - the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada - will contribute $1 million and industry will contribute $200,000.

The U of S team is one node of a nearly $10-million Canada-wide project called LORNET (Learning Objects Repositories Network), an NSERC research network announced Oct. 16 in Montreal by federal Industry Minister Allan Rock.

"This network constitutes an exceptional team of eminent Canadian specialists in the field of distance learning," said NSERC Executive Vice-President Nigel Lloyd. "The research that they are going to carry out will unquestionably revolutionize teaching methods."

LORNET aims to integrate the vast quantities of learning objects that have been created over the years by educators and instructional designers. The new computer software will also "learn" from how it is being used.

"We want a suite of tools that not only monitors how learners use information, but teaches itself how to better support learning," Greer explains.

Using these tools, students wanting to brush up on a subject could build customized lessons for themselves. Professors or teachers could find resources and lab activities, together with suggestions on how to fit the elements together.

Ultimately, LORNET aims to enhance the capacity of schools and universities to develop online courses, and to make it easier for students to get the materials they need to further their education. It will also allow the best learning resources to be widely re-used, and for courses developed here to be offered in rural communities in Canada and around the world.

"This technology will allow our educational institutions to expand far beyond their borders," Greer says. "The walls are breaking down and there will be international trade in education. Canada needs to be involved in this marketplace."

Gilbert Paquette of the T¨¦l¨¦-universit¨¦ du Quebec (TELUQ), a distance-learning university in Montr¨¦al, leads the national LORNET initiative. Other nodes are located at the University of Ottawa, the University of Waterloo, Simon Fraser University, and Ecole Polytechnique de Montreal. The network plans to provide training each year to some 40 graduate students and six postdoctoral fellows.

The U of S research team includes Gordon McCalla, Jim Greer, Julita Vassileva, Ralph Deters and John Cooke - all from the department of computer science. Local industry partners include online courseware developer Inroad Solutions and the telecom research agency TRLabs.

For more information, contact communications.office@usask.ca

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