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Using Xerte at the University of Cape Town

19 May 2016 - 15:15

Seta Jackson, Learning Technologies Consultant at CILT, recently wrote a piece for the Apereo Foundation newsletter detailing the University of Cape Town's (UCT's) pilot of Xerte (XML Editor Run Time Engine) a fully-featured e-learning development environment for creating interactive online learning objects. The pilot arose in response to the need for curation of the materials produced as part of the MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) being run at UCT. Seta examines the efficiency, functionality and future of using the Xerte platform.

About the project:

The decision to pilot Xerte (XML Editor Run Time Engine) was taken in response to a need for curation of the materials produced as part of the MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) being run at UCT. As a student of UCT’s first MPhil in Digital Curation programme, one of my modules entailed finding a project or initiative that was either in need of digital curation services or already engaged in them, for which I could either devise a curation strategy in response to expressed need, or be immersed in a project for a month and evaluate it, for assessment purposes. The MOOCs Project Team had partnered with a MOOC provider platform called FutureLearn (www.futurelearn.com) to deliver course content to participants from all over the world, and launched their first MOOC, Medicine and the Arts, in early 2015. As the FutureLearn platform already curates content, the challenge lay in how to curate the same information according to the requirements expressed by the MOOCs Project Team. This took the form of a controlled-access curation solution that would provide a way for the Team to be able to retain the materials used in the various courses as a record of what had been done, and also enable them to reuse these materials for reruns of courses while keeping the structure of the materials in a way that reflected and included the learning design and MOOC content as whole, contextualised units. Xerte was found to be able to meet this need.

As a content curation solution, MOOC project units created in Xerte can be shared and collaborated on jointly by members of the MOOCs Team, repackaged as required for making available on any institutional repository, and exported for offline access in distance learning courses where students face connectivity challenges. I was given an account on the FutureLearn website, as a course creator, to be able to download or copy course resources from there, and also access to the MOOC Team’s Google Drive learning design documents, which needed to be included in the Xerte learning object for each MOOC. UCT is using version 2.1 of Xerte, and I used the default Xerte Online Toolkit project template to create the following types of pages within the project:

  • Media > Video (for creating pages with embedded video – MP4 format optimal)
  • Text > Title Page (transitioning pages from week to week of the course)
  • Text > Summary (part of learning design - for scaffolding the week’s activities/steps)
  • Text > Orientation (part of learning design - for introducing an activity and providing context – this text would be very similar to that presented for student consumption on the FutureLearn website)
  • Media > Advanced Image (for creating pages with embedded text - MP3 format optimal)
  • Interactivity > Quiz

Each of the pages in the learning object combines text, images, videos, learning design, links between Xerte pages and hyperlinks to external web sites in one of the types of pages listed above according to the type of page template used.

Some comments on the Xerte functionality at UCT version:

  1. The learning object created in this instance did not do justice to the wide variety of page types available, or tap into the affordances of the other project template types, i.e. the Bootstrap and Decision Tree templates. It is hoped that marketing of this product and its potential uses would inspire the UCT Community to create learning objects that experiment with some of this unexplored functionality.
  2. It is possible to link between pages in a Xerte learning object. This contributes to its potential as a self-contained resource for offline use.
  3. It is possible to make a learning object navigable via a table of contents, so that the user is not restricted to a linear page progression that starts at the beginning each time the learning object is accessed.
  4. It is possible to link the Xerte-authored learning object to a Sakai site via the Learning Tool Interoperability (LTI) facility. This makes the content-rich learning object accessible to members of that site without their needing the URL. The object can still be edited in Xerte and updated in the LTI tool on an ongoing basis, and changes reflect almost immediately. Integrating the learning object in this way does mean that the object needs to be made public in the author’s Xerte account. This integration potential makes it an attractive option for instructors wanting to make the content available as part of their courses. LTI integration does require making the learning object public in one’s Xerte account, then using the URL generated to set up the LTI tool. It is also possible to generate an embed code for enabling access to the learning object in other web sites.
  5. Sets of properties can be applied to individual Xerte projects to enable author collaboration, sharing, giving of projects or making them available for peer-review, as well as RSS feed syndication and open content sharing in OpenCourseWare (see: ww.oeconsortium.org/faq/what-is-open-courseware).
  6. It is possible to export a zip file of Xerte learning object for offline access. This may work well in the provision of content to students in countries in which Internet connectivity is problematic.
  7. Xerte learning objects can be created in Flash or HTML5. The default output setting is HTML5, but this can be changed in a project’s properties, depending on author preference.

The way forward

We are eager to explore more of Xerte’s affordances through encouraging and working with instructors to pilot it and use more of its page types to create content for use in their courses. I recently conducted a demo session with the Faculty of Health Sciences Education Development Unit, which has expressed eagerness to start creating resources in Xerte, and so look forward to what they produce!

Overall, my experience with authoring in Xerte has been relatively uncomplicated. It is easy to use and does not really require the use of help documentation, and although the UCT installation does have technical issues that need attention, my hope is to be able to generate enough interest in and use of the product to make a case for the application to be hosted on a more permanent basis, as opposed to the pilot that is due to run from now until the end of 2017.

Seta Jackson
Learning Technologies Consultant
University of Cape Town