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December 09, 2005

Use DITA XML to develop reusable learning content

The DITA team at IBM has developed an XML-based information architecture for learning content.  DITA is the Darwin Information Typing Architecture, a design pattern for assembling topics into deliverables.  Say what?  I didn't get it either, until I shared the stage with IBM's John Hunt at last week's Gilbane Conference on Content Management in Boston [Developing Sustainable Content Strategies].  After seeing John's presentation, I realized that what his team did with DITA gets to the very heart of a longstanding problem with creating reusable learning objects.  

IBM Developer Works ImageIn a nutshell, DITA provides an extensible structure for organizing content into reusable blocks.  At the lowest level, a "DITA topic forms the most basic information unit -- short enough to be easily readable, but long enough to make sense on its own."  At the top level, a map applies context to topics and organizes them into a deliverable information product.  DITA is totally generic with respect to the content it can organize, but what John's information architecture team did is to extend DITA to represent an academic learning curriculum.

There've been two great challenges to widesperead  adoption of reusable learning objects (even though it's what everyone who develops learning content says we want).  
  • First, breaking  content down into  truly useful reusable chunks is and remains a daunting challenge.  A chunk too small can be too bereft of context to be practical to find and then assemble into larger learning topics.  A chunk too big and context-rich is likely to require modification in order to fit smoothly into a larger topic.  And even if "chunks" are right-sized, stringing them together might create a learning module with the right content but be cold and uninviting to a reader.  The transitions and continuity  that can bring personality and vibrancy to courseware are lost.

  • Second, is the lack of a standard technical architecture for containing and assembling reusable chunks.  Standards like SCORM describe the delivery and packaging model for learning content, without  addressing the structure of the content itself at all.  DITA fills that gap.  It says nothing about how you package and deliver material, but focuses entirely on the structure of the educational content itself.   
IBM Image - a learning topic mapFor organizations developing learning content, a framework like DITA can help instructional designers think about common structure that can apply to all learning objects.   Having to create subtopics like the learningAssessment can help guide decisions about right-sizing a learning topic.  

On the technical side, organizing content into an XML structure creates opportunities for authoring/assembly tools, template-based delivery, searchable learning object databases, and content that can be shared amongst organizations.  

One project I've been involved in, the HBS Tutorial Platform, has created an entire XML data model to do exactly what the DITA has done, but with a narrower focus on meeting the immediate needs of the institution and the delivery system.  The beauty of the DITA framework is its practicality - in the first moments of looking at it, I could see how it fits perfectly with all the needs of our existing system, as well as adding significant new opportunites to organize our content for reuse.

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Developing Reusable Learning Content [and DITA]
Excerpt: You operate in government or a big corporation. Training is key. Such much content to identify, develop, organize, shelve and maintain in the form of course content. So many decisions to take - how to organize learning content, or to reuse it for new...
Weblog: Information Management Now!
Tracked: December 10, 2005 12:49 PM