NS-eCMS: Content Management and Collaboration Environment
  for Natural Sciences


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 Project Proposal




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Project Objectives

Distance education programs of natural sciences combining asynchronous eLearning with synchronous AV-learning, have been used with success the recent years. Universities use new developments such as multi-point videoconferencing over IP and shared applications, including Smartboard technology, with great success to incorporate distance learning into their ordinary on-campus programs. However, demand has been developing both for asynchronous and synchronous authoring, presentation and collaboration tools that promote use of standard mathematical and scientific notation (SMSN). In addition to overcoming geographical constraints, such tools must overcome the increased requirements for time-effective communication during the educational process in these fields. For this reason, frameworks enabling administrators, educators, learners, and researchers to interact efficiently by exchanging rich media documents that contain large amounts of formulas, graphs and sketches, together with animations and simulations in sophisticated combinations, have become a necessity.

NS-eCMS Architecture Overview

These trends introduce a whole new layer of challenges and possibilities for engaging interactive communication between authors and users of content. Demand has been developing by companies seeking to extend the skills of their employees through continuous learning, by individuals seeking higher education or life long training for the achievement of their career goals, by on-campus students who use Internet as a natural information and communication tool, and by teachers who are challenged to design engaging material in a host of new ways and communicate the material through Internet as an integral part of their teaching in both on-campus and distance education programs.

Vendors of eLearning Distance Learning Platforms do not yet support SMSN because distance learning on most subjects, which are generic, does not require it. On the other hand, lack of SMSN and simple integration of, for instance, sketches limits the utility of distance learning wherever there is a strong technical component in the educational material. While several advanced and comprehensive Computer Algebraic Systems (CAS) exist, they are typically prohibitively expensive and several of them promote a license policy that is too heavy for universities to administrate. The need for deployment of such tools to large numbers of learners as well as the lack of convenient standardization properties and high user thresholds in such tools limits the usefulness of existing solutions in distance education programs of natural sciences at both high school and higher education. For this reason, institutions in Europe have been often forced to use unsuited tools and web solutions in an effort to upgrade content that contains technical components.

The NS-eCMS project focuses an open web-based content management, communication and collaboration system for the support of distance learning of natural sciences. Management of media rich material will be achieved through the design and implementation of an open, federated architecture enabling straightforward design, exchange and publication through International standard formats, specifically MathML and XML, across Europe through the Web.

An overview of the NS-eCMS system architecture is presented in the above figure. The architecture aims to address the full range of needs of the eLearning process for natural sciences, from content management, to learning management, integration with CAS servers, examination management, etc. Information will be represented internally using XML to ensure compatibility with standards, interoperability, and extensibility into future applications. The architecture is based on the separation of concerns principle, ensuring independence of the application logic from the user interface.

The specific objectives of the system are:

  • Efficient educational content management, emphasizing use of standard mathematical formalism in natural sciences.

  • Single point of access to possibly distributed content and services, with internal information representation using inter-national standards, specifically MathML (XML), to ensure compatibility with present or forthcoming eLearning initiatives.

  • A straightforward user interface enabling easy introduction of elements related to the teaching of natural sciences, including mathematical formulas, graphs and sketches/drawings, into the system. Multiple interaction methods will be explored, including web technology, electronic blackboards and digital document cameras, and light pens (e.g. Wacom and/or Smart Pen Try).

  • Integration of mathematical software tools for the on-line execution of computations and visualization of results. Commercial web-based tools such as MapleNet and MapleTA will be explored. Furthermore, the possibility of integrating legacy code developed at the participating institutions will be explored as proof of concept.

  • Services for the support of cheap online web-solutions for large groups of learners based on the above-mentioned infrastructure. Services to be implemented include on-line learner assessment through examinations and exercises.

  • Efficient collaboration and communication that facilitates the learning process through asynchronous tools (chat-rooms, forums, collaborative space sharing) and synchronous applications as video-conferencing through desktop units.

  • Organized state of the art educational content for natural sciences that takes advantage of the proposed infrastructure and MathML for effective information presentation, using the calculator- or symbolic mode of the commercial tools.

    NS-eCMS promotes course structuring that promotes flexibility without sacrificing usability. The system infrastructure allows the developement of hierarchical as well as the possibility of module reuse for the creation of value-adding educational entities. An example of course organization is presented below.

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