June 12, 2008

SELF-made site for courseware

Author: Suhit Kelkar

Where on the Web do you go for free education and training materials? A project called Science, Education and Learning in Freedom (SELF) has created a site where educators and students can upload and download courseware without charge, or create courseware collaboratively. It maintains free-as-in-freedom content, and is intended for courses on free/libre software.

SELF was launched two years ago as a joint project of several universities and non-governmental entities. According to SELF co-founder G. Nagarjuna of Mumbai, India, existing online education resources are often too general, and structured for general introduction, not for classroom use. A course, by contrast, consists of information, interaction, tests, and examples -- that is, a format that involves the students. In courseware, "You have to talk to the student," says Nagarjuna, a teacher of philosophy himself. Also, the content has to be tailored differently for students in different grades.

Ease of use -- almost

The SELF site has three tiers. Users manipulate a Plone-based Web interface incorporating a text-processing box (tier one) to create and order data through a semantic ordering system (tier two), which stores the semantic metadata in a PostgreSQL database and sends the created courseware to the physical storage (tier three). The site is hosted at the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education in Mumbai, where Nagarjuna and his team are employed, while all the SELF data is transferred to a data centre in Amsterdam, where data storage is considerably cheaper than it is in Mumbai, where the site is hosted.

The site is user-editable, without using a special wiki software. Instead, SELF uses the Tiny MoxieCode Content Editor (TinyMCE), a Web-based JavaScript HTML WYSIWYG editor, which is LGPL-licensed.

To use SELF you first have to register and log in. You can then enter text using TinyMCE or upload a locally stored file along with a tag about its copyright status. Once it's on the site, content can be edited by anyone. You can also upload audio and video files, though there are no audio or video editing facilities on the site.

Part of the philosophy of SELF is to throw away nothing; no data is considered waste. It has a versioning system that saves all drafts of a course. "You can compare two versions [of a text] at the same time and see what the other guy has [changed]. There is complete redundancy. Everything is saved, nothing is lost -- it sits in the database to be used by someone else," says Alpesh Gajbe, one of the developers.

The Web site supports 38 languages, Gajbe says, although in my test of the beta site, multilingual support malfunctioned; changing language preferences from Hindi to English didn't work. Both languages were displayed, English text under a Hindi headline.

SELF's other strength is that it is semantic in structure. User-created data is arranged so that the computer is instructed in the relationships between the bits of information. "SELF is semantic in the sense that it tries to understand the context," explains Gajbe. "Say someone is trying to research the history of the Taj Mahal. There's also a tea brand called Taj Mahal. So you'd need to search the history of India for a monument called the Taj Mahal." Data is saved semantically, along with relations. The SELF core, GNOWSYS, recognises 14 types of relations and 112 applicable attributes. SELF users are kept insulated from the semantic relationships; it works behind the scenes. The SELF developers use specially developed scripts on the back end to gather the semantic data, Gajbe says.

GNOWSYS (Gnowledge Networking and Organising System) was developed in India by Nagarjuna and his team in Mumbai and is a part of the GNU project. Nagarjuna is president of the Free Software Foundation's India chapter.

Obstacles and solutions

The biggest problem about SELF is its patchy link to the Internet. Until recently, the Homi Bhabha Centre had just one high-speed Internet link that would go down frequently. It was recently augmented by three more lines, which now keep SELF up and live, but the system isn't perfect.

Moreover, though seed content from Wikipedia is welcomed, SELF is meant for specialised writing by educators, not for general encyclopedia contributors. That special characteristic reduces its resource pool. So last January other SELF partners founded a Free Knowledge Institute in Amsterdam, one of whose aims is to spread the word about this potentially significant project, and even hire hackers and teachers to create seed courseware. This institute also tries to raise funding for SELF; the current grant from the European Community, about a million euros for the SELF constituent organisations, expires in July.

There's nothing else like SELF on the Internet -- a collaborative Web site for courseware, composed of free/libre content that can be viewed, downloaded, modified, translated into any language, and used by anyone without charge. SELF now awaits volunteer contributors from across the world to create teaching aids for free/libre software.


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