Guide to Content Transformation

Divya Wadhwani,
Senior Director of Learning Content Development
 

Getting Things Where You Need Them To Be

As we have worked with organizations to support their learning requirements during recent months, we have found several institutions with their content in various states. Some have content in one Learning Management System (LMS) but they need it moved to a different one. Some have print or eBook content that needs to be moved into an LMS. Links, resources, assignments, videos, textbook references - the list is quite daunting and the added pressure to gather and organize every asset in a timely manner before teaching commences is a problem every online program is facing.  During the course of this article, we explore transformations such as Lift and Shift of content, standards based approaches like Common Cartridge (CC) and Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) that organizations can leverage to address the task before them. There are two main objectives as we see it:

  • Devise a repeatable process to transform courses into a portable format that can be consumed by Learning Management Systems.
  • Load the transformed files to the target LMS using templates.

Pre-Transformation

Regardless of the transformation approach chosen, there are some steps that need to be taken in advance.

Course Template Creation
First, an organization should create a course template that contains a sampling of all content types and patterns found in the organization’s source materials. These templates could be for the whole organization or department/ program specific. This process results in both a demonstrable sample for stakeholder approval as well as a mapping of the source content to the destination, often the LMS. Every effort should be taken to preserve design themes that are present in the source formats where possible. A future article will provide several examples of template design and the approaches that can be used.

Transformation Approaches

Lift & Shift

Summary
In this approach, the transformation is accomplished using a mix of programmatic scripts and manual efforts to accommodate unique elements and adapt for data anomalies. As new content is added, the transform scripts may be reused for bulk transform.

Advantages

  • Collaborative Fine Tuning: After the organization hierarchy is in place and initial content is copied into that hierarchy, changes can be made within the LMS by any party. This allows for collaborative refinement of the final draft.
     
  • Ability to speed up effort: The copying of content and refinement can be done in parallel by multiple people. In this scenario, adding additional resources to speed up the process is helpful.

Disadvantages

  • Less Standardization: There is less automation in this process and more human intervention, which allows non-standard source files and introductions of variations to leak in.

  • Lack of Long Term Cost Reduction: Without automation, future conversions will incur a lot of the fixed costs associated with the manual lift and shift approach.

  • Brittle Styles: Any styles that were generated or added to the content in the LMS becomes brittle when edited by anyone within the LMS.

  • Normalization: It is possible to export the course from one LMS and ingest into another LMS; however, there will  be manual work to normalize the look and feel in other target LMSs.

Common Cartridge

Summary
The second approach entails developing scripts to transform the content into a common cartridge package that can be ingested into multiple LMSs. Note that the script can initially target the organization’s  LMS. There may be additional work needed for other targeted LMSs.

Advantages

  • Automation: Scripts provide repeatable and consistent packages with well known results in target LMSs.

  • Standardization: Because the source files must follow certain standards so that the transformation can be automated, it guarantees that only certain patterns can be used.

  • Long Term Cost Reduction: The upfront cost of developing source file standards and processing scripts are incurred once. Only minor maintenance on source file standards and corresponding processing scripts will need to be made. Consider a standard versioning system and or custom editor to aid in the maintenance of this process.

  • Consistent Styling: All styles are generated in the automated transform process. This gives continuity across the entire course.

Disadvantages

  • Brittle Styles: If users are allowed to edit the content after it is ingested from a Common Cartridge package, the inline-styles that were automatically generated become brittle. Editing, especially creation of new content, will break or create inconsistencies in the look and feel.
     
  • Overwriting Changes: Any updates or additions to packages already imported by the organization will need to be reimported and will lose updates the institution has made previously.
     
  • Source Standards Development: A one time upfront cost is incurred to collaboratively come up with standards for the source formats that ensure that the automation scripts can consume and transform the content.
     
  • Source Update Overhead: Ideally, any changes that are needed during QA or potentially after publication are done in the source files and reprocessed. Also, a shared repository and a pull request strategy should be used, but it adds some steps to the process of making updates in the QA phase.

 Steps

  • Teacher and student content organization
    There may be some initial work to reorganize teacher and student content into a structure that can more easily be digested in an automated approach.
     
  • Script development and iterative testing in the LMS
    This includes transformation code to utilize the LMS template described above to ensure consistent look and feel.
     
  • Manual tweaks
    In some cases, there may be manual tweaks required in the LMS to enhance the organization and labeling of the high level sections in the course.

LTI Tool

Summary
This approach consists of building a web application to serve as a container and player of the digital content and then building an interface using the IMS Learning Tools Interoperability(LTI) specification to enable users to interact with the web application from the LMS. Generally, this approach makes sense when the institution wants to maintain control of the content and does not allow instructors to make their own updates.

Advantages

  • Standardization: Because the source files must follow certain standards (so we can automate the transformation), it guarantees that only certain patterns can be used.

  • Long Term Cost Reduction: The upfront cost of developing source standards and processing scripts are incurred once. Only minor maintenance on source standards and corresponding processing scripts will need to be made. Consider a standard versioning system and or custom editor to aid in the maintenance of this process.

  • Consistent Styling: All styles are generated in the automated transform process. This gives continuity across the entire course.

  • Presentation Unification & Flexibility: Delivery of the transformed content is now centralized. This means the user experience is the same regardless of what LMS the user comes from. This also opens up the possibility of supporting more complex widgets right inside the content. The limitations of different LMSs would be lifted and the usage of iFrames within the LMS in custom more complex widgets would no longer be necessary.

  • Extensible Architecture: Additional functionality can be added which could include sending Caliper event data back to an LMS or even adding global activity tracking to determine which content is being viewed regardless of the source LMS.

Disadvantages

  • LMS Owner Overhead: This consideration is mainly for organizations wanting to share their content with other organizations. A shared secret needs to be generated and configured in the LMS that will use the LTI based course. Any LMS owner who wishes to pull down the course from a common content hub will need to then follow directions to set up configs in their LMS to enable the LTI launch into the LTI tool provider that was developed.

  • Hosting Costs: An external application will incur ongoing hosting/services/management costs.

  • LTI Tool Development: A one time upfront cost is incurred to design, build, and deploy an LTI Tool used to deliver the content.

  • Source Standards Development: A one time upfront cost is incurred to collaboratively come up with standards for the source formats that ensure that the automation scripts can consume and transform the content.

  • Source Update Overhead: Ideally, any changes that are needed during QA or potentially after publication would be done in the source files and reprocessed. Also, a shared repository and pull request strategy should be used, but it adds some steps to the process of making updates in the QA phase.

  • Lack of Support for Instructor Customization: Since the content is not = contained within the LMS, instructors are not able to customize it unless the applications developed allow for customization during the LTI launch. LTI is an extensible standard, but considerations for instructor modifications will add upfront design and development time.

Steps

  • Create HTML & CSS styles and methods for style consumption by scripts.
    Each content source can have styles applied to it during transformation. A mechanism for defining and consuming these styles needs to be developed.
     
  • Set up an LTI integrated web application, communicating with the LMS.
    Design and implement a web application with LTI launch endpoints and delivery mechanisms for both teacher and student roles for the content. Develop scripts to transform the content into a format suitable for consumption in the web application. Minor transformation of source files with role based labelling would be required.
     
  • Setup LMS course with LTI launch points.
    The launch point can be a single link at the root that launches into the entire course, or a skeleton can be created in the LMS with LTI launch points into subsections of the content..

Post-Transformation

Quality Assurance

Using the approaches above, much of the QA should have been done in an iterative approach while course content is being transformed and viewed through the LMS. However, you need a final review from stakeholders and iterations to address any issues found.

Final LMS Course Export

Once final changes are made, they need to be ingested into the LMS. This may require ingesting a complete set of course content or, in the case of an LTI integration, ingesting  an outline of LTI launch points.

Conclusion

This article highlights three approaches you can take to transform your content to bring into an LMS. The Lift and Shift approach will get you the speed you need to bring the content together in the LMS, while the Common Cartridge approach will get you standardization and automation. LTI gives the institution a lot of flexibility and control over the content, with the added overhead of maintaining additional authoring environments to manage and package the content for an LMS. Regardless of the approach chosen, a course template really helps in giving the content a uniform look and feel for the learner to navigate through and for the teachers to add their content to.

Our next articles will highlight what you can do with the content using templates and designs that focus on minimizing cognitive load on learners, while preserving the pedagogy of the materials.

Divya Wadhwani

Divya Wadhwani

Senior Director of Learning Content Development
Divya Wadhwani is a Senior Director of Learning Content Development at Unicon, a technology consulting firm focused solely on the education ecosystem. Divya has 15+ years of experience leading content and technology teams delivering learning solutions for a global audience with domains spanning networking, marketing, human resources and software development. In this role, Ms Wadhwani oversees strategy, operations, P&L and vendor management for our large corporate clients and is also responsible for Unicon's offshore engagements. Divya has a Masters in Computer Science from Arizona State University, Bachelors in Computer Engineering from the University of Pune, India and a minor in Dance. She lives in Chandler AZ, with her husband and two girls.

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