Towards a universal online library of learning material

Towards a universal online library of learning material

How much material has been lost through the years? Now the question is of course what do I mean by material. For example, do I mean the trivial stuff such as typed office memorandums or the less trivial—the missing live broadcasts of the early Dr Who. No, let me focus on what I consider to be the most important material of all, that which may have a positive effect on the next generation— the historical and educational material that helps our children form sophisticated models of the Universe around us.

Before starting I should mention that these are my personal views and do not necessarily represent the views of any related organization.

I must admit to a certain bias in this article: I’m a developer that works for a University. I build and glue things. And, if that doesn’t work, I get a big hammer out and start breaking things into smaller bits and rattling the boxes. Therefore, my bias is clear: I like things to work and, if on a good day the sun is smiling and my children allow me to sleep for ten hours, then I think about the broken pieces from the hammer expedition that are inelegant. An example inelegancy is the minimal reuse of content throughout the online, educational biosphere and how painful it is to look at.

I wrote a paper once before I fossilized into my current inert mental state. What I had found—and yes the information is obvious—is that teachers place a lot of Microsoft Office content into Course Management Systems. Worse still is that the content is difficult to get out and transport. Sure, there are excellent export/import enabling standards such as Scorm and IMS. However, the use of these on the ground is somewhat limited and not backdated to some of the older weather worn golden nuggets of creative content. Not only Office, how about handcrafted HTML and the 4 trillion office file types used over the prehistory of the Internet. However, the current standards are almost all we have active at present on the front line of this entropy driven battle, so let us use them thoroughly.

Last week I mentioned and its brilliant efforts at accumulating media content. I was especially impressed because of the educational section. It would be the height of civilization to have a Universal online library, which is accessible to all. I would love to see the steady flow of content from all Universities and Course Management Systems towards such a unified library. Think about those $100 dollar laptops going to the third world. How about accumulating and placing content available for reconversion and delivery to the people that most need it.

Another bias of mine is the severe use of rose tinted glasses. My postgraduate teacher training was done at Bolton Institute, now Bolton University. I have warm remembrances of the local culture and positive interactions with beer and like-minded friends. Therefore, when talking about Bolton, I have that warm fuzzy feeling from a time well enjoyed. Anyway, Bolton is one of the supporters of the Reload project, a number of Scorm/IMS tools are mentioned therein. I have the feeling that if we wait a couple of software generations the tools are going to be particularly useful.

Third world bandwidth is an issue and so too the specification of what $100 dollar laptop is. However, if you believe in community centers, with one decently specified computer with a DVD player and a modem, then you could use the computer to order a custom DVD from a local mirror of the central archive containing a personalized set of courses. Once you have the content centrally and without copyright restrictions and the right content players locally, much knowledge can be delivered at a reasonable price.

What am I trying to convey is that we have an example of a Universal library and we have examples of potentially Universal content. What is missing at present is a link between the central repository of free educational material and the Individual learning systems. This is where free software players such as Moodle and Sakai can facilitate in this process by delivering tools that help export to the central archive. This would thus allow teachers and lecturers an easy root to agree to sharing. I’m not saying that these learning systems don’t have Scorm compliant tools. What I am saying is that we are missing a central repository. Perhaps not for the newest courses for commercial and competition reasons. However, what about the three year old courses waiting to be backed up one final time for prosperity. Surly educational establishments can give the courses away for the greater good if they are not already doing so.

I am sure most of the technological aspects are straightforward to solve and the political and legal landscape more difficult to navigate. However, I do believe a central archive would a defining icon of a civilized world, a concept worth working towards.



Terry Hancock's picture

"Central" as in "of great importance" is a good idea. "Central" as in "running on one server in one building removable by a single air strike (or more mundane disaster)" would make me a lot less happy.

I think is pretty cool, but I think we're going to want more a distributed database for "the sum total of human knowledge". For the long run, I think we want to store this kind of information in a more distributed way, with copies all over the world. This would also help with the mirroring, bandwidth, and even censorship problems.

Alan Berg's picture
Submitted by Alan Berg on


I like the idea of a protocol simular to the one used by search engines which allows the distribution of content between servers.

Terry Hancock's picture

I guess you're talking about that trick by which Google will pass a search onto a site which provides a search interface? That sounds like a good thing, though I never really investigated how that works (hint hint: want to write a blog about it, Alan? ;-) ).

I've already mentioned the "single point of failure" problem, but maybe my deeper concern is the "single point of control": I certainly don't want the "sum total of human knowledge" to be under any one person, corporation, or nation's thumb. Nor do I want them to be able to control what does and does not get listed. I'd rather deal with the inaccuracy of unreviewed material than face the long term stagnancy problems endemic to review systems, let alone intentional censorship.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

The persistence problem is a big one!

I believe that the evolution theory applies to knowledge just as it does to DNA...But...I also think that leaves us still completely free to decide how much information to keep. All of it sounds kind of useful right?

If we could simply set up a torrent file, on about 1000 sites and share one file, you don't even need all of it, just however much you can take. OK, maybe 100,000 seeds.

Would be nice if it was one nice searchable file, that we could all share. source yeah?



Author information

Alan Berg's picture


Alan Berg Bsc. MSc. PGCE, has been a lead developer at the Central Computer Services at the University of Amsterdam since 1998. In his spare time, he writes articles, book reviews and has authored three books. He has a degree, two masters and a teaching qualification. In previous incarnations, he was a technical writer, an Internet/Linux course writer, and a science teacher. He likes to get his hands dirty with the building and gluing of systems. He remains agile by playing computer games with his sons who (sadly) consistently beat him physically, mentally and morally at least twice in any given day.

You may contact him at At