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Learning Engines - a Framework for the Creation of Interactive Learning Components on the Web

Paul Fritze and Peter McTigue,

Multimedia Education Unit

The University of Melbourne



The Learning Engines framework is concerned with the efficient development of rich learning activities to extend the rather didactic delivery of information often associated with the Web. These activities are influenced by past experience of Computer Aided Learning systems and by the needs of current curriculum restructuring projects across the University. A central theme of these activities is the creation of tutorial-style dialogues that utilise Web-based visualisation and simulation resources. Production emphasis is on both generic objects useful across disciplines, and others that are highly customised for localised learning requirements. It has been possible to streamline resource production by using simpler objects that work together, concentrating effort on educational content functions rather than delivery mechanisms. Objects developed under the framework contribute to a pool of shared resources supported by common mechanisms for inter-object communication, database management, delivery and authoring. A particularly useful class of client-side Web object has been identified as the 'input' object, which can extend the capacity of a regular tutorial system to provide a richer interface to the subject matter.


The Learning Engines project is a development of the Multimedia Education Unit, working in conjunction with projects in a number of departments at The University of Melbourne. It is set within the context of a general movement to the restructuring of curricula and adoption of flexible approaches to teaching and learning utilising educational technology.

To support its strategic directions, the University has allocated $4M for educational development projects in 1997 and 1998. Project proposals serve to illustrate current beliefs and understandings of teaching staff in regard to their educational needs, priorities and the directions of their respective departments. Moreover, the drafting process by which applicants have been encouraged to consult with MEU and members of the overseeing committee has contributed to an important cross-flow of understanding. Thus the characteristics of projects represent an amalgam of institutional, departmental and individual understandings of educational issues and a useful guide for support strategies. MEU as a University-wide educational technology support service comprising academic and technical educational services, is in a central position to observe and support both individual and institutional requirements. It is through this understanding and involvement in particular projects that the LE project approaches the application of educational multimedia in a manner cognisant of overall institutional need.

Client-side Learning Engine Activities

In the light of project discussions, the LE project aims to provide a model for the development and implementation of rich, interactive learning activities for Internet-based course delivery. These are education functions characterised by traditional Computer Aided Learning modules but running as modular 'client-side' programs embedded within a Web browser page. Such on-line resource objects are of course only one tool in the armoury of traditional and computer-based educational techniques. They must be applied in the context of traditional and computer-based teaching methods and technologies such as lectures, tutorials, practical classes, print materials, hypertext documents, media databases, Computer Mediated Communication and so on.

Despite past experience in stand-alone CAL software, the more open and rapidly developing Internet environment brings new challenges. Appropriate cross-platform development systems are few in number and relatively immature. Java, although continuing to promise a longer term portability and openness, remains useable only by skilled programmers. Macromedia has developed Internet-compatible 'Shockwave' formats for Director and Authorware that operate through browser 'plugins' and can create resources with a high degree of interactivity and media control (Macromedia, 1997). These authoring tools represent a development path somewhat closer to the traditional CAL approach in the University environment. This project has employed Director Shockwave in the initial phase, although there is no reason why future objects cannot be written in other authoring systems as they emerge.

Directions in client-side educational objects

There are many examples of client-side educational objects in both Shockwave and Java. The Educational Object Economy (Apple Computer, 1997) is attempting to create a collaborative community in which developers & teachers can access and share object resources and formulate methodologies and standards for optimising collaboration. There are currently over 1000 educational objects listed across a range of disciplines. While these may eventually provide a significant pool of commercial and free resources, we believe it is unlikely to have a great impact on the University-level curriculum in the immediate future. We see the need for efficient and continuing development of customised on-line activities that address the coal-face needs and pedagogical understandings of teaching staff.

In devising a practical model to support development of resource objects, we must steer a delicate path between alternate strategy directions and technologies. For example, should a product be developed in-house or is a commercial product a solution? Should an in-house development be highly customised for discipline requirements or developed as a generic solution for wider application across a curriculum and perhaps other disciplines? What is a proper balance between sophistication of educational capability and ease of development and implementation?

Constructing an Enriched Learner Dialogue

Our focus is to enhance the rather didactic delivery of information often associated with the Web. Specifically we are aiming to develop the conversational nature of the teaching-learning process at the micro level of student interactions. Laurillard has outlined a framework to support a complete teaching-learning process centred on the conversational requirements of the student, the teacher and their respective constructed worlds (Laurillard, 1993, p97-8). While noting the ideal of the one-to-one tutorial process, she points out the inherent difficulty in supplying adequate feedback to students' actions in the current educational climate. In categorising how various forms of media support this conversational framework, the tutorial-simulation is identified as capable of supporting all its elements. Relating this media form to the resources appearing in places such as EOE, many objects fitting the descriptions of visualisations and simulations, as well as others capable of some form of tutorial interaction, are common.


Visualisation resources are interactive representations of content information, data or relationships, such as an animations, demonstrations or hyperlinked data sets. The student experience is likely to be one of exploration rather than practical engagement in learning activity. Textbooks and printed lecture notes are traditional forms of these objects, while computer equivalents might include hyperlinked Web documents or image databases.


Simulation objects are more complete models of a knowledge system that provide for direct input by the student. There is clearly an overlap with some visualisations. They may appear as virtual pieces of equipment or graphic representation of complex relationships in which parameters can be adjusted. Intrinsic feedback by the object results from student action and objects are characterised by multiple learning goals embodied within the model. This however may not necessarily be entirely clear to the learner.

Tutorial dialogues

Numbers of client-side quiz, assessment and drill and practice objects are to be found. These are capable of engaging the student in a dialogue to varying degrees. In general the dialogue will consist of information presentation, user input, feedback generated in response to student actions and feedback to the teacher of assessment results. The dialogue is constructed in some sort of authoring scheme by the teacher. Many examples of this type are customised to the requirements of the subject matter. Although not necessarily fully discursive in the ideal manner of a face-to-face tutor, well constructed tutorials can be a very useful supplement to other teaching modes.

Learning Engine objects and creation of a tutorial dialogues

In consideration of the form of these objects, we suggest that much value, in both learning quality and reusability, can be added to even fairly modest visualisations or simulations by employing them in a tutorial dialogue with the learner. The LE framework defines key functionalities that enable visualisation or simulation objects to operate in conjunction with a generalised tutorial dialogue object.


Figure 1. Interactive periodic table resource object

Consider the visualisation of a periodic table in figure 1. Although generally considered 'interactive' and embedded with multiple levels of information, as an independent resource it achieves no more, and possibly less than the inside cover of any Chemistry text book. Despite the periodic table being a fundamental knowledge construct within the discipline of chemistry, such an interactive object by itself, while not particularly difficult to develop, is of limited value.

With a little extra effort however, constructing this visualisation as a Learning Engine object enables the teacher to set up a tutorial discussion actively involving this construct in the student's activities. This is achieved by way of an independent tutorial dialogue object to invoke questions and interpret actions.

The Tutorial Itemset LE object

The Tutorial Itemset is a key LE object that provides a tutorial dialogue mechanism to support visualisation and simulation objects such as the periodic table above. It has its basis in the TutorialTools instructional authoring system developed for the School of Chemistry in 1993 and was prototyped in an on-line version teaching the fundamentals of literary citations and library cataloguing (Fritze, P., 1996). TutorialTools has been used extensively by teaching staff in the School of Chemistry to create over 80 hours of undergraduate CAL workshop materials in addition to use in other institutions. (McTigue et al, 1995).

The Tutorial Itemset objects is illustrated in figure 2 and features:

Figure 2 The Tutorial Itemset object displaying one of a set of question items

Chemistry-related functions in TutorialTools have been replaced with the ability for the Itemset to communicate with external objects, specifically to:

Figure 3. Objects combined to created a tutorial dialogue centred around the Periodic Table

By combining the Periodic Table object with the Itemset on a Web page, a sequence of question items can be presented to the student requiring the identification of particular elements with the selection 'pen' (figure 3). Thus the student's articulation of understanding is situated within the simulated discipline construct, rather than the more typical multiple choice or text question formats. The teacher may also highlight particular elements related to the question so the flow of information has the potential to occur in two ways. Although a relatively simple example, it illustrates how a resource that would otherwise be at best a textbook equivalent transcends the limitations of the static page in a manner defined by the teacher at authoring.

Input objects

Combining Learning Engine objects in this manner reveals another useful class of client-side Web object. 'Input' objects serve as adjuncts to the Tutorial Itemset to provide specialised open entry formats. These could be likened to traditional learning devices such as a pen and paper. Unlike the paper-base equivalent, they have the potential for generating immediate feedback to student actions and to report back to the teacher. Input objects are essentially content free and can be applied in across disciplines. The Graphing Engine is an example of this type (Kennedy & Fritze, 1997). This object can interpret the student's attempt to plot a curve using a three point bezier interpretation. In figure 4, a curve has been generated by the tutorial item. The student's sketched curve in response has failed one of the Itemset's criteria and a feedback comment reports the problem. The level of detailed question and response using this object combination is potentially very high and applicable across a wide variety of disciplines. It should be noted however that any single input device will not suit all applications in all disciplines. If demand can be shown, there may well be justification to create an alternative graphing object taking perhaps a more mathematical approach.

Figure 4 Graphing Engine input device as focus of a tutorial dialogue

Another example of a generic input device is the concept map Learning Engine object in figure 5 with which a wide variety of closed or open-ended questions can engage the learner.

Creation of discipline specific simulations

Figure 5. Concept map input object

A number of the curriculum projects require custom simulations to solve learning scenarios and would generally not be transferable. The LE approach, simplifies object construction by providing the standard interactions through the Tutorial Itemset object. Even fairly simple objects of this type can be very useful in meeting departmental needs and can be created efficiently. Examples of LE simulation objects include a virtual dog for Veterinary Anatomy, a virtual laboratory mouse for identification coding and a virtual dental chart (figure 6). Again, each of these can be combined within a Tutorial Itemset to guide and elicit responses from the student.

Learning Engines technical framework

This paper has concentrated on functional rather than technical descriptions of the project. This is important in the sense that the objects and their structural relationships have evolved directly from needs of departmental projects rather than from a technically engineered solution. The object framework provides mechanisms for inter-object communication, database management, delivery, authoring, assessment and evaluation. Initial protocols have deliberately been kept simple, as a more open and scalable object communication model is under development using the VA model described elsewhere (IP & Canale, 1997). It is possible to run LE objects in several configurations including stand-alone computer, simple Web server or Web database. Simple server operation is indicated in figure 7.



Figure 6. Discipline-specific LE simulations. Dental chart and animal coding exercise


Figure 7. Basic server operation of the Graph/Itemset objects within a browser page

All Learning Engine objects are Director Shockwave movies embedded as interactive objects within an HTML page. They have the ability to receive/send commands from/to other LE objects via a simple communication channel that uses preferences files in the browser plugins folder and simple JavaScript functions on the HTML page. This functionality is created as Lingo library cast members which can be directly imported into new objects.

Some LE objects such as the Tutorial Itemset, Graphing Engine and the Virtual Dental Chart are in addition capable of interpreting a script file that defines their operation. The particular vocabulary of an object 'IOscript' is unique to that object and is expressed in terms of the functions supported by the object. For example, the following extract of IOscript for the virtual dental chart pre-configures it with case data for a particular patient:

patient (name = "Joe B.", age = 45, health = "good")

tooth 1

surface 1, (status = "caries")

surface 2, (status = "filled", material = "amalgam")

tooth 12

surface 3, (status = "caries")

The IOscript is a central feature of the LE framework, providing a means of storing content data and for basic authoring. It is significant for a number of reasons. Firstly the technique owes much to the approach used in the successful TutorialTools system in Chemistry. It encourages development of novel Learning Engine components by focusing thinking on educational function, rather than program techniques. Installation of new objects requires no changes in database or administrative support as the script is stored as a single unit at the server. Lastly, an authoring layer currently under development will shield the content developer from this level of detail.

The IOscript can be specified as an URL address in the object's HTML parameters and loaded by the object during startup.

Future directions

The in 1997 has been on working with a small number of individual projects which will be implemented in 1998. MEU is well placed to administer and further develop key components of the framework, particularly generic input devices and core Tutorial Itemset objects. It is intended however that individual Departments will undertake development of visualisation and simulation objects customised to their own learning requirements. The pool of Learning Engine objects and associated content should provide a practical means of resource sharing between disciplines in the longer term.

Supporting administrative tools such as authoring tools, feedback and progress reports are currently basic and will be extended as the projects are implemented. The development of authoring layers through which components can be easily configured by as many teaching staff as possible remains a top priority.

In the longer term, a more scalable delivery and communication protocol will be required as student numbers increase. This will involve the VA communication model as well as integration into Web-based courseware systems that can provide more generalised solutions for whole course delivery, computer mediated communication, administration and assessment etc. We are working with MelbourneIT and their cMILE course delivery system to incorporate LE components as extensions to the delivery system.


Fritze, P. (1996). An implementation of interactive objects on the Web. pp. 55-60 in J. Hedberg & S. McNamara (Eds.). Learning technologies: Prospects and pathways. Proceedings of the Biennial Conference of the Australian Society for Educational Technology, EdTech'96, The University of Melbourne, 7-10 July 1996.

Kennedy, D. M., Fritze, P. & McTigue, P. (1997). An interactive graphing tool: The meeting of pedagogy and technology, In Proceedings of ASCILITE'97. Curtin University of Technology, Perth, 7-10 December.

Laurillard, D., 1993. Rethinking University teaching - a framework for the effective use of educational technology. Routledge, London.

Lilly, J. (20 August, 1997). What is the Educational Object Economy? [On-line]. Available:

Macromedia, Inc. (1997). Macromedia - Shockwave. [On-line]. Available:

McTigue, P. T., Tregloan, P. A., Fritze, P. A., McNaught, C., Hassett D. & Porter, Q., 1995. Interactive teaching & testing tutorials for first year chemistry. pp. 466-471 in H Maurer (Ed.). Educational Multimedia & Hypermedia 1995. Proceedings of Ed-Media 95 - World Conference on Educational Multimedia and HyperMedia, Graz, Austria, 17 - 21 June.



(c) Paul Fritze and Peter McTigue


The author(s) assign to ASCILITE and educational and non-profit institutions a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The author(s) also grant a non-exclusive licence to ASCILITE to publish this document in full on the World Wide Web and on CD-ROM and in printed form with the ASCILITE 97 conference papers, and for the documents to be published on mirrors on the World Wide Web. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the authors.

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