E-learning tool creates virtual university

Auckland University of Technology (AUT) and the University of Auckland have developed in collaboration an e-learning authoring tool, and 7,000 copies of it are downloaded worldwide every month, according to Andrew Higgins, director of e-learning at AUT.

The project, funded by the Tertiary Education Commission and the e-Learning Collaborative Development Fund, is called eXe and is based on open source software.

EXe provides an editing environment that should allow teachers and academics to put together web content for e-learning, without having to know how to write code.

"The aim of the eXe project is to make the writing of e-learning material as easy as possible for teachers and academic staff, and then [to] link the material into their learning management systems so all the students can access it," says Higgins.

Anybody who wants to write material for delivery through electronic learning should benefit enormously from this open source tool, says Higgins. EXe allows teachers to combine, for example, text documents, videos, PowerPoint presentations and assignments on their web pages.

The team behind eXe decided to go for open source partly for economic reasons. "We were only able to hire a limited number of developers, so one of the best ways to do it was to build the core and get it running well, and then invite other members of the international open source community to suggest ideas, or put code together that we can use to enhance the product," says Higgins.

In conjunction with Tairawhiti Polytechnic Gisborne, AUT will be hosting the project and taking it on for further development.

"One of the big target audiences we will be looking at, apart from all the academic staff in New Zealand, is to use eXe as an engine for creating virtual universities for countries that don't have the finance or the population to support a traditional university," says Higgins.

Higgins has written guidelines for e-learning using a combination of strategies from distance learning and guidelines for general teaching as a background. Higgins and his team put it all online and made the guidelines interactive, allowing people to add new research and update information.

"So, it's not a fixed object, gathering dust on a shelf," he says.

The guidelines have been taken up by a number of institutions in New Zealand and have grown into a set of national guidelines. When Higgins attended a meeting in Australia recently, there was huge interest in our national e-learning guidelines, which the Australians are now looking at copying.

Higgins has also won a contract to create an open source e-portfolio system, where users can, for example, keep school work, presentations, research, notes and photos in one secure place online, rather than generating vast quantities of paper, he says.

"You can allow different sorts of access for different people. For example, your university tutor, a potential employer, or your brother or sister. You can build on it for life-long learning and, when you grow old, share it with your grandchildren."

The e-portfolio system would tie into student management systems, or into learning management systems, for teaching, and you could author it using eXe." Higgins says.

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