May 1998 // Vision
The Educational Object Economy Project:
An Interview with James Spohrer
by James L. Morrison and James C. Spohrer
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: James L. Morrison and James C. Spohrer "The Educational Object Economy Project:
An Interview with James Spohrer" The Technology Source, May 1998. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

The emergence of the Internet and the World-Wide-Web has spawned a resurgence of interest in the use of technology to enhance education. To realize the unprecedented potential for re-engineering education using modern computing and telecommunications, many educators are learning the lessons of software engineers and programmers; re-using component pieces is a cost-effective way to engineer dynamic and engaging educational tools. There are several exciting international initiatives to enable the re-use of educational components. These range from online libraries of software components such as Gamelan which catalogues Java, JavaScript, and ActiveX components (for a variety of uses including education), the Geometry Center at the University of Minnesota, to online societies and communities where educators gather to exchange their insights into the challenges they face such as the NODE and the Asynchronous Learning Networks Society. In the following interview, one such project to build a community for the re-use of educational materials, the Educational Object Economy Project, is discussed.

Jim Spohrer is a Distinguished Scientist at Apple Computer, best known for his work in the areas of authoring tools and online learning communities. Currently, he is involved in setting up the non-profit EOE Foundation to research sustainable methodologies for Web-based collaborations that improve the quality and availability of educational resources such as Java-based learning tools.

James L. Morrison (JM): Jim, what is the Educational Object Economy Project?

Jim Spohrer (JS): It's a National Science Foundation-funded research project that grew out of an effort to provide better authoring tools to educators and enable them to build high-quality educational software quickly and easily. This is something a lot of computer-savvy teachers and instructors are jumping into. Our research team created a number of excellent, easy-to-use authoring tools, like Cocoa, but after a while we realized we needed more than authoring tools. We needed to create an authoring community.

Too many people were using the authoring tools to simply rebuild the same learning object—reinventing the digital wheel, if you will. A half-dozen people have created programs to show the exact same physics principle. Tool users needed to be able to search beforehand to see who might have already built what was needed.

Also, there are many software developers looking for useful (and commercially viable) programs to write, instead of the usual textbook exercises. It made sense to help the educators and developers get together, to create the kinds of learning materials the educators wanted in the first place.

And finally, for those who did develop something of value to the education sector, we wanted to create business opportunities. And this meant getting real businesses involved, looking at what was out there with the intent to back educators and developers with cool ideas.

JM: What is your vision of the role that the EOE will play in integrating technological productivity tools in education?

JS: Our vision is of an Information Age economy that efficiently provides learning resources and services to billions of lifelong learners around the globe. By "economy" I mean a community of people adding value to each other's work, improving the quality and availability of educational software.

We built our EOE Web site around a library of Web-based learning tools, initially educational Java applets. It is a library of URLs to those tools, which remain on the developer's server. Already members of the EOE community have catalogued over 2,000 freely available learning applets, from astronomy to zoology, at the EOE Web site.

JM: What's a Java educational applet?

JS: The Java programming language was designed by Sun specifically for the World Wide Web to give Web pages far more dynamic behavior than plain text and pictures. Java programs permit interactive animation; that is, the viewer can change one variable in a Web window and immediately see the window change. This is kind of amazing, actually, and ideal for letting students experiment with concepts and principles at their computers. It's a whole new dimension beyond textbooks. A small piece of educational software written in Java is what we term a Java educational applet.

JM: Can you give us an example?

JS: I can give you more than 2,000 examples! Using Java, a person creating a Web-based physics lesson might insert not a mere picture of a pendulum, but an interactive simulation of a swinging pendulum. The student can vary the length of the pendulum line to change the period of oscillation. The simulated pendulum swing changes visibly, demonstrating the physical relationship between period of oscillation and length of the pendulum line. Some even allow you to vary the effect of gravity, say to simulate a pendulum on the moon.

JM: And teachers are using applets like this?

JS: Yes. We recently posted a Feature of the Week written by Eric Harpell of Las Positas College in Livermore, California. In the article, Warming the Classroom with Java, he described using applets to help teach physics. He starts out by asking, "Is your curriculum frozen in time?" He continues by mentioning an applet for the Periodic Table, a NASA-created applet demonstrating Kepler's Third Law, and Mark's Quantum Mechanics Applets. Harpell's article encourages other educators to use applets, and shows the way.

Image 2Image 1And we just received a terrific paper from a math teacher in San Francisco, Tristan de Frondeville (pictured at left), explaining how he used applets from matrix equation solvers to ballistic simulations in his classes. We have posted the paper on our site, with the applet (at right) included. Pictures of his students at work really shows the real-life effect of his project. In addition, he has an inspiring Web site of his own.

JM: You were outlining your vision of how the EOE facilitates integrating technology productivity tools...

JS: Yes. We set up our applet library so teachers, instructors, or any other member can try an applet and post a review. This is a key feature—one way educators are empowered to add value to the resources in the EOE library. Some teachers, instructors, and professors have provided feedback on how their students reacted to the program. That kind of interaction is invaluable. It enables educational tool developers to enhance the efficiency of their applets. This is real-world beta testing with minimal effort.

And in keeping with our EOE spirit of cooperation and sharing, 25% of the applets include links to download their source code. That makes it easy for a concept to evolve into something special. Over time you can actually watch an applet being improved by its author or authors. We're trying to encourage more and more of this. Authors can combine the best aspects of one applet with those of another, say combining a powerful graphing applet with a simulation applet.

JM: It seems that teaming people up is a big part of the EOE.

JS: It's what the EOE is all about. But we don't do it; the members do it. EOE is just the point of contact. Members sign up and go online with links and a little background information about each member, so people with similar interests can connect to each other with a simple mouse click. We publish papers and articles our members provide. We have members who have taken the plunge with applets in the classroom, and they write articles advising others how to do it. A teaching team in India supplied a recent Feature of the Week listing six steps to utilizing applets in the classroom.

Another key to our vision is that our membership at every level, from founders on down, includes individuals representing businesses with an interest in educational systems. We are confident that the learning sector of the information economy will be so robust that many people will be able to make their livelihood there, just as educators do today, and it will keep pace with the tremendous need for a skilled labor force of lifelong learners. The Educational Object Economy sets out the tools to make that happen. But we'll get there a whole lot faster if everyone rolls up their sleeves and pitches in a little right now.

For example, let's say a learning tool developer or collaborators create something that stirs a lot of classroom interest, and want to try to market it on their own, or just get the word out about it. For them we have a Web page listing business models they might consider—cooperatives, classifieds, fee-based enterprises, and others. Each model has links to real-world examples. Scholastic Network, which sells subscriptions, is a fee-based business with a link on our site. We see the need for both libraries and bookstores in the EOE. Lots of freely available educational material will help develop the demand for premium learning objects and services.

JM: Sounds pretty ambitious. Any success stories yet?

JS: In early March, EOE team members assisted others at Apple who launched the Apple Learning Interchange, and within two weeks 3,000 members joined that community. There's a lot of demand for online learning communities.

JM: Where does the EOE stand now?

JS: EOE members are setting up a non-profit EOE Foundation so the work continues beyond the current NSF grant, and we're looking for sponsors. We've pushed past 2,000 applets listed online. We've got a few exciting surprises planned. We're working hard to get the word out.

Recently a number of organizations, including the World Bank, the United Nations Development Programme, and the International Cooperative Alliance, have begun to collaborate with the EOE to extend the model to new areas such as developing nations, agriculture, medicine, and so forth. I find this extremely exciting.

We're also excited by the prospects of finding ways to team up with excellent organizations like ThinkQuest. They have initiated a global educational software creation contest that really resonates with the EOE effort.

To make this a real Information Age economy for learning, we're looking for ways to stimulate more interactivity, getting more members to review applets, collaborate, submit papers, and relate how they use these teaching tools. We want to reach critical mass on this interaction, so that it becomes self-sustaining.

But we've already gotten so many questions from people impressed with our site, wanting to know how they can do it themselves, that we added another component: an online community starter kit that we call the Generic Object Economy (GOE). It allows others to easily set up their own Web-based, knowledge-building communities for education, medicine, agriculture, or whatever they choose.

JM: Do you know of groups that have utilized your GOE?

JS: Many groups have downloaded this material and used the EOE model to begin building their own Web sites and communities. For example, the University of Michigan has used the GOE to set up a Materials Science Library, and corporations are doing similar things tailored to their needs and interests. We're also working closely with Educom's IMS Project and many other non-profit and government groups sharing content and ideas and promoting necessary infrastructure like learning object metadata. In addition, a number of start-up companies, @Learning and edUniverse to name two, are helping to spread the word about the EOE and our GOE starter kit.

We see the EOE as one of many projects taking a first step to create a better educational software marketplace, as well as a better understanding of Web-based, knowledge-building communities. We believe just as banks and insurance companies were needed to build factories during the Industrial Revolution, software banks and intellectual property title companies now are needed to promote economic reuse and intellectual capital appreciation in the Information Age.

JM: How can our readers participate?

JS: We encourage people to start by registering as a member of the EOE, and participating in our EOE Community Growth programs to coordinate their efforts with those of others working to gather, share, and add value to material on the EOE site. There are many ways to contribute to the EOE site, even if you're not an educator, developer, researcher, or businessperson. For example, a journalist, Dale Mead, recently signed on as a member, and he's using his background to help people write better descriptions of educational material.

Some readers may be ready to take the plunge and use our learning community starter kit to try to set up their own EOE. Go to the EOE site, and search for the Boids of a Feather applet. It provides a metaphor for the type of learning technology coordination the EOE is trying to catalyze, as more efforts find ways to align themselves and begin working cohesively together.

When you see what current members are already doing, you can't help but think they're bold pioneers of a learning approach that in ten or twenty years will be as routine in educational institutions as books are now. And online groups in endeavors we can't imagine, descendents of the Generic Object Economy model perhaps, will be informal, de facto learning institutions so common people will take them for granted. This is technology of the people, by the people, and for the people. Billions of lifelong learners. This is technology that will transform our world.

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