French educational resources: portals and referencing models

In august 2015, the Agency of French speaking Universities (AUF), has ordered an exploratory study with the perspective to implement a francophonic educational resources portal. This project was recommended by more than 30 Ministers of Higher education in French speaking countries who met in Paris on 4th June 2015 to discuss the potentials of applying a new work strategy to develop the francophonic digital academic space. After one day discussions on development levers for such development strategy, a joint declaration was adopted implying, among others, that AUF creates a task force charged of producing and implementing an educational resources portal. This portal should reproduce and disseminate scientific and academic resources produced and used by French speaking universities.

Portals categories

One major concern of the exploratory study was to determine the most used technological strategies to build educational portals and to generate a set of recommendations to help AUF design and produce a specific francophonic portal based on existing experience of France Université Numérique (FUN) and related Universités Numériques Thématiques (Thematic Digital Universities/UNT).

The exploratory study analyzed all the recommended portals and proposed a further analysis of two other international portals, those of the Open Education Europa and the "Réseau francophone de ressources éducatives réutilisables" portal (REFER). The study concluded that portals in general respond to four categories of resources organization, indexing and use: hybrid, referencing, mirror and autonomous portals.

  1. Hybrid portals offer simultaneously their own resources and other linked resources from/to servers of partner institutions. These resources are accessible via directories and search engines using a local referencing system. This case applies for example to AUNEGE, UNISCIEL and FUN portals;
  2. Referencing portals only provide reference data (set of metadata) and local retrieval services (search engines and directories) which allow access to educational resources hosted on partner institutions servers. This case applies to UOH, UNIT, UVED and UNJF portals;
  3. Mirror portals only serve as gateways to access partner institutions resources, references (metadata) and searching services (engines and directories). This case applies to UNF3S portal;
  4. Autonomous portals provide their own resources (educational contents of member institutions), their own reference material (own metadata) using their own specific information system (searching engines). This case applies to IUTenligne portal.

In the four different categories, portals could combine (with irregular proportions) functions of resources aggregation, metadata harvesting, research interface, and/or just bookmarks providing. They consequently prove that a learning resources portal can be, in the taxonomy of Open Archives Initiative, simultaneously a data provider and / or a service provider. One category or another depends on several endogenous and exogenous criteria related to stakeholders concerned with implementing educational resources portals. These criteria are generally subject to deep analysis which takes into account technical, economic and human considerations.

Communicative (linked) portals

In the field of education, portals are more and more available online though many of them do not meet the conditions that should characterize a true educational portal. In addition to being a device for management, organization and administration of academic courses and university syllabus, a true education portal should be able to provide a collaborative environment for the development, evaluation and sharing of scientific, learning, and training materials. That environment should not be limited to the boundaries of the educational institution framework, but needs also to extend to external data repositories, collections and databases. An educational portal should normally provide access to a large set of private and public educational and information resources that have potential to effectively complete and support the teaching and learning processes. To teach or to learn, teachers and learners use all types of materials from all potential data sources in all data formats and supports (courses, slideshows, reports, articles, lectures, books, etc.). An educational portal should help to share these resources transparently, freely or via identified user profiles and access rights. The principle of linked or communicative educational portals (communicating portal network) is the result of countless innovations in the area of digital technologies, telecommunications networks and software engineering. The construction of a network of interconnected portals would evidently improve the sharing of resources and would facilitate the generation of new forms of educational, scientific and cultural knowledge.

Technical choices for building linked educational portals

Several technological solutions are able to provide this kind of scenarios, provided that the network partners provide, as part of a framework agreement, a minimum of technological and managerial coherence and convergence on their respective servers. Applying standards and protocols for data processing could be very determinant and crucial. With standards, any interoperable (and not necessarily homogeneous) SEO chain makes it easier for each member of the network to have access to other partner’s documents and information services.

Over time, newer and more efficient and competitive solutions are distinguished in the market of digital technologies. OAI-PMH emerges with a large international consensus as one of the most powerful solutions used to share digital assets across multiple distributed information systems. it is the case of open archives, digital portals, data centers, pedagogical objects repositories, distance learning platforms, social networking websites, authoring systems, Content management Systems, etc. Its major strength is undoubtedly that of being able to separate the resources from their description in order to create and manage large amounts of metadata (metadata repositories related to distributed resources) by a harvesting protocol (indexing) on networks: OAI-PMH.

OAI-PMH: a protocol for sharing distributed resource

OAI-PMH is an international protocol for harvesting open archives metadata. Developed by the Open Archive Initiative in 1999, it allows to create, nurture and maintain records repositories that report, describe and make available documents without duplicating or modifying their original location. OAI-PMH is widely implemented in many integrated library management systems, management of electronic document, creation of virtual libraries, etc. Based on existing standards (HTTP, XML, Dublin Core, etc.), it allows to harmonize and to communicate heterogeneous databases with each other.

OAI-PMH is essentiel for interoperability and dissemination projetcs. It allows each institution to maintain its documents on its own servers while making available metadata and access information to these documents. It accelerates the research of heterogeneous and dispersed resources without the need to consolidate or duplicate them. Each institution retains its own documents on its proper servers, in their latest version, independently of the applications used to manage them.

With this protocol, metadata is made available on a server (they are published). They can be aggregated with others and interrogated by specialized or general search engines. Compliance with the protocol OAI-PMH allows portals to become communicators: they make public their metadata and can themselves develop other portals metadata. Because of its flexibility, its scope extends far beyond just scientific content. It becomes a reference model for multiple platforms and open source software that capture and describe digital content: Archimede (Laval Library), Fedora (Cornell University), DSpace (MIT Libraries), ePrints (Southhampton University), ORI-OAI (UNT), etc.

ORI-OAI : a French OAI-PMH solution

From metadata point of view, as a historic standard, Dublin Core is actually used to describe a large variety of documents. However, this description is not detailed enough for educational resources even though DCMI Education community was created in 1999 to develop an application profile module describing usage of DCMI properties specifically relevant to education. DSpace, an open source software used by more than 1000 organizations and institutions worldwide to provide durable access to digital resources, supports only the Dublin Core, and does not take into account other metadata schemas. This issue was strategic to AUF in order to determine a technical choice for a Francophonic educational resources portal. In short, in the case of an educational resource, the use of more detailed standards such as LOM or MLR was estimated to be more suitable and more concise for the francophonic project. The experience of FUN and UNT portals was taken as a reference models even though they are built on different ways and apply different strategies. French portals are majorly based on the ORI-OAI software.

ORI-OAI is a SEO tool implemented on different portals in France, Europe and worldwide. As a product developed within the framework of the UNT project (Thematic Digital Universities), ORI-OAI was developed by four French universities: the Toulouse INP, INSA Lyon, University of Valenciennes and the University of Rennes1. This French initiative was issued from the dilemma felt by UNT and are UNR (digital Universities in Region) in front of the issue of sharing digital resources within interoperable systems, mainly those built on ENT (digital Environments of work) used by academic and research institutions.

The core idea originating this initiative was the establishment of an open system capable of: managing all digital documents produced by academic institutions; Sharing with other institutions putting focus on professional indexing; making resources accessible on-line according to defined rights and in ergonomic interfaces.

Special credits are due to :

AUF : Agence Universitaire de la Francophonie

IFIC : Institut Francophone de l'Ingénierie de la Connaissance