Association for Learning Technology Online Newsletter
Issue 15 January 2009   Friday, January 30, 2009

ISSN 1748-3603

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eXe e-learning XML editor
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eXe e-learning XML editor
by Vivien Sieber

Abstract  
eXe is a simple programme that lets authors create sequences of interactive learning activities without using HTML or XML. eXe is open source, free, and easy to use. It offers a choice of learning activities (tools) that teachers can select, populate and sequence to create a learning session. Resources authored in eXe can be exported as IMS Content Package, SCORM 1.2, IMS Common Cartridge, iPOD Notes or as simple self-contained web pages. 
 
Introduction
eXe was developed as an open source project in New Zealand to provide an e-learning environment and community platform that would allow academics and teachers, possibly with minimal technical expertise, a straightforward way to create and publish web content without having to learn HTML or XML. The aim of this development was to fill a gap in e-learning technologies whilst building on combined experiences of Educational Modelling Languages, web log publishing technologies and the semantic web. In some ways eXe bridges the gap between the rigid pedagogy behind CBT and LAMS and the flexibility offered by web 2.0. eXe gives ordinary academics a tool that allows them to create sequences of interactive web learning with images, that may link to external references or resources. eXe is both versatile and flexible, it can be used to create web sites, VLE or mobile resources.
 
eXe is a welcome addition of freely available tools available to the community as, with imagination, it is possible to create rich learning materials. An added advantage of using eXe to create teaching materials, is that it presents the user with the need to think about their materials as a sequence of activities. It is possible to build a rich interactive learning session using the range of inbuilt tools eXe provides. An unexpected benefit of eXe is that it forces teachers to consider and sequence learning activities, making the learning design more transparent. It allows branching; for example after a quiz those students with poor scores can be returned to revision materials.
 
eXe provides the teacher with both a range of activities to choose and present as a sequence to create a tutorial. A tutorial might, for example, start with objectives and pre-knowledge; followed by reading activities, links to external web pages, articles (which are presented inside the tutorial window), or Wikipedia. Opportunities for formative assessment include SCORM quiz, multiple choice, multiple-select, Cloze (fill in the gap). The tools are well thought out and easy to use.
 
Most users will need to download eXe, install and run it from their local computer (Windows, Mac, Linux). There is an iPod notes export for mobile learners.

The advantages of eXe are:  
  • it provides a collection of tools to create sequences of on-line learning activities;
  • activities can be arranged in any order and sequences can be branched;
  • simple editing dialogue that allows clean paste from Word;
  • it can display equations and images, without needing to use HTML or web authoring tools;
  • easy linkage to external websites;
  • easy creation of simple Multiple Choices Questions (MCQs) and quizzes;
  • choice of a range of available stylesheets (appearances);
  • exporting of materials as HTML files for use in a VLE.
Setting-up eXe on your local computer:
eXe is open source and can be freely downloaded from:
www.exelearning.org/FrontPage
 
It is installed on and runs from your local hard drive (Mac, Windows or Linux). Simply follow the instructions on the screen (Figure 1).
 
Figure 1: eXe home page
 
Figure 1: eXe home page

Creating content with eXe
Creating teaching materials is pretty intuitive and can help teachers to think about how they may sequence learning activities to create a useful tutorial. The lower left hand window offers a range of types of activities which can be organised to create a coherent learning experience (Table 1). A learning resource is made of a sequence of related activities. For example, you might wish to explain the “Objectives” of the resource, before testing basic understanding with a “Pre-knowledge” test before moving to a “Case Study”…. ending perhaps with a self-assessment “SCORM Quiz”.

Building a resource


Starting with 'Objectives' or a 'Pre-knowledge' quiz the different tools can be used as appropriate to create a learning path. Paths may be branched, perhaps returning students who performed poorly during a quiz to revision materials.
 
Figure 2: eXe programme as installed on local computer
 
Figure 2: eXe programme as installed on local computer


eXe Activities
 
 Activity
 Description
Case Study
Text entry for description of case study
Cloze Activity
Fill in the gaps text
External web site
Link
Free Text
Student enters free text which would need marking by hand or model answer
Image Gallery
Library of pictures you can upload
Image Magnifier
Zoom tool for pictures, similar to “Zoomify”
Multi-choice

Create a multiple-choice question, correct answer and feedback
Multi-select
Create a multiple-select question, correct answer and feedback
Objectives
Define course aims
Preknowledge
Establish/test basic background information
RSS
Newsfeed
Reading Activity
Identify set text and questions
Reflection
Promote reflective
SCORM quiz
Automatically marks and scores quiz
True-False Question
Create a true-false question, correct answer and feedback – automatically marked
Wiki Article
Imports entire Wikipedia article but no updates
 
Table 1: Range of activities provided by eXe
 
The eXe editing screen has three areas, as shown in Figure 2: Outline (top left), Activity (bottom left) and Home (centre) which is the main authoring area. eXe uses the FCK texteditor, which makes it possible to work directly in a WYSIWYG window or to copy and paste cleanly from Word. There is a facility to import equations from LaTeX, plus a symbol editor that allow you to create simple mathematical expressions. eXe can render and mark equations and numerical entries.

Multiple Choice

Although the eXe MCQ tool is slightly clunky it does allow authors to include multiple options, hints, and feedback and the path can be branched as shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3: Creating multiple choice questions
 
Figure 3: Creating multiple choice questions
 
Image Gallery and Magnification Tool

The image gallery, forces users to insert copyright details during the upload process (Figure 4). There is a particularly nice magnification tool, which resembles “Zoomify”. Students interact with an image using a magnifying glass; for example a student could be asked to use the magnifying glass to examine the detailed structure within an image.
 
Figure 4: Image gallery dialogue showing copyright
 
Figure 4: Image gallery dialogue showing copyright
 
Appearance
eXe offers a choice of seven style sheets and the layout of published materials created is clear, easy to use and visually appealing (Figure 5).
 
 
Style: Default
Style: Garden
Style: Kahurangi
Style: Default
Style: Garden
Style: Kahurangi
Style: Silver
Style: Slate
Style: Standard White
Style: Silver
Style: Slate
Style: Standard White
 
Figure 5: Six of the default eXe styles
 
Disadvantages of eXe  
eXe’s main disadvantage is the absence of version control and the need to export/upload files for use on the web or in a VLE. Working on a local computer, eXe files must be exported as a content package or web pages which are then published by uploading into the VLE or to a website. eXe can export a zip file of HTML pages which can be uploaded to a VLE or if you are lucky enough to have a WebDAV connection to your VLE you may be able to eXe within the environment itself and avoid having to export/import files each time there is an edit.  Apart from having to upload files, there is a risk that changes made on a local machine are not updated on the published site. As with any open source product, in contrast to commercial software eXe is at times clunky.
 
Figure 6: eXe export options
 
Figure 6: eXe export options
 
Support and training
Support and training for eXe targeted towards programmers and learning technologists is available on-line at www.wikieducator.org/Online_manual. Whilst training materials for end users (academics) is more limited, there is some documentation and a handout available at the eXe Eduforge project area.

At the University of Oxford, we give staff a simple paper guide http://weblearn.ox.ac.uk/site/medsci/guides/guides/eXe guide.doc which appears to be enough for our staff to start creating tutorials.

Conclusion
eXe is a tool intended for use by academics rather than e-learning staff. In many ways eXe provides a minimal toolset version of Toolbook or Adobe Captivate that is easy to use and free. It would not, then, be fair to compare eXe with commercial products (assessment software, Flash, multimedia tools, web editors) as these are primarily used by technologists. Although most VLEs offer some kind of assessment tool, they are usually separate tools that are not integrated within a teaching session. With eXe it is possible to build a learning package with sequenced activities where the learner can move easily from one type of activity to another. With practise academics can create rich, branched learning materials which are standards compliant and sharable.
 
References
Britain, S. (2005). A review and analysis of content authoring software in relation to eXe. http://eduforge.org/docman/view.php/20/243/eXe_report_sbritain.pdf
 
Vivien Sieber
Medical Sciences Division Learning Technologies
University of Oxford
vivien.sieber@medsci.ox.ac.uk
 

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