The educational alignment property and the associated alignment object that LRMI introduced into schema.org have been described as the “killer feature” for LRMI. However, I know from the number of questions asked about the alignment object and from examples I have seen of it being used wrongly that it is not the easiest construct to understand.
Perhaps the problems come from the nature of the alignment object as a conceptual abstraction, so maybe it will be help to show some concrete examples of how it may be used. However, bear in mind that the abstraction was a deliberate design decision made so that the alignment object should be more widely applicable than the examples given here. So I will first discuss a little about why some simpler more direct approaches were considered and rejected (as were some approaches that would be even more abstract).
basic use case
The general use case for which the alignment object was introduced to meet was , in brief,
“help people find resources that can be useful in teaching or learning in some specific scenario.”
That looks deceptively simple. The complications come when defining the “specific scenario” and unpacking the word “useful”.
enter “educational frameworks”
One practical approach to defining various aspects of the specific scenario involves reference to an educational framework of some sort. By educational framework I mean a structured description of educational concepts such as a shared curriculum, syllabus or set of learning objectives, or a vocabulary for describing some other aspect of education such as educational levels or reading ability.
“Educational framework” is a deliberately broad concept as we wanted LRMI to be applicable globally and across many levels and modes of education. Some specific examples are school-level curricula or attainment standards such as:
- the US Common Core State Standards initiative, which defines learning objectives for K12 Maths and English,
- the National Curriculum does similar for England but is less specific and covers other disciplines as well
- Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence which covers learning experiences as well as outcomes.
Perhaps more relevant to higher education many professional bodies define the competencies required to become a member of their profession, for example:
- The UK General Medical Council’s “Tomorrow’s Doctors“,
- the UK Engineering Council’s “Standard for Professional Engineering Competence” and
- the Law Society of Scotland’s Professional Education and Training requirements.
As well as having a role in defining competences and outcomes, measures of academic level or difficulty may be useful independently as reference points, for example:
- the US K12 grade levels are well understood in terms of school level,
- the more formally defined Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF) level descriptors
- various empirical measures of reading difficulty, for example general idea of “reading age” and the specific measures of reading ability and text level used by lexile.
One the other hand you may just want to specify the subject being taught, or the educational discipline for which is it being taught. Various classifcation schemes for academic subjects are available, for example:
- in the UK, JACS, the Joint Academic Coding System, is used to describe the subject of a course
- the W3C open linked education community group aims to build a subject database of wider scope.
All of these frameworks (and many others) may be used to describe aspects of an educational scenario.
ways of being useful
Life isn’t simple enough for us to meet the use case described above by adding a single property to schema.org Creative Works to say that the resource “aligns with” (i.e. is useful in the context defined by) some entry or node in an educational framework. In prescribing a “useful” resource we would want to distinguish between resources that teach and asses a topic; we also want a resource that assumes suitable previous knowledge, or requires some specific reading level, or assumes a certain general academic level. There may be other forms of alignment. There isn’t agreement on a minimum core set of properties required to address that word “useful” in the use case, but there is agreement that a resource can “align” with an “educational framework” in several ways, some of which we can enumerate. Hence the birth of the alignment property and abstract Educational Alignment object.
I think of it like this:
and an educational framework:
(Note, there is no schema.org class of type EducationalFramework, but we assume that we can refer to some of the following properties pertaining to it: some text that identifies the framework as whole (let’s call it a name), and the URLs, names and/or descriptions of nodes within the framework.)
The alignment object was created to describe the relationship between the two. The following properties alignment objects are defined: educationalFramework, which can be used to hold text that identifies the educational framework you are pointing to; targetDescription, targetName and targetURL, which can hold the values that correspond to properties we assumed that nodes in the educational framework would have. It also has an alignmentType property that I think of switching the object to specify the different types of alignment that are possible. So we can put them together to express an alignment between a creative work and some node in an educational framework:
I have seen both of these mistakes in actual markup of webpages.
1. the alignment object on its own is fairly meaningless. Unless it is referenced by the educational Alignment property of a creative work it’s as useful as half a link.
2. since the alignment object is a proper schema.org Thing (to be specific a subtype of an Intangible Thing) it inherits the properties that every schema.org Thing has. e.g. a name, a URL, a description an image. Some of these make some sense in some cases (see below) but importantly, none of them are used in expressing the alignment: the url of an alignment object is not the same as the url of the creative work or the node to which it aligns.
real-world examples of alignment assertions
I would like to use two real-world examples of where services provide information that can be seen as an assertion that a resource is useful in connection with (i.e. aligns with) an educational framework:
1. Kritikos, where students can tell other students what is useful for their course.
Kritikos is a custom search engine for visual media relevant to teaching and learning engineering. In part the customisation comes through the use of a Google CSE, but more relevant to this post is the part that comes through allowing users to classify whether resources found on it are useful for specific courses [aside: this part of the kritikos service is built on a Learning Registry node].
The example shown here is the kritikos information page for a video of a lecture from MIT Open CourseWare. It includes “what others are saying about this resource” with the information from a year 3 MEng Aerospace Engineering student that it is relevant to “Flight Dynamics and Control”. The link from this assertion leads to other resources deemed useful by users for that module. “Flight Dynamics and Control” is a module at the University of Liverpool (code AERO317) that exists within the framework of Liverpool’s Aerospace Engineering programme. It is worth noting that kritikos can also be used to record when a resource is not relevant to a course–this is useful for weeding out false positives that get through the Google custom search engine. [Disclosure/bragging: I had an advisory role in the project that lead to kritikos.]
So, there’s an expression of an educational alignment; how does it relate to the alignment object?
The creative work in question is the MIT lecture (to be precise it’s a http://schema.org/VideoObject), we could describe a few of its characteristics with schema.org properties:
name = “Lec 7 | MIT 16.885J Aircraft Systems Engineering, Fall 2005″
duration = PT110M22S
I’m not guessing this, the YouTube page has Schema.org microdata in it.
The node in the educational framework is a bit less well defined, but we would be justified in calling the module description a node in a framework called “University of Liverpool Modules” and saying the name for this node is “AERO317″, its description is “Flight Dynamics and Control”. It has a page on the web which gives us a url, http://tulip.liv.ac.uk/mods/vital/vital_AERO317_200809.htm. So we can express the alignment:
item type=http://schema.org/VideoObject name = "Lec 7 | MIT 16.885J Aircraft Systems Engineering, Fall 2005" url = http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2QRfkG7jOfY duration = PT110M22S educationalAlignment = item1 item1 type= http://schema.org/AlignmentObject alignmentType = "Teaches" educationalFramework = "University of Liverpool Modules" targetName = "AERO317" targetDescrption = "Flight Dynamics and Control" targetUrl = http://tulip.liv.ac.uk/mods/vital/vital_AERO317_200809.htm
What about the other properties of the AlignmentObject, the ones it inherited by virtue of being an official Intangible Thing in the schema.org hierarchy? Well you could envisage the image property pointing to the screenshot above, and the url property being a url with a fragment identifier that points to the “what others are saying” part of the kritikos page. Sure, you can give it a name and descriptions if you want to. Maybe these aren’t especially useful, but the point it that they are clearly different from the url, name and description of the University of Liverpool course to which the MITOCW video aligns.
2. OER Commons, aligning to US Common Core State Standards
I’ll cover this in less detail. The main problem with the example above is that the educational framework, while locally useful, is somewhat ad hoc we had to kind of look at the course structure at Liverpool University in a certain way to see it as an educational framework. Better examples of a more widely shared and more formally constructed educational frameworks are those of the US Common Core State Standards Initiative. OER Commons is a repository and search engine for Open Educational Resources that expresses alignment to these frameworks in its descriptions.
The screenshot on the left shows such an alignment being displayed (the image links to the actual page in question, which is more legible). You see that in this case the creative work called “Chocolate Chocolate Chocolate” aligns with the Common Core Standard “CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.1.9 : Compare and contrast the adventures and experiences of characters in stories.”
Interestingly there is some other information given about the “degree of alignment”, i.e. how good a match that resource is to teaching that State Standard.
justification for the abstraction of the alignment object
In part the motivation for creating an alignment object class in schema.org was the issue mentioned above about not knowing what might be all the possible forms of alignment between a resource and an educational framework used to characterise some aspect of a teaching and learning scenario. However I hope the examples above go someway to showing that alignments are real (if intangible) things, you can give them URLs, and names if you want. Furthermore they do have properties. For example, they are asserted by someone: a student at Liverpool University in the kritikos example and a user of OER Commons in the other. In the OER Commons example there is other information about the degree of alignment. This goes some way to convincing me that the alignment object isn’t just some computer science trick of indirection.