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Scholar's Box

Functional and Technical Overview of the Scholar's Box

There is much recent national and international interest in building new connections-organizationally and technically-between the domains of digital libraries and educational technologies. At present, a substantial gulf exists between these domains, to the detriment of libraries and museums on the one hand, and educators and students on the other. This gulf reflects specific technical barriers. Digital library and museum collections are inaccessible to the authoring tools and learning management systems being used to develop online educational services and course materials; these digital materials exist within different standards regimes and are managed and delivered with incompatible protocols. In addition, there are important cultural and organizational issues at work as curatorial professionals in libraries and museums, educational technologists, and teachers and administrators define and adjust to new roles and responsibilities. This page provides a short functional introduction to the Scholar's Box tool, reviews interoperability issues, describes its abstraction framework, and provides a brief architectural overview.

Functional Introduction: Teacher Practice in the Digital Realm

The UC Berkeley Interactive University's Scholar's Box project seeks to translate commonplace teacher practices into the digital realm so that teachers can more easily integrate into teaching the digital cultural objects available from museums and libraries. We seek to do this not only for individual teachers but for groups of teachers and/or content and collection experts working together to create curriculum resources. Early versions of the IU's "Scholar's Box" tool already demonstrate the promise for faculty, students, and the public to create, manipulate, annotate, and share personal collections of digital cultural objects gathered from multiple digital repositories. The IU is building both a Scholar's Box tool as well as an abstraction framework that defines functionality and APIs for other possible implementations.

Current Scholar's Box prototypes are implemented as both web-based and desktop-based software that initially focus on allowing users to search for and gather images from multiple repositories, to sequence and annotate the images, and then to generate a variety of products from these images (e.g., HTML albums, slideshows, PDFs, METS documents, SCORM-encoded learning objects). Work has also begun on the abstraction framework for the Scholar's Box that is essential to implementing the Scholar's Box easily on multiple platforms. Prototypes are being generalized to handle media other than images.

Interoperability: Building Connections between Technology Worlds

The Scholar's Box software helps to address important interoperability issues at the intersection of four information technology domains: (1) digital libraries and repositories; (2) educational technologies and learning management systems; (3) web syndication and portal technologies; and (4) desktop applications and structured content authoring tools.

Enhancing interoperability among digital libraries, software applications, and data formats of content has been a time-honored strategy for increasing the utility of digital collections. A central issue in building the Scholar's Box tool has been the initial data formats for digital content that the Scholar's Box supports. There are many data formats that would be useful for the digital cultural community. One factor in our selection has been ease of development; another is greatest leverage in the educational community. Because we would like to enhance the exchange of materials among four communities-the digital library world, the educational technology world, the world of cutting-edge content syndicators on the web today, and the world of web content authoring tools-we are writing software adaptors for the following three formats, all of which are XML formats for structured data: the Metadata Encoding and Transmission Standard (METS), for digital libraries and repositories [3]; SCORM, IMS-Content Packaging (IMS-CP), and IMS-Metadata (IMS-MD), for educational technologies and learning management systems; and RSS, for web syndication and portal technologies [4, 7]. In addition to technical interoperability, the Scholar's Box project will help to address issues of "cultural interoperability." Through its school-college partnerships, the project will build new understandings and relationships among faculty, curatorial professionals, educational technologists, and K-12 teachers, librarians and district leaders.

The Abstraction Framework and Architectural Overview of the Scholar's Box

The Scholar's Box abstraction framework allows for the separation of logic and intelligence common to all implementations from other unique implementation-specific details. The abstraction framework guides the implementation of the Scholar's Box tool in other environments, enhancing its adoption and adaptability across institutional and technical contexts. In its most general formulation, the Scholar's Box allows users to (1) gather digital objects (of varying formats) and organize them into collections, and (2) transform them into other digital objects (through services). The Scholar's Box cannot, of course, magically handle every format and implement every service. Rather, it can be systematically extended (programmed) to handle a new format or service. This framework is geared to enable practical interoperability in a sea of data heterogeneity for the end-user of cultural digital objects.

Specifically, the Scholar's Box allows for the aggregation of simple and complex (multipart) objects; disaggregation of collections and complex objects into constituent pieces (because people often want pieces); reassembly of parts from multiple source objects into new objects; the association of metadata with digital objects; the interconversion of digital object types and their metadata; and the implementation of crosswalks among metadata systems. The disaggregation and reformation must take place while preserving key aspects of the original context of the materials. Although the Scholar's Box can conceivably be programmed to handle arbitrary transformation of digital objects, it is not meant to replace specialized authoring or viewing tools, but instead to work with them to leverage their functionality.

An architecture to support functionality that is flexible, extensible, and portable is important to this project. Diagram 3 presents a schematic view of this architecture. Content flows into the Scholar's Box from two types of sources: digital libraries and archives (6 on Diagram 3) and content from individuals or teams of scholars (7 on Diagram 3). A distinction between these two categories is necessary because the architectures to support each are different. Digital libraries and archives are typically backed by full databases holding materials with associated metadata, accessible through persistent handles. Materials produced by individuals and departments may need various forms of structuring to be made accessible.

End-users will access the Scholar's Box through the traditional browser interface (HTML or DHTML) (1 on Diagram 3). However, the Scholar's Box will also be designed to interface with computer agents. Programs (desktop and web applications) that use an XML-RPC [5]/SOAP [6] interface will be able to communicate with the Scholar's Box (2 on Diagram 3). Output and input will be carried in XML packets.

A key design element of the Scholar's Box is determining the type of content that will flow in and out of the tool: what type of scholarly materials (inputs) have to be handled and what do users want to be able to produce (products) from the input materials (3 and 4 on Diagram 3). Internally, the Scholar's Box is an XML data store, with an extensible workflow system that enables input materials (which themselves may not be XML) to be transformed into desired products (5 on Diagram 3). Such workflow is instantiated as an extensible set of tools that act on the data. Although the detailed design of the Scholar's Box remains in process, there are good models from which to learn. In particular, Groove [1] and Jabber [2] illustrate how XML can be successfully integrated, routed, and manipulated at various places in a technology architecture. We believe the movement and manipulation of XML based content packets will be a critical issue for the development of the Scholar's Box tool.


[1] Groove.
[2] Jabber.
[3] Metadata Encoding and Transmission Standard (METS).
[4] RSS 1.0: The New Syndication Format.
[5] XML-RPC Home Page.
[6] Box, D., Ehnebuske, D., Kakivaya, G., Layman, A., Mendelsohn, N., Nielsen, H.F., Thatte, S. and Winer, D. Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) 1.1: W3C Note 08 May 2000.
[7] Winer, D. RSS 0.92, 2000.

Read IU News stories about Scholar's Box work from July 2003, August 2003, and May 2004

Updated July 2004