Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Online Repositories for Learning Materials: The User Perspective

Amber Thomas and Andrew Rothery explore how online repositories are being used to store and share e-learning content, and show how taking the user perspective might challenge the emerging approaches to repository development.

Much of the work around institutional repositories explores one specific function of repositories: to store and/or catalogue scholarly content such as research papers, journal articles, preprints and so on. Ariadne has reported on many of these developments [1] [2] [3]. However, as stressed by the JISC senior management briefing papers [4] for Further Education (FE) and Higher Education (HE), repositories can be a tool for managing the institution's learning and teaching assets too.

The West Midlands Share project (WM-Share) [5], funded under JISC's Distributed E-Learning Strand Regional Pilots [6] is looking at repositories that support the sharing of learning and teaching content within FE and HE in the region. As well as institutional repositories the project's scope covers the use of regional and national repositories. Examples may be found in the following references: [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12]

There is an increasing number of repositories for learning and teaching. However we do not yet have sufficient understanding of how repositories might be used to facilitate the use and sharing of content in a way which is embedded into normal working practices. WM-Share aims to find out what the emerging reality is, and how these developments can best be supported within the region. This article sets out some of the ideas we are now addressing, and highlights the likely characteristics of successful e-learning repositories.

Usage Scenarios

So what do we know about how repositories of learning and teaching content are being used?

We will outline here four usage scenarios. The scenarios are not intended to be a complete classification of usage types, but represent a set of illustrations to demonstrate the distinctive and varied nature of repository use in e-learning.

Scenario A: Amanda

Amanda is a member of a community of practice centred on a common teaching area. The members belong to different institutions in the region. They have met and know each other. All members have created their own online learning content and recognise that it may be very useful to others. Amanda agrees to share her content. She uploads her files to a central store, gives the content a good description, classifying it by subject. Users can then search the store, find that content, download it, tweak it for their own purposes and use it in their teaching. The people who get resources also put their own resources here. As time goes on, the amount of content reaches a critical mass and the community decides to make it available via open access to anyone.

This subject community scenario may be familiar from e-learning research, and represents a good practice model that some projects seek to reproduce. In our research so far, we are finding little evidence that this type of practice is common on a day-to-day level. This scenario represents an extremely beneficial way of working for this particular type of community and is well worth supporting; however, it will nonetheless be very difficult to reproduce successfully as standard practice for everyone, as not everyone is a member of such a community. Other ways of working need to be considered.

Scenario B: Brian

Brian is one of a team of four maths lecturers at the same university. Between them the lecturers teach a number of first year courses. They are all confident VLE (Virtual Learning Environment) users and are happy to share teaching resources with each other. This is the third year they have taught these modules between them, and Brian has had to spend several weeks rebuilding the courses on the VLE. They are also developing some new materials for the spring term and are currently emailing the drafts around as they develop them.

They start using a repository to upload their worksheets, presentations, problem sheets and study materials, adding descriptions, version numbers and comments; they also place their draft materials there. Instead of uploading every document to the new course area in the VLE, Brian is able to have one browser window open on the VLE administration page and another open on the repository, and upload links to the repository content into the VLE. When anyone updates or replaces a file in the repository, the VLE course is thereby automatically updated. In the repository Brian can sort the resources A-Z, and he can classify them by topic area. He starts to add some of the key Web sites he uses for his research work so that all his key sources are in one place. He also has his own space on the departmental Web site where he puts his project work so he also adds a link to this in the repository.

This institutional course team scenario reflects some of the willingness to share evident in the first scenario, but only within a small, closed group. The resource collection is highly specific to this course team, and contains Web links and drafts as well as finished teaching content. No one outside the team would ever see the content repository because students are just linked direct to the content from within their VLE courses.

Scenario C: Clare

Clare is a foundation degree course leader. A number of neighbouring FE colleges all teach similar curricula for one of their foundation degrees. Among the seven colleges, two are WebCT users, three are Moodle users, one is a Learnwise user and one has no VLE. They already collaborate and share practice, and are keen to avoid 'reinventing the wheel'.

They discuss creating some shared courses in Moodle, as the most common VLE within the group, but that still means staff from the other four institutions having to learn Moodle. They decide that their aim is to share teaching content via a repository, and that they will each take local decisions about how best to deliver that content. Clare asks them to email her 10 content files each to make a start, along with descriptions of each file. She uploads the files onto the repository, then when a reasonable amount is there, she sets up user accounts for the rest of the group. They continue emailing her their content during the year, and they download the content they want direct from the repository into their own VLE. Unlike the previous scenario, the repository is not being used as a tool behind the VLE. Instead it is used as an alternative file store that is institution-neutral and VLE-neutral. The collection is intentionally shareable and reusable. Staff do not directly upload their own content, instead they contribute to the collection via Clare.

Such a multi-institution model can exist in many forms. For example, repository uploading can be either mediated (as here, by Clare), or team members could upload themselves directly. Use of the VLE can be independent at each institution (as here), or the whole course could use just one VLE course area (as we have also observed in the West Midlands). There are many possible variations of this model.

Scenario D: Dave

Dave works within the History Department and has his own teaching area in which he is the departmental specialist. He manages all his own online courses himself, with the assistance of one of the University's learning technology officers. He has read a lot about how institutions are setting up repositories full of learning materials, and how JORUM and other regional and national initiatives are encouraging people to share. At the moment he is trying to find a repository somewhere which might cover his specialist area, but so far he has not had much success. He uses Google Scholar [13] and Humbul [14] a lot, and is discussing with Library staff how the Library catalogue search tool can be developed further. This way he has found quite a lot of descriptive information, film clips, and journal articles; but would find it helpful in building his courses to have some teaching resources such as materials for role play scenarios, multiple choice questions for formative assessment, and topics and background information for group project work.

In this scenario we simply have an individual teacher wishing to benefit from the online resource collections which have been set up. A large number of online repositories are being set up with the idea that the resources in them can be openly shared by all. But how is the average lecturer, pressed for time, going to find a way to search through them all and find what is needed?

Though in previous scenarios we have emphasised the use of repositories as tools for teams and communities, there is a challenge in making the tutor-created content developed within these teams available alongside professionally produced, quality-checked learning materials so that the individual tutor has access to the most useful content.

These scenarios are just a sample of the activity that we have found in the West Midlands and are by no means an exhaustive classification of usage. But they do illustrate some common themes. Although it is very early days, it is becoming clear that the latter three types of repository use may become far more common than those in the first scenario. If this is the case then we need to explore how these models can be integrated into the Common Information Environment 15] for the benefit of users.

Types of Content

We are finding many different of types of learning and teaching content in repositories and this means that no single type of repository structure and organisation could be expected to cope with them all. We will now describe some examples of the types of learning materials in use.

Repositories can be a home for publicly-funded learning objects e.g. NLN (National Learning Network) Materials in FE repositories, and soon, X4L content in JORUM [9]. Many repositories also provide a player for content-packaged materials, enabling users to 'try before they buy'. The content is intended to be downloaded as required into a VLE. Such content has perhaps initially been developed by teachers but has been subjected to a strict quality management system and likely to be of a high professional standard.

A simple object is a tutor-recommended Web site link. Tutors who are keen to share useful resources for their colleagues often start sharing details of Web sites as well. This may seem to duplicate the role of library subject gateways, but from the tutors' point of view it gives them more ownership of the recommended resource, they can provide their colleagues with a more complete picture of their sources, and they might not feel they are in a position to contribute to the library-controlled lists.

Working teachers produce tutor-created content. In the course of their work, most academics and teachers create their own content. These materials, such as worksheets, learning materials, presentations, case study notes etc, may be used as electronic resources or they may just be printed out, but either way they are created electronically and stored in the VLE, shared drive or personal file store. They might be as basic as a one-page PDF document, or as complex as a set of Macromedia Flash animations.

A common concern we have heard raised is that such tutor-created material might be of low quality. Issues mentioned are: faulty spelling and grammar, uncleared third party copyright, technical problems (for example, badly rendered Web pages), style over substance (lots of pretty pictures but very little depth) and so on.

Of course some tutor-created content may indeed be of poor quality but equally, a vast amount is of a good professional standard. It is true that such content is perhaps not as polished as other content might be, but nor is it in any way sub-standard; after all, it is being frequently used with students and has often been refined by the tutor over several iterations. In fact, it might be highly refined to support the objectives of the course, with a tight focus on learning objectives and activities. There is a large amount of this type of content in use, and there are some services already supporting the sharing of such content [16] [17]. It is very likely that institutional repositories will make this content more visible and accessible.

The nature of the content held in repositories raises a number of questions:

Putting and Getting

In exploring usage we have found it useful to classify activities as putting and getting. Putting involves uploading, meta-tagging: describing, classifying and keywording; and getting includes searching, browsing, locating a known item, downloading, linking to.

Our first scenario suggests that each user engages in both these activities on any one visit, and most repository software is designed on that premise. But the other scenarios show that a more diverse picture is emerging. 'Putting' might be a totally separate activity from 'getting' in the majority of cases.

Most tutors do not necessarily have to 'put' their content in the repository at all, since this might be mediated or supported by a colleague or a learning technologist as part of the team organisation. Experience from institutional repositories (for example, Glasgow's DAEDALUS Project [18]) echoes this finding. Since the effort required to 'put' may be perceived by the user as outweighing the benefits, it may be necessary to do the putting for them, perhaps on a central basis via learning support services. Whatever the situation, the process of 'putting' needs to be easy and straightforward if it is to be embedded into practice.

The activities in the course team scenarios both result in small collections of content that would only be of use to very specific users. Even in the initial subject community scenario the content might be limited to a very specific subject area. The members of the groups know they can get useful content in these very particular locations, but people outside such groups would view these repositories as rather 'empty'.

At what point does an open access repository contain enough content to make it worth coming to as a place to get content? How should that informal content collection be promoted? Can it be promoted as quality-assured? Will it all be focused on a specific subject area?

How can the general individual user such as Dave in the final scenario easily find very specific subject resources across the distributed collection of repositories now emerging nationally and internationally?

Distributed Networks of Repositories

Given all the factors above, it is quite possible that the activity of 'putting' will often happen quite separately from the activity of 'getting'. It is also clear that it may be rarely worthwhile for individual tutors to go directly to a repository to obtain content; it would be far more efficient for them to search across a number of distributed repositories.

It cannot be assumed that all e-learning repositories will be open access. So how does a collection in a closed repository become available more widely?

To return to the course team in Scenario B, how does the maths lecturers' content become openly available? There are a number of steps they need to consider:

  1. Agree to share their materials more widely. This is not as easy as it looks. The team members might not be confident in the quality of the materials, they may not think they would be useful, or they may fear that the materials might give other institutions a commercial advantage.
  2. Make the materials suitable for sharing. Again, this is not an easy step. It could include additional meta-tagging, pruning of content, double-checking copyright. Who would undertake this work and how much time would it take?
  3. Identify a suitable mechanism for sharing. Should they provide a copy of their collection to a subject hub, or to their institutional repository? Can this transfer process be supported by automatic systems, and if so, does the data need cleaning up? Or does the transfer need to be managed manually, in which case, who does it? Alternatively should they open up their collection where it is? How will authentication be managed?

This is a lot of work for a small team to undertake, and we cannot assume that it will be willing or able to do it. Whilst it is all possible, it requires a lot of effort and therefore may never be carried out.

Once several repositories have agreed to open up access then developments such as open standards, search agents, aggregation tools and authentication frameworks will be needed to make their use an operational reality. This work is being undertaken under JISC's Digital Repositories Programme [19].

The model outlined in the initial scenario, of a user who is both a contributor and a searcher, may only occur in the minority of cases. If users can access the contents of the repository alongside other collections without having to visit it directly, then the collections themselves do not have to be either large or comprehensive. In that situation they do not have to promote themselves directly to the users, only to the search agents. This is quite a different approach.

A shared understanding of what the user really needs should enable repository providers to make best use of emerging technical solutions.

What People Need in Learning Materials Repositories

The following suggestions are based on our observations so far and are subject to further refinement, but they are shared here to give an indication of the emerging key factors for success.

Support for Community Use

Much of the content will be 'working content' shared by a group of people who work together. They need the ability to set up group areas in the repository, perhaps not initially viewable outside their community. The community ownership might need workflow tools for the management of content so that the responsibility for the system can be shared appropriately among skilled members of the group.

Ease of Uploading

Unless content is uploaded by professional central teams, it will be uploaded by a busy working lecturer. Therefore systems involving processing the material prior to uploading (e.g. IMS packaging) might be seen as too complex. A very simple upload mechanism and metadata entry is needed.

Straightforward IPR Guidance

Users of working content will need to feel comfortable about the Intellectual Property Rights of the materials; since the community members know and trust each other, more relaxed rules for sharing would be acceptable locally. Perhaps different parts of a repository or even different items in the repository would have different rules.

VLE Awareness

The repository is highly likely to be used in conjunction with some kind of VLE as the means by which the repository resources are presented to the students. There needs to be a simple process by which resources are first downloaded from the repository and then re-uploaded into the VLE, or whether they can be transferred directly, or whether the VLE can simply contain a direct link using the URL of the repository resource. All this VLE awareness affects the functionality needed in the repository and its surrounding support tools.

Responsive Hosting and Technical Development

There will be a variety of practices among users, and the lecturers and tutors will want to have a say in how things are organised. This means they need a host who will listen, and who will act on their wishes.

Tools to Search across Distributed Repositories

In response to the growth in repository provision throughout the FE and HE sectors, search agents will need to access these diverse content services. The many development projects funded by JISC in this area will need to address the diversity of repository provision.

As illustrated by the requirements listed above, no single type of repository system is going to meet all needs. No one host institution or organisation is going to be able to run a repository for every purpose. The content will vary from informal, through 'working content', to formal polished professionally produced content. No one repository will have the technical or management structure to deal with all these different types. We will find ourselves in an environment containing a variety of different repositories. It is very important for repository owners to think very carefully about who their users are and exactly what kind of repository they are developing.


There is an increase in use of repositories to use and to share online learning and teaching content within and between institutions. As well as national and regional repositories, all FE and HE institutions are being encouraged by JISC to develop and run their own repositories. This growth complements the drive towards scholarly repositories, but should be understood as a distinct activity.

The benefits to users depend on how they already share their teaching content with their peers. Some may benefit most from a closed, team-only institutionally-provided solution, whereas others may prefer an open access repository used by a community of practice; and many users may require something in between. There is no single set-up to suit every arrangement. The content collected within these teaching repositories will make up diverse collections, varying in quality and purpose, raising questions for library services. The methods for sharing these informal content collections beyond the immediate user groups have yet to develop, but individual repository owners will need to address issues of ownership, content quality and metadata, according to the particular type of use to which that repository will be put.

By focusing on the user perspective, we see a rich but complex pattern emerging which may greatly challenge the emerging approaches to repository development. The West Midlands Share Project is exploring these issues and we hope to report our findings here in 2006. If you have evidence of repository use that supports or challenges our thinking, we would very much like to hear from you



  1. van der Kuil, A., Feijen, M., "The Dawning of the Dutch Network of Digital Academic REpositories (DARE): A Shared Experience", Ariadne 41 , October 2004, http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue41/vanderkuil/
  2. Hey, J., "Targeting Academic Research with Southampton's Institutional Repository", Ariadne 40, July 2004, http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue40/hey/
  3. Jones, R., "DSpace vs. ETD-db: Choosing software to manage electronic theses and dissertations", Ariadne 38, January 2004, http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue38/jones/
  4. "Digital repositories. Helping universities and colleges", JISC Briefing Papers for Higher Education Sector and for Further Education Sector, July 2005, http://www.jisc.ac.uk/index.cfm?name=pub_repositories
  5. WM-Share Project Web site http://www2.worc.ac.uk/wm-share
  6. JISC Regional Pilots Programme http://www.jisc.ac.uk/pilotsdetail.html
  7. West Midlands Regional Repository http://www.nti-cw.com/repository/
  8. Yorkshire and Humberside Regional Repository http://www.yhlearning.org.uk/default.php
  9. JORUM http://www.jorum.ac.uk
  10. OWL http://www.owl-elearning.ac.uk/index.php
  11. MERLOT http://www.merlot.org/Home.po
  12. Ferl http://ferl.becta.org.uk/
  13. Google Scholar http://scholar.google.com/
  14. Humbul's history gateway http://www.humbul.ac.uk/history/
  15. Common Information Environment http://www.common-info.org.uk/
  16. Ferl's learning and teaching resource bank http://ferl.becta.org.uk/display.cfm?page=628&catID=594
  17. Teacher Resource Exchange http://tre.ngfl.gov.uk/
  18. DAEDALUS Project http://www.lib.gla.ac.uk/daedalus/
  19. JISC's Digital Repositories Programme http://www.jisc.ac.uk/index.cfm?name=programme_digital_repositories

Author Details

Amber Thomas
Project Leader
West Midlands Share Project
University of Worcester

Email: a.thomas@worc.ac.uk
Web site: http://www2.worc.ac.uk/wm-share

Andrew Rothery
Director of E-Learning and Online Information
University of Worcester
(Project Director)

Email: a.rothery@worc.ac.uk
Web site: http://www.worcester.ac.uk

Authors' note:
Please note that the views in this article are the authors' own, and do not represent formal project findings or recommendations. The WM-share project concludes in April 2006 and its formal outputs will be made available via its Web site as they become available. The authors are very grateful to Sue Moron-Garcia and Viv Bell, fellow members of the project team, for helpful and challenging discussions, and to JISC for funding the project.

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