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Start A New Business: Build An Accidental LMS

Several of the MarkLogic Media customers I work with are creating Learning Management Systems (LMSs) this year, yet they are not actually in the Education Publishing business. They haven’t built their companies on Algebra I. No, they’ve been publishing manufacturing standards, or cookbooks, or management training manuals –information that demonstrably curious people (their subscribers) really want to learn about. For example, I might be a mattress manufacturer who wants to learn how to ensure that my mattresses conform to the appropriate standards, but there aren’t any courses I can take.

And so our customers are leveraging their content platform— MarkLogic— to create what I call accidental LMSs.

LMSs are typically thought of as platforms with components that allow Instructional Designers to put content together in a multimodal form like an online course, provide tests and quizzes that assess how well students have learned, and track those assessments. Components manage users (students, teachers, parents), curricula and tests; so semi-structured content is common. As a Solutions Director on MarkLogic’s Consulting Services Team, I find it great fun to work on an LMS and use NoSQL to handle all that rich narrative about, say, dry-erase markers or dried lentils.

Speaking of dry-erase markers, the architecture could be drawn very simply. First, an LMS needs a data-store to manage test questions, captions and figures, instructions, properties, etc. for transformation and recombination in new learning programs. MarkLogic can quickly enable our lightweight LMS to store and retrieve dozens of different schema, implement new DITA specializations, or accommodate ad hoc structures, like video metadata from a recently-acquired content partner.

In fact, MarkLogic already does that for our Media customers building deliberate LMSs!

Once the LMS has stored instructional content using REST or Java, it can find it and reshape it in a learning program: a learning program is what an LMS yields when you assemble the information your subscribers need to know about, say, business leadership with an image of Churchill.

Now what if we had a basic search application and built our NoSQL LMS out of a collection of small web-apps that allow those initial search results to be combined in learning programs with some sort of highlighting or drag-and-drop gestures? What if our re-combinations had to adhere to rules and standards? We could store the rules and standards in MarkLogic too, and query them by references the Instructional Designers tag the content with.

So that’s MarkLogic taking care of the storage and retrieval of course materials— which aren’t course materials. Rather, they aren’t only course materials. The Learning Programs that result can be text-book series (ePubs or print), or interactive game-like applications that mimic flash cards on your phone, or let you follow maps on a website. With an app server like MarkLogic’s you can also run the transformations on the fly that publish HTML5 for the phone and ePubs for your mobile classroom. You can even assemble and publish lectures for instructors to deliver in Live Online classes.

Then we go the rest of the way and build apps to manage the profiles of our students with documents containing their activities, including quiz scores and teacher comments, and even store their comment transcripts from online learning sessions.

The addressability (what people call “chunking”) that media businesses do to monetize their content opens the door to their own accidental LMSs, and gives them new opportunity. But remember: we are building a lightweight Learning System here (MarkLogic is agile.) There are no rules other than your own business needs that dictate the minimum functionality— the minimum viable product— of an LMS. You can add new features later, as you need them. The XML content you present in your articles, chapters, and standards, no matter what it is about (aircraft wings, mattress manufacturing), if it is stored in a NoSQL database and tagged, already provides the foundation for the LMS your best customers want.

Customers love to engage with any content that helps them improve. That’s a win-win opportunity for organizations publishing content building new accidental learning systems on MarkLogic.

Frank first joined MarkLogic in 2006 after a ten year career as a Computer Scientist at Adobe Systems, building collaboration, XML, and data-driven features for Creative Suite. At MarkLogic he was a Senior Principle Consultant, working for customers like Pearson, HMH, Publishers Press, McGraw-Hill and Congressional Quarterly. He left MarkLogic to serve as CTO at Spectrum Chemical & Laboratory Products, where he led an Oracle EBS migration, and an e-commerce website re-architecture that used MarkLogic for content-marketing. After Spectrum, he was Executive Director of Technology and UX at Kaplan Publishing, where he built a mobile content delivery platform for 200,000 students. In 2011, he rejoined MarkLogic and took a Solutions Director role, where he enjoys a mix of development, architecture, and sales projects. He tweets at @xmlnovelist.

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