Action Learning Environment (ALE)

I am pleased to announce the alpha (0.1) release of the Action Learning Environment (ALE), an open source environment for building experiential learning environments as interactive as classrooms at their best. ALE is open source (free) software and is available for download here

As interactive as classrooms?!

This is a radical claim so I'd better explain. How could a collection of mere web pages, with all the limits of bandwidth and technology, possibly compete with a great teacher, face to face with a room full of eager students, using all of their senses to achieve their learning objective? Its actually easier than it seems if you consider the assumptions.

  1. Getting there. Classrooms are hard to beat once everyone is there. But classrooms aren't an option for mature students with jobs and family obligations, or for students that live out of state or overseas. Even for local students, commuting to class, finding parking, and other practicalities, make classrooms an unwieldy option at best. With ALE, courses can be truly global and available to anyone with an Internet connection.
  2. Signal to noise ratio. The information bandwidth of a classroom is essentially unlimited and employs all the senses, while web-based technology is strictly limited and employs only sight and occasionally sound. But much of the classroom's "information" is just untimely, irrelevant noise, not timely, relevant signal that is relevant to the learning objective. ALE provides a highly structured approach in which students can be presented only what they need, precisely when they need to have it, to achieve the learning objective.
  3. Faculty-student Interaction. Classroom-based interaction in the classroom is unbeatable...for the well-known few in the front row. But what about the timid (or less studious) ones in the back? ALE uses technology so that no student is left behind. Every student interacts directly with the teacher, not just during a midterm and a final, but every single week of the course.
  4. Student-student Interaction. In classrooms at their best, information flows in all directions and students learn as much from classmates as they do from some "sage on the stage", the teacher. The best teachers know this and use it to advantage. ALE supports them by letting them build structured, team-based, experiential learning tasks to simulate real world team interactions on the web. ALE's structured interaction supplements the unstructured interaction of external tools such as email, listserves, chat rooms and the like.

We live in an experiential learning environment more interactive than anything on the web. ALE's goal is to bring to the web the interactivity we enjoy in everyday life. So ALE forms are automatically persistent , like the writing on a blackboard. Form contents are automatically preserved in a database and restored each time the page is revisited. This makes it easy to build web-based hand-outs, syllabii, quizzes, grade sheets, and custom logic for processing task submissions.

Structured interactivity requires custom logic to specify who can do what to whom when. So ALE pages are fully programmable by anyone that is willing to learn XML. Each ALE page is an object ; an entity that "knows how" to present itself by sending HTML text to a browser and how to handle fields in the page's forms and the database.

ALE's audience is anyone who thinks experiential learning is better than memorization and that hauling education to the students is better than the other way around. The stampede to put "computers in the classroom" (why?), and the rash of mindless web-based page-flippers being marketed as "distance education solutions", show a deep and tragic misunderstanding of both technology and education.

See Academia for more about how ALE departs from such goals and how students respond to the difference.

Self Documenting
Other environments provide a bare foundation to build on from first principles. ALE provides a finished environment to live in and learn from while remodeling it to suit. You simply learn skills when you need them from the built-in tutorial.
ALE is 100% percent Java code and portable to any platform. It was developed on RedHat Linux Fedora and tested on MacOSX. The documentation is Unix-centric only because I don't have a Windows machine for testing. Windows is for sheeple, but ALE will work there nonetheless.
Self Contained
The distribution contains everything you need except for the MySql database server and Java programming language. Instructions for installing these are provided.
No Assembly Required
ALE installs as a functional integrated learning environment. It shows how other learning environments can be constructed while explaining how to transform the tutorial contents into your own. The system can be easily integrated with other web and database servers.
XML Markup
Courses consist of lessons that each assign one or more tasks. Tasks are the fundamental unit of work (and reuse) in a ALE course. Courses are defined by XML files. Tasks are defined the same way.
XML files are automatically reloaded when they change and are maintained in memory as ordinary Java strings with Velocity statements embedded within them. There is no perceptable delay between changing the XML and seeing the effects in your browser.
Persistent Forms
Form contents within tasks automatically persist in the database and are automatically restored when the task is revisited. Instructor comments and/or grades are managed the same way, and typically appear alongside each answer when the student revisits a task.
Web-based Administration
ALE provides a set of web-based administrative tools for managing student registrations and reviewing/grading student task submissions. (under development)
ALE is a reimplementation (from Perl to Java/XML) of the infrastructure used in the author's Taming the Electronic Frontier course. This course won the $25,000 Paul Allen Foundation competition in 1997 as the best distance education course nationwide because of its uncompromising support for action learning within distributed learning communities via the web.

Download Instructions

This is an alpha release so it is rapidly changing, incomplete in some areas, and untested in production. It is released early to comply with the open source release early and often dictum to encourage others to join Brad Cox in its development.

Download ale.tgz (343kb), which contains the full distribution including source, binary, supporting libraries, reference documentation and tutorial. It does not include a servlet engine (Jetty or Tomcat), MySQL database server or Java Runtime Environment. These should be downloaded separately from , and . Then see the installation instructions for how to proceed from that point.

ALE 0.1 © Copyright 2004 by Brad Cox Jan 2004