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O'Reilly Open Source Convention


2002: A Zope Odyssey
Dennis Allison, Stanford University, CSL
Adele Goldberg

Track: Python
Date: Wednesday, July 09
Time: 11:30am - 12:15pm
Location: Portland

Allison and Goldberg developed, implemented, and deployed a learning management system for high school teachers of college preparatory courses. In addition, they provided authoring system and technical production support for a team of authors, reviewers, and editors. While the system, called ThinkFive by AgileMind, Inc., does deliver curriculum materials and administers tests to the students, its primary design goal was to provide community support, professional advice, and productivity tools for the classroom teachers. The schools are all in Texas as this first pilot year was carried out in collaboration with the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas, Austin. In the coming school year, the size of the user community will grow in numbers, courses, and geographical span.

This talk is really two presentations: a tour through the requirements and solutions we offer for eLearning, and a discussion of the implementation environment and architectural choices. Allison and Goldberg chose to use Python, Zope, and MySQL on the server-side, targeting IE, Mozilla, and Opera with Flash MX on the client-side. They used a combination of curriculum expressed in XML, a Smalltalk website generator, and a Zope-based authoring system to manage technical production. AgileMind operates as a virtual company, with team members located throughout the U.S.

The economics of education, the realities of computers in the schools, the choice of web delivery, and the limitations and restrictions placed on Allison and Goldberg by the school marketplace forced some interesting architectural and design trade-offs. The size and complexity of the product dictated a primary design goal of rapid and reliable maintenance, which in turn informed the choice of development processes. The plan was to provide a learning community for both teachers and students. While the jury is still out, the initial success in this area was limited, not so much by the constraints of the computer system that was designed, as by the social system and (protected) schools context in which it must operate.

The ThinkFive development experience is a good case study of what a small but dedicated team of developers (two full-time newbie Zope users and one Flash programmer part-time) can do in a very short amount of time using open source software, a bit of imagination, and support from the world-wide user community when problems arise. The result has been a stable, maintainable deployed system, used daily by almost 4000 students and their 110 teachers. Allison and Goldberg are now in the process of rearchitecting to manage scalability, addition of new courses, and new productivity features.

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