University of Nottingham Xerte
University of Nottingham Xerte
The Xerte Project
Welcome to the Xerte Project!
Welcome to The Xerte Project! The Xerte Project is an initiative to provide high quality free software to educators all over the world, and to build a global community of users and developers around our tools.
The project began in 2004 at the University of Nottingham, when work began to create a Flash-based runtime engine that would help the in-house multimedia development team speed up the development of interactive learning materials, and provide a platform for re-using good solutions to common problems that developers were typically solving every time they began a new project. Accessibility, in particular, can be a difficult issue for content developers, and an early goal was to provide the very best support for high levels of native accessibility.
To begin with, the tools were aimed at technical users: essentially the engine provided a library of useful classes that developers could access by writing XML to structure content, and writing code to develop interactivity. Early projects were created by hand using tools like notepad. Soon an editor was developed to make this much easier, and the tools were released under a free license in 2006: the Xerte community was born.
We began to discover that many of our users, attracted by the software’s features, were struggling with some of the more technical aspects of developing content. Many did not write code and consequently found development difficult. Nevertheless, a community of users and developers began to put the tools to real use in institutions and organisations around the world. These efforts provided invaluable real world use cases which have alway informed ongoing developments, and to this day the project has a very strong base in addressing real world problems.
It was clear that there was a huge number of potential users who found the technical nature of development too difficult. To address this, an additional layer of templates were developed that allowed non-technical users to assemble content using simple forms, and the user community began to grow very quickly. Tools were developed that made it very easy for developers to create additional templates and soon a suite of some 30 templates provided a fairly comprehensive set of tools for authoring rich, interactive and highly accessible content.
As web technologies and standards continued to advance, we began to explore the potential to move the tools into the browser, something that would have been incredibly difficult just a few years previously. Moving the tools into the browser, so users could access them without having to install any software on their computers would have tremendous benefits and enable new features such as collaborative authoring, allowing users with different skillsets to work together on projects in a very effective workflow. The browser based tools would become known as Xerte Online Toolkits, and were first released under an open-source license in 2009.
The Xerte Project places three values above all else: ease of use for non-technical content authors, providing best of breed accessibility, and nurturing a positive and friendly community of users and developers.
The software has always been aimed at users who need a rapid authoring tool that can easily be used to create media-rich, interactive and highly accessible content without needing to know any of the underlying technology. At the same time, it is important that the tools can be used by more technical users and that the template-based authoring system doesn’t prevent more technical developers from doing what they want to do, whether that is to customise the content with different styles, or to develop new tools and templates to support new types of content. Xerte Online Toolkits is a powerful platform for innovation. The project recognises that users are our success, and has built a friendly and welcoming community.
Development of the software has always been informed by real world use cases. The developers have always engaged closely with the user community to identify new solutions to real world problems, and this has led to a highly credible suite of tools that address a broad range of real world content development scenarios.
Accessibility remains a difficult issue for content developers, and is often poorly understood as simply providing content that works with screen readers, or that meets the requirements of a checklist. In fact, accessibility is much more complicated than that – it is possible to create content that meets all the checklist requirements that is in fact completely inaccessible to some users.
Accessibility, as it turns out, requires a more holistic approach. The Xerte Project has set out from the beginning to provide the very best support for native accessibility, and to create a culture amongst the user community of high levels of accessible design. Not all solutions for high levels of accessibility can be technical: some need to be considered at design-time by the content author, for example, but where technical solutions are possible, Xerte Online Toolkits aims to provide the very best support. We have worked very closely with Jisc TechDIS throughout the project’s development.
The Apereo Foundation
More recently, the developer team have explored the question of sustainability, and after carefully weighing up all the options, the software was put forward and accepted for incubation by the Apereo Foundation in September 2014. We graduated the incubation process in June 2015.
As the software has developed, and the community of developers has grown, the share of the work being done by the University of Nottingham has fallen and significant pieces of work from other individuals and organisations have been contributed to the project’s codebase. The transition of the software to the Apereo Foundation reflects the ongoing growth of the community and the maturity of both the software and the user and adeveloper communities, and removes a number of barriers to adoption for potential users. It removes a single point of failure for the project by placing ownership firmly with the developer community, and brings a more robust framework of governance and decision making to the developers.
All software downloads and support forums can be found at http://www.xerte.org.uk
The Xerte Project
Xerte Online Toolkits
Xerte Online Toolkits is an award winning suite of browser-based tools that allow anyone with a web browser to create interactive learning materials quickly and easily. Content can be delivered to all devices using standards compliant HTML5 and a responsive template can deliver material to both small screens and large desktop computers.
Xerte Online Toolkits provides a suite of tools for creating rich, accessible interactive content. For many educators, effectively exploiting technology in their teaching requires overcoming a number of technical barriers. Xerte Online Toolkits provides simple online tools that anyone can use to create effective interactive materials easily.
Xerte Online Toolkits provides a number of project templates for creating online presentations and interactive learning materials. Content is assembled using an intuitive interface, and multiple users can collaborate on shared projects, creating a powerful and efficient workflow for teams of subject matter experts, media specialists and interactive designers. Xerte Online Toolkits is free software.
2004 – 2006: The Xerte Project
The project began in 2004, when we began writing some general classes that would develop flash-based content faster, using some object-oriented programming techniques. At the time, Flash was the best solution for delivering interactive content on the web, and the team were looking for a tool that worked more like the flow-line development metaphor used in Authorware, which had been widely used in the team up until that time.
The engine used an xml file to define the structure of an interactive project, and used an interpreter to execute code included in the file to create interactivity. The engine loaded and parsed the xml file, and the presentation was created at runtime. Early projects were created by writing the xml by hand – which was tedious and error prone. Soon, work began on an editor for the xml files, which meant projects could be developed much faster, and the team at Nottingham began using the tools for a number of in-house projects. As more projects were developed with these new tools, new features were added and issues resolved. The work was presented at ALT-C in 2006 when the tools were first released under a free license, in the hope that others might find them interesting or useful. The name ‘xerte’ was adopted, an acronym for Xml Editor and Run Time Engine. Through sheer good fortune, Xerte also means ‘to know’ in Greek, an excellent name for an elearning development tool!
Development continued to place a very high value on native accessibility, and Xerte has since been used as a benchmark for accessible best practice.
2007 – 2008: Templates
During 2006 and 2007, the user community began to grow quite quickly. The tools were receiving a lot of positive reaction, although we saw that many users were struggling with the more technical nature of the tools at that time.
The first Xerte Community workshop was held at The University of Nottingham in June 2007, and it was becoming clear that there was a huge and largely unsatisfied demand for easy-to-use tools for non-technical content developers. The University of Nottingham began working with JISC TechDIS and Ron Mitchell to begin to build a new layer of tools that hid the technical authoring environment from users, and allowed content to be developed using simple forms. The approach also made it very easy for developers to create new tools for authoring new types of content, and before long the software included nearly 30 templates for presenting different types of media and interactivity. JISC TechDis and the JISC Regional Support Centres began actively promoting the tools.
2009 – 2010: Open Source
In January 2008, the team began a project known tentatively as ‘Web-based Xerte’, and the development of Xerte Online Toolkits began. Web 2.0 technologies were creating new opportunities for web developers at this time, and with the continuing development of web standards, it became possible to do things that would have been very difficult just a few years beforehand. The idea was to develop a suite of tools that hid all the technical complexities form users, who could develop content in a browser-based interface, and collaborate with other authors, subject matter experts and media specialists on projects.
In July 2008, The Xerte Project’s suite of tools were released for the first time under an open-source license, with the source code being made available to the wider community of users and developers. Before the end of 2009, the team received their first taste of recognition after being shortlisted for the Times Higher Education Awards. JISC TechDis opened the Xerte sandpit, providing a place for potential users to try the software for free, and the first version of Xerte Online Toolkits was demonstrated at ALT-C in Leeds, where the team also won the ALT Team of the Year Award. Xerte Online Toolkits was made available to staff and students at The University of Nottingham for the first time, and take-up was rapid.
2011 – 2012: Community
The launch of Xerte Online Toolkits was a huge success. The user and developer communities began to grow very quickly. New developers joined the community and began to contribute significant pieces of work.
JISC funded the Xenith Project, a small ‘rapid innovation’ project that aimed to replace the existing Flash-based runtime with a runtime entirely devloped in HTML5. This would allow content to be delivered to devices that didn’t support the flash player, and allow develpers to engage with the project through familiar technologies.
JISC also provided funding for the 2012 Xerte AGM. Here Professor Wyn Morgan introduces the event, Amber Thomas talks about the Rapid Innovation projects and Julian Tenney reflects on the project’s development:
Here Fay Cross demonstrates the HTML5 output, and Alistair McNaught shatters some myths about accessibility:
2013 – 2014: Sustainability
During 2014, the main focus for the team has been the development of an HTML-based editor to replace the existing flash-based tools, and to put the project on a more sustainable footing given the success of the tools and the growth of the developer community.
The re-development of the editor is a significant piece of work which will allow authoring to be undertaken on devices that can’t run the Flash Player. The work is still progressing and should be ready for release later in 2015.
In September, the project was accepted for incubation with The Apereo Foundation. After looking closely at all the options, it became clear that transitioning stewardship of the project from The University of Nottingham to The Apereo Foundation was in everyone’s interests. Progression through the incubation process has been rapid, and we expect to graduate as a fully-fledged Apereo project with the next release of Xerte Online Toolkits. Apereo represents a fantastic opportunity for the project to grow into new user communities and attract new developers to the team.