Distributable Educational Material Markup LanguageTM


First Alpha version of schema published.

Though it is still rough and only covers the fundamental constituents of a DEMML™ topic, the DEMML_0.1 schema is available for viewing here.

Created DEMML™ blog site.

It took me a while to get around to creating a blog but it is finally up. (Updated July 8, 2009)
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Added new Features and Benefits page.

DEMML is truely unique but I seem to have a hard time getting people to see that. Hopefully this will help. (Updated Dec. 10, 2007)
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New Powerpoint about Communications Systems

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How DEMML™ was Invented

Necessity truly is the mother of invention.
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The Features & Benefits of DEMML™

DEMML™ has several features which make it entirely unlike any other CBT or educational content system.

Highly granular content structure allows multiple different explanations for any one thing.

Every unit of content is broken down into it's smallest constituent parts. The smallest sets of content that make sense on their own are called "topics". These are analogous to anywhere from a single paragraph to about a page or so in a regular textbook. Each topic is composed of many different "items" of various types. The main statement of the topic would be one "item." There could be multiple explanations for that statement, each of which is also a separate "item." Each topic consists primarily of a set of facts about that topic, with multiple alternate explanations for each of those facts. Each of those facts and all the different explanations about those facts are yet more separate "items." There can be questions, problems, answers (right and wrong, with multiple possible explanations as to why they are right or wrong), examples, exercises, experiments, projects, etc. All of which are distinct and separate "items."

Within any one topic there will therefore be a rich interconnected structure of individual "items" all relating to that topic. All the items for a given topic are stored in a separate folder as explained here. It is possible for each "item" to be stored in a separate file or for multiple "items" to be stored in a single file together (as long as all the items are associated with the same topic).

All of these separate "items" files are always and forever stored separately. There is no need to ever take these separate "items" and piece them together into complete lessons or learning modules as is necessary when using all other current CBT systems such as SCORM or Open Educational Resources. These systems usually present relatively monolithic, pre-determined hunks of content to students. Even when educators can find pieces of content suitable for their needs, it is still in relatively large chunks. The educator then has to manually cut apart and re-assemble all those pieces into yet another monolithic lesson which is then presented to the student in a one-size-fits-all, take-it-or-leave-it fashion. Even though these monolithic lesson modules are presented to the student a piece at a time, all those pieces are still permanently tied together as a unit as far as the student is concerned. The student must read Thing-A then Thing-B then answer Question-C as predetermined by the author of that lesson module. Once the content author has chosen what they think is best for the "average" student, the individual students have no options as to what they view. They must learn using the material in the lesson given to them or they fail, regardless of whether they fit the mold of "average student" as determined by the content author.

Using DEMML™: instead of searching all over the internet for content and then constantly cutting and pasting it into different arrangements to build up lessons or content modules, teachers - or anyone else - simply use electronic syllabuses and lesson plans to list what topics or items should be presented to the student. No more searching all over the internet for content to cut and paste together. No more tediously building and rebuilding slightly different lesson modules for different groups of students in a vain attempt to create the perfect one-size-fits-all monolithic lesson module. No more need to try to guess what every student will need, inevitably getting it wrong a large percentage of the time.

DEMML™'s highly granular content structure allows multiple different alternate explanations for every possible piece of every single topic at the click of one button. If a student doesn't understand a particular explanation they can easily choose a different one that better meets their needs. It is expected that this will result in a vastly improved rate of learning and an increase in the enjoyment of learning itself. When learning is no longer so much work then many more students will come to see how rewarding it can be.

Incredibly detailed yet flexible classification system.

Almost unlimited possibilities in content design.

Anything that can be displayed on a normal web page can be used for content. This includes all HTML formatting, video, audio, animations, even Java and Javascript programs. There are special types of items to refer to external learning experiences as well as links to further information both inside and outside of the system. We are working on a secure system to launch external executable programs and pass arguments and data to them. This way a separate modeling or simulation program can be used to illustrate or experiment with a concept. Or it could simply open a document or spreadsheet for a tutorial. Almost anything that can be done - both on a computer or off - can be organized, automated, and tracked through DEMML™.

So where does the "almost" come in? DEMML™ content should never require communication back to a server in order for that content to function or display properly. One of the basic philosophical tenants of DEMML™ is that the content must be available for use by the student even when there is no network or internet connection available. That is what makes it truly accessible to everyone, everywhere. Therefore, it is imperative that all content function properly on a stand-alone computer. Will it be physically possible to violate this rule? Of course. But this will be strongly discouraged and not allowed in any official DEMML™ content.

Activities done away from the computer.

Rather than tying students to a computer all day, DEMML™ content can also include activities done away from the computer. Anything from simple exercises to lab experiments to group projects to identifying things found in nature.These activities will be tagged according to what topics and facts they are designed to teach. Then, after the activity is complete, the student's DEMML™ software can test and reinforce those facts using spaced repetition to ensure that students actually retain what they learn. Remember, the reinforcement could even come in the form of more external activities keeping students engaged and away from their computers most of the day..

Because all these activities have unique DEMCS™ codes and ItemID numbers assigned to them, any organization can list these activities on their calendar or web-site, using a specially designed XML tag to indicate that the organization will be organizing an event where students can participate in these activities in groups, with guidance, or under supervision as necessary or desired. Using their DEMML™ software, students could check off activities in which they are interested. Then their software could check various general or special-purpose search engines to find these activities scheduled by groups in their area.These groups could be existing organizations such as schools, Boys & Girls Clubs, scouts, homeschooling groups, libraries, museums, etc. We also hope to promote the formation of independent and/or ad-hoc learning groups where people get together to participate in learning activities together.

A special type of activity will be "Identification Topics." In other words, a special group of topics designed exclusively to aid students in identifying some animal or plant species, type of mineral, or even model of car, out in the real world. Any branch of the "Tree of Knowldege" which contains topics about some thing or phenomenon (which would be just about all of them) will have "Identification Topics" spread throughout its sub-branches. These special Identification Topics will be placed at various levels in the tree to hold content which describes the unique characteristics which separates that branch of the tree from its siblings. As one works farther out on the branches of the tree, the Identification Topics become more and more specific until they identify a single species, thing, or phenomenon. In this way, the multiple levels of Identification Topics form a kind of identification key similar to the ones some of us used to identify insects in high-school biology class.

Rich metadata allows the content to be classified and tagged to meet any educational need.

In addition to the DEMCS™ classification codes, each individual topic and item has a rich and flexible set of metadata that can be attached to them. This metadata can associate many kinds of additional information with that topic or item. Some examples include:

Highly customized and flexible learning for each individual student.

The rich metadata in DEMML content and in auxiliary "Student Learning Data" files enables client software to:

By breaking the content down into its smallest parts then classifying and tagging each part, DEMML™ software can mix and match those parts on a level never before possible and with an ease never before imagined. Educators will no longer need to search for content all over the internet then edit that content into specific lessons. They will simply check off the content they want to use in the hierarchical tree of knowledge and quickly generate electronic syllabuses and lesson plans to distribute to their students. Students will then be free to explore outside of those bounds and their software will be free to choose additional explanations and questions to match each students individual educational needs.

Forgetting Curves and Spaced Repetition: Two important features that aren't really features of DEMML™ at all.

"Forgetting curve" is a term used to describe the rate at which a person forgets what they have learned. It is an upside down semi-exponential curve. When someone first learns something they forget it quite rapidly. In other words, the curve is very steep. Subsequent forgetting occurs less rapidly, causing the "curve" to be less steep. When people have been exposed to information more often or required to answer questions about it then they both know it better and forget it more slowly. In other words, the curve starts higher up and is more stretched out and less steep. I have written an extensive literature review on the subject for those interested in further reading.

By adjusting the intervals between exposure to specific topics or facts, software can maximize the rate at which a student learns and minimize the rate at which they forget. This is done by repeating the exposure at just the right interval, something called "Spaced Repetition.". The forgetting curve helps determine this interval. After a few successful repetitions, the time between repetitions is extended further and further so that, eventually, a student may only need to be re-exposed to the material once a year and yet retain perfect recall. I have written a paper detailing how this works and posted it here.

Many current flashcard or learning systems attempt to make use of this principle. However, they are limited to simply re-asking the exact same question over and over again. In this manner, the student memorizes the answer to the question without actually learning the underlying concepts. In DEMML™ there will eventually be hundreds or thousands of questions about any one specific fact. By drawing on this huge library of different questions - all about the same topic or fact - software can always keep students on their toes. Rather than simply memorizing answers, they will truly learn the underlying concepts and they will be able to recall those concepts when needed for as long as they choose.

But this spaced repetition is not actually performed or controlled by the DEMML™ standard. Instead, DEMML simply provides a standardized means of storing the information about the student's forgetting curve for each topic and fact so that the software can calculate the appropriate interval for the repetitions. It is up to the software designers to determine how they calculate that curve and how they perform the repetitions, or even if they do so at all.

In the future, we plan to devise a standard Application Programming Interface (API) for developers to use which will allow different algorithms to be "plugged in" to DEMML™ software. This way students can choose their preferred software based on ease of use and still install any Spaced Repetition algorithm that they choose. Education researchers - rather than needing to create a whole new application- will be able to simply write different plug-in algorithms for students to use with their existing software. The API will even be designed such that a student can use one algorithm for some of the material and another algorithm for other material. This ability will enable easy "within-subject" experiments.

Electronic syllabuses and lesson plans direct student's learning while still allowing them to explore on their own.

A syllabus is simply a list of things a student needs to learn for a given course of study. The same is true for both regular school-work and for DEMML™. In DEMML™, though, a syllabus contains just a bit more detailed information. It is an XML file that lists the specific facts within all the various topics that a student needs to know. It also indicates how well the student should know that material and when they should know it. It is possible to specify that a student should have a cursory understanding by the date of the lecture but that they must master it by the date of the test. It is even possible to indicate that the students are allowed to neglect some of it for the final, but what teacher is going to do that?

Once created, a DEMML™ syllabus or lesson plan will be loaded into the student's DEMML™ compatible software. That software will check what content the user already has on their system and download what the student doesn't already have. In keeping with the No-Internet-Connection-Required rule, that "download" may consist of a request for the content to be transferred via the Intelligent Epidemic Routing Protocol. If the student happens to have loaded the syllabus and the content at the same time then the software will just use what was just loaded unless the student has special needs. In which case, the software will determine what other content the student will need based on what that software already knows about the student's current knowledge and learning abilities.

Multiple syllabuses can be loaded into the learning software to give the student an overall picture of all the things they currently need to learn and/or know. When a student feels that they no longer need to retain the knowledge listed in a syllabus, they can simply delete that syllabus from their system. The software will no longer use spaced repetition to ensure the student remembers any of those facts. Additional syllabuses can be pre-loaded for future classes. The software can use the prerequisites for all the items in those pre-loaded syllabuses as an additional list of things that the student should not be allowed to forget. This way, students won't be showing up for Physics class having completely forgotten all the calculus that they learned two semesters ago. Finally, people can create their own personal syllabus of things they want to remember for any designated time period, even the rest of their life.

While a syllabus is a list of certain facts that need to be learned, a lesson plan, in contrast, is a list of the exact items that must be presented to the student in a specified order. The teacher chooses the exact explanations that the student must read and the exact questions that the student must answer. Nothing prevents the student from reading other explanations or doing other problems. But the student must at least go through the ones specified by the teacher. This is provided for those "old school" teachers who cannot give up control over what content their students are exposed to. It can also be used to create a common foundation for discussion among students.

Both DEMML™ syllabuses and lesson plans can be easily built up by simply choosing topics, facts, and items from the hierarchical list of content contained within the "Tree of Knowledge." Software will be written that assists the teacher by filtering and sorting content based on the metadata mentioned above. So, if a teacher wants to find content that facilitates the "Understanding" level in Bloom's Taxonomy, follows a certain thread, and avoids content that has certain difficult prerequisites, then those will be made available for the teacher to choose from when building their lesson plan or syllabus. It sure beats searching the internet for hours on end and then painstakingly evaluating everything personally, now doesn't it?

To reiterate: There is absolutely no actual content contained within a syllabus or a lesson plan. They are merely lists of topic and item codes that specify which content the user's software should download. The actual "items" of content are then separately transferred onto the student's computer for the software to present to the student as necessary. Though a syllabus specifies the topics a student should learn, it does not specify the exact content to download. That is determined by the student's individual DEMML™ compatible software based on the student's individual learning history. This is only possible because of the highly granular nature of DEMML™ content. Additionally, although a lesson plan does specify exact content to present, if that content does not meet the needs of the student then the software or the student can always choose to download additional content about that very specific topic or fact. Plus, instead of searching all over the internet for that additional information, all the student has to do is click one button in their software and instantly be presented with a list of appropriate alternatives.

Easy reuse of media.

Like all XML and HTML, the media is stored separately. All media is given a unique name and location within the classification system so that it can be used within any content.

Content can be created and submitted by anyone.

Educators, students, and authors can create content and submit it for inclusion within the DEMML™ system. People can submit something as small as one additional explanation for one specific question or they can submit an entire chapter or book worth of information. Naturally, all that information will have to be broken down into separate DEMML "items" and grouped by topics. I hope to work out a system so that those who create large amounts of content can be rewarded for their work.

Official DEMML content is vetted by certified educators.

DEMML™ is not a wiki. People cannot simply add whatever they want to the official DEMML™ "Tree of Knowledge." All content designated as DEMML™ vetted content and distributed through the DEMML™ distribution system is specifically designed for education purposes and it has been checked for accuracy by certified educators. The vetting system allows any certified educator who wants to participate to do so. Rather than wait for specific individuals to find time to vet content, a large pool of educators will be certified for each different major discipline. Once a certain number of those official vettors have responded, then the content will be considered vetted and will be automatically added to the system. No committee meetings required!

Content can also be created and distributed outside of the DEMML system.

It is also possible for anyone to create content and distribute it on their own. As long as it follows the standard for file structure, then that content can be used within the student's learning software just like official DEMML™ content. This content must be designated as "DEMML™ formatted" content. The phrases "DEMML™ approved," "DEMML™ vetted," "official DEMML™," or similar phrases cannot be used in association with this content. To do so would be a violation of the DEMML™ trademark.

That said, external content is definitely encouraged. Teachers can create content and distribute it to their students without waiting for it to be officially vetted by other educators and distributed throughout the DEMML™ system. Companies can create content to train their employees in internal procedures and that content can be easily merged with the content those employees may already be studying from other sources. DEMML™ formatted content can be included on a CD sold with a book. The readers of the book can then merge that content into their existing database of DEMML content and study it using the same software they are already using.

It is even be possible for other organizations to create their own database of DEMML formatted content with their own classification and vetting systems. As long as they don't claim the content is official DEMML™ content and they don't indicate that the classification code is a DEMCS™ classification code, then everyone will be happy. It is my hope that lots of content will created and used for all kinds of things. Since all this content will be in the same format, then people can use the same software for learning everything they need to learn, whether it be for school, work, or personal edification. Then there will be true competition among the developers of both content and the software used to present it.

Absolutely no server required to use the content.

Most other CBT systems (such as SCORM) require complex and proprietary systems of servers and software to present the content to students. Even so called "simple" systems still require costly and proprietary media streaming software installed on a server which must be accessible to view that content. Others require that the student be able to communicate with a web server in real time to use the content.

Many systems claim their content can be easily distributed. But once "distributed," they still need a server for the students to view the content.

With DEMML™ you can copy some of your content onto a USB memory stick and I can load it directly onto my computer or even read it directly off of the memory stick. That's it, that's all. If the content contains multimedia, then that media will be displayed using the standard, free plug-ins that are already installed for most user's browsers.

Absolutely no internet connection required to use or distribute the content.

While the DEMML™ distribution system will use the internet, the content can be distributed directly to very remote users via USB memory stick, CD, or DVD. This can be done by simply copying files or using a new protocol I have devised called The Intelligent Epidemic Routing Protocol. Although the protocol is not currently implemented, I do plan to implement it and release it into the public domain. If anyone else wants to develop that protocol so I don't have to, please, be my guest.

Easy to get started.

Absolutely no special software is needed on either the client or server end to get started.

No one is locked-in to a single source for software.

While DEMML content can be viewed using a plain web browser, special software will be required to make use of many of the special features. Rather than attempting to be a single-source vendor for this software, will encourage the development of open-source and commercial software from as many different vendors and sources as possible. We believe that choice is not only good for the consumers, but also the best way to ensure the long term health of the standard itself.

DEMML will inspire a new wave of high quality educational software and content by breaking the link between them.

Under the current system, a different program or web site is written or created for almost every different set of content. New content requires a new program. If a student needs to learn material that is only presented by a certain program then they have to put up with all the failings of that program. Or there may be a certain program that works really well, but there is only a limited set of content available for that program. DEMML™ will free up software developers to write the best program they can without concerning themselves about the content. They will also know that there will be a large market for their product because of the large body of content already available. This will then make it practical for them to invest the time and money necessary to create truly innovative, high-quality software.

Similarly, content authors will no longer be limited to the small niche provided by their chosen presentation software. They can create content, confident in the knowledge that it can be used by people all over the world using their choice of software.

Facilitates better research.

If students opt-in, software can collect a history of everything they do within the system and feed that back to a massive database of the learning histories of millions of students. This data can then be easily mined by education researchers to unlock the secrets of how we learn and to improve the content itself. There will then be very little need for the lengthy, expensive studies often performed by education and learning researchers today. A researcher will be able to simply sit down at their desk and search through a database of information. The statistics gathered will be much more valuable because they will be based on the histories of millions of students from all over the world instead of just thirty or so who happen to go to a local school and have time to participate is a study. If a researcher wants to investigate a new approach to presenting content they can simply create that content, submit it to the system, and then sit back and wait for the data to come rolling in. If they want to experiment with a new learning algorithm, they can simply write a new plug-in and distribute it for everyone to use in their existing software.

By reducing the cost and time involved in educational research, DEMML™ will open the doors for more researchers to investigate more different techniques at a rate never before possible.

First Published: April 22, 2007 — Last Modified: December 20, 2010
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