January/February 2003 // Tools
Knowledge Environment for Web-based Learning (KEWL): An Open Source Learning Management System Suited for the Developing World
by Derek Keats
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: Derek Keats "Knowledge Environment for Web-based Learning (KEWL): An Open Source Learning Management System Suited for the Developing World" The Technology Source, January/February 2003. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

The developing world faces many challenges to the effective use of technology in higher education, not least of which is the cost. While there are many free software tools that can help institutions break into the world of online teaching and learning (Glassman, 2000), there are relatively few comprehensive learning management tools available as freeware or under open source and related licenses (Malloy, Jensen, & Reddick, 2002). With a few exceptions, the open source learning management tools that we have been able to locate focus on a few specialized features or have not yet released useable code. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Open Knowledge Initiative (OKI) is fostering open source learning tool implementations from the University of Michigan (the CHEF system), Stanford University (CourseWork), Indiana University (a revised version of the current Oncourse system), and MIT's own Stellar system. Strategies for releasing these tools, based on the OKI software development architecture, are being developed with attention as to how they can be supported and maintained (P. Long, personal communication, November 11, 2002; Gilbert & Long, 2002).

The Knowledge Environment for Web-based Learning (KEWL) was developed at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) to facilitate research into online learning. It was built as a comprehensive learning management tool that could be modified and used to investigate the online learning process, particularly in the context of Africa and the rest of the developing world. KEWL has been made available at no cost under an open source license (GNU Public License). KEWL is suitable for use in any online learning situation, including in school, corporate training, and higher education.

KEWL is an active server pages (ASP) application that runs under any Microsoft operating system that supports ASP. For testing purposes, it will run on a laptop with any Windows operating system from Windows 98 onwards. Aside from needing a Web server, KEWL also requires a database server that may be on the same machine or on a different server on the network. For moderate use, the Microsoft Data Engine (MSDE), which can be downloaded from the Microsoft Web site, provides adequate database services. Thus KEWL will scale from a single desktop—for example, a laptop used for demonstration purposes—to an online learning enterprise such as the one at UWC, where the features are spread across four high-end servers.

In this article we discuss the availability of KEWL under open source license, describe some of its features, and present examples of its use at UWC. In addition, we look at selected future developments of KEWL that are planned or currently underway.

Early and Ongoing Development of KEWL

KEWL was initiated and funded as a research project, but it soon became apparent that the system could serve the online learning needs of the University of the Western Cape and its institutional partners. During its development, KEWL was used to teach selected courses in the IOI Virtual University, an online program affiliated with the International Ocean Institute (IOI) at UWC. The program subsequently adopted KEWL as its platform for online course development, and the IOI funded the development of educator and student manuals on KEWL use. KEWL also was adopted by NetTel@Africa, a regional masters program in information and communications technology policy and regulation that involves seven universities in Southern Africa, three universities in the United States, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, the International Telecommunications Union, the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organization, and the Telecommunications Regulators Association of Southern Africa. This project funded the development of additional features to enhance KEWL: a smart glossary, a search engine, and the capability to export a course to static content for use on CD-ROM or on a static Web mirror. (For an illustration of these features, see the KEWLforge site.) Through the collaborative contributions of these institutions, the functionality and user-friendliness of KEWL expanded significantly.

While the basic functionality needed to develop and offer online courses is already part of KEWL, it is hoped that other institutions that find KEWL useful will either contribute new code to the project or fund the development of new tools as they become necessary. UWC, for example, currently is funding the development of student tracking and notification tools. These tools will follow learner assessment across multiple courses and notify the learner and a faculty advisor, via e-mail or text messages sent to a cellular phone, of any problems so that intervention can be initiated early. UWC is also considering the development of tools that would enable students to construct learning portfolios, which faculty could then use in student assessment.

Features of KEWL

KEWL has most of the features (see Exhibit 1) common to such commercial learning management systems as WebCT, Blackboard, Virtual-U, and LearningSpace, and it is ready for use in the delivery of online courses. All activity within KEWL is based on two main objects: user and course. When a user logs in to a KEWL site, permissions are first established in a "lobby" area; thereafter, the appropriate links become available and all activity takes place in relation to a given course. If the user moves to another course, then all activity is related to that course, thus simplifying the actions needed to access different tools in the appropriate context.

Navigation is managed through a button bar that appears at the bottom of every content page within a KEWL course (see Figure 1). When the mouse passes over a button, a simple explanatory note appears underneath that button. Learners and educators navigate course content using exactly the same button bar, so there is no need to change user rights to see how the course looks to a learner. The only difference is that educators see four additional buttons: edit the current page, insert a page after the current page, delete the current page, and manage the course. The manage button takes the educator to the management page for the current course, and from there the content can be managed, worksheets marked, new chapters inserted, and the like.

We have tried to keep the KEWL interface as simple as possible and make the system suitable for the low bandwidth environment that characterizes most developing countries. A special feature was designed into KEWL version 1.1, released in November 2002, to reduce the negative impact of low bandwidth in Africa. The system now can export content to a CD-ROM or content mirror in such a way that the exported courses are fully integrated with the online site. The exported static HTML can be mirrored to one or more other servers that simply serve HTML, but the interface looks identical to the live one, and the buttons that require interaction with the server connect the user back to the publishing server. Of course, there is no limit to the kind of content that can be contained in a KEWL course, so the actual bandwidth requirements depend on what content a particular educator decides to put into his or her course.

Examples of KEWL courses and a tutorial entitled "Making KEWL Courses" are available on the KEWLforge site after self-registration and login. The KEWLforge site is the development platform and is updated hourly from the version control system; consequently, certain features may be briefly inoperative from time to time. Although the KEWL site offers a more stable version of the system, the KEWLforge site is likely to be more interesting because it offers a broader range of sample courses to the public.

Use and Availability of KEWL

A functional version of KEWL has been available for 2 years, but use of the system has been intentionally limited to a relatively small number of educators because some of its features are still under development. At UWC, KEWL has been used to teach two undergraduate botany courses and three postgraduate botany courses. It was used to teach an honors course to botany students in South Africa while the lecturer was in Taiwan, and to teach a short module on sustainable livelihoods to a group of participants in Canada. One educator in the botany department used the system in a novel way by getting postgraduate students to create a course as their main learning assignment. Members of the law faculty have used KEWL to supplement their classroom teaching, and a team of course developers continues to use KEWL to create online courses for the IOI Virtual University project. KEWL currently is being used for grade administration in all undergraduate courses at UWC, thus allowing student access to grades online and enabling the tracking and mentoring process mentioned above. In general, usage continues to grow.

KEWL is currently running at three sites; the code can be downloaded from the Sourceforge site (address provided below).



KEWL active site for online courses at UWC


Development site for new KEWL features


International Ocean Institute Virtual University project


The Sourceforge download site for KEWL, available since April 2002


Future Development

While the current version of KEWL is quite sophisticated, it should be regarded as the base platform from which further development will take place. As we learn more about the particular needs of Africa through collaborative projects among institutions, new tools will be developed to cater to those needs. In future versions of the system, emphasis will be placed on improving online learning through tools that facilitate the construction of best practices in online courses—for example, by adding more sophisticated communications and content management tools.

Although KEWL currently is not compliant with SCORM and related standards, tools for importing and exporting standardized course materials are planned. A KEWL project management team has been created to develop the next version; this team is charged with establishing best practices for software development via source code control, version management, and harnessing open source momentum. The project team also will expand and improve the user manuals and offer training in the implementation of online courses using KEWL. The development version of KEWL continues to be updated hourly from code that is managed via concurrent versions system (CVS) at the development site.

With the costs of proprietary learning management systems on the rise, it is important to have an open source alternative. This is particularly true in the developing world, where systems like KEWL allow people to contribute to the code and cultivate indigenous skills in software development at the same time. Learning management tools can help promote research on online learning needs and practices in the developing world, and because the tools are freely modifiable, they can respond to the results of this research. Anyone interested in developing the open source KEWL code is welcome to e-mail Hilton Fleming, KEWL project manager.


Gilbert, S. W., & Long, P. (2002, March/April). Open knowledge and open source initiatives: An interview with MIT's Phil Long. The Technology Source. Retrieved March 16, 2002, from http://technologysource.org/?view=article&id=227

Glassman, B. (2000, May/June). Free and handy. The Technology Source. Retrieved March 16, 2002, from http://technologysource.org/?view=article&id=131

Malloy, T. E., Jensen, G. C., & Reddick, M. (2002). Open courseware and shared knowledge in online education: The Utah open-source, Java-based learning management system. Retrieved March 16, 2002, from http://www.psych.utah.edu/learn/olms/OLMS-01-11-07.pdf

puzzle gamesbrain teaser gamesword gameshidden object gamesadventure gamesshooter gamespc game downloadsbest pc gamescard gamesmatch 3 games
View Related Articles >