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Education community advises European Commission on standards, open source, and learner profiles

The European Commission's IST Programme has launched an open consultation process to discuss the research and policy priorities in the area of "technology supported learning".

This consultation leads up to the coming Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) for Research and technological Development, which will fund projects operating from 2003, the first fruits of which will appear in 2005. This is a long-term development plan, with the stated intention of the European Commission (EC) to favour large, well-funded autonomous research programmes.

So where do standards and specifications fit in?

Of the written 66 contributions, five were explicitly concerned with standardisation efforts; many other contributions also implied development in this area. So clearly standards are important for the contributors. The question is what should Europe's approach to standards be?

As pointed out by Rob Koper, representing the Open University of the Netherlands, the Commission has two options:

  • To validate specifications that exist and provide essential feedback

  • To be involved in the development of specifications

A European OKI?

Perhaps the most interesting proposal was one made by Dr Rolf Lindner of Darmstadt Technical University. Lindner was keen to see the EC play a role in supporting a common open-source reference framework or implementation for learning technology: "It is high time to launch a practising community for IT-supported learning, education, and training in Europe".

Such a framework would allow future projects to be effectively tested and evaluated, and allow the results of projects to be shared and retained by the community.

A project along these lines could be the European equivalent of MIT’s Open Knowledge Initiative, an initiative to provide free, open source components for learning systems.

If acted upon, such an initiative in Europe could have a major impact on the development of technologies and specifications, providing a core of reusable software components adaptable to the needs of institutions.

However, not all delegates were quite so taken with the open source model, with one representative from the University of Denmark boldly asserting "there is no future in open source". More specifically, issues such as funding, documentation, and the business model for such a venture would have to be worked out.

Europe complacent on standardisation?

On the subject of specification development, delegates were concerned that Europe does not create new specifications and standards that conflict with international standardisation efforts by IEEE, ISO, and others.

While delegates accepted that de-facto industry specifications are “the ones that really matter”, they were concerned that the United States may dominate the international standards. How well will such standards represent the linguistic and cultural diversity found in Europe?

Paul Lefrere of the UK’s Open University countered this view, stating that the best means Europe has to combat such a tendency is for European universities and companies to participate in international standards activity, as is already taking place.

In his written submission, Lindner criticises what he sees as the complacency of Europeans on standardisation, "while the US dominated communities work on the next generation of their specifications, the European stakeholders stare at the published results of the last but one specification and try to run after it".

Technology and the institution

For almost the first time since the framework programmes began, there was wide agreement on the key role that organisational structure plays in the successful uptake of learning technologies. This makes a great deal of sense - a standard argument from the IT consultancy world is that if a technology isn’t going to change the organisation, then why bother with it?

Delegates’ recommendations that research should be focussed in this area create a challenge for the EC: it is difficult for the EC to fund research in this area because it cannot be seen to interfere in member states’ educational policy making.

For example, it is UK government policy that determines what goes on in the primary school classroom today; but this may create obstacles to creating the conditions for the successful use of learning technology, which does not neatly fit into a typical timetabled day.

The interaction between pedagogy, technology and organisation could become creative if the constraints of existing models could be relaxed.

There was also concern that current e-learning systems were simply re-inventing the classroom online, and not providing support for the important informal interaction that take place in traditional education, in corridors common rooms and coffee bars.

Many commercial systems are forced to try and maximise market share, and so play safe with their systems. Unfortunately, this stifles innovation, and the new pedagogical possibilities offered by technology are being squeezed out, with the resulting danger that we may end up with decreasing diversity despite promising the opposite.

What delegates felt was needed was a more flexible approach to eLearning, with teachers and learners being able to assemble environments from interoperable tools. Research into interoperability was needed to explore this model. Open source development could provide the engine for the rapid development of many such tools.

Student profiles and lifelong learning

The increased mobility of learners within Europe, coupled with different systems for certifying learners’ knowledge and experiences, creates a challenge for universities, learners and employers alike when it comes to tracking a learners certification and qualifications.

Even when (or if) technical issues relating to creating individual learner profiles are overcome, there is still the thorny topic of ownership and disclosure of information. Should the individual be able to choose what parts of their learner profile they reveal to prospective employers? Who will have the right to add to a profile?

An interesting point is the level of detail supplied in a profile. Could actual simulations of activity be recorded, so that actual performance can be replayed to demonstrate the learner's ability? Of course, such enhancements have implications for the size and storage capability of profiles, especially given the emergence of lifelong learning.

Final words

There was some disappointment amongst delegates on how their views were expressed by the Rapporteurs that facilitated the working groups. For example, the items on standards were rather weak, with no clear message on open source. This raises some concern as to the shape of the final recommendations.

The consultation process is ongoing, however, and the Commission is keen to gather as much opinion from the sector as possible.

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