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New UK governmental e-learning standards body proposed.

An initiative to set up a new e-learning standards conformance authority for the UK has been launched. The authority's remit would consist of the drawing up of application profiles that are based on a core of international e-learning interoperability specifications and the testing of applications' conformance to these profiles.

The new standards conformance authority involves input from a wide range of institutions; the British Educational Communications and Technology agency (BECTa), the University for Industry (UfI) and the Department for Education and Skills (DFES), amongst others, are all partners. The Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) has already done a lot of interoperability testing, and a key recommendation of it's Interoperability Pilot project has been the setting up of a conformance authority.

While many aspects of the standards conformance authority are still up for discussion, a few ideas have been floated by Prof Steve Molyneux (Learning Lab), John Brown (formally BECTa) and John Bell (UfI). One idea would be to have the authority reside under the office of the interdepartmental e-Envoy to the UK government, as part of the e-Government Interoperability Framework (e-GIF). e-GIF has been mainly concerned with metadata standards so far, but e-learning standards seem a natural extension. Especially since the new profiles would be used by services as diverse as the London Metropolitan Police, the National Health Service as well as schools, further and higher education. A potentially interesting issue that would have to be dealt with, is that e-GIF compliance is mandatory for government departments at the moment.

Provisionally, the core specifications that the application profiles could be built on include IEEE Learning Object Metadata, IMS Content Packaging Specification (V1.1), IMS Content Management Specification (V0.1), IMS Learner Information Package Specification (V1.0), and Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM V1.2). Various other IMS and ADL specifications could be added at a later stage.

The actual process of ensuring conformance to the application profiles is also open to suggestions, and we asked Prof. Molyneux what kinds of ideas have been floated so far.

Q: What are your thoughts on compliance enforcement? Would vendors be required to pay for the conformance test, and, if so, how would open source efforts be accommodated?

A: "The model for conformance is in its early stages and requires full public and private sector consultation. At a meeting yesterday in Birmingham with over 50 vendors it was agreed that we need to work closely in the development not only of a conformance programme but also consider the issues of open source.

One model proposed was a model similar to the MOT where ANY organisation would be able to register as a certification agency once they have completed the relevant training. Whilst certification would be paid for, access to conformance testing tools and procedures would be free of charge.

This is of course only one model. The issue of who owns the authority, who pays for it, policing etc. are still in the air and can only be resolved by a wider debate. It is far too early in the debate to speculate on the exact model or outcomes but discussions with vendors and consumers have shown a positive reaction to the formation of such an agency."

Q: The strategy of the agency you propose sounds very beneficial, but also potentially risky; institutions may prefer non-compliant solutions, or vendors may find the requirements to onerous for just the UK market. Also, ensuring testing capacity and resolving arbitration could be difficult. How do you envisage meeting these challenges?

A: "One has to look at the wider picture. We are not in a police state and no-one is saying that institutions need be standards compliant. In fact Higher Education has always been rebellious in the standards area as they feel it may stifle innovation (not however the case with internet related "standards").

If we as UK plc are to achieve best value for money in the investment being made in e-Learning then we have to ensure that consumers have a comfort blanket that any content or system they purchase will be capable of being sustained. For too long consumers have been forced to purchase propriety content and systems - not the ideal way to achieve strategic investment. Government must also ensure that such a comfort zone exists if we the tax-payer are to receive best value for our pound. The investment in content development by 2004 is estimated at anywhere between 190 Million and 2 billion (depending on which agency you ask). Can we really afford to re-invest each time we need to re-engineer content due to the core technology changing. UfI have interesting facts on the amount of money spent on re-engineering of content to meet specific needs.

We talk of joined-up government, maybe the sharing of learning content and systems is the first step in this process. Standards are they only way we will achieve this.

Certainly none of this can be achieved without consumers being aware of the benefits of choosing standards compliant content and services but at the moment, their expectation have been set far too high by over hyped marketing."

Further contributions to this report were made by John Bell and Sarah Porter (JISC). The next meeting about the proposals is hosted by the Office of e-Envoy on the 28th of August.

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