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Prometeus in transition

With the two year European Commission funding contract for its support service at an end, PROMETEUS is in the process of mapping out its future as a self funded association with a new board. As the discussion continues, we asked a few stakeholders about their view of the associations' role in elearning.

Anticipating the end of the European Commission contract, PROMETEUS had already been set up as an association last spring. With the major Paris conference now over, and the last formal obligations to the commission fulfilled, the board members of the association have started to map out PROMETEUS' future. First step was the election of a new association board, which will be chaired by Janerik Lundquist, currently the President of SADE (The Swedish Association for Distance Education), with Kari Mikkelä continuing as vice-chair and Miles Ellis, the former chair, as treasurer.

The real substance of the change is still to come, though. The strength of PROMETEUS is clear: its "most important role is as a source of networking with representatives from every sector", as Ellis put it. Not just that, these representatives come from across Europe and beyond, and have already formed alliances with each other for more specific projects.

All these diverse members' interests need to be served, however, and that's where the visions start to diverge somewhat. One approach could be to focus on the gathered expertise because, according to board member Andrew Haldane, "what is distinctive about PROMETEUS is that it is an expert forum". Ellis echoes these sentiments, and warns against a forum driven by the lowest common denominator. Vice-chair Kari Mikkelä specifies this a little further with his vision of PROMETEUS as a forum where national experts can discuss matters that affect all of them.

Being an expert forum and having representatives from all sectors sounds contradictory, but is indicative of the informal two tier structure that the organisation appears to have. On the one hand are small teams of professionals from industry and academia who work together in the Special Interest Groups (SIGs), while on the other there are a good many educators who are just dipping into elearning field and come to events to learn more. Whether this unique structure can be preserved without the professional support service to run large scale events remains to be seen. Both economic necessity and private members interests might favour a focus on small teams of experts. In board member Nick Kearney's view, much of PROMETEUS' value is in small scale meetings anyway. Few seem interested in a role for PROMETEUS as a pure 'disseminator' of expertise- a much misunderstood and abused term according to Kearney. It is a relatively cheap function to have and is therefore much favoured by other organisations and projects in the field. Whether they really engage practitioners is clearly a different matter.

An open association that functions mainly as an elearning expert forum, almost inevitably brings up the question of standards. Dr. Lindner, a standards expert and ordinary PROMETEUS member, sees a role for PROMETEUS as a means to raise the profile of Europe in international standards bodies. It could represent a single voice in IMS and other institutions. In such a role, it could try to maintain a balance in standard setting by cooperating with similar Australian, Canadian, Singaporean and Japanese associations. Dr. Lindner, however, felt that PROMETEUS would not actually need to become a standard setting body itself for such a function, unless a need arose for standards that were not picked up elsewhere.

The PROMETEUS board members seemed a little more wary of the standards issue. "Step back from standards, just talk to people who do standards" was how Kearney put it. Ellis had similar reservations: "before you sit down and standardise, you have to capture practice". He wasn't sure whether the elearning had reached that stage.

Which way the association will go will become clearer in a week or so, when more detailed business plans will be finished. Regardless of the nuance, the value of the network certainly seems high enough for its members to continue to their provide their support. And, as Dr. Lindner observed, "it is all down to the members now"

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