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The EU's new research plan and eLearning: open source and multilingualism

image:The EU's new research plan and eLearning: open source and multilingualism

Now that the sixth research Framework Plan for the EU and associated nations (FP 6) is about to start, the priorities for eLearning research and development in Europe are becoming clearer. According to Luis Rodriguez-Roselló of the European Commission, there are two keywords: open source and multilingualism.

The rationale for the multilingualism bit is as obvious as it is crucial in the European context. With 12 official languages that are soon to grow to 19 in the EU alone, solid support for large multiples of natural languages is simply necessary at all levels of learning technology. This need is hardly new, and European level research and development has already spawned things like the Ariadne set of multilingual learning tools, and the ongoing work at CEN/ISSS on internationalising learning standards- particularly IEEE Learning Object Metadata (LOM).

The open source part is perhaps not quite so obvious. As a matter of fact, in an earlier Communiqué on Priorities for Research and Development Work on
Technology Enhanced Learning, it was merely noted that "Further debate is needed about the potential of Open Source Technologies.". That debate appears to have ended with the conclusion that, in the words of Rodriguez-Roselló, "If there is one sector where open source makes sense, it is education".

Given that quite a few of today's most fundamental technologies originated as open source in academia, that seems fair enough. Present American programs like the Open Knowledge Initiative (OKI) set of learning technologies may also have concentrated minds.

But there was a reason for the earlier caution: a desire to boost "The creative and innovative nature of small and medium seized companies". Around a year ago, when small tech companies were going bust at an alarming rate, it was pretty unclear if and how such businesses could make money with open source software. While we're not out of the woods yet, there are some European open source tech companies like Trolltech, MySQL, Mandrake and SuSE that have at least survived the crunch. At the large business end of the field, it is perhaps notable that a prominent keynote at the Prometeus eLearning conference was given by Richard Straub of IBM- a company that has invested serious resources in open source technologies. Add to that a growing spate of projects in Europe outside of the eLearning that make use of non-proprietary software, and it appears that at least some people in the Commission are developing a taste for freedom.

In his other capacity as Chairman of the eLearning Industry Group (eLIG), Richard Straub also comes in on another interesting aspect of eLearning policy in Europe: standards. Both Rodriguez-Roselló and Christensen of the European Commission --responsible for learning technology and lifelong learning, respectively-- are quite cautious on setting standards as an EU undertaking. While Christensen "could imagine one of our [learning citizen] projects proposing a standard" under certain circumstances, Rodriguez-Roselló thinks that "You can't impose standards from above, that's too complex for users". Instead, they seem quite keen for the eLIG to take the lead on the actual development of standards, and perhaps Prometeus to function as a testbed for them. It is easy to dismiss this as a capitulation to rampant capitalism, but the eLIG itself is heterogeneous enough to have a strong commitment to open standards. This may be helped by the fact that all the usual specification body suspects (IBM, Sun, Apple, Cisco, among others) except Microsoft are part of eLIG.

Other priorities include a notable emphasis of pedagogy over technology. One indication is that education and training research activities within the Information Society Directorate General are now known as 'Technology enhanced learning'. Christensen in particular emphasised that "elearning is just one of the ways of providing life long learning" and the Communiqué states that "Research should be driven by ‘learning pull’ rather than ‘technology push.’".

Ironically, this does have some consequences for the kinds of technology FP6 will focus on; these will have to integrate Pedagogy, Organisation, Applications and Technology. Of the technologies around at the moment, this sounds very much like Education Modelling Language (EML). Al the more so if you look at the express wish to move "...from approaches based on knowledge transfer to systems based on the dynamic construction and exchange of knowledge between learners, teachers, learning communities, and organisations".

Part of the reason for what looks like an EML friendly research policy may be that the technology is distinctly European in origin. Other distinctly European technologies include mobile/wireless technology and associated notions of 'Ambient Intelligence' --the trend to get ICT functionality out of the PC and into numerous interconnected devices-- and its educational cousin 'Ubiquitous Learning'. And, sure enough, these are FP6 priorities too. So there's a clear and quite sensible desire to play to local strengths and enhance them. Nor is this emphasis on non-PC technology entirely driven by what happens to be invented here. Simpler devices that are part of a learner's daily environment can play an important role in extending access to both technology and learning to larger parts of the population. As such, these technologies are also important for lifelong learning, and Christensen is therefore quite interested in projects that can deliver learning to anywhere from homes to prisons.

Yet whatever the priorities within eLearning may be, it is quite clear that the heading under which learning technologies are included ('Information society technologies' IST) is quite a priority within the FP 6. Of all the 'thematic priorities' --which includes things like nanotechnologies and genomics-- IST is nearly twice as large as the next biggest recipient. Granted, IST includes a great deal more than just technology enhanced learning, but the sheer volume of interest expressed in FP 5 clearly seems to have had an effect this time 'round.

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