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Northern Ireland students will 'access the data they need, when they need it'

The Northern Ireland Integrated Learning Environment (NIIMLE) project has just been formally presented at a well received launch. The idea is to provide all FE and HE students in the region with a single, secure access point for all study information from whichever FE or HE institution they are at, have been to, or might go to in the future.

The project was formally launched by the Department for Employment and Learning Permanent Secretary Alan Shannon, who emphasised that "the chances of students staying the course will be enhanced" by joining up the management and student information systems of a range of FE colleges and Universities in the province.

As outlined in our earlier article, the advantages of this kind of joined-up thinking across the FE and HE sectors is very much on the national agenda as well. This is not just limited to offering students a smooth transition from FE to HE, but throughout their life, whenever learning is opportune. NIIMLE, along with SHELL in the southwest of England, are the pioneering projects that will flesh out this lifelong learning approach in practice.

The kind of information NIIMLE sets out to offer students is, in the first instance, course details about the modules they are currently enrolled in, have been enrolled in in the past, and, crucially, what their options for progression are. Part of that process would be online access to academic and student mentors. In addition, it could contain such services as customised newsfeeds, the weather and other local information, calendars, webmail and access to either the institution's VLEs or a possible VLE integrated with NIIMLE at the Northern Ireland level.

Though in the early stages, what is interesting about the technology plans behind NIIMLE is that it is designed to keep data local. When planning an MLE on this scale, you'd usually have some mechanism to gather up all data centrally, and serve that back to students and staff. Though the NIIMLE plans would allow for that, their aim is to leave data in the colleges' MIS systems, and only pull it out of there when somebody requests it from the NIIMLE portal. This means that there is no need for an enormous datawarehouse that stores everything about all post-compulsory learners in Northern Ireland, and no danger of any databases getting out of sync.

But the main attraction, as pointed out by Belfast Institute's Brian Turtle, is that it "allows us to look at students as individuals". That will be most concrete towards the end of the project, when NIMMLE will enable the storage and management of a student owned transcript and PDP. With the PDP in particular, learners of any kind will be able to take control over their own learning and reflect on their progress so far, as well as their aims for the future. The PDP will allow them to store most of that information and make it selectively available to everyone who may have an interest in it.

During the launch event, one advantage of running a project like NIIMLE in a relatively compact region like Northern Ireland came to light: secondary schools in the region are joining up their systems as well as part of the C2K project, and people were approaching Robert Roulston, NIIMLE's project manager, to see whether the FE/HE integration could be extended. After all, both projects adopted a standards based approach...

The NIIMLE project site has further details about the project, and presentations from the launch event.

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