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We've got the tech, lets build some communities

At the quarterly IMS meetings, the open technical forum is often the one to watch for the latest trends in elearning. The tech forum that is taking place in Vancouver, Canada right now is no exception, and the next priority is clear: building communities.

Over the last few years, meetings of the IMS educational standards consortium have evolved a structure where a few days of techy meetings are followed by an open technical forum, and one day of briefings. The open technical forum is the place for anyone to come along and hear about what's happening in the educational interoperability standard field. Not just that, you get to discuss it as well.

The current technical forum tackled issues like standards initiatives in Canada, the 'adoptability' of interoperability specifications and active content. 'Adoptability' is a cover term for anything that helps make the specs reliable and easier to adopt. The proposed way to do that is by setting up an independent conformance programme, which will help buyers be sure that an application will interoperate with other applications- as it says on the box. Another adoptability strand is the development of application profiles; the tailoring of general specs like IMS's to the needs of a particular community.

And its community that's on the minds of lots of people. The Canadian organisers of the IMS meeting are in the proces of bringing all stakeholders in the country together to create a national community that can hash out any spec issues for and by Canadians. This will prevent multiple wheel reinvention. The question is: how to get beyond what Stephen Downes called "the usual suspects", and out to everyone involved in e-learning.

There already are a number of specific, working communities in Canada and beyond that are delivering practical, standards based solutions. One is the eduSource network of learning object repositories. They've been busy building infrastructure, but, as Douglas MacLeod of the project pointed out: the issue is not technology, but community building. Making sure that what you build meets everyone's needs. Much the same sentiment was voiced by people involved in setting up provincial portals like Alberta's, which aims to get teachers, authorities, curriculum experts and industry on board and cooperating.

This is not limited to just Canada. In IBM's Chuck Hamilton oriola cookie schema of learning objects, elearning been busy at the technical core (packaging, metadata), but now really need to move to the human outer rings (presentation, information flow, collaboration). As he put it, we need to move away from decontextualised 'prisonware' to properly socially contextualised learning experiences.

David Porter's Learning Technologies Program NewMedia Innovation Centre is doing exactly that with a range of 'convivial tools': tools that are relatively small, run on your PC and have an immediately graspable purpose. Thinks Napsters for education. At present, they already developed eduSplash, a personal repository that hooks into various institutional repositories and makes content widely available. In the same vein, there's the Possibility network, a personal portal that gets the content you want to your site on your machine.

Community is also a driving factor in the ongoing discussion about conformance. As Peter Hope of the Canadian Department of Defense pointed out, one reason for pushing for conformance is to prevent vendors from having to retest their tools every time another institution is looking to procure some tools. Do it is as a community, and vendors have to do it only once. More than that, the one well designed suite they are planning to build could test a large number of application profiles and specs. This is important, because, as Dick Hill of UK eUniversities found, the most important question to ask of specifications is why they are important to you. i.e. which ones you need for your community in order to do what you want them to do.

One example of how this could work is the SIF, an association of vendors solely dedicated to interoperability of systems in schools. Their approach essentially requires small and simple extensions to common application and server products that allow them to communicate all data that need to be shared within a school, a school district, a state or even nationally.

The real fireworks of the meeting were reserved for the active content session, though. Active content is the IMS term for content that goes beyond static data, and is able to communicate in interesting ways with a VLE and other content.

Paul Stacey put the issue somewhat differently: so far, elearning content is "dead, fossilised, cold, static, decontextualised learning" Why? Because the main focus has been on mostly financially motivated autonomous self paced learning. According to Paul, what is needed is a move away from this People to Content model to a People to People model.

One attempt to get People to People from within IMS is Learning Design, as outlined by Peter Sloep of the OU Netherlands. This chimed with Gilbert Paquette, who thought IMS LD is a good way forward because of its collaborative nature and because it allows alternative activities and roles.

Stacey's spicy contribution in particular did somewhat dull the impact of the highly unusual keynote speaker for the day: Stephen Downes. Stephen said he felt the invitation to present the keynote at an IMS meeting felt a bit like being asked to discuss theology in the Vatican. What he didn't say was that he'd be asked to discuss theology in the Vatican... as a heretic.

True to form, he argued that what IMS really wants is to be like the decentralised, simple, easy and highly successful RSS and OAI protocols. As he couldn't help point out, these news and archive aggregation protocols can be implemented at either the production or consumption end in minutes using tools that cost little to nothing. The corresponding IMS spec, DRI, is "just too hard, too complex". And this is not where it ended; Stephen gave quite a wishlist of what he thinks that, from a user's perspective, IMS should do.

Clearly, the IMS consortium has had some guts to invite Stephen, and give him the keynote slot. The wider significance of doing it, though, is clear from the general tenor of the technical forum: specs are built by communities for communities, and at the global level at which IMS operates, that means a pretty diverse set of people. And they should all be able to have their say.

The technical forum agenda on the IMS website will be supplemented by presentation files shortly. A live webcast was made possible by the CANARIE internet development organization. Stephen Downes has already posted some of his notes on the day and a powerpoint version of his keynote.

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