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The teachers teach the techies

The launch of the new CETIS Pedagogy Forum yesterday is a strong indication of a shift in the way e-learning (content) interoperability standards are developed. The techies got the standards out there, but now it's the teachers' turn to drive the agenda and get their concerns heard. And people sit up and take notice; both the DfES and ADL had representatives eager to learn what educators might bring to their organisations' plans.

The new Pedagogy Forum is specifically set up by CETIS, with support from ALT and the LTSN Generic Centre, for the UK FE and HE communities to look at the pedagogic implications of interoperability standards and provide requirements to the specification process. There are not many fora that look at interoperability standards and have that practioner make-up. ADL's technical director Jerry West thought it a bit ironic that he'd had to come all the way to see such a thing, as he couldn't think of a forum like it in the US.

Among the concerns that the forum put before Mr West and Bill Olivier (who helped develop IMS Learning Design) was a desire to see more flexibility. E-learning tools at present work well for certain disciplines but not others. The kind of learning activity that works well in, say, physics, may not be appropriate for philosophy. This is exacerbated by the fact that a lot of people have just the one VLE, which is unlikely to ever suit all subject communities. Even those with more than one VLE are not much better off, as pretty much all VLEs presume themselves to be the centre of the learning universe; which means a lot of duplication of functionality, and very little integration. This is not helped by a lack of content interoperability between some VLEs.

Superficially, this may seem a matter of the VLEs, rather than the standards that they are supposed to implement. But pedagogic flexibility in e-learning is largely dependent on what the underlying standard will support. It's no good to try to break up a larger group of learners into smaller task groups, for example, if the interoperability standard a VLE implements has no notion of such a function.

Also, as many participants pointed out, the only way in which all subject communities will be catered for properly, may be to forget about monolithic VLEs, and move to collections of specialised tools that do one or two things really well. A collaborative whiteboard that does interactive electricity diagrammes would be great for an electric engineering course, for example. But developing such a tool is unlikely to be economical for any single VLE vendor- the best you can hope for is a general whiteboard that kind of does it, if you really try.

The trick is that collections of such tools are only really manageable if they all have some notion of interoperability. And that requires a standard. Without one, practitioners would spend most of their time logging people in, and configuring lots of disparate programs.

As mentioned by virtually all the speakers of the day, IMS Learning Design (LD) could play a key role in addressing a lot of these concerns. Prof. Oleg Liber pointed to LD's ability to choreograph lots of different specialised tools into a seamless learning activity, which, he hoped, might bring back some of the radical innovation of earlier e-learning projects.

Prof. Diane Laurillard emphasised LD's ability to separate learning content from the activities in which they are embedded. It means that it is possible to re-use the lesson plan, rather than the texts and pictures, of a particularly successful lesson. Provided, she said, that the LD tools will have the right affordances- i.e. make it easy and obvious to author effective pedagogies.

One aspect of LD that may help there, is it's ability to support both a bottom-up as well as a top down approach to content authoring, according to Prof. Grainne Conole. An educator could make or take one standard learning object, and simply add a number of services (e.g. chat, a vote, a simulation) around it to make one activity. Or, as in Laurillard's examples, take or make an existing, well proven activity and find content to fill it out.

Not that standards are the only factor, as professor Mark Stiles pointed out. They are just one part of what will make or break e-learning in HE and FE. Staff development is still a major issue, for example. In the discussion, however, many agreed that a critical analysis of interoperability standards and their consequences could also lead practioners to examine their own practice. People use blackboards and textbooks unquestioningly, simply because they're there. Looking at what electonic teaching tools can and cannot do, ought to lead to a re-evaluation of what any tool or technique allows an educator to achieve.

It is exactly this kind of critical input by pedagogues to IMS LD that drew ADL's interest, according to Jerry West. ADL is always looking for new input to the next generation of SCORM, and is specifically interested in getting "more pedagogy in there", he said. Given what he saw on the day, IMS LD could very well be part of that next generation version of SCORM. Particularly because they are looking at ways in which to orchestrate learning activities like simulations in a structured way.

But pedagogic innovation is only one factor that drives the SCORM model. Asked why the imminent version of the SCORM (1.3) plumped for IMS SS rather than LD, Mr West replied that it was the VLE vendors who were asking for simple sequencing functionality. It would allow them to quickly get to stage "that you could get the same sort of interactivity that we had with CBT back in the '70s", he said. That interactivity had been lost in the transition from dedicated training systems to the web.

Echoing what other speakers had been saying about IMS LD during the day, whether or not the spec will be part of SCORM depends heavily on whether e-learning vendors are prepared to make the investment. And that, in turn, depends on whether educators think LD will satisfy their concerns in its present form.

Judging by the enthusiasm of those who had seen WebMCQ's LD inspired VLE during the CETIS educational content SIG meeting, that may not be a great problem.

Notes and presentations from the Pedagogy Forum launch will be available shortly from the from the Pedagogy Forum website.

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