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No one standard will suit all

Not a new sentiment, really, but one worth repeating. And it was repeated, in many different ways across a rather wide spectrum of speakers at the eLearning Results conference in Sestri Levante, Italy, yesterday.

The eLearning Results conference is a two day do, organised by the hosts Giunti Labs, in collaboration with IMS, ADL, and the various other interoperability specification and standards acronyms: ISO SC36, CEN/ISSS, IEEE LTSC, BSI, and more.

Yet the overriding message of day one was remarkably clear: there is no one standard to rule them all, nor will there ever be. However seductive the vision of universal interoperability may be, each and every community has its own needs and wants that need to be addressed.

Though Ed Walker, CEO of IMS, noted an increasing trend towards convergence, he emphasised that it wouldn't be on the one single specification. More than that, "Everyone is getting something, but no-one is getting everything" out of this convergence process.

Hence IMS' International Framework idea, as outlined by Steve Griffin, IMS' Chief Operating Officer. Basically, it begins with the assumption that universal interoperability may be universally desired, but local needs for different vocabularies, and different requirements need to be met. So IMS aims to gather international specification requirements, come up with flexible specs, which can be adapted or 'profiled' to meet local needs.

Which sounds good, has no practicable alternative but isn't necessarily easy to sell. It means that there won't be any plug 'n play specifications from IMS anytime soon.

Rather, the 'last mile' to take a universally workable specification to plug 'n play interoperability will have to be done by community specific profiles and reference models like SCORM.

But just blindly using SCORM is hardly the answer either- unless your community's needs can be satisfied by it. In this, Lisa Balzereit from the ADL co-lab, admitted, SCORM had clearly been oversold. One of the lessons ADL learned about the SCORM is to better manage expectations.

Which was well exemplified by Dan Rehak, SCORM's chief architect, who pointed out the many times he'd been told that "we want to adopt SCORM", which is countered by Dan's standard "what do you want to do with it?"- and often they have no idea.

Fortunately, tuning IMS specifications is done by many communities, as demonstrated by, for example, the work by the CEN/ISSS on a multingual, European version of the IEEE LOM, presented by Mike Collett. To take that tuning for local needs approach a little further, while keeping things sane, Frans van Asche of the EUNet (a consortium of European education ministries) presented a plan to have a structured hierarchy of profiles of the LOM for Europe. So there'd be a general EUNet one, tuned further for specific places.

Tuning global specifications for local needs need not be limited to just the one standard, of course. BECTA's Tim Barrett outlined how a set of elearning specifications have been selected for recommendation within the UK's wider e-Government Interoperability Framework (e-GIF).

Nor is this exclusively a matter of technical interoperability. As both SIF's former director Tim Magner, and's Jon Mason pointed out, a community also needs to agree on educational, political, semantic and digital rights standards for actual content interoperability to take place.

Ultimately, of course, the tuning of specs should go down to the level of individual learners. Warwickshire LEA's David Teece called it the "The elearning holy grail for teachers"- this in opposition to self-paced, asynchronous e-learning which teachers feel "is robbing them of all their skills".

The fine-tuning for individual learners is being targeted by the kind of framework programme research & development that the EU Commission's Marco Marsella is rightly proud of. The 3DE programme has developed a range of tools, including a metadata editor, that allows content to be tuned to every individual.

But that kind of presupposes that the learner is in an environment where they have the resources and the inclination to interact with a computer on their own. As Pierpaolo Saporito of the Infopoverty Programme by UNESCO, ONU and the European Parliament, pointed out, communal access to ICT is often the only practicable way to cross the global digital divide, and often the only culturally appropriate one as well.

Presentations of all of the above, and much, much more will be available for download of the eLearningresults website.

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