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JISC programme to foster the pick 'n mix MLE

The concept of an institutional learning environment that provides the information that people need, when and where they want it has been around for a while, but has not been easy to realise. The JISC's new e-learning programme includes the e-learning technical framework strand, that is designed to make it more do-able. Now that the first call for technical framework projects is out, we look at what the framework sets out to achieve and how it intends to get there.

Wouldn't it be nice if: the student who registered late for the course would still pop up on the course pages in time for the on-line discussion tomorrow. Or if a tutor could send out a reading list that allows learners to see whether the book is in the library, or how much it costs on the campus bookstore. Or if a student could take a module in a different institution without anyone worrying about registration and credit transfer. Or what about using that simple polling tool they made in another institution in your own online learning activity? Or simply not having to hunt for dates and times in four different webtools, each with their own log-in, and their own interface?

A lot of these things are already possible within an institution in ready made Managed Learning Environments (MLEs), but you have to wonder about the chances of them fitting a particular institutions needs exactly. Particularly since few can afford to ditch the systems they've already got.

That is less of an issue with consortia such as the Northern Ireland Integrated MLE (NIIMLE), who have already made considerable progress in joining up information systems such as student record systems, portals and Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) in ways that suit their needs.

But it isn't easy. Many information systems still presume themselves to be the fount of all knowledge, and force the users and other information systems to adapt. If that is even possible or financially achievable.

Components and services

To make the MLE vision more feasible, the JISC's new technical framework programme will keep an eye at what others in the educational technology field are doing, but also at what's happening in the wider information technology field.

Not surprisingly, many organisations outside education face similar information integration needs, and to address that need, major IT companies such as IBM, Sun and Microsoft have come up with the Service Oriented Architecture (SOA). The details of the implementations can differ, but they're all based on the same idea: break all the information down into services, and make the services available via components.

So rather than have a calendar or scheduling function in every computer system that needs it, you have just the one calendaring component that exposes its service to anything or anyone who wants it.

Not that such a component necessarily needs to be a standalone programme -the hard work can be done by system that does more- but the point is that other components in the architecture don't need to know or care. All they need to know is how to talk to the calendar component.

The advantage of taking this approach is that it is flexible; there's no need to change all information systems in one go. Nor is there a need for every college and university to do things in exactly the same way. As long as existing or new systems can provide or consume information in a standard way, they can play.

More than that, web services are often comparatively simple agreements about how to expose information. That means that small and simple home-spun tools that make a real difference in teaching and learning can piggy-back on the functionality of bigger systems; a tool that prints class attendance lists in a particular way doesn't need to know everything about which students are part of a particular class and why. It just needs to ask the right question of the group management component and reformat what comes back. Many existing student record systems allow you to do something similar, but not if the students are recorded on different systems. Nor will such a formatting tool be re-useable in as many other institutions, or be able to focus on just being a handy attendance list tool, rather than an afterthought to help sell a big system.

Developers and demonstrators

So far, so good- in the abstract. Defining a nice service architecture with handy components is relatively easy- there's a good many already knocking around, in fact. The trick is to get stuff to work, and not just in one place, but many.

The main way in which the framework programme seeks to make that a reality is by pooling resources on component development. That means that one set of projects in the programme will focus on just making components, and preferably in such a way that they can be re-used by as many others as possible. To that end, they'll be open source toolkits and that can be integrated into systems that will either provide or consume services.

The wide re-use is to be ensured by the demonstrator strand of projects that will start later. These projects are to take the toolkits that will have been developed by then, and integrate them with systems they have and use them in anger. Projects that have developed toolkits can apply for demonstrator project grants, but the toolkits will still have to function in at least two different environments.

Though the main thrust of the programme is practical, there is an element of research in both strands. Some international service and component specifications already exist -e.g. OKI Open Service Interface Definitions (OSIDs)- but others are still to be defined. The frameworks programme provides an opportunity to both test, enhance or develop the necessary service definitions. The JISC architecture itself is also up for a reality check: if some of the components turn out not to make sense, we can do something about it.

To support the whole technical frameworks programme, a website will be set up that integrates all the info, and indicates the states of the components's development: from a blank space to a tested service definition with working components in several institutions.


The call for Technical Development Projects is available at the JISC site, where you can also find much more about the Technical Frameworks and Tools strand.

A technical overview of the framework is hosted on the CETIS site.

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