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Alt-I-Lab results: mind the gap...

between user expectation of interoperability and reality. Or so the University of Waterloo's Tom Carey thought. And repeated it in at least four other varieties of English to make sure the message hit home. Because last week's was the second alt-i-lab, we can begin to look at whether the participants in the interoperability fest are actually closing that gap.

Alt-I-Lab has established itself as the main annual gathering of anyone interested in e-learning technology interoperability, that isn't an actual spec building meeting. As a consequence, it draws a larger crowd that includes strategic people, as well as those who just use the tech, and simply want to find out where we got to in the interoperability field. Hence the tendency to take stock and set priorities, along with all the wheeling and dealing in corridors.

Taking the outcomes of both this year's event in Redwood and last year's event event in Boston is an unscientific, but instructive view on successes and failures, priorities and (benign) neglect. It's a pretty mixed picture:

Digital repositories
Last year, stable and unique identifiers for learning content was, erm, identified as a high priority for the whole education and training sector. This year, we have Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL, the SCORM makers) commitment to the Handle identifier scheme in their new Content Object Repository Discovery and Registration/Resolution Architecture (CORDRA) initiative. But that doesn't mean that everyone else will be able to go down the same route, or that there is a load of content out there that now has these identifiers. Then as now, though, most everyone agrees with Coalition for Networked Information (CNI) director Cliff Lynch's warning not to re-invent wheels that have been developed elsewhere. Identifiers are certainly in that category.

Also on the agenda in 2003 was a move within the IEEE Learning Technology Standards Committee (LTSC) to start a group that would see how the IMS Content Packaging spec from the learning and teaching world can be made to interoperate with the library world's Metadata Encoding and Transmission Standard (METS). The goal was to come up with a logical model that would encompass both (and maybe the MPEG 21 media spec as well). The effort languished a bit, partially because of the ongoing wrangle over the move of IMS Content Packaging to IEEE LTSC, but looks like it might start again. ADL's Paul Jesukiewicz' summary in Redwood (delivered by Dan Rehak- they haven't yet decided who gets to be blamed for what :-) certainly emphasised their need for a packaging standard —as opposed to just a specification— within a year.

Digital Rights Management (DRM) was flagged as an issue to be solved last year. This year, the Digital Rights Expression Language (DREL) group in the IEEE LTSC is close to publishing its work, but that only addresses a part of the puzzle, and is not a standard but a recommended practice in the use of multiple languages. In the wider DRM area, the churn created by competing proprietary standards, backed by corporate giants with millions, combined with the complexity of the kind of DRM system that would keep commercial publishers happy, means that few people in the e-learning technology area seem eager to burn themselves on this issue just yet.

Degrees of Interoperability
In Boston, an attempt was made to plot degrees of interoperability on diagrammes. Useful, but not what is required in the wider world, it was felt.

Hence the IMS initiative to run an interoperability demonstrator in Redwood, that involved the creation, searching, protecting, lesson planning, deployment and gathering of feedback on learning content. The demo involved specifications and standards from five different bodies, and thirteen tools from as many vendors. Different tools and specs came into play at each of the six different stages.

The response was generally positive, with Industry Canada's Yuri Daschko suggesting a demo should kick off the event next year- to identify gaps and set priorities. US Dep. of Education's (and ex-Microsoft and ex-SIF) Tim Magner emphasised that the demo should involve regular teachers and students next year. Sun's Kevin Roebuck even proposed IMS adopting a school in a disadvantaged area of the States or the developing world to house a demonstrator permanently. Duly noted, Tom Carey pointed to a need to measure the gap between what the demo offers and user expectation as well as pedagogical benefit. Nonetheless, some developers privately felt that the examples that were used in the demo were a little too house-trained, and the demo itself was too pre-baked and not 'live' enough.

Instruction and assessment
The Boston meeting uncovered a general desire to either upgrade the IMS Question and Test Interoperability (QTI) spec, or ditch it and start again. In Redwood, Staffordshire University's Mark Stiles reminded the audience that we should generally have the courage to ditch specs that no longer met requirements. That's not what happened to the specific case of QTI, which has just had a major overhaul. That was probably the best decision for that spec, since it was a classic victim of the specification process catch 22: you'd want to make sure that a spec works in real tools, but you can't because there aren't any tools, since the spec has not been released yet. These days, that tends to be dealt with by building minimal open source reference implementations alongside the spec, but the original QTI team didn't have that luxury. So QTI v2 is a definite win, then.

Last year, a few issues propped up in this area. Though interoperability at the same level —i.e. moving a content package from one Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) to another, for example— was acceptable, shuttling information around a whole enterprise system was a problem (see below). Another issue flagged then was a widely felt need to bring pedagogy back into the loop. In Redwood this year, in addition to Tom Cary's above concern, Mark Stiles emphasised that the process of spec building should be driven by pedagogically sound use cases. An outstanding issue, then.

More technically, people in Boston wanted to make sure that IMS Content Packages would interoperate with a minimum of fuss in practice, by both a fix to the specification, and via a reliable way of testing conformance. With a Content Packaging spec fix and the TELCERT conformance project well under way this year, both these concerns are pretty much addressed, if not solved.

The final concern raised last year —just build stuff- stop making new specs— doesn't appear to have had much traction. The legal and pedagogic need of, for example, the Joint Information System Committee's (JISC) Sarah Porter and School Interoperability Framework's (SIF) Larry Fruth for personal development plans sorted within the coming year means that there's still specs to be made or tweaked.

Last year, it was clear from both those who are interested in enterprise level e-learning systems as well as those interested in other areas that there was considerable work to be done in tying up the back-end. The wishlist included agreeing on a common vocabulary to be able to even talk about architectures, frameworks and approaches. A harmonisation of standards was also called for, as was a proper lining up of services with protocols, datamodels and Application Programming Interfaces (APIs).

This year, Mark Stiles urged for a common understanding and vocabulary for the enterprise area, and University for Industry's (UfI) John Bell, and Dan Rehak were voicing their urgent need for a service oriented approach beyond the IMS Abstract Framework soon, and agreed best practices for how to get there.

So no progress, then? Not quite. A beginning has been made with the lining up of protocols, datamodels and Application Programming Interfaces (APIs). A Service Oriented Approach is emerging amongst a variety of vendors and groups, to the point that implementations are already underway. Indeed, Yuri Daschko said that it was clear to him that Industry Canada needed to focus on the E-Learning Framework (ELF), a service oriented framework that is collaboratively defined between Australia's Department of Education, Science and Training (DEST), the UK's JISC, Industry Canada with input from Dan Rehak.

As a consequence the need for vocabulary and specification harmonisation is all the greater now, which is why an informal working group that includes representatives from the Open Knowledge Initiative (OKI), Sun, Microsoft, SIF, IMS, European Schoolnet, JISC, DEST and Carnegie-Mellon was set up there and then to take on that task. We'll be reporting about that brand new Redwood group soon. Also to be outlined are a slew of fixes, issues and more positive developments on the SCORM front.


In the mean time, most every presentation, white paper and discussion document presented during Alt-I-Lab is available from the Alt-I-Lab page on the IMS website.

The white papers commissioned by DEST, JISC and Industry Canada are available from the Alt-I-Lab page on the JISC website.

See also Scott Leslie's take on the event at EdTechPost.

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