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Digesting Alt-I-Lab 2005

Since it is the biggest e-learning interoperability do on the calendar, alt-i-lab is both a good bellwether for new trends, and a bit of a powerpoint blizzard. From Professor Laurillard's high level and wide ranging vision of the UK e-learning strategy, to the pithy pronouncements of Sakai's Brad Wheeler, we pick some highlights.

An annual conference, alt-i-lab is slightly different from your usual interoperability event in that it is not really about the nuts & bolts of any actual standards and specifications. Instead, a welter of companies, bodies and institutions talk strategy and plans for the coming year.

As a first cut, the general proceedings of this year's event in Sheffield can be divided into three parts: the plenaries, the sessions and the demos. The demos will be outlined in a separate article on the e-learning focus site, and the sessions have a report each, which leaves the plenaries.

This year's theme was about measuring the impact of e-learning. A brave move, as this is both notoriously difficult and does not necessarily provide comfortable outcomes. As in: e-learning is seldom found to be a magic bullet, and ill-conceived e-learning programmes go just as wrong as ill-conceived conventional courses.

The Strategic Context for Interoperability

Still, the UK's Department for Education and Skills' (DfES) strategy outlines a large range of areas where e-learning can have an effect, and where the government wants it to have an impact. Using a combination of such 'drivers' and 'enablers', the strategy particularly targets Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) support in policy and technology, better integrated online learning and pastoral support for learners, a collaborative approach to personalised learning activities and a common digital infrastructure.

Such policy priorities can cover vast plains of concrete development, clearly. At the more concrete level, the IPR priority includes such things as "technological support for digital rights management for the access, modification, and creation of e-learning resources". Given the patent situation in that area of technology, that seems a very ambituous enterprise, but it might just be that the involvement of a national government can break the current deadlock.

Integrated online learning and personal support for children and learners is to a large extent a matter of ePortfolios or similar mechanisms. The goal is to make a "space" available for learners and information about learners to help in the transition between different education phases and the world of work. It seems that the 'space' is an electronic record of some standardised format (eg. UK LeAP), but that is not entirely clear.

The drive for a collaborative approach to personalised learning activities aims to enable the re-use of best practice between educators, without adopting too much of a content focus.

The common digital infrastructure to support transformation and reform essentially means the collaborative development of something very much like the eFramework; an agreed set of concepts for a service orientented architectures, and common set of recognised technologies and standards that make a specific e-learning, e-research or e-admin infrastructure possible.

Measuring the Impact of e-learning

The UK Open University's Paul Clark assessed the impact of e-learning on a much more quantitative level- how a switch from conventional paper-based distance learning to e-learning affected things like drop-out rates, satisfaction among learners and cognitive change.

On the first issue, whether a switch to e-learning was voluntary or compulsory made a couple of percentage points difference. Both new and existing students appreciated that took the voluntary route were about 5 percent better more likely to complete. On the question of satisfaction, many students still seem to prefer dead tree textbooks and face to face tutorials over websites and online tutorials. Finally, how much the degree of cognitive change is related to the degree of interactivity rather depends on the course in which you measure.

It is that contextual question which points to the wider truth that the impact of e-learning does not lend itself to easy reduction; too many factors interact. This is exacerbated, as Paul pointed out, by the speed of technological change.

Indiana University and Sakai's Brad Wheeler took a more typically caustic take on the idea of measuring e-learning impact. By questioning whether we really are prepared to take the decisions that some outcomes may sugggest. It might be easier, for example, to say that none-too-positive survey results are inaccurate, not representative or oversimplified rather than take the conclusion that they suggest and pull the plug. Hence Brad's mantra of just measuring what you care about, and helping others do the same.

The JISC's head of development Sarah Porter announced a fairly major new direction in the development of what started as the E-Learning Framework (ELF). After the first full year of development, partners felt that developing a common service oriented approach to system integration in just the e-learning domain didn't make sense. So, making use of many pre-existing initiatives, the e-Framework for Education and Research also encompasses e-research and e-administration.

Likewise, the initial focus on a wall of abstract services has been widened to include reference models- collections of services that can support a particular task or process.

IMS' Ed Walker took a more straightforwardly commercial approach to the question of measuring the impact of e-learning. Provided e-elearning is "AIMazoogle-ster" convenient, does what is required, has reasonable cost/benefit ratios and is a viable business, it has a decent chance of real success.

Ed's metrics for this are partially economic and partially a matter of policy. In the latter category, there is not just the expected course completion rates and other quantitatives, nor even just the more qualitative measure of better career progression, but also the crucial but un-measurable quality of a life-long 'mind share' for learning.

On the rubric of provider metrics, there are also such measures as the utility of demonstrators and reference implementation. Reload is a particular example of that, also because the re-use of its code has allowed a very good return on investment for many communities.

Looking to the year ahead, Ed's reading of formal and informal discussions was that personalisation in a general and deep sense, and ePortfolios in particular would be the hot topics in next year's alt-i-lab.

Discussion

Though Tom Franklin of Franklin Consulting didn't doubt the growing attention on personalisation, he did wonder what exactly was understood by it; a learner focus, a commitment to devote personal attention on all learners, or automated adaptation of some tool features to people's preferences? Professor Laurillard thought that aspects of both systems having a greater awareness of its users, as well as a more general push to stretch everyone's individual development.

On a more technical note, Tom Barefoot of Learning Objects Network inc wondered if the sessions on the vaunted 'content cartridge' were meant to indicate that the first take on the learning object economy hadn't really succeeded, and that a second try was necessary. Or whether it was more a matter of a market being promissed, that didn't happen.

Fabrizzio Cardinali of Giunti interactive vigorously pointed to a healthy uptake of standard compliant learning content and VLEs. If anything, he thought, the last stragglers in this market could be convinced by some more legislation or pressure from governments. They stand to benefit most from interoperable e-learning, after all.

The DfES' Dianne Laurillard did not think the time was ripe for something quite so radical. Her approach would involve more of a common roadmap, where the various stakeholder would build a consensus first.

Resources

Most of the mentioned presentations and many more besides are available from the alt-i-lab 2005 page on the IMS website.

A closer look at the demos of alt-i-lab will appear on the e-learning framework site.

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