Lifelong Learning Group

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LLG Newsletter December 2005

CETIS Lifelong Learning Group: Newsletter December 2005

Progress! This missive will be the first to be posted onto the CETIS web site.

A change of name for our group, a change of host (Coleg Sirgar) and a slight change of focus.

Firstly with respect to our 'name', it was always difficult to draw the line between FE, Adult and Community Learning and Schools and secondly as far as focus is concerned the change of status of English FE within JISC has given us less responsibility to support colleges wishing to bid for development funding.

I have always felt that JISC projects provided a means of increasing the number of learning technologists within FE: those folk who had the technical credibility re-enforced by being part of a wide e-learning community to help direct their managers in the right direction and to avoid costly mistakes.

Large quantities of money are being poured into HE to facilitate the building of capacity within universities to develop and apply learning technologies. FE, ACL and others within education need capacity building too and it is fortunate that colleges in the UK in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland can still lead bids for JISC funding. It is also fortunate that English Colleges running HEFCE funded courses (Foundation Degrees, Higher Nationals etc.) can also bid for these resources.

Despite this, the loss of LSC money could change the culture of JISC to being more HE oriented. Even though JISC is partnering Becta with the implementation of the DfES e-strategy', and tools and systems from the universities will have to interoperate with other sectors, it will be more difficult (especially in England) for other sectors to reap the benefits of HE research and development.

A bigger responsibility, therefore, for our group and other JISC services such as the Regional Support Centres to keep our sectors informed.

The sector hasn't stood still though. Wherever you look there is Moodle: an open source (and free) VLE that can be implemented by small teams who, without the pressure of centralised management control, can store learning materials that can be 'shared' by different groups and colleagues. The term 'Moodler' for those 'who use the tool' will soon be in the 'Oxford Dictionary'!

Done despite standards?

Not quite. Tools within Moodle rely on metadata, content packaging and QTI (for questions) and there are a growing number of projects within JISC that are using web services (relying on standards based protocols) to tie bespoke solutions into the VLE. For example, Remote Question Protocol (RQP) has been employed to recognise, within the Moodle assessment system, complex mathematical questions (stuff with funny symbols) and send them to a remote server that can deal with them.

Other web services such as links with Oracle databases are identified for development by JISC projects.

There are basically two ways of integrating tools and services into your desktop. One is a simple web service that interacts with other applications using a browser, the other is by the creation of portlets within a portal (a customised web site). Although both approaches use the same low level software and rely on the same XML for any data used to there are differences when it come to integration with the host system.

The portal approach is catered for by the development of uPortal: an open standard that uses Java, JSP and J2EE as well as XML. uPortal has been adopted by some major publishers such as Pearson but has also been chosen as the way in to the SAKAI developments.

With millions of dollars and several 'premier' universities behind it (including some in the UK) SAKAI is a US based open source project, developing educational software tools. The assessment engine (for online tests) and in particular the Open Source Portfolio Initiative (OSPI) have been taken up by UK institutions. For example both Edinburgh University and Bell College are evaluating OSPI as part of the Scottish Executive funded ISLE project.

What about standards between developments, you say? Is it another run of VHS and Betamax?

Irritatingly, yes: but not too much of a problem. Because all the data is consistently held (we hope) in XML and because the Moodle, Web Services and uPortal all follow an open source philosophy, adaptors will (and are) being created to bridge the gaps. Work has already started on adaptors between Moodle and Sakai, for example.

Hopefully joining these things up will be no more of a problem than having to use a travel adaptor when you take your electrical appliances abroad.

Back to Moodle, briefly.

Intellectual Property Rights are becoming a major challenge for the development of national repositories. College principals are getting edgy about taking responsibility for the intellectual rights of everything produced within their institutions and stored centrally. How many diagrams from published books, for example, have we as teachers used in our handouts? Use such handouts locally and it hasn't been a problem but expose them nationally………….?

Moodlers tend to duck this problem by having their systems available to their immediate colleagues and groups of students only. Not much different from sharing paper based notes, really. National repositories (note that the NLN Online, now renamed the Learning and Skills Web is making good progress) will be the source of good materials but I suspect that it will be the Moodlers who make those materials into personalised and more worthwhile online learning

Steve and I have been 'banging on' about standards for about six years now. We have often had to deal with the disappointment that expectations concerning easy access to and transparent use of materials on any platform and the ability to assemble such platforms (like hi-fi separates) from chosen components have not yet been realised.

We are now in a position where technical standards are having an impact.

Although things are not perfect we see metadata in common use (sensibly cut down to basics to complement the power of search engines); content packaging (thanks to RELOAD) is endemic; awarding bodies are chasing QTI for their assessment items and XML has been recognised as the de-facto standard for data. The architectural framework developments whether web services or portal based are all leading to the 'build your own platform' scenario for VLEs.

Bids for the next round of JISC funding for the development of architectural framework web services to join existing applications are quite exciting. These will produce an even larger range of models of how to create bespoke systems (such as question item bank brokerage) from different existing components.

More evidence for the demise of the traditional VLE?

The following is an article I produced for NILTA News.

Hopefully it will be another example to e-enforce the justification for standards and components

Everyone has a different view on ePortfolios ... and everyone is right.

In America it is all about personal space for reflection and storing evidence of success. In colleges and schools in the UK we think of Progress Files and Individual Learning Plans. Awarding bodies are interested in course work assessment. Any meeting or conference covering this area has to start with delegates trying to fit their understanding into the general consensus.

The UK governments have accepted the fact that portfolios can support the quality of teaching and learning and have a whole range of initiatives to cover this area including the adoption of a 'student learning space' for all by 2007

Fantastic use of ICT, until one looks at how the data is to be stored and moved about. A simple calculation by staff at Nottingham University shows that if each of their students needed a minimal ePortfolio of 23k over 70 years the University would need 31 gigabytes. More importantly if each student downloaded their portfolio once a week then the added load of these 31 gigabytes on communication systems would be problematical. In reality once media files are included as part of ePortfolio evidence the whole space and demands on the Internet grows exponentially.

And what about security and access rights? There are parts of a portfolio one would be happy to share but others?

The solution to all of this is to break the ePortfolio data space up into small components. One component data area for student goals, another for a record of qualifications, another for reflection ….and so on. Each component can be stored separately if you want (even on a pen drive). Each component can have different access rights for protection. Just bring the appropriate components you need together for a particular application (such as generating an Individual Learning Plan).

Store the components in a standardised way (using XML) and because the data fields are identified an infinite number of applications can be applied. Guidance for graduates is different from guidance for 16 year olds. So, build another application.

A great deal of work is being performed by JISC and the British Standards Institute to make this all happen. The development of standards for storing the data and software services that can underpin the applications are under way and being tested. Much of this work will be conducted through the Nottingham University based 'Centre for International Portfolio Development'.

So what is an ePortfolio? In the future one will talk about the applications: coursework assessment, producing a job application and so on. The ePortfolio will define the components and standards that will make all of this happen.

Not everyone will be right then.

(Since writing that article, Becta have commissioned suppliers to build the 'framework' to accommodate the Learning Space required by government for all English students. CETIS have been invited to participate).

The only certainty in this field is that there is 'change'.

In addition to the new status of English Colleges within JISC:

Within the DfES in England the 'e' bits of the units that supported each of the educational sectors are being pulled together. Mirroring developments in Northern Ireland, the focus will be on e-portfolios and e-assessment with, again like Northern Ireland, an aim to provide standardised Management Information Systems.

In Wales the 'e' bits of learning are being similarly co-ordinated by the Welsh Executive.

This moving of the 'deck chairs' will hopefully not cause too many hiccoughs in strategy.

CETIS itself, is having to re-tender to run the 'JISC Interoperability Service' for August 2006.

If we succeed it will need your engagement to make sure that immediate pragmatic solutions to problems spin out from the long term research objectives of our HE colleagues.

It is right that we have an opportunity to review our performance and make amendments as deemed necessary…….but we hope we win the bid.

The most disturbing blow to e-Learning in the UK will be the retirement in February of Kevin Donovan from LSDA. A major supporter of ours, champion for standards and a healthy cynic of inappropriate educational initiatives, we wish him well.

Our team wish you all a prosperous and healthy 2006.

Clive Church