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DfE focuses on schools interoperability policy

Illustration of Big BenThe Department for Education has held a workshop to explore ways of improving interoperability in UK schools. Convened by the DfE's Chief Information Officer, other organisations represented were the Education, Schools and Children's Services Information Standards Board (ISB), SIFA-UK and SALTIS.

The  workshop ends a long silence on the part of both DfE and ISB regarding the new government's policy on interoperability. Nine months after the election and two months before the final closure of Becta, this is a welcome sign that Government is beginning to address a number of long-standing issues in this area. 

For some time the ISB has been developing its Business Data Standards, a set of abstract data types which it proposes should provide a mandatory foundation for the transfer of all data throughout the ESCS sector. Both SIFA and SALTIS are concerned that these standards remain untested, having been developed without consultation with industry. Until now, the ISB has refused representation to industry within its own processes---but it appears now to be more receptive to a closer liaison, perhaps opening its Special Interest Groups to different types of participant. Ideally, this would allow the ISB to support the development of industry-sponsored standards and encourage the convergence of specifications which may have originated in different communities of practice. 

In August 2010, the DfE published a summary of its Interoperability Review, claiming that improved administrative interoperability could save the UK government 300 million a year. While SALTIS argued that the ISB should take a broader approach to standards for learning as well as administration, SIFA-UK has claimed that the Review's section dealing with SIF contains significant inaccuracies. While the workshop did not try to resolve this particular disagreement, it does appear to have mapped out a way of moving forwards more constructively in the future. SIFA's US parent body is already in the process of decoupling its data model from its ZIS infrastructure, and this provides an opportunity for SIFA-UK to work with the ISB in order to achieve convergence with the ISB Business Data Standards and other standards for learning education and training.

This is only the start of what needs to be a wide-ranging and sustained dialogue between industry and the Department. There is still no clear vision of the place within a centrally-managed standards process for innovation on the part of the industry; no policy on how the ISB is to engage with formal and international standards organisations or on conformance testing and certification; no consensus on when the mandating of standards may be required and when it is likely to be counter-productive. But it is at least a start; and if the dialogue continues in the same way that it has started, then a promising start at that.
SALTIS publishes paper on Learning Resource Exchange metadata

Learning Resource Exchange LogoSALTIS has published a discussion paper on the metadata profile produced by the European Schoolnet Learning Resource Exchange project. LRE, ILOX, LOM and LAD discusses options for integration between projects like the LRE, which focus on the distribution of learning content, and projects such as the SALTIS ICIG, which are managing similar data structures for the different purpose of achieving better integration of content with VLEs and other types of learning platform.

The current LRE profile uses IMS ILOX (Information for Learning Object Exchange) to manage the versioning of learning content. The same learning object might come in different translations and in different releases. ILOX also supports the publication of content objects which are published using different formats (SCORM, Common Cartridge etc.), as well as supporting associated artefacts like previews and print versions.

There are obvious benefits in managing different versions with a dedicated object. A learning object supplied in five different languages through five different releases would have a total of 25 different versions. Managing these through native LOM would require 300 separate relationships; while using a hub-and-spokes architecture based on a versioning object like ILOX requires only 25 relationships.

Although the principle behind a separate versioning object is attractive, a number of stakeholders have questioned whether ILOX is necessarily the best implementation of the principle. ILOX is based on an abstract model produced in 1998 called the Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records. Designed for library catalogues, it does not appear yet to have been successfully applied to learning repositories. In the LRE profile, it is not backwards-compatible with systems using existing content packaging standards.

Whether or not ILOX represents the best way forwards for versioning, the LRE profile is also limited by the fact that it does not take account of:
  • the requirement for some types of learning content to integrate with runtime management systems, for example to pass results data back to common mark books;
  • the way in which learning content may be aggregated into courses (for a pedagogical purpose) or products (for commercial sale or subscription).

A survey of content publishers in the UK, conducted by SALTIS as part of the Becta Content Packaging project in 2009-10, revealed that the management of these aspects of learning content were at the very top of publishers' priorities. There is a danger that a standard designed to encourage distribution of learning content which does not support particular types of content may distort or inhibit the very innovation which it is intended to encourage.

 

LRE, ILOX, LOM and LAD considers a future approach to learning object metadata which accommodates the need to describe runtime capabilities, aggregation and versioning, as well as maximising backwards compatibility with existing systems and metadata records. These proposals assume that communities working on LOM in the context of search and distribution and communities working on LOM in the context of VLE import will work more closely with each other in the future than they have in the past. It also assumes that the LRE will have any impact on the market at all. The current version of the portal appears to use a primitive search engine, have access to few resources, and return large numbers of broken links.

US Department of Education mandates SCORM and CC-BY

Illustration_mandating_SCORM_and_CC-BY

There was a degree of outrage at the IMS GLC last month after the US Department of Education decided to mandate the use of SCORM in a $2 billion programme to improve vocational education in US community colleges. This apparently arbitrary diktat rules out the use of IMS GLC standards like Creative Commons in what is clearly going to be an important programme.


 

The understandable anger on the IMS discussion boards has given rise to a general attack on SCORM, some of which is almost certainly justified and some of which is rather more questionable. SCORM is certainly out of date, the last major and not entirely successful revision being in 2004; it has a level of complexity which renders it inappropriate for many types of content; and it has too often failed to deliver the holy grail of re-usability. But many of SCORM's problems stem from the fact that it addresses difficult areas of functionality that other comparable standards carefully avoid. One is the detailed tracking of runtime data such as scores; another is the management of the way in which different content objects are aggregated and sequenced. Suggestions that SCORM is only for single self-pace learners, is unsuitable for blended learning, or does not support hyperlinks are misleading. The fact remains that in formal learning environments, where teachers want to assemble learning activities into tailored courses and track student performance, SCORM, alongside its less well-known AICC cousin, HACP, is still the best game in town.


 

That does not alter the fact that the US Department of Education's decision to mandate SCORM for all digital learning resources is a very bad decision. To distribute document and clip-art libraries in complex SCORM wrappers is clearly unnecessary and over-complex. For central government bureaucrats to second-guess which standards might best suit different types of commercial product represents a level of central planning which few of us have previously associated with the US.


 

The decision to mandate CC-BY may well be equally problematic. Nothing can be calculated to do more harm to an emerging industry for innovative commercial software than to flood the market with free resources, the funding of which is not dependent on market uptake. This was precisely the argument which allowed the UK publishing industry to block the BBC's attempt to spend a comparatively paltry 150 million of public funds on creating free learning resources for UK schools in 2007.

Issue 3
February 2011
DfE focuses on schools interoperability policy
SALTIS publishes paper on Learning Resource Exchange metadata
US Department of Education mandates SCORM and CC-BY
News in brief
Editorial
Crispin Weston Portrait
The unifying thread running through this month's Briefing concerns the role of government  in creating and propagating standards.

Government's first interest is likely to be for the standardisation of its internal data. Beyond its own back-yard, government inevitably becomes involved in the wider standards environment as it tries to ensure good value for money for the taxpayer's shilling. Even if government does not participate in formal standards, the specifications for its own procurements have much the same de facto effect.

Standards are frequently seen by government as a means of regulating the provision of public services. This approach supposes that it is central government and its advisers that should set the standards. But this is a process that leads to the kind of centrally planned economy which has consistently failed to deliver either innovation or the efficient distribution of resources.

SALTIS believes that effective standards need to be developed from the bottom up, as a collaborative exercise, driven by industry and led by the most innovative players in the market. 

It seems that this view, which has been out of fashion for many years in the UK (and still seems to be out of fashion in Europe and the US), now plays to the new UK government's wish to place more trust in the market. It makes increasingly good sense that government should be supporting industry-led standardisation processes without dictating what the detail of those standards should be.
News in brief
New BSI panel to track e-portfolio work on SC36

Over the last few years, the learning technology industry has been poorly represented on ICT/043, the British Standards Institute's expert committee for learning, education and training. It has therefore been difficult to have confidence that the positions taken by BSI, acting as the UK National Body in international standards forums, have accurately reflected the requirements of the UK industry.

As reported in January's Briefing, the Secretary of the IST/043 has recently been updating the group's panels (effectively sub-committees), closing redundant panels and now establishing a new panel to track work being done in ISO/IEC SC36 on an e-portfolio reference model. 

SC36's next conference occurs in Strasbourg during the week beginning the 12th of March, and the UK position on e-portfolio will be represented by Simon Grant of JISC/CETIS and Crispin Weston of SALTIS. SALTIS participants who wish to join the new e-portfolio panel and ensure that their views are reflected in Strasbourg should contact Alex Price at BSI.
 
ADL and AICC to collaborate on CMI

On 18 January, ADL (the stewards of SCORM) and AICC (the Aircraft Industry CBT Committee--the original developers of the CMI data standard which lies at the heart of the SCORM runtime), announced that they would work together to update the CMI data model.

This announcement contributes to an increasingly complex and uncertain picture of how the technology most commonly known as "the SCORM runtime" is to be taken forward. The IEEE (which owns the IP in the CMI data model), has set up its own CMI Harmonization Working Group (see the December 2010 Briefing); ADL is running its own Tin Can project to investigate the future of SCORM (see the January 2011 Briefing), and LETSI is running a number of projects which are closely aligned with these different initiatives.

It may be some time before all the questions about politics and IP are answered. As for the "what?", virtually all the organisations involved are agreed on the need for a flexible and extensible means of passing data to and from a learning object at runtime.
SALTIS events
SALTIS AGM

Owing to a diary clash, the next SALTIS AGM has been rearranged for Friday 25th March. Further details to be announced shortly.
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