SALTIS facilitates BSI e-portfolio panel
Illustration of e-portfolio 
SALTIS has championed the creation of a BSI panel on e-portfolios. The panel is tracking work in ISO/IEC and CEN and will itself explore requirements for better e-portfolio standards.

Of all the buzzwords in e-learning, "e-portfolio" is one of the most commonly used and least precisely defined. There is a widespread expectation that e-portfolios will contribute to new styles of personalised, reflective and creative learning---but these expectations have not yet been widely realised in schools. Part of the problem has been down to the lack of data standards. The IMS GLC produced a "Learner Information Package" specification in 2001 and, more recently, Simon Grant of JISC/CETIS has championed the Leap2A specification, which has been implemented by a number of systems for UK Higher Education. As yet, no standard has achieved any real traction in the UK schools sector.

A Technical Report on e-portfolios is currently under consideration in SC36, the ISO/IEC committee for learning, education and training. UK contributions to this work are channelled through IST/043, the corresponding committee in BSI. 

Participation in IST/043 has traditionally been confined to a relatively small group of standards experts. In an effort to strengthen the breadth of inputs on which UK contributions to international standards groups are based, SALTIS has proposed and facilitated the establishment of a new BSI panel on e-portfolios. Using online discussion and web calls with industry and public sector stakeholders, a clear UK position has already been agreed prior to the next SC36 meeting in mid-March. Further discussions will explore how the UK community can contribute to work for the advancement of appropriate e-portfolio data standards.

Progress in creating standards depends in its turn on achieving clearer definitions. Some argue that e-portfolio data is by definition owned and controlled by the learner whose activities it describes. Does this exclude coursework or other assessment management systems from the standardisation effort? Is e-portfolio concerned with the formatting of individual student-produced artifacts? Will these necessarily reside in one location? Or does an e-portfolio consist merely in the network of relationships between many different items, possibly stored in many different locations? What are the different types of item, and what are the different types of relationship between them? What are the boundaries between portfolio and other specifications dealing with student data, competencies, file formats and performance data? Perhaps the most important question of all is how to move this complex theoretical discussion forwards to practical implementations that support real-world, requirements-driven interoperability solutions. 

If you work in a UK-based organisation and believe that you may have a contribution to make to any of these discussions, or have requirements for interoperability in this area, we would value your contributions to the e-portfolio panel. Please get in touch with, copying your email to
Floundering in the mud of Flanders

Illustration of Flanders mud The ASPECT programme lost its way. The European Commission should now think carefully before making its next move. The signs are that it won't. 

European Schoolnet ran an Educational Publishing Futures seminar in Brussels on 17th and 18th February. The event marked the completion of the €4.5 million ASPECT "best practices network", part of the Commission's eContentplus programme. ASPECT has been responsible both for producing guidance on the adoption of standards and for developing the Learning Resource Exchange (LRE), a European-wide "repository of repositories". 

The LRE has now been re-launched, the new version offering some minor improvements over the previous version, which at the time of writing is still active. It is now possible to search on multiple languages and to refine an initial search. Returns appear no longer to include broken links.


Against the crucial "better than Google" test, however, the new search engine itself and the quality of the resources returned both perform badly. The search engine is clunky to use. Search fields like "age-range", "learning resource type" and "provider" cannot be used in an initial search but are available only in the "refine search" section, requiring two consecutive searches to get results on a single set of search criteria. Other fields, like "Language" and "Subject" unhelpfully appear in two different places. Controls are cleared after every search, requiring much unnecessary re-typing. Against a search for "simultaneous equations", Google takes 0.06 seconds to produce 1,350,000 resources; the LRE takes seven seconds to produce four.


The search results themselves are similarly underwhelming. Results cannot be ranked on relevance, assuming that they are relevant at all: of the first ten results returned for a search on "Hitler", all images, only two feature the man himself. The other eight show pictures of Mussolini, Stalin and Mao Tse-Tung, two paintings by the Bauhaus artist Paul Klee, and an early nineteenth century engraving of factory chimneys. Image thumbnails are grainy and distorted and at least three clicks are required to open each resource in a new window.


Once qualifiers are added to a search, the quantity of returns declines dramatically: searching for English language resources for learners up to 16 years old produces the following totals: Maths, 327; History, 343; Chemistry, 118. A large proportion of these resources are images, all are free, and the quality of many of the true learning resources is either poor or, despite the "for schools" logo, have been provided by Higher Education institutions like the Open University or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


The LRE is poorly implemented and thinly populated; but its most significant failing lies in its basic conception. If the main barrier to e-learning had been the difficulty of discovering or distributing resources, then the UK's Curriculum Online initiative might have proved rather more successful than it did. Most teachers in the UK would have no difficulty in reciting half a dozen reputable publishers of digital resources in the UK, whose catalogues probably litter their staffroom coffee tables. Smaller companies can easily run mail-shots or be discovered at the BETT show. User-generated content and OER can be found on a number of existing content repositories, accountable to the market for the quality of the service they provide.


Even if problems with discovery and distribution had been important barriers to adoption, the usability of the LRE would always have been handicapped by its need to demonstrate its Euro-credentials. The strapline of the ASPECT programme has been about providing learning content that "travels well". Standards travel well; given the odd tweak, software travels well: content does not travel well and it is unlikely that it ever will. Beyond issues of language, almost anything that really deserves to be called "learning content" will be associated with learning objectives, which are themselves tied to locally defined curricula. Even at the more straightforward level of language, existing searches supposedly constrained by the LRE "travelwell" tag  return predominantly language-specific resources, including some supplied solely in Croatian or Catalan.


While the LRE ineffectively chases an illusory requirement, it ignores three critical prerequisites for a repository of this kind:


1. The ability to manage "runtime integration", supporting for example the automatic tracking of results data or the handling of initialisation settings to allow the adaptation of commercial content.


2. The ability to manage aggregation. One of the four resources returned on a search for "simultaneous equations" is the Open University's "Vectors and Conics". This is a course containing  29 separate units. As none of the titles of these units refers to "simultaneous equations", it is clear that by the time the user has discovered such a resource, his search has only just begun.


3. The management of commercial content. This is not just about providing an e-commerce component within the repository. It also requires Single Sign On, fully integrated with the disaggregation model required by point 2; the handling of commercial license information; and methods for adapting content which do not infringe commercial copyright. Publicly funded projects which do not provide adequate support for commercial content, if they achieve anything at all, are likely to deter investment and damage the very types of innovation that the sector so badly requires.


There would be no need to publish so much negative copy about the LRE if it were merely a thing of the past. It is not. Three days before the ASPECT programme closed on 28th February, the European Commission formally adopted a new "ICT Policy Support Programme". This includes a new €8 million programme for the "Creation and evolution of a socially-powered, multilingual portal, where teachers, pupils and parents...can intuitively discover, acquire, discuss and improve eLearning resources available in and across Member States and Associated Countries". This programme, which has all the appearance of being an LRE mark 2, appears to have been specified without any analysis of why mark 1 failed so badly and without any recognition of the need to address content standards before making yet another attempt at a grandiose content distribution infrastructure.


Since the announcement of the closure of Becta, the UK government's seat on European Schoolnet appears to have been left empty. It is time that the UK started to exert its proper influence in Europe, helping to drag the eContentPlus programmes back onto solid ground. These programmes might then start to make a useful contribution to industry-led standards development.

Issue 4
March 2011
SALTIS facilitates BSI e-portfolio panel
Floundering in the mud of Flanders
News in brief
Crispin Weston Portrait
After a long, cold winter, the arrival of Spring (at least here in the South-West of England) is particularly welcome. And with Spring come Spring conferences.

Several SALTIS members attended European Schoolnet's "Educational Publishing Futures" seminar in Brussels in mid February. There was a welcome recognition from the platform of the need for Schoolnet to engage more effectively with the commercial sector, marked in particular by Graham Taylor of the UK Educational Publishers Council. In spite of these positive noises, the substance of current and proposed Schoolnet programmes still gives serious cause for concern, concern which is elaborated in the second of this month's main articles.

Next week it is the turn of SC36, the ISO/IEC committee for Learning Education and Training, meeting in Strasbourg. The agenda, spread across seven working groups, covers items on e-portfolio (see first main article), competency definitions, metadata and content packaging.

April's Briefing will report key outcomes. 
News in brief
New proposals for IWB Common File Format 

Since early 2008, Becta has been developing a Common File Format (CFF) for Interactive Whiteboard content. The work is intended to address the problems in creating classroom teaching content which will run all a variety of different systems. A number of interested parties have expressed concerns about technical aspects of the standard, which has to date achieved little traction in the market.

At the European Schoolnet Educational Publishing Futures conference, it was proposed that the existing specification should now be taken forwards by the US-based IMS GLC. Audience reaction to this proposal was muted. Interactive Whiteboard is just one more hardware device in a world in which there is an increasing diversity of hardware devices---and in educational terms, plenary classroom teaching is just one example of multiple, complementary learning contexts. For both reasons, the wisdom of driving an IWB-specific standard is questionable. Emerging "horizontal" standards like HTML5 may provide more generic solutions to the same problem; and in the meantime, publishers are in any case having increasing success in importing each other's proprietary formats.

Common File Format is based on Scaled Vector Graphics (SVG), produced by W3C. If it has a long-term future, then this surely lies in convergence with SVG under the management of W3C, and not as a "vertical" education- and device-specific offshoot. 
AICC gives more details of CMI 5.0

The Aviation Industry CBT Committee (AICC) was the original developer of the Computer Managed Instruction (CMI) specification, later adapted by the IEEE and adopted by SCORM to form the core of its runtime environment.

The AICC has continued to offer its original specification as part of its "HTTP AICC Communication Protocol" (HACP)---and is now working on a new release of its underlying runtime data model. CMI 5.0 will have a minimal set of data fields which can be supplemented by an extensions mechanism. It is not yet clear how the extensions mechanism will work, but various piloting work is proposed, including by LETSI's "Content as a Service" working group.

The AICC's initiative is one of several parallel efforts to update the runtime, including work by the IEEE Learning Technology Standards Committee, and the ADL's "Tin Can" research project (see the January Briefing). There is no reason to suppose that these different initiatives will not turn out to be complementary---but it will take a few months yet before it becomes clear how the different pieces of the jigsaw are going to fit together.
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