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.