Association for Learning Technology Online Newsletter
Issue 8 April 2007   Friday, April 20, 2007

ISSN 1748-3603

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24 Hours to secure collaboration on interoperability
Global Governance of Standards for E-Learning
by Kevin Donovan

 “Jack: you might just be able to bring order to the chaos of e-learning standards.” “Sorry, Mr President, those Europeans and Asians and Africans and Latin Americans will need to take on the mantle of interoperability. I have to rescue my daughter from evil-doers.”
The Global 2007 conference was held in London on 19th March. Sponsored by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) and Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) – the organisation responsible for the Shareable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM) – and with support from the key interoperability standards organisations, the event was held to discuss good practice relating to the use of technology in “learning, education and training”. More importantly, it was the start of the process by which the stewardship of SCORM is transferred from the US Department of Defence (which manages ADL) to a new body, Learning-Education-Training Systems Interoperability (LETSI).

Figure 1: The Global 2007 Platform

SCORM is a key piece in a jigsaw of interoperability standards and specifications that have been developed in the past ten years in the attempt to make e-learning resources and approaches open to greater collaboration and functionality for technologists and – more crucially – for practitioners. Perhaps the most powerful illustration of this at the conference was an animation produced by JISC. This showed how standards-based service-oriented architectures can allow a wide disparity of educational information and data to be shared and used effectively when passed through some intermediary and translated into an interoperable form. The aspiration throughout the day was that standards need to be neutral (in terms of pedagogy) but flexible and adaptable according to circumstances.
Many dimensions of the standards issue were covered in workshops and by a variety of speakers, including Diana Laurillard from the Institute of Education/London Knowledge Lab who was formerly responsible for the Harnessing Technology e-strategy. As well as leading a panel on how standards makers and educationalists should collaborate, Diana gave a keynote presentation in which she noted that educational design needs to be precise about its pedagogy, processes and requirements if it is to exploit interoperability, and cited the example of a JISC project using LAMS (Learning Activity Management System) as a useful case in support of this.
Abdul Waheed Khan from United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) outlined succinctly why e-standards are necessary and the barriers to progress, including the lack of learning object interoperability and standards for content repository infrastructures. E-learning architectures have grown organically and there is no simple system for conformance and compliance testing. By way of illustration he noted the various actions which are following on from UNESCO’s World Summits on the Information Society and the specific example of the UNESCO ICT competency standards for teachers. He linked this to the fact that there will soon be 30 million untrained teachers in the developing world: technology represents the only effective form of training, and technology will be key to global educational delivery.
As well as flagging up the LETSI changes, Robert Wisher from ADL discussed issues of control for the new body and the need to make it “learner-centric”. He noted that there were now 250 self-tested SCORM compliant products (including 140 learning management systems). He also invited those present to add to ADL’s database on the impact of e-learning research.
The first panel, with speakers from ISO/IEC, IMS Global, Microsoft UK and Ariadne, discussed global governance of interoperability. The common thread was the       inter-connection of design and engineering. This meant a tension (although at times creative) between teachers (who “don’t need to know that they are using SCORM”) and the design of learning, and technologists (who, for example, like the iterative process of versioning but thereby undermine continuing interoperability). This led to the unusual but useful metaphor that standards are like sewage systems: we become familiar with them when there is a problem. Standards hide what were called “silly problems”.

Figure 2: Erik Duval and Patrick Towell 

The only tension came in the fine disagreement about the impact on standardisation of the so-called market; whilst one speaker maintained that “market-driven standards win the day”, others were less sanguine that a market produces progressive change without the hand of governments and agencies. For example, in the next panel, the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta) representative noted that the wholesale introduction of broadband in schools had required government support. The irony was pointed out of the recent demise of BBC Jam in the face of complaints from private companies: the BBC had adopted SCORM wholesale and successfully and had led the way and set an example to others.
Speakers in the second panel session showed how SCORM has been incorporated into e-learning development in Francophone Africa, Japan, and South Korea. Their case studies showed how interoperability of e-learning platforms and resources based on SCORM dealt with linguistic and cultural differences, with
trans-continental collaboration, as well as learning via mobile phones and at home. The last example – from South Korea – showed how the standard had been improved for more flexible use and claimed major cost savings in content development and tutoring. Paul Shoesmith from Becta argued that more focus was needed on the learner (including by providing an “on-line personalised learning space”) and that Becta’s procurement framework had been aided by the incorporation of SCORM.

Figure 3: Panel members present SCORM case studies

The six workshops included “education and standards’ makers’ collaboration”, with Diana Laurillard and Larry Fruth from the Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF) Association. SIF is based in the USA but has Becta as a member. Larry described how SIF had begun with a focus on student information data but had expanded its coverage and was developing interoperability links to other standards and other resources. Adam Horvath from Hungary claimed that interoperability was vital to create and support a European market lead in e-learning and to rival the USA. He noted that the main barriers to progress concerned accreditation and information about cost-benefits. After a presentation about the ADL community, Lorna Campbell from JISC-CETIS looked for a strategy for end-user engagement and this occupied the subsequent discussion.

Figure 4: Lorna Campbell and Larry Fruth

Mark Cummings was the final keynote speaker from DfES, whose new information standards board is promulgating system-wide governance for standards in DfES domains.
The next weeks and months will show how far the rest of world has succeeded in adopting the governance of standards from the special relationship with the USA and whether Jack can relax for more than 24 hours. And all will no doubt continue to look for the perfect sewage system for teachers and students.
Kevin Donovan

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