Beyond Standards Part 1 – The Standards Process

“Beyond Standards” was the headline title of the CETIS 2007 conference, rather cheeky given that the “S” in CETIS is for Standards. The extended title added “Holistic Approaches to Interoperability”. What did we mean by this rather tabloid headline? What follows is a look at one aspect of what I believe we need to be moving beyond, prefaced by a little bit of explanation of the word “standards”.

“Standards” is often but not universally used for the products of formal processes such as occur in the International Standards Organisation (ISO, committee ISO/IEC JTC1 SC36 for learning education and training) or the British Standards Institute (BSI, committee IST/43 for education and training) and the less specific term “specification” used for standards-like products from less formal bodies. This level of discrimination is not common parlance but will be followed in this article.

Ten years ago educational technology was experiencing a growing spurt fueled by the growth of networks and emergence of the web. The very definition of eLearning was being worked out through invention and innovation. In such a climate, the standards that are developed are necessarily anticipatory. They are part of the process of definition and invention. The synchronous emergence of the extensible markup language, XML, meant that it was immature with few little support in code libraries or user tools. It was arcane and the preserve of experts. The approaches taken to using XML were, of necessity exploratory.

We are, now, beyond this period of anticipatory standards. A combination of maturing of the educational application of technology and the XML explosion, where XML is no longer the preserve of experts, calls into question an approach where standards development leads the way. I do not mean to imply that the educational technology project has completed; there is certainly scope for continued invention and anticipation but the conditions now are such that standards can emerge rather than be created in anticipation. It is now feasible for interested parties to get together and make something work, where necessary creating candidate interoperability specifications, before entering into the negotiation of standardisation. If we are interested in specifications that work and do what people need then this is likely to be the way to go. From a technology perspective, this looks “beyond standards” to enactment of technology and works back from there.

The International e-Framework has taken a similar viewpoint in the way it tries to capture the enacted technologies, although not the subjective facets of enactment, in the formalised Service Usage Models (SUMs) and description of service genres and expressions (follow the link to explore the jargon!).

The viewpoint expressed above is at odds with common practice in the established standards bodies, although it would be inaccurate to imply universality. Several years ago, a diagram (see below, this version came from Ed Walker, CEO of IMS at the time) was widely used to describe the progression of work from R&D to formal (ISO etc) standardisation. This progression is far from formal or systematic: a model not really a process.

Standards Development Model

On the whole this remains a reasonable representation of where I believe the process should work but:

  • the “spec consortia” box needs to be understood more broadly or more loosely to include informal alliances of stakeholders, the “interested parties” mentioned above;
  • an engineering phase needs to be included within the “spec consortia” box to validate the quality and applicability of the specification being developed. IMS has modified its processes to ensure that multi-lateral interoperability is demonstrable before releasing a specification;
  • we still see efforts to standardise (in formal bodies) on the basis of analysis rather than practice, although there are counter-examples where we see established specifications such as SCORM and IMS Content Packaging being advanced into ISO. Analysis is an acceptable starting point for R&D and was acceptable at the anticipatory phase of ”specification” development but is highly questionable for formal standards. Where there are real imperatives, relying upon standardising practice may be impractical but demonstrable multi-lateral demonstrators are a must, surely. Views like those of COPRAS, where standardisation is promoted as a status symbol for research are, in my view, quite damaging when applied to educational technology;
  • the R&D phase is still often missing, in particular there remains a need for collaboration on R&D;
  • the feedback loops (in the diagram) are too slow to deal with major changes. Placing a greater reliance on engineering iterations and multi-lateral pilots at the earliest stages shifts the feedback into a more agile and less wasteful part of the process. There is a trade-off between collaboration/consortium size and agility. For consortia that rely on membership funding, this is also something of a dilemma from a sustainability perspective. Successful open source software initiatives are able to achieve agility in correctability without surrendering quality control (or pollution by malefactors) but the open specifications and standards initiatives have yet to manage the same.

Let us consider two examples of successful work that has not been incubated in an established educational standards forum. For an example of an R&D idea making its way steadily through engineering, piloting and validation, XCRI (eXchanging Course Related Information) is worthy of analysis. The actual specification work produced as the XCRI Course Advertising Profile is relatively small in ambition; it is its life story that holds the interest. With its roots in a CETIS Special Interest Group and a focus on business need, pragmatics and community, XCRI pushes at an open door when it comes to engaging interest in adoption. For an example of a rather different kind, the MIAP Common Data Definitions (CDD) bring together practice from a range of stakeholders motivated by practical needs. I can imagine this becoming a British Standard in due course, once it has demonstrable on-the-ground efficacy. I cannot imagine an anticipatory British Standard with the same overall intent as CDD as having the same impact.

Is any of this really “beyond standards”? No, but the world is changing since interoperability was the preserve of a small group of standards experts engaged in thought experiments. CETIS began in those early anticipatory days and focussed a lot of their early effort on de-mystifying specifications and championing their adoption. While CETIS continues to participate in the specifications and standards development process, to promote interoperability and to support a community, its messages have become far more qualified than they were initially and its range of intervention has become more broad. I can only see this trend continuing. Established bodies such as IMS and BSI must also adapt to the new complexity, narrowing, shifting or broadening their offering as their specific environment determines. The threats for them as well as CETIS are the same if we mis-judge the trends: over-broadness, loss of distinctiveness, irrelevance, destructive competition …

A Step Forward in Specification Licence Terms

The licence terms of interoperability specifications has been a topic on which a great deal of fear, uncertainty and doubt has been spread over the last year or so. The tension between retaining control of a specification and reducing the degree to which divergent unofficial versions fuel the creation of numerous incompatible dialects on the one hand and supporting creative application on the other hand is clear as are the problems caused by slow-moving formal processes to address specification bugs.

A recent announcement by IMS on their intention to pilot a form of Creative Commons licence is, therefore, worthy of applause. The Fundamentalists will point to the “a form of…” in the press release but Realists will recognise a step in the right direction.