What is there to learn about standardization?

Cetis (the Centre for Educational Technology, Interoperability and Standards) and the IEC (Institute for Educational Cybernetics) are full of rich knowledge and experience in several overlapping topics. While the IEC has much expertise in learning technologies, it is Cetis in particular where there is a body of knowledge and experience of many kinds of standardization organisations and processes, as well as approaches to interoperability that are not necessarily based on formal standardization. We have an impressive international profile in the field of learning technology standards.

But how can we share and pass on that expertise? This question has arisen from time to time during the 12 years I’ve been associated with Cetis, including the last six working from our base in the IEC in Bolton. While Jisc were employing us to run Special Interest Groups, meetings, and conferences, and to support their project work, that at least gave us some scope for sharing. The SIGs are sadly long gone, but what about other ways of sharing? What about running some kind of courses? To run courses, we have to address the question of what people might want to learn in our areas of expertise. On a related question, how can we assemble a structured summary even of what have we ourselves have learned about this rich and challenging area?

These are my own views about what I sense I have learned and could pass on; but also about the topics where I would think it worthwhile to know more. All of these views are in the context of open standards in learning technology and related areas.

How are standards developed?

A formal answer for formal standards is straightforward enough. But this is only part of the picture. Standards can start life in many ways, from the work of one individual inventing a good way of doing something, through to a large corporation wanting to impose its practice on the rest of the world. It is perhaps more significant to ask …

How do people come up with good and useful standards?

The more one is involved in standardization, the richer and more subtle one’s answer to this becomes. There isn’t one “most effective” process, nor one formula for developing a good standard. But in Cetis, we have developed a keen sense of what is more likely to result in something that is useful. It includes the close involvement of the people who are going to implement the standard – perhaps software developers. Often it is a good idea to develop the specification for a standard hand in hand with its implementation. But there are many other subtleties which could be brought out here. This also begs a question …

What makes a good and useful standard?

What one comes to recognise with time and experience is that the most effective standards are relatively simple and focused. The more complex a standard is, the less flexible it tends to be. It might be well suited to the precise conditions under which it was developed, but those conditions often change.

There is much research to do on this question, and people in Cetis would provide an excellent knowledge base for this, in the learning technology domain.

What characteristics of people are useful for developing good standards?

Most likely anyone who has been involved in standardization processes will be aware of some people whose contribution is really helpful, and others who seem not to help so much. Standardization works effectively as a consensus process, not as a kind of battle for dominance. So the personal characteristics of people who are effective at standardization is similar to those who are good at consensus processes more widely. Obviously, the group of people involved must have a good technical knowledge of their domain, but deep technical knowledge is not always allied to an attitude that is consistent with consensus process.

Can we train, or otherwise develop, these useful characteristics?

One question that really interests me is, to what extent can consensus-friendly attitudes be trained or developed in people? It would be regrettable if part of the answer to good standardization process were simply to exclude unhelpful people. But if this is not to happen, those people would need to be to be open to changing their attitudes, and we would have to find ways of helping them develop. We might best see this as a kind of “enculturation”, and use sociological knowledge to help understand how it can be done.

After answering that question, we would move on to the more challenging “how can these characteristics be developed?”

How can standardization be most effectively managed?

We don’t have all the answers here. But we do have much experience of the different organisations and processes that have brought out interoperability standards and specifications. Some formal standardization bodies adopt processes that are not open, and we find this quite unhelpful to the management of standardization in our area. Bodies vary in how much they insist that implementation goes hand in hand with specification development.

The people who can give most to a standardization process are often highly valued and short of time. Conversely, those who hinder it most, including the most opinionated, often seem to have plenty of time to spare. To manage the standardization process effectively, this variety of people needs to be allowed for. Ideally, this would involve the training in consensus working, as imagined above, but until then, sensitive handling of those people needs considerable skill. A supplementary question would be, how does one train people to handle others well?

If people are competent at consensus working, the governance of standardization is less important. Before then, the exact mechanisms for decision making and influence, formal and informal, are significant. This means that the governance of standards organisations is on the agenda for what there is to learn. There is still much to learn here, through suitable research, about how different governance structures affect the standardization process and its outcomes.

Once developed, how are standards best managed?

Many of us have seen the development of a specification or standard, only for it never really to take hold. Other standards are overtaken by events, and lose ground. This is not always a bad thing, of course – it is quite proper for one standard to be displaced by a better one. But sometimes people are not aware of a useful standard at the right time. So, standards not only need keeping up to date, but they may also need to be continually promoted.

As well as promotion, there is the more straightforward maintenance and development. Web sites with information about the standard need maintaining, and there is often the possibility of small enhancements to a standard, such as reframing it in terms of a new technology – for instance, a newly popular language.

And talking of languages, there is also dissemination through translation. That’s one thing that working in a European context keeps high in one’s mind.

I’ve written before about management of learning technology standardization in Europe and about developments in TC353, the committee responsible for ICT in learning, education and training.

And how could a relevant qualification and course be developed?

There are several other questions whose answers would be relevant to motivating or setting up a course. Maybe some of my colleagues or readers have answers. If so, please comment!

  • As a motivation for development, how can we measure the economic value of standards, to companies and to the wider economy? There must be existing research on this question, but I am not familiar with it.
  • What might be the market for such courses? Which individuals would be motivated enough to devote their time, and what organisations (including governmental) would have an incentive to finance such courses?
  • Where might such courses fit? Perhaps as part of a technology MSc/MBA in a leading HE institution or business school?
  • How would we develop a curriculum, including practical experience?
  • How could we write good intended learning outcomes?
  • How would teaching and learning be arranged?
  • Who would be our target learners?
  • How would the course outcomes be assessed?
  • Would people with such a qualification be of value to standards developing organisations, or elsewhere?

I would welcome approaches to collaboration in developing any learning opportunity in this space.

And more widely

Looking again at these questions, I wonder whether there is something more general to grasp. Try reading over, substituting, for “standard”, other terms such as “agreement”, “law”, “norm” (which already has a dual meaning), “code of conduct”, “code of practice”, “policy”. Many considerations about standards seem to touch these other concepts as well. All of them could perhaps be seen as formulations or expressions, guiding or governing interaction between people.

And if there is much common ground between the development of all of these kinds of formulation, then learning about standardization might well be adapted to learn knowledge, skills, competence, attitudes and values that are useful in many walks of life, but particularly in the emerging economy of open co-operation and collaboration on the commons.

Open : data : co-op

A very interesting event in Manchester on Monday (2014-10-20) called “Open : Data : Cooperation” was focused around the idea of “building a data cooperative”. The central idea was the cooperative management of personal information.

Related ideas have been going round for a long time. In 1999 I first came across a formulation of the idea of managing personal informaton in the book called “Net Worth“. Ten years ago I started talking about personal information brokerage with John Harrison, who has devoted years to this cause. In 2008, Michel Bauwens was writing about “The business case for a User Data Commons“.

A simple background story emerges from following the money. People spend money, whether their own or other people’s, and influence others in their spending of money. Knowing what people are ready to spend money on is valuable, because businesses with something to sell can present their offerings at an opportune moment. Thus, information which might be relevant to anyone buying anything is valuable, and can be sold. Naturally, the more money is at stake, the higher the price of information relevant to that purchase. Some information about a person can be used in this way over and over again.

Given this, it should be possible for people themselves to profit from giving information about themselves. And in small ways, they already do: store cards give a little return for the information about your purchases. But once the information is gathered by someone else, it is open for sale to others. One worry is that, maybe in the future if not right away, that information might enable some “wrong” people to know what you are doing, when you don’t want them to know.

Can an individual manage all that information about themselves better, both to keep it out of the wrong hands, and to get a better price for it from those to whom it is entrusted? Maybe; but it looks like a daunting task. As individuals, we generally don’t bother. We give away information that looks trivial, perhaps, for very small benefits, and we lose control of it.

It’s a small step from these reflections to the idea of people grouping together, the better to control data about themselves. What they can’t practically do separately, there is a chance of doing collectively, with enough efficiencies of scale to make it worthwhile, financially as well as in terms of peace of mind. You could call such a grouping a “personal data cooperative” or a “personal information mutual”, or any of a range of similar names.

Compared with gathering and holding data about the public domain, personal information is much more challenging. There are the minefields of privacy law, such as the Data Protection Act in the UK.

In Manchester on Monday we had some interesting “lightning” talks (I gave one myself – here are the slides on Slideshare,) people wrote sticky notes on relevant topics they were concerned about, and there were six areas highlighted for discussion:

  • security
  • governance
  • participation & inclusivity
  • technical
  • business model
  • legislative

I joined the participation and the technical group discussions. Both fascinated me, in different ways.

The participation discussion led to thoughts about why people would join a cooperative to manage their personal data. They need specific motivation, which could come from the kind of close-knit networks that deal with particular interests. There are many examples of closely knit on-line groups around social or political campaigns, about specific medical issues, or other matters of shared personal concern. Groups of these kinds may well generate enough trust for people to share their personal information, but they are generally not large enough to have much commercial impact, so they might struggle to be sustainable as personal data co-ops. What if, somehow, a whole lot of these minority groups could get together in an umbrella organisation?

Curiously, this has much in common with my personal living situation in a cohousing project. Despite many people’s yearnings (if not cravings) for secure acceptance of their minority positions, to me it looks like our cohousing project is too large and diverse a group for any one “cause” to be a key part of the vision for everyone. What we realistically have is a kind of umbrella in which all these good and worthy causes may thrive. Low carbon footprints; local, organic food; veganism; renewable energy; they’re all here. All these interest groups live within a co-operative kind of structure, where the governance is as far as possible by consensus.

So, my current living situation has resonances with this “participation” – and my current work is highly relevant to the “technical” discussion. But the technical discussion proved to be hard!

If you take just one area of personal-related information, and manage to create a business model using that information, the technicalities start to be conceivable.

For instance, Cetis (particularly my colleague Scott Wilson) has been involved in the HEAR (Higher Education Achievement Report) for quite some time. Various large companies are interested in using the HEAR for recruiting graduates. Sure, that’s not a cooperative scenario, but it does illustrate a genuine business case for using personal data gathered from education. Then one can think about how that information is structured; how it is represented in some transferable format; how the APIs for fetching such information should work. There is definite progress in this direction for HEAR information in the UK – I was closely involved in the less established but wider European initiative around representing the Diploma Supplement, and more can be found under the heading European Learner Mobility.

While the HEAR is progressing towards viability, The “ecosystem” around learner information more widely is not very mature, so there are still questions about how effective our current technical formats are. I’ve been centrally involved in two efforts towards standardization: Leap2A and InLOC. Both have included discussion about the conceptual models, which has never been fully resolved.

More mature areas are more likely to have stable technical solutions. Less mature areas may not have any generally agreed conceptual, structural models for the data; there may be no established business models for generating revenues or profits; and there may be no standards specifically designed for the convenient representation of that kind of data. Generic standards like RDF can cover any linked data, but they are not necessarily convenient or elegant, and may or may not lead to workable practical applications.

Data sources mentioned at this meeting included:

quantified self data
that’s all about your physiological data, and possibly related information
energy (or other utility) usage data
coming from smart meters in the home
purchasing data
from store cards and online shops
communication data
perhaps from your mobile device
learner information
in conjunction with learning technology, as I introduced

I’m not clear how mature any of these particular areas are, but they all could play a part in a personal data co-op. And because of the diversity of this data, as well as its immaturity, there is little one can say in general about technical solutions.

What we could do would be to set out just a strategy for leading up to technical solutions. It might go something like this.

  1. Agree the scope of the data to be held.
  2. Work out a viable business model with that data.
  3. Devise models of the data that are, as far as possible, intuitively understandable to the various stakeholders.
  4. Consider feasible technical architectures within which this data would be used.
  5. Start considering APIs for services.
  6. Look at existing standards, including generic ones, to see whether any existing standard might suffice. If so, try using it, rather than inventing a new one.
  7. If there really isn’t anything else that works, get together a good, representative selection of stakeholders, with experience or skill in consensus standardization, and create your new standard.

It’s all a considerable challenge. We can’t ignore the technical issues, because ignoring them is likely to lead just to good ideas that don’t work in practice. On the other hand, solving the technical issues is far from the only challenge in personal data co-ops. Long experience with Cetis suggests that the technical issues are relatively easy, compared to the challenges of culture and habit.

Give up, then? No, to me the concept remains very attractive and worth working on. Collaboratively, of course!

E-portfolios and badges for the common good

I learned several things at the e-portfolio and identity conference (ePIC) 2014 that I attended 9th and 10th July.

1. People agree it’s political

The response to my presentation (What will we need to learn and have evidence for? on Slideshare) reassured me that many of the excellent people at the conference shared something like my sense that the world of learning, education, e-portfolios and open badges is more political now than it has ever been in the past history of this conference. It is not simply well-meaning educators helping “their” learners to a richer, more fulfilling education, learning and life (a great aim though that remains). It is, to me, increasingly about what kind of society we want.

Serge Ravet (whose conference it is) and others have understood a political dimension to e-portfolios since the beginning. It seems now that it is increasingly plain to everyone.

2. It’s not about the technology, but about what it’s used for

People are understanding, but do not all yet understand, that it is not the technology by itself that makes the difference, but the ends for which it is used. Maybe this needs to be explained a bit more…

There seems to be a tendency for people to attach their cause (if, as often, they have a cause: in our case, predominantly an educational cause) to any new technology that comes along, perhaps with the justification that the new technology makes it easier to do things differently, or at least gives people the opportunity to do things differently.

Think first of e-portfolios, because this conference started as the “ePortfolio” conference (and I’ve been to all of them). Yes, e-portfolios can be used to promote reflection. They can be used to give authentic evidence of authentic learning – whatever that may mean – but then they can be used to assemble and present evidence of almost anything, in almost any way. Thus, many people in this community (myself included) would like to play down the label “e-portfolio”, and instead focus on the values of the kind of learning and education that we think benefits people and society, which we would like to see come about through the use of e-portfolio technology.

Think now of Badges. Mozilla Open Badges includes a technological framework perhaps mixed in with some implicit values. One major appeal of Badge technology is that it promises to be a tool that can be used to reclaim credentials from the grip of established educational, training, or professional institutions. And this aim goes along with much else laudable in learning technology and forward-looking practice. But, equally, Badges can be used by established players to replicate the existing systems of qualifications and certificates. In no way does the use of Badges ensure that a system is in accordance with any particular set of values, aims, or aspirations. This was understood several times in the conference discussion.

Thus, we need to be careful that we don’t overemphasise the technology, but keep a clear eye on the values we want to promote. This may mean making those values explicit; but then I would say it’s time to do that anyway.

3. It’s not about having a “line”, it’s about being open

It’s easy to imagine some groups of people – and maybe this includes politicians, authors, speakers and many academics – attaching themselves to a recognisable “line”, which can be “sold”, in the form of manifestos, books, papers, talks, or project proposals touting the “next big thing”. Maybe having a consistent, recognisable line contributes to their success. Maybe it is vital component of their public identity. I wonder if sometimes it becomes their personal identity as well.

Personally, I don’t want a static “line”, I want to be OPEN. I thrive on openness. I love seeing and feeling the evolution and growth of ideas that are freed from the constraints of their originator’s conceptual framework, to have lives of their own. I love seeing young people venture beyond the constraints of their background and upbringing, and exploring new ideas, new places, new thoughts, new ways of being, freely choosing the traditional or the new.

And, particularly, I relish the thought (as Theodore Zeldin also expressed in “An Intimate History of Humanity“) of what could ensue when two or more open people come together; when they risk trusting each other; when they find that trust justified; when they freely and openly share their good ideas; when they grow into truly fruitful collaboration and co-creation.

4. Motivation is not just about intrinsic or extrinsic

Reflection on the conference conversations suggests that the question of intrisic motivation and extrinsic (or instrumental) motivation is not as simple as it might first appear. Following Alfie Kohn, who spoke remotely, one can indeed see extrinsic rewards as squeezing out natural motivation for learning. But if you see other people’s approval as an extrinsic reward, might Kohn’s view be setting up an autistic nightmare of individuals sociopathically following their own whims, no matter what others say?

It might be more fruitful to put that typology of motivation to one side. The reward of seeing other people’s needs being met – of seeing them thrive – may be best seen as intrinsic, but my guess is that few people have the courage and strength to follow this through without the extrinsic reward of approval of one’s trusted and valued peers.

Maybe this is related to what Adam Grant expresses in his recent book, “Give and Take“. Givers are intrisically motivated to contribute to other people’s good, but far from the myth that givers are losers, they often shine out as supremely successful in business as well as life. The idea of delight in the satisfaction of the needs of others is shared by Marshall Rosenberg in his Non-Violent Communication work.

These are just two pointers to something that seems to have been almost entirely missed out from educational theory. It’s about what works as motivation for the common good, but the common good is something that doesn’t appear much in the kind of thinking that might be described by Robert Kegan and others as “modernism”, which is more to do with the individual than the collective. Personally, I identify my own desire to promote the common good with the kind of reconstructive post-modernism written about by Kegan.

What is the relevance to Cetis, and to learning technology?

This is a question that naturally relates to the fact that this post is on the Cetis web site. Here I am moving beyond what I learned at the conference, and relating it back to my (currently half time) affiliation.

  1. The fact that the technology is not the biggest issue is one that we have known in Cetis for many a year. Nothing new here, then, but it is a worthwhile confirmation and reminder. It’s the human practices and culture that are the challenge.
  2. Cetis is not at present in a good position to be explicitly political. But I do believe that our advocacy of what is “open” in education and technology has a political dimension, and that needs to sit happily with a host that appreciates that, rather than awkwardly with a host that finds it an irritant.
  3. Maybe, and here I own up to speculation, maybe it is time for us as Cetis to resume the role that we used to play for many years – that of facilitating, fostering, promoting discussion within communities of practice, which are fundamentally places where peer groups meet to investigate collaboration, or at least to share knowledge openly.
  4. And lastly, a question: how can e-portfolios, badges, or other related technology support the values, the politics, of sharing, collaboration, and the common good?

Perhaps I may compare the ePIC conference with the Cetis conference. The Cetis conference, like ePIC, is a conference of enthusiasts, but this year, instead of being free of charge, the Cetis conference was successfully run at a very moderate cost. Maybe the ePIC conference (or whatever it will be called) can move to a similar point but in the opposite direction, reducing its cost to encourage wider participation, and to enable the ongoing participation of the enthusiastic supporters that we have kept. We all need to be careful with expenses such as keynote speakers. Cetis did well this year, but we all need to be careful to get the right people, if anyone!

So, I hope that the enthusiasm and engagement of the ePIC conference continues, and that the community it represents grows and develops towards the common good.

What is Open Knowledge culture?

At the recent Cetis conference#cetis14 on twitter – Brian Kelly and I ran a session called “Open Knowledge: Wikipedia and Beyond”. The outcomes were much more interesting than might have been guessed – worthy of a post!

Wikipedia has culture, or cultures. I personally have little experience of them, simply from doing little edits, but was prodding around recently while researching for this session. Some Wikipedia culture seems very “geek” – with in jokes, perhaps putting off the uninitiated. Maybe this comes from much older newsgroup culture. People got to misunderstand each other much too frequently, and flame wars resulted. Rather harsh words like “mercilessly” still appear in the Wikipedia documentation, despite being debated extensively. They stand as a warning of the apparent harshness that may be felt, and also serve to put people off.

For example, there is an in joke, abbreviated to “TINC”, standing for “there is no cabal”. The article that explains this gives a good flavour of the culture it comes from and belongs in. I don’t think anyone would claim that this culture is a majority culture, and it is prone to excluding people. If we want Wikipedia to be a universal open educational resource, part of a proper “knowledge commons”, we must open this up.

An example that came up in our session was Wikipedia’s use of the term “editor”. Now many of us may assume that we all know that a Wikipedia “editor” is simply anyone who chooses to edit any article, but that awareness is not in fact a majority awareness. In the rest of the world, an “editor” has connotations of a book editor, or a newspaper editor – someone with a particular structured role. A Wikipedia “101” course needs to explain that right away. Or could the term be changed?

This links to an issue that was of wider relevance to the conference. What does “open” mean? Yes, there is the helpful open definition. But also, “open” is used in the phrase “open for business”, which is too frequently understood as meaning low on regulation, with few if any barriers preventing corporate money-making, even if that tramples over people and things that are important to them. The word “open”, like the word “freedom”, carries with it much ambivalence. What is open, to who, and why? Open for some may imply closed for others.

Just on the morning of our session I picked up two leads from tweets on related topics. Back in 2008, Michel Bauwens was asking Is something fundamentally wrong with Wikipedia governance process? In reply, P2P Lab pointed to a First Monday article from 2010 about Wikipedia’s peer governance. Then today I see reference to a more recent article on Wikipedia’s problems by Deepak Chopra. People are not unaware of problematic issues with Wikipedia.

One approach to dealing with the issues arising is simply to arrange more Wikipedia training. Brian is rightly keen on that. But it does raise the question, what can be trained, and what is more a matter of culture? Is it possible to help cultures that are good for open knowledge and its governance?

What peer governance cultures are there, anyway? I’ve had experience of consensus governance in a number of contexts, and there seem to be common problems. First, though most people are reasonable at collaboration, there are some who seem to act in ways that are indifferent to the common good, and only promote their own interests: takers, rather than givers, in Adam Grant’s scheme of humanity. The problem comes when takers are not dealt with effectively. Even in structures and organisations that are supposed to be managed by consensus, there seems to be a tendency to form cabals, or cliques: small elites who take over governance processes in their own interests (though sometimes they manage to fool themselves and others that they are trying to further the common interest).

Shouldn’t this be one of the roles of education, to bring people up, not only to further the common good, but to detect and deal with people who are not doing so?

Knowledge of what makes the common good, and collaborative skills (including communication and working with others) are clearly important, but seem not to be sufficient. We also need effective enculturation. Some kind of enculturation is at the heart of the hidden curriculum of educational institutions. Maybe it should be less hidden, and more transparent?

I won’t go on to detail possible solutions here, but in terms of where I am, I could easily envisage

  • a framework for the competences, values or attitudes needed for effective peer-to-peer collaboration;
  • a set of peer-assessed badges attesting these;
  • related courses being set up as MOOCs;
  • a whole lot of relevant open educational resources

and so on.

Back to the conference title: “Building the Digital Institution”. Is it, I ask, an institution that we want, in any recognisable form, complete with a hidden curriculum of a culture that is unlikely to be collaborative? Or is it a radically different kind of social organisation, built around, and promoting, a positive learners’ culture of learning through and for collaboration, peer-to-peer, co-operative in the best sense? Maybe our ideas, as well as our new technologies, can now help us make new efforts in the right direction. Let us not apply technology to entrenching elitism and privilege, but rather towards co-creating a knowledge commons that is truly open and transparent.

Why, when and how should we use frameworks of skill and competence?

When we understand how frameworks could be used for badges, it becomes clearer that we need to distinguish between different kinds of ability, and that we need tools to manage and manipulate such open frameworks of abilities. InLOC gives a model, and formats, on which such tools can be based.

I’ll be presenting this material at the Crossover Edinburgh conference, 2014-06-05, though my conference presentation will be much more interactive and open, and without much of this detail below.

What are these frameworks?

Frameworks of skill or competence (under whatever name) are not as unfamiliar as they might sound to some people at first. Most of us have some experience or awareness of them. Large numbers of people have completed vocational qualifications — e.g. NVQs in England — which for a long time were each based on a syllabus taken from what are called National Occupational Standards (NOSs). Each NOS is a statement of what a person has to be able to do, and what they have to know to support that ability, in a stated vocational role, or job, or function. The scope of NOSs is very wide — to list the areas would take far too much space — so the reader is asked to take a look at the national database of current NOSs, which is hosted by the UKCES on their dedicated web site.

Several professions also have good reason to set out standards of competence for active members of that profession. One of the most advanced in this development, perhaps because of the consequences of their competence on life and death, is the medical profession. Documents like Good Medical Practice, published by the General Medical Council, starts by addressing doctors:

Patients must be able to trust doctors with their lives and health. To justify that trust you must show respect for human life and make sure your practice meets the standards expected of you in four domains.

and then goes on to detail those domains:

  • Knowledge, skills and performance
  • Safety and quality
  • Communication, partnership and teamwork
  • Maintaining trust

The GMC also publishes the related Tomorrow’s Doctors, in which it

sets the knowledge, skills and behaviours that medical students learn at UK medical schools: these are the outcomes that new UK graduates must be able to demonstrate.

These are the kinds of “framework” that we are discussing here. The constituent parts of these frameworks are sometimes called “competencies”, a term that is intended to cover knowledge, skills, behaviours, attitudes, etc., but as that word is a little unfriendly, and bearing in mind that practical knowledge is shown through the ability to put that knowledge into practice, I’ll use “ability” as a catch all term in this context.

Many larger employers have good reasons to know just what the abilities of their employees are. Often, people being recruited into a job are asked in person, and employers have to go through the process of weighing up the evidence of a person’s abilities. A well managed HR department might go beyond this to maintaining ongoing records of employees’ abilities, so that all kinds of planning can be done, skills gaps identified, people suggested for new roles, and training and development managed. And this is just an outsider’s view!

Some employers use their own frameworks, and others use common industry frameworks. One industry where common frameworks are widely used is information and communications technology. SFIA, the Skills Framework for the Information Age, sets out all kinds of skills, at various levels, that are combined together to define what a person needs to be able to do in a particular role. Similar to SFIA, but simpler, is the European e-Competence Framework, which has the advantage of being fully and openly available without charge or restriction.

Some frameworks are intended for wider use than just employment. A good example is Mozilla’s Web Literacy Map, which is “a map of competencies and skills that Mozilla and our community of stakeholders believe are important to pay attention to when getting better at reading, writing and participating on the web.” They say “map”, but the structure is the same as other frameworks. Their background page sets out well the case for their common framework. Doug Belshaw suggests that you could use the Web Literacy Map for “alignment” of the kind of Open Badges that are also promoted by Mozilla.

Links to badges

You can imagine having badges for keeping track of people’s abilities, where the abilities are part of frameworks. To help people move between different roles, from education and training to work, and back again, having their abilities recognised, and not having to retrain on abilities that have already been mastered, those frameworks would have to be openly published, able to be referenced in all the various contexts. It is open frameworks that are of particular interest to us here.

Badges are typically issued by organisations to individuals. Different organisations relate to abilities differently. Some organisations, doing business or providing a service, just use employees’ abilities to deliver products and services. Other organisations, focusing around education and training, just help people develop abilities, which will be used elsewhere. Perhaps most organisations, in practice, are somewhere on the spectrum between these two, where abilities are both used and developed, in varied proportions. Looking at the same thing from an individual point of view, in some roles people are just using their abilities to perform useful activities; in other roles they are developing their abilities to use in a different role. Perhaps there are many roles where, again, there is a mixture between these two positions. The value of using the common, open frameworks for badges is that the badges could (in principle) be valued across different kinds of organisation, and different kinds of role. This would then help people keep account of their abilities while moving between organisations and roles, and have those abilities more easily recognised.

The differing nature of different abilities

However, maybe we need to be more careful than simply to take every open framework, and turn it into badges. If all the abilities than were used in all roles and organisations had separate badges, vast numbers of badges would exist, and we could imagine the horrendous complexity of maintaining them and managing them. So it might make sense to select the most appropriate abilities for badging, as follows.

  • Some abilities are plentiful, and don’t need special training or rewarding — maybe organisations should just take them for granted, perhaps checking that what is expected is there.
  • Some abilities are hard, or impossible, to develop: you have them or you don’t. In this case, using badges would risk being discriminatory. Badges for e.g. how high a person can reach, or how long they can be in the sun without burning, would be unnecessary as well as seriously problematic, while one can think of many other personal characteristics, potentially framed as abilities, which might be less visible on the surface, but potentially lead to discrimination, as people can’t just change them.
  • Some abilities might only be able to be learned within a specific role. There is little point in creating badges for these abilities, if they do not transfer from role to role.
  • Some abilities can be developed, are not abundant, and can be transferred substantially from one role to another. These are the ones that deserve to be tracked, and for which badges are perhaps most worth developing. This still leaves open the question of the granularity of the badges.

Practical considerations governing the creation and use of frameworks

It’s hard to create a good, generally accepted common skills or competence framework. In order to do so, one has to put together several factors.

  • The abilities have to be sufficiently common to a number of different roles, between which people may want to move.
  • The abilities have to be described in a way that makes sense to all collaborating parties.
  • It must be practical to include the framework into other tools.
  • The framework needs to be kept up to date, to reflect changing abilities needed for actual roles.
  • In particular, as the requirements for particular jobs vary, the components of a framework need to be presented in such a way that they can be selected, or combined with components of other frameworks, to serve the variety of roles that will naturally occur in a creative economy.
  • Thus, the descriptions of the abilities, and the way in which they are put together, need all to be compatible.

Let’s look at some of this in more detail. What is needed for several purposes is the ability to create a tailored set of abilities. This would be clearly useful in describing both job opportunities, and actual personal abilities. It is of course possible to do all of this in a paper-like way, simply cutting and pasting between documents. But realistically, we need tools to help. As soon as we introduce ICT tools, we have the requirement for standard formats which these tools can work with. We need portability of the frameworks, and interoperability of the tools.

For instance, it would be very useful to have a tool or set of tools which could take frameworks, either ones that are published, or ones that are handed over privately, and manipulate them, perhaps with a graphical interface, to create new, bespoke structures.

Contrast with the actual position now. Current frameworks rarely attempt to use any standard format, as there are no very widely accepted standards for such a format. Within NOSs, there are some standards; the UK government has a list of their relevant documents including “NOS Quality Criteria” and a “NOS Guide for Developers” (by Geoff Carroll and Trevor Boutall). But outside this area practice varies widely. In the area of education and training, the scene is generally even less developed. People have started to take on the idea of specifying the “learning outcomes” that are intended to be achieved as a result of completing courses of learning, educaction or training, but practice is patchy, and there is very little progress towards common frameworks of learning outcomes.

We need, therefore, a uniform “model”, not for skills themselves, which are always likely to vary, but for the way of representing skills, and for the way in which they are combined into frameworks.

The InLOC format

Between 2011 and 2013 I led a team developing a specification for just this kind of model and format. The project was called “Integrating Learning Outcomes and Competences”, or InLOC for short. We developed CEN Workshop Agreement CWA 16655 in three parts, available from CEN in PDF format by ftp:

  1. Information Model for Learning Outcomes and Competences
  2. Guidelines including the integration of Learning Outcomes and Competences into existing specifications
  3. Application Profile of Europass Curriculum Vitae and Language Passport for Integrating Learning Outcomes and Competences

The same content and much extra background material is available on the InLOC project web site. This post is not the place to explain InLOC in detail, but anyone interested is welcome to contact me directly for assistance.

What can people do in the meanwhile?

I’ve proposed elsewhere often enough that we need to develop tools and open frameworks together, to achieve a critical mass where there enough frameworks published to make it worthwhile for tool developers, and sufficiently developed tools to make it worthwhile to make the extra effort to format frameworks in the common way (hopefully InLOC) that will work with the tools.

There will be a point at which growth and development in this area will become self-sustaining. But we don’t have to wait for that point. This is what I think we could usefully be doing in the meanwhile, if we are in a position to do so.

1. Build your own frameworks
It’s a challenge if you haven’t been involved in skill or competence frameworks before, but the principles are not too hard to grasp. Start out by asking what roles, and what functions, there are in your organisation, and try to work out what abilities, and what supporting knowledge, are needed for each role and for each function. You really need to do this, if you are to get started in this area. Or, if you are a microbusiness that really doesn’t need a framework, perhaps you can build one for a larger organisation.
2. Use parts of frameworks that are there already, where suitable
It may not be as difficult as you thought at first. There are many resources out there, such as NOSs, and the other frameworks mentioned above. Search, study, see if you can borrow or reuse. Not all frameworks allow it, but many do. So, some of your work may already be done for you.
3. Publish your frameworks, and their constituent abilities, each with a URL
This is the next vital step towards preparing your frameworks for open use and reuse. The constituent abilities (and levels, see the InLOC documentation) really need their own identifiers, as well as the overall frameworks, whether you call those identifiers URLs, URIs or IRIs.
4. Use the frameworks consistently throughout the organisation
To get the frameworks to stick, and to provide the motivation for maintaining them, you will have to use them in your organisation. I’m not an expert on this side of practice, but I would have thought that the principles are reasonably obvious. The more you have a uniform framework in use across your organisation, the more people will be able to see possibilities for transfer of skills, flexible working, moving across roles, job rotation, and other similar initiatives that can help satisfy employees.
5. Use InLOC if possible
It really does provide a good, general purpose model of how to represent a framework, so that it can be ready for use by ICT systems. Just ask if you need help on this!
6. Consider integrating open badges
It makes sense to consider your badge strategy and your framework strategy together. You may also find this old post of mine helpful.
7. Watch for future development of tools, or develop some yourself!
If you see any, try to help them towards being really useful, by giving constructive feedback. I’d be happy to help any tool developers “get” InLOC.

I hope these ideas offer people some pointers on a way forward for skill and competence frameworks. See other of my posts for related ideas. Comments or other feedback would be most welcome!

What is CEN TC 353 becoming?

The CEN TC 353 was set up (about seven years ago) as the European Standardization Technical Committee (“TC”) responsible for “ICT for Learning Education and Training” (LET). At the end of the meeting I will be describing below, we recognised that the title has led some people to think it is a committee for standardising e-learning technology, which is far from the truth. I would describe its business as being, effectively, the standardization of the representation of information about LET, so that it can be used in (any kind of) ICT systems. We want the ICT systems we use for LET to be interoperable, and we want to avoid the problems that come from vendors all defining their own ways of storing and handling information, thus making it hard to migrate to alternative systems. Perhaps the clearest evidence of where TC 353 works comes from the two recent European Standards to our name. EN 15981, “EuroLMAI”, is about information about learner results from any kind of learning, specifically including the Diploma Supplement, and the UK HEAR, that document any higher education achievements. EN 15982, “MLO” (Metadata for Learning Opportunities) is the European equivalent of the UK’s XCRI, “eXchanging Course-Related Information”, mainly about the information used to advertise courses, which can be of any kind. Neither of these are linked to the mode of learning, technology enhanced or not; and indeed we have no EN standards about e-learning as such. So that’s straight, then, I trust …

At this CEN TC 353 meeting on 2014-04-08 there were delegates from the National Bodies of: Finland; France (2); Germany; Greece; Norway; Sweden (2); UK (me); and the TC 353 secretary. That’s not very many for an active CEN TC. Many of the people there have been working with CETIS people, including me, for several years. You could see us as the dedicated, committed few.

The main substance of the day’s discussion was about two proposed new work items (“NWIs”), one from France, one from Sweden, and the issues coming out of that. I attended the meeting as the sole delegate (with the high-sounding designation, “head of delegation”) from BSI, with a steer from colleagues that neither proposal was ready for acceptance. That, at least, was agreed by the meeting. But something much more significant appeared to happen, which seemed to me like a subtle shift in the identity of TC 353. This is entirely appropriate, given that the CEN Workshop on Learning Technologies (WS-LT), which was the older, less formal body, is now acccepted as defunct — this is because CEN are maintaining their hard line on process and IPR, which makes running an open CEN workshop effectively impossible.

No technical standardization committee that I know of is designed to manage pre-standardization activities. Floating new ideas, research, project work, comparing national initiatives, etc., need to be done before a proposal reaches a committee of this kind, because TC work, whether in CEN, or in our related ISO JTC1 SC36, tends to be revision of documents that are presented to the committee. It’s very difficult and time consuming to construct a standard from a shaky foundation, simply by requesting formal input and votes from national member bodies. And when a small team is set up to work under the constraints of a bygone era of confidentiality, in some cases it has proved insurmountably difficult to reach a good consensus.

Tore Hoel, a long-time champion of the WS-LT, admitted that it is now effectively defunct. I sadly agree, while appreciating all the good work it has done. So TC 353 has to explore a new role in the absence of what was its own Workshop, which used to do the background work and to suggest the areas of work that needed attention. Tore has recently blogged what he thinks should be the essential characteristics of a future platform for European open standards work, and I very much agree with him. He uses the Open Stand principles as a key reference.

So what could this new role be? The TC members are well connected in our field, and while they do not themselves do much IT systems implementation, they know those people, and are generally in touch with their views. The TC members also have a good overview of how the matters of interest to TC 353 relate to neighbouring issues and stakeholders. We believe that the TC is, collectively, in quite a good position to judge when it is worth working towards a new European Standard, which is after all their raison d’etre. We can’t see any other body that could perform this role as well, in this specific area.

As we were in France, the famous verse of Rouget de Lisle, the “Marseillaise” came to my mind. “Aux armes, citoyens, Formez vos bataillons!” the TC could be saying. What I really like, on reflection, about this aspect of the French national anthem is that it isn’t urging citizens to join some pre-arranged (e.g. royal) battalions, but to create their own. Similarly, the TC could say, effectively, “now is the time to act — do it in your own ways, in your own organisations, whatever they are — but please bring the results together for us to formalise when they are ready.”

For me, this approach could change the whole scene. Instead of risking being an obstacle to progress, the CEN TC 353 could add legitimacy and coherence to the call for pre-standardization activity in chosen areas. It would be up to the individuals listening (us wearing different hats) to take up that challenge in whatever ways we believe are best. Let’s look at the two proposals from that perspective.

AFNOR, the French standards body, was suggesting working towards a European Standard (EN) with the title “Metadata for Learning Opportunities part 2 : Detailed Description of Training and Grading (face to face, distance or blended learning and MOOCs): Framework and Methodology”. The point is to extend MLO (EN 15982), including perhaps some of those characteristics of courses (learning opportunities), perhaps drawn from the Norwegian CDM or its French derivative, that didn’t make it into the initial version of MLO for advertising. There have from time to time in the UK been related conversations about the bits of the wider vision for XCRI that didn’t make it into XCRI-CAP (“Course Advertising Profile”). But they didn’t make it probably for some good reason — maybe either there wasn’t agreement about what they should be, or there wasn’t any pressing need, or there weren’t enough implementations of them to form the basis for effective consensus.

Responding to this, I can imagine BSI and CETIS colleagues in the UK seriously insisting, first, that implemention should go hand in hand with specification. We need to be propertly motivated by practical use cases, and we need to test ideas out in implementation before agreeing to standardize them. I could imagine other European colleagues insisting that the ideas should be accepted by all the relevant EC DGs before they have a chance of success in official circles. And so on — we can all do what we are best at, and bring those together. And perhaps also we need to collaborate between national bodies at this stage. It would make sense, and perhaps bring greater commitment from the national bodies and other agencies, if they were directly involved, rather than simply sending people to remote-feeling committees of standards organisations. In this case, it would be up to the French, whose Ministry of Education seems to be wanting something like this, to arrange to consult with others, to put together an implemented proposal that has a good chance of achieving European consensus.

We agreed that it was a good idea for the French proposal to use the “MOOC” label to gain interest and motivation, while the work would in no way be limited to MOOCs. And it’s important to get on board both some MOOC providers, and related though different, some of the agencies who aggregate information about MOOCs (etc.) and offer information about them through portals so that people can find appropriate ones. The additional new metadata would of course be designed to make that search more effective, in that more of the things that people ask about will be modelled explicitly.

So, let’s move on to the Swedish proposal. This was presented under the title “Linked and Open Data for Learning and Education”, based on their national project “Linked and Open Data in Schools” (LODIS). We agreed that it isn’t really on for a National Body simply to propose a national output for European agreement, without giving evidence on why it would be helpful. In the past, the Workshop would have been a fair place to bring this kind of raw idea, and we could have all pitched in with anything relevant. But under our new arrangements, we need the Swedes themselves to lead some cross-European collaboration to fill in the motivation, and do the necessary research and comparison.

There are additional questions also relevant to both proposals. How will they relate to the big international and American players? For example, are we going to get schema.org to take these ideas on, in the fullness of time? How so? Does it matter? (I’m inclined to think it does matter.)

I hope the essentials of the new approach are apparent in both cases. The principle is that TC 353 acts as a mediator and referee, saying “OK” to the idea that some area might be ripe for further work, and encouraging people to get on with it. I would, however, suggest that three vital conditions should apply, for this approach to be effective as well as generally acceptable.

  1. The principal stakeholders have to arrange the work themselves, with enough trans-national collaboration to be reasonably sure that the product will gain the European consensus needed in the context of CEN.
  2. The majority of the drafting and testing work is done clearly before a formal process is started in CEN. In our sector, it is vital that the essential ideas are free and open, so we want a openly licenced document to be presented to the TC as a starting point, as close as can be to the envisioned finishing point. CEN will still add value through the formal process and formal recognition, but the essential input will still be openly and freely licenced for others to work with in whatever way they see fit.
  3. The TC must assert the right to stop and revoke the CEN work item, if it turns out that it is not filling a genuine European need. There is room for improvement here over the past practice of the TC and the WS-LT. It is vital to our reputation and credibility, and to the ongoing quality of our output, that we are happy with rejecting work that it not of the right quality for CEN. Only in this way can CEN stakeholders have the confidence in a process that allows self-organising groups to do all the spadework, prior to and separate from formal CEN process and oversight.

At the meeting we also heard that the ballot on the TC 353 marketing website was positive. (Disclosure: I am a member of the TC 353 “Communications Board” who advised on the content.) Hopefully, a consequence of this will be that we are able to use the TC 353 website both to flag areas for which TC 353 believes there is potential for new work, and to link to the pre-standardization work that is done in those areas that have been encouraged by the TC, wherever that work is done. We hope that this will all help significantly towards our aim of effectively open standardization work, even where the final resulting EN standards remain as documents with a price tag.

I see the main resolutions made at the meeting as enacting this new role. TC 353 is encouraging proposers of new work to go ahead and develop mature open documentation, and clear standardization proposals, in whatever European collaborations they see fit, and bring them to a future TC meeting. I’d say that promises a new chapter in the work of the TC, which we should welcome, and we should play our part in helping it to work effectively for the common good.

The growing need for open frameworks of learning outcomes

(A contribution to Open Education Week — see note at end.)

What is the need?

Imagine what could happen if we had a really good sets of usable open learning outcomes, across academic subjects, occupations and professions. It would be easy to express and then trace the relationships between any learning outcomes. To start with, it would be easy to find out which higher-level learning outcomes are composed, in a general consensus view, of which lower-level outcomes.

Some examples … In academic study, for example around a more complex topic from calculus, perhaps it would be made clear what other mathematics needs to be mastered first (see this recent example which lists, but does not structure). In management, it would be made clear, for instance, what needs to be mastered in order to be able to advise on intellectual property rights. In medicine, to pluck another example out of the air, it would be clarified what the necessary components of competent dementia care are. Imagine this is all done, and each learning outcome or competence definition, at each level, is given a clear and unambiguous identifier. Further, imagine all these identifiers are in HTTP IRI/URI/URL format, as is envisaged for Linked Data and the Semantic Web. Imagine that putting in the URL into your browser leads you straight to results giving information about that learning outcome. And in time it would become possible to trace not just what is composed of what, but other relationships between outcomes: equivalence, similarity, origin, etc.

It won’t surprise anyone who has read other pieces from me that I am putting forward one technical specification as part of an answer to what is needed: InLOC.

So what could then happen?

Every course, every training opportunity, however large or small, could be tagged with the learning outcomes that are intended to result from it. Every educational resource (as in “OER”) could be similarly tagged. Every person’s learning record, every person’s CV, people’s electronic portfolios, could have each individual point referred, unambiguously, to one or more learning outcomes. Every job advert or offer could specify precisely which are the learning outcomes that candidates need to have achieved, to have a chance of being selected.

All these things could be linked together, leading to a huge increase in clarity, a vast improvement in the efficiency of relevant web-based search services, and generally a much better experience for people in personal, occupational and professional training and development, and ultimately in finding jobs or recruiting people to fill vacancies, right down to finding the right person to do a small job for you.

So why doesn’t that happen already? To answer that, we need to look at what is actually out there, what it doesn’t offer, and what can be done about it.

What is out there?

Frameworks, that is, structures of learning outcomes, skills, competences, or similar things under other names, are surprisingly common in the UK. For many years now in the UK, Sector Skills Councils (SSCs), and other similar bodies, have been producing National Occupational Standards (NOSs), which provided the basis for all National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs). In theory at least, this meant that the industry representatives in the SSCs made sure that the needs of industry were reflected in the assessment criteria for awarding NVQs, generally regarded as useful and prized qualifications at least in occupations that are not classed as “professional”.

NOSs have always been published openly, and they are still available to be searched and downloaded at the UKCES’s NOS site. The site provides a search page. As one of my current interests is corporate governance, I put that phrase in to the search box giving several results, including a NOS called CFABAI131 Support corporate decision-making (which is a PDF document). It’s a short document, with a few lines of overview, six performance criteria, each expressed as one sentence, and 15 items of knowledge and understanding, which is what is seen to be needed to underpin competent performance. It serves to let us all know what industry representatives think is important in that support function.

In professional training and development, practice has been more diverse. At one pole, the medical profession has been very keen to document all the skills and competences that doctors should have, and keen to ensure that these are reflected in medical education. The GMC publishes Tomorrow’s Doctors, introduced as follows:

The GMC sets the knowledge, skills and behaviours that medical students learn at UK medical schools: these are the outcomes that new UK graduates must be able to demonstrate.

Tomorrow’s Doctors covers the outline of the whole syllabus. It prepares the ground for doctors to move on to working in line with Good Medical Practice — in essence, the GMC’s list of requirements for someone to be recognised as a competent doctor.

The medical field is probably the best developed in this way. Some other professions, for example engineering and teaching, have some general frameworks in place. Yet others may only have paper documentation, if any at all.

Beyond the confines of such enclaves of good practice, yet more diverse structures of learning outcomes can be found, which may be incoherent and conflicting, particularly where there is no authority or effective body charged with bringing people to consensus. There are few restrictions on who can now offer a training course, and ask for it to be accredited. It doesn’t have to be consistent with a NOS, let alone have the richer technical infrastructure hinted at above. In Higher Education, people have started to think in terms of learning outcomes (see e.g. the excellent Writing and using good learning outcomes by David Baume), but, lacking sufficient motivation to do otherwise, intended learning outcomes tend to be oriented towards institutional assessment processes, rather than to the needs of employers, or learners themselves. In FE, the standardisation influence of NOSs has been weakened and diluted.

In schools in the UK there is little evidence of useful common learning outcomes being used, though (mainly) for the USA there exists the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), documenting a very wide range of school curricula and some other things. It has recently been taken over by private interests (Desire2Learn) because no central funding is available for this kind of service in the USA.

What do these not offer?

The ASN is a brilliant piece of work, considering its age. Also related to its age, it has been constructed mainly through processing paper-style documentation into the ASN web site, which includes allocating ASN URIs. It hasn’t been used much for authorities constructing their own learning outcome frameworks, with URIs belonging to their own domains, though it could in principle be.

Apart from ASN, practically none of the other frameworks that are openly available (and none that are not) have published URIs for every component. Without these URIs, it is much harder to identify, unambiguously, which learning outcome one is referring to, and virtually impossible to check that automatically. So the quality of any computer assisted searching or matching will inevitably be at best compromised, at worst non-existent.

As learning outcomes are not easily searchable (outside specific areas like NOSs), the tendency is to reinvent them each time they are written. Even similar outcomes, whatever the level, routinely seem to be be reinvented and rewritten without cross-reference to ones that already exist. Thus it becomes impossible in practice to see whether a learning opportunity or educational resource is roughly equivalent to another one in terms of its learning outcomes.

Thus, there is little effective transparency, no easy comparison, only the confusion of it being practically impossible to do the useful things that were envisaged above.

What is needed?

What is needed is, on the one hand, much richer support for bodies to construct useful frameworks, and on the other hand, good examples leading the way, as should be expected from public bodies.

And as a part of this support, we need standard ways of modelling, representing, encoding, and communicating learning outcomes and competences. It was just towards these ends that InLOC was commissioned. There’s a hint in the name: Integrating Learning Outcomes and Competences. InLOC is also known as ELM 2.0, where ELM stands for European Learner Mobility, within which InLOC represents part of a powerful proposed infrastructure. It has been developed under the auspices of the CEN Workshop, Learning Technologies, and funded by the DG Enterprise‘s ICT Standardization Work Programme.

InLOC, fully developed, would really be the icing on the cake. Even if people just did no more than publishing stable URIs to go with every component of every framework or structure of learning outcomes or competencies, that would be a great step forward. The existence and openness of InLOC provides some of the motivation and encouragement for everyone to get on with documenting their learning outcomes in a way that is not only open in terms of rights and licences, but open in terms of practice and effect.


Open Education Week 2014 logoThe third annual Open Education Week takes place from 10-15 March 2014. As described on the Open Education Week web site “its purpose is to raise awareness about the movement and its impact on teaching and learning worldwide“.

Cetis staff are supporting Open Education Week by publishing a series of blog posts about open education activities. Cetis have had long-standing involvement in open education and have published a range of papers which cover topics such as OERs (Open Educational Resources) and MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses).

The Cetis blog provides access to the posts which describe Cetis activities concerned with a range of open education activities.

Learning about learning about …

I was recently reading a short piece from Peter Honey (of learning styles fame)
in a CIPD blog post in which he writes, saving the most important item for last in his list:

Learning to learn – the ultimate life-skill

You can turn learning in on itself and use your learning skills to help you learn how to become an increasingly effective learner. Learning to learn is the key to enhancing all the above.

It’s all excellent stuff, and very central to the consideration of learning technology, particularly that dedicated to supporting reflection.

Then I started thinking further (sorry, just can’t help it…)

If learning to learn is the ultimate life skill, then surely the best that educators can do is to help people learn to learn.

But learning to learn is not altogether straightforward. There are many pitfalls that interfere with effective learning, and which may not respond to pure unaided will-power or effort. Thus, to help people learn to learn, we (as educators) have to know about those pitfalls, those obstacles, those hazards that stand in the way of learning generally, and we have to be able somehow at least to guide the learners we want to help around those hazards.

There are two approaches we could take here. First, we could try to diagnose what our learners are trying to learn, what is preventing them, and maybe give them the knowledge they are lacking. That’s a bit like a physician prescribing some cure — not just medicine, perhaps, but a cure that involves a change of behaviour. Or it’s a bit like seeing people hungry, and feeding them — hungry for knowledge, perhaps? If we’re talking about knowledge here, of course, there is a next stage: helping people to find the knowledge that they need, rather than giving it to them directly. I put that in the same category, as it is not so very different.

There is a second, qualitatively different approach. We could help our learners learn about their own learning. We could guide them — and this is a highly reflective task — to diagnose their own obstables to learning. This is not simply not knowing where to look for what they want to know, it is about knowing more about themselves, and what it may be within them that interferes with their learning processes — their will to learn, their resolve (Peter Honey’s article starts with New Year’s resolutions) or, even, their blind spots. To pursue the analogy, that is like a physician giving people the tools to maintain their own health, or, proverbially, rather than giving a person a fish, teaching them to fish.

Taking this further starts to relate closely in my mind to Kelly’s Personal Construct Psychology; and also perhaps to Kuhn’s ideas about the “Structure of Scientific Revolutions”. Within a particular world view, one’s learning is limited by that world view. When the boundaries of that learning are being pushed, it is time to abandon the old skin and take up a new and more expansive one; or just a different one, more suited to the learning that one wants. But it is hard — painful even (Kelly recognised that clearly) and the scientific establishment resists revolutions.

In the literature and on the web, there is the concept called “triple loop learning”, and though this doesn’t seem to be quite the same, it would appear to be going in the same direction, even if not as far.

What, then, is our task as would-be educators; guides; coaches; mentors? Can we get beyond the practices analogous to Freudian psychoanalyis, which are all too prone to set up a dependency? How can we set our learners truly free?

This may sound strange, but I would say we (as educators, etc.) need to study, and learn about, learning about learning. We need to understand not just about particular obstacles to learning, and how to get around those; but also about how people learn about their own inner obstacles, and how they can successfully grow around them.

As part of this learning, we do indeed need to understand how, in any given situation, a person’s world view is likely to relate to what they can learn in that situation; but further, we need to understand how it might be possible to help people recognise that in themselves. You think not? You think that we just have to let people be, to find their own way? It may be, indeed, that there is nothing effective that we are wise enough to know how to do, for a particular person, in a particular situation. And, naturally, it may be that even if we offer some deep insight, that we know someone is ready to receive, they may choose not to receive it. That is always a possibility that we must indeed respect.

And there cannot be a magic formula, a infallible practice, a sure method, a way of forcibly imbuing people with that deep wisdom. Of course there isn’t — we know that. But at least we can strive in our own ways to live with the attitude of doing whatever we can, firstly, not to stand in the way of whatever light may dawn on others, but also, if we are entrusted with the opportunity, to channel or reflect some of that light in a direction that we hope might bear fruit.

Again, it is not hard to connect this to systems thinking and cybernetics. Beyond the law of requisite variety — something about controlling systems needing to be at least as complex as the systems they are controlling — the corresponding principle is practically commonplace: to help people learn something, we have to have learned more than we expect them to learn. In this case, to help people learn about their own learning, we have to have learned about learning about learning.

People are all complex. It is sadly common to fail to take into account the richness and complexity of the people we have dealings with. To understand the issues and challenges people might have with learning about their own learning, we have to really stretch ourselves, to attend to the Other, to listen and to hear acutely enough with all our senses, to understand enough about them, where they come from, where they are, to have an idea about what may either stand in the way, or enable, their learning about their learning. Maybe love is the best motivator. But we also need to learn.

Right then, back on the CETIS earth (which is now that elegant blue-grey place…) I just have to ask, how can technology help? E-portfolio technology has over the years taken a few small steps towards supporting reflection, and indeed communication between learners, and between learners and tutors, mentors, educators. I think there is something we can do, but what it is, I am not so sure…

Learning about learning about learning — let’s talk about it!

Privacy? What about self-disclosure?

When we talk about privacy, we are often talking about the right to privacy. That is something like the right to limit or constrain disclosure of information relating to oneself. I’ve often been puzzled by the concept of privacy, and I think that it helps to think first about self-disclosure.

Self-disclosure is something that we would probably all like to control. There’s a lot of literature on self-disclosure in many settings, and it is clearly recognised as important in several ways. I like the concept of self-disclosure, because it is a positive concept, in contrast to the rather negative idea of privacy. Privacy is, as its name suggests, a “privative” concept. Though definitions vary greatly, one common factor is that definitions of privacy tend to be in terms of the absence of something undesirable, rather than directly as the presence of something valuable.

Before I go on, let me explain my particular interest in privacy and self-disclosure – though everyone potentially has a strong legitimate interest in them. Privacy is a key aspect of e-portfolio technology. People are only happy with writing down reflections on personal matters, including personal development, if they can be assured that the information will only be shared with people they want it to be shared with. It is easy to understand this in terms of mistakes, for example. To learn from one’s mistakes, one needs to be aware of them, and it may help to be able to discuss mistakes with other trusted people. But we often naturally have a sense of shame about mistakes, and unless understanding and compassion can be assured, we reasonably worry that the knowledge of our mistakes may negatively influence other people’s perception of our value as people. So it is vital that e-portfolio technology allows us to record reflections on such sensitive matters privately, and share them only with carefully selected people, if anyone at all.

This central concept for e-portfolios, reflection, links straight back to self-disclosure and self-understanding, and indeed identity. Developing ourselves, our identity, qualities and values as well as our knowledge and skill, depends in part on reflection giving us a realistic appreciation of where we are now, and who we are now.

Let me make the perhaps obvious point that most of us want to be accepted and valued as we are, and ideally understood positively; and that this can even be a precondition of our personal growth and development. Privacy, being a negative concept, doesn’t directly help with that. What is vital to acceptance and understanding is appropriate self-disclosure, with the right people, at the right time and in the right context. Even in a world where there was no privacy, this would still be a challenge. How would we gain the attention of people we trust, to notice what we are, what we do, what we mean, and to help us make sense of that?

In our society, commercial interests see, in more and more detail, some selected aspects of what we do. Our information browsing behaviour is noted by Google, and helps to shape what we get in reply to our searches, as well as the adverts that are served up. On Amazon, our shopping behaviour is pooled, enabling us to be told what others in our position might have bought or looked at. The result of this kind of information gathering is that we are “understood”, but only superficially, in the dimensions that relate to what we might pay for. If this helps in our development, it is only in superficial ways. That is a problem.

A more sinister aspect is where much of the energy in the privacy discussion is used up. The patterns of our information search, added to the records of who we communicate with, and perhaps key words in the content of our communications, alert those in power to the possibility that we may pose a threat to the status quo, or to those who have a vested interest in maintaining that power. We have noticed the trend of growing inequality in our society over the last half century.

But, in focusing on these, albeit genuine and worrying issues, what is lost from focus is the rich subtlety of active self-disclosure. It is as if we are so worried by information about ourselves falling into undesirable hands that we forget about the value of knowledge of ourselves being shared with, and entrusted to, those who can really validate us, and who can help us to understand who we are and where we might want to go.

So, I say, let’s turn the spotlight instead onto how technology can help make self-disclosure not only easier, but directed to the right people. This could start along the lines of finding trustable people, and verifying their trustworthiness. Rather than these trustable people being establishment authorities, how about finding peers, or peer groups, where mutual trust can develop? Given a suitable peer group, it is easy to envisage tools helping with an ordered process of mutual self-disclosure, and increasing trust. Yes, privacy comes into this, because an ordered process of self-disclosure will avoid untimely and inappropriate disclosures. But what do we mean by appropriate? Beyond reciprocity, which is pretty much universally acknowledged as an essential part in friendship and other good relationships, I’d say that what is appropriate is a matter for negotiation, rather than assumption. So, there is a role for tools to help in the negotiation of what is appropriate. Tools could help expose assumptions, so that they can be questioned and laid open to change.

Let’s make and use tools like this to retake control, or perhaps take control for the first time, of the rules and processes of self-disclosure, so that we can genuinely improve mutual recognition, acceptance and understanding, and provide a more powerful and fertile ground for personal and collective development.

Even-handed peer-to-peer self-disclosure will be a stimulus to move towards more sharing, equality, co-operation, collaboration, and a better society.

JSON-LD: a useful interoperability binding

Over the last few months I’ve been exploring and detailing a provisional binding of the InLOC spec to JSON-LD (spec; site). My conclusion is that JSON is better matched to linked data than XML is, if you understand how to structure JSON in the JSON-LD way. Here are my reflections, which I hope add something to the JSON-LD official documentation.

Let’s start with XML, as it is less unfamiliar to most non-programmers, due to similarities with HTML. XML offers two kinds of structures: elements and attributes. Elements are the the pieces of XML that are bounded by start and end tags (or are simply empty tags). They may nest inside other elements. Attributes are name-value pairs that exist only within element start tags. The distinction is useful for marking up text documents, as the tags, along with their attributes, are added to the underlying text, without altering it. But for data, the distinction is less helpful. In fact, some XML specifications use almost no attributes. Generally, if you are using XML to represent data, you can change attributes into elements, with the attribute name as a contained element name, and the attribute value as text contained within the new element.

Confused? You’d be in good company. Many people have complained about this aspect of XML. It gives you more than enough “rope to hang yourself with”.

Now, if you’re writing a specification that might be even remotely relevant to the world of linked data, it is really important that you write your specification in a way that clearly distinguishes between the names of things – objects, entities, etc. – and the names of their properties, attributes, etc. It’s a bit like, in natural language, distinguishing nouns from adjectives. “Dog” is a good noun, “brown” is a good adjective, and we want to be able to express facts such as “this dog is of the colour brown”. The word “colour” is the name of the property; the word “brown” is the value of the property.

The bit of linked data that is really easy to visualise and grasp is its graphical representation. In a linked data graph, customarily, you have ovals that represent things – the nouns, objects, entities, etc. – labelled arrows to represent the property names (or “predicates”); and rectangles to represent literal values.

Given the confusion above, it’s not surprising that when you want to represent linked data using XML, it can be particularly confusing. Take a look at this bit of the RDF/XML spec. You can see the node and arc diagram, and the “striped” XML that is needed to represent it. “Striping” means that as you work your way up or down the document tree, you encounter elements that represent alternately (a) things and (b) the names of properties of these things.

Give up? So do most people.

But wait. Compared to RDF/XML, representing linked data in JSON-LD is a doddle! How so?

Basics of how JSON-LD works

Well, look at the remarkably simple JSON page to start with. There you see it: the most important JSON structure is the “object”, which is “an unordered set of name/value pairs”. Don’t worry about arrays for now. Just note that a value can also be an object, so that objects can nest inside each other.

the JSON object diagram

To map this onto linked data, just look carefully at the diagram, and figure that…

  1. a JSON object represents a thing, object, entity, etc.
  2. property names are represented by the strings.

In essence, there you have it!

But in practice, there is a bit more to the formal RDF view of linked data.

  • Objects in RDF have an associated unique URI, which is what allows the linking. (No need to confuse things with blank nodes right now.)
  • To do this in JSON, objects must have a special name/value pair. JSON-LD uses the name “@id” as the special name, and its value must be the URI of the object.
  • Predicates – the names of properties – are represented in RDF by URIs as well.
  • To keep JSON-LD readable, the names stay as short and meaningful labels, but they need to be mapped to URIs.
  • If a property value is a literal, it stays as a plain value, and isn’t an object in its own right.
  • In RDF, literal values can have a data type. JSON-LD allows for this, too.

JSON-LD manages these tricks by introducing a section called the “context”. It is in the “context” that the JSON names are mapped to URIs. Here also, it is possible to associate data types with each property, so that values are interpreted in the way intended.

What of JSON arrays, then? In JSON-LD, the JSON array is used specifically to give multiple values of the same property. Essentially, that’s all. So each property name, for a given object, is only used once.

Applying this to InLOC

At this point, it is probably getting hard to hold in one’s head, so take a look at the InLOC JSON-LD binding, where all these issues are illustrated.

InLOC is a specification designed for the representation of structures of learning outcomes, competence definitions, and similar kinds of thing. Using InLOC, authorities owning what are often called “frameworks” or (confusingly) “standards” can express their structures in a form that is completely explicit and machine processable, without the common reliance on print-style layout to convey the relationships between the different concepts. One of the vital characteristics of such structures is that one, higher-level competence can be decomposed in terms of several, lower-level competences.

InLOC was planned to able to be linked data from the outset. Following many good examples, including the revered Dublin Core, the InLOC information model is expressed in terms of classes and properties. Thus, it is clear from the outset that there is a mapping to a linked data style model.

To be fully multilingual, InLOC also takes advantage of the “language map” feature of JSON-LD. Instead of just giving one text value to a property, the value of any human-language property is an object, within which the keys are the two-letter language codes, and the values are the property value in that language.

To see more, please take a look at the JSON-LD spec alongside the InLOC JSON-LD binding. And you are most welcome to a personal explanation if you get in touch with me.

To take home…

If you want to use JSON-LD, ensure that:

  • anything in your model that looks like a predicate is represented as a name in JSON object name/value pairs;
  • anything in your model that looks like a value is represented as the value of a JSON name/value pair;
  • you only use each property name once – if there are multiple values of that property, use a JSON array;
  • any entities, objects, things, or whatever you call them, that have properties, are represented as JSON objects;
  • and then, following the spec, carefully craft the JSON-LD context, to map the names onto URIs, and to specify any data types.

Try it and see. If you follow me, I think it will make sense – more sense than XML. It’s now (January 2014) a W3C Recommendation.