Future of interoperability standards – small points

This is a rather ephemeral statement of position-of-the-month on the future of interoperability standards, for the CETIS meeting on 24th September. I have just three things to note: two issues from helping to create the EuroLMAI CEN Workshop Agreement (moving towards an EN European Standard) and one issue from Leap2A.

1. Keep pressing for those URIs.

For EuroLMAI, we want URIs for our classes and properties, so that we can be good citizens of the Semantic Web. How hard is that? Well, first, whose domain are they going to be in? As this is a prospective CEN standard, one would have thought they would be keen to help by providing suitable URIs. Maybe they are, and maybe they will provide them, but, being a European institution, it does seem to take time, and plenty of it! It looks like we will have to use a PURL server like purl.org instead, at least for the time being. That is sort of OK, but there is a time penalty for accessing things through a PURL server, so it does slow things down and have the potential for increased frustration. And it doesn’t look half as official: there is some PR cost.

2. Do keep a clear conceptual model, as it helps later on as well.

In the EuroLM work, I was always keen on, and played a large part in, getting a good conceptual model with good definitions, meant to serve as a relatively firm foundation on which to build the specifications and standards. Recent experience suggests that not only is this useful in the initial work, but it is also useful to have the conceptual model to hand when checking the detail of the spec. My own experience reflects what may be obvious, that it is easy, when revising a draft much later on, to forget why something was done in a certain way. A little doubt in the mind, and it is too easy to edit something back to what looks like a common-sense position, but actually represents something that you carefully argued against on the basis of having taken the pains to build that clear and agreed conceptual model. (The problem being that we all habitually take our own personal cognitive short cuts, which may seem like common sense, and too often these end up being represented in formal structures when they shouldn’t be.)

3. Prepare better for people building on your spec.

OK, so your new spec is really gaining ground. You’ve done a fair job of capturing requirements and representing structures that everyone can relate to. You’ve not built a monster, but something that covers more or less just what it needs to cover, coherently. So now you shouldn’t be surprised that people want to take your spec and adapt it to their needs. Perhaps they will need to add a class or two of their own, perhaps some of their own properties, perhaps some categories or vocabularies, which may overlap with the default ones you have provided with the spec. How are you going to recommend that they proceed, in each case? This is a real question that is taxing me with Leap2A at the moment, and is a learning experience, as I find I am not as well prepared as I would have liked to be. I’d like to be able to document a page on “Building on Leap2A”, which might perhaps refer to the DCMI “Singapore Framework”.

E-portfolio Scotland

The Scottish e-portfolio scene seems to have comparatively many colleges, many of which use or are interested in Mahara. It may be even more promising than England for exploring company e-portfolio use, and we should try to ensure Scots are represented in any work on skills frameworks for e-portfolio tools.

That was the most interesting conclusion for me in a generally interesting day conference, e-Portfolio Scotland at Queen Margaret University on Friday (2010-09-10). I was given a plenary spot about Leap2A, and the audience responded well to my participative overtures — which is where I gathered this valuable information — and asked some intelligent questions. Mahara and PebblePad are well used, with Blackboard’s offering less so. Reassuringly, Leap2A came up in the presentations / demonstrations of Mahara and PebblePad, and in the final plenary by Gordon Joyes, so the audience would not be doubt about how central Leap2A is. (We just have to carry on following through and delivering!)

It was interesting to meet so many new faces. Apart from Gordon, there was Derrin Kent, and Susi Peacock on her home ground, but I didn’t know any of the others well. There seemed to be a roughly even split between HE and FE, with a very few from professions and schools. Perhaps I ought to spend more e-portfolio time in Scotland…

The vendors present included Calibrand, who I first met at the EIfEL conference this summer, and Taskstream, who have been represented in many e-portfolio conferences over several years. I suggested to the latter that they really need to take on Leap2A to get more into the UK market. A Manchester-based company, OneFile, sells a “Portfolio Assessment Solution” that I had not come across at all before, and their location has obvious potential for future discussion. But perhaps the most interesting vendor there, also giving a presentation, was Linda Steedman, MD of eCom Scotland. Their company has got beyond being a micro-business and offers an “Enterprise Skills Management” tool called SkillsLocker. I was impressed by her presentation, ranging across accreditation of prior learning, work-based learning, and what is now fashionably called “talent management” rather than HR. It seems they are well-connected, with AlphaPlus among others; also that they have done some valuable work cross mapping different skill definitions — I intend to follow this up.

Though perhaps not quite so central to JISC as those working in the HE sector, we still need to find some way of supporting the adoption of Leap2A-friendly portfolio tools in such commercially-based concerns. Work- and skills-based learning and training is a natural successor to HE-based PDP and skills development, and we really need to link in to it to make HE portfolio use more universally motivating.

One big remaining challenge was broadly acknowledged: dealing with these skill and competence representation issues that we do have on our agenda. The vision I was putting around, with no dissenting voices, was to decouple portfolio tools from any particular skills framework, and to have the frameworks published with proper URIs (in good Linked Data style). Then any tool should be able to work with any skills framework, and Leap2A information would include the relevant URIs. Though there remains the problem with HE that they tend to define skills at a different level to industry demands, FE is comparatively much closer to their employers, and they have common reference points in National Occupational Standards. So, among other things, any help we can get to persuade Sector Skills Councils to give proper URIs and structure to their NOSs will be most welcome, and maybe the Scottish e-portfolio community can help with this, and with defining the needed structures?