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.

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!

What is my work?

Is there a good term for my specialist area of work for CETIS? I’ve been trying out “technology for learner support”, but that doesn’t fully seem to fit the bill. If I try to explain, reflecting on 10 years (as of this month) involvement with CETIS, might readers be able to help me?

Back in 2002, CETIS (through the CRA) had a small team working with “LIPSIG”, the CETIS special interest group involved with Learner Information (the “LI” of “LIPSIG”). Except that “learner information” wasn’t a particularly good title. It was also about the technology (soon to be labelled “e-portfolio”) that gathered and managed certain kinds of information related to learners, including their learning, their skills – abilities – competence, their development, and their plans. It was therefore also about PDP — Personal Development Planning — and PDP was known even then by its published definition “a structured and supported process undertaken by an individual to reflect upon their own learning, performance and/or achievement and to plan for their personal, educational and career development”.

There’s that root word, support (appearing as “supported”), and PDP is clearly about an “individual” in the learner role. Portfolio tools were, and still are, thought of as supporting people: in their learning; with the knowledge and skills they may attain, and evidence of these through their performance; their development as people, including their learning and work roles.

If you search the web now for “learner support”, you may get many results about funding — OK, that is financial support. Narrowing the search down to “technology for learner support”, the JISC RSC site mentions enabling “learners to be supported with their own particular learning issues”, and this doesn’t obviously imply support for everyone, but rather for those people with “issues”.

As web search is not much help, let’s take a step back, and try to see this area in a wider perspective. Over my 10 years involvement with CETIS, I have gradually come to see CETIS work as being in three overlapping areas. I see educational (or learning) technology, and related interoperability standards, as being aimed at:

  • institutions, to help them manage teaching, learning, and other processes;
  • providers of learning resources, to help those resources be stored, indexed, and found when appropriate;
  • individual learners;
  • perhaps there should be a branch aimed at employers, but that doesn’t seem to have been salient in CETIS work up to now.

Relatively speaking, there have always seemed to be plenty of resources to back up CETIS work in the first two areas, perhaps because we are dealing with powerful organisations and large amounts of money. But, rather than get involved in those two areas, I have always been drawn to the third — to the learner — and I don’t think it’s difficult to understand why. When I was a teacher for a short while, I was interested not in educational adminstration or writing textbooks, but in helping individuals learn, grow and develop. Similar themes pervade my long term interests in psychology, psychotherapy, counselling; my PhD was about cognitive science; my university teaching was about human-computer interaction — all to do with understanding and supporting individuals, and much of it involving the use of technology.

The question is, what does CETIS do — what can anyone do — for individual learners, either with the technology, or with the interoperability standards that allow ICT systems to work together?

The CETIS starting point may have been about “learner information”, but who benefits from this information? Instead of focusing on learners’ needs, it is all too easy for institutions to understand “learner information” as information than enables institutions to manage and control the learners. Happily though, the group of e-portfolio systems developers frequenting what became the “Portfolio” SIG (including Pebble, CIEPD and others) were keen to emphasise control by learners, and when they came together over the initiative that became Leap2A, nearly six years ago, the focus on supporting learners and learning was clear.

So at least then CETIS had a clear line of work in the area of e-portfolio tools and related interoperability standards. That technology is aimed at supporting personal, and increasingly professional, development. Partly, this can be by supporting learners taking responsibility for tracking the outcomes of their own learning. Several generic skills or competences support their development as people, as well as their roles as professionals or learners. But also, the fact that learners enter information about their own learning and development on the portfolio (or whatever) system means that the information can easily be made available to mentors, peers, or whoever else may want to support them. This means that support from people is easier to arrange, and better informed, thus likely to be more effective. Thus, the technology supports learners and learning indirectly, as well as directly.

That’s one thing that the phrase “technology for learner support” may miss — support for the processes of other people supporting the learner.

Picking up my personal path … building on my involvement in PDP and portfolio technology, it became clear that current representations of information about skills and competence were not as effective as they could be in supporting, for instance, the transition from education to work. So it was, that I found myself involved in the area that is currently the main focus of my work, both for CETIS, and also on my own account, through the InLOC project. This relates to learners rather indirectly: InLOC is enabling the communication and reuse of definitions and descriptions of learning outcomes and competence information, and particularly structures of sets of such definitions — which have up to now escaped an effective and well-adopted standard representation. Providing this will mean that it will be much easier for educators and employers to refer to the same definitions; and that should make a big positive difference to learners being able to prepare themselves effectively for the demands of their chosen work; or perhaps enable them to choose courses that will lead to the kind of work they want. Easier, clearer and more accurate descriptions of abilities surely must support all processes relating to people acquiring and evidencing abilities, and making use of related evidence towards their jobs, their well-being, and maybe the well-being of others.

My most recent interests are evidenced in my last two blog posts — Critical friendship pointer and Follower guidance: concept and rationale — where I have been starting to grapple with yet more complex issues. People benefit from appropriate guidance, but it is unlikely there will ever be the resources to provide this guidance from “experts” to everyone — if that is even what we really wanted.

I see these issues also as part of the broad concern with helping people learn, grow and develop. To provide full support without information technology only looks possible in a society that is stable — where roles are fixed and everyone knows their place, and the place of others they relate to. In such a traditionalist society, anyone and everyone can play their part maintaining the “social order” — but, sadly, such a fixed social order does not allow people to strike out in their own new ways. In any case, that is not our modern (and “modernist”) society.

I’ve just been reading Herman Hesse’s “Journey to the East” — a short, allegorical work. (It has been reproduced online.) Interestingly, it describes symbolically the kind of processes that people might have to go through in the course of their journey to personal enlightenment. The description is in no way realistic. Any “League” such as Hesse described, dedicated to supporting people on their journey, or quest, would practically be able to support only very few at most. Hesse had no personal information technology.

Robert K. Greenleaf was inspired by Hesse’s book to develop his ideas on “Servant Leadership“. His book of that name was put together in 1977, still before the widespread use of personal information techology, and the recognition of its potential. This idea of servant leadership is also very clearly about supporting people on their journey; supporting their development, personally and professionally. What information would be relevant to this?

Providing technology to support peer-to-peer human processes seems a very promising approach to allowing everyone to find their own, unique and personal way. What I wrote about follower guidance is related to this end: to describe ways by which we can offer each other helpful mutual support to guide our personal journeys, in work as well as learning and potentially other areas of life. Is there a short name for this? How can technology support it?

My involvement with Unlike Minds reminds me that there is a more important, wider concept than personal learning, which needs supporting. We should be aspiring even more to support personal well-being. And one way of doing this is through supporting individuals with information relevant to the decisions they make that affect their personal well-being. This can easily be seen to include: what options there are; ideas on how to make decisions; what the consequences of those decision may be. It is an area which has been more than touched on under the heading “Information, Advice and Guidance”.

I mentioned the developmental models of William G Perry and Robert Kegan back in my post earlier this year on academic humility. An understanding of these aspects of personal development is an essential part of what I have come to see as needed. How can we support people’s movement through Perry’s “positions”, or Kegan’s “orders of consciousness”? Recognising where people are in this, developmental, dimension is vital to informing effective support in so many ways.

My professional interest, where I have a very particular contribution, is around the representation of the information connected with all these areas. That’s what we try to deal with for interoperability and standardisation. So what do we have here? A quick attempt at a round-up…

  • Information about people (learners).
  • Information about what they have learned (learning outcomes, knowledge, skill, competence).
  • Information that learners find useful for their learning and development.
  • Information about many subtler aspects of personal development.
  • Information relevant to people’s well-being, including
    • information about possible choices and their likely outcomes
    • information about individual decision-making styles and capabilities
    • and, as this is highly context-dependent, information about contexts as well.
  • Information about other people who could help them
    • information supporting how to find and relate to those people
    • information supporting those relationships and the support processes
    • and in particular, the kind of information that would promote a trusting and trusted relationship — to do with personal values.

I have the strong sense that this all should be related. But the field as a whole doesn’t seem have a name. I am clear that it is not just the same as the other two areas (in my mind at least) of CETIS work:

  • information of direct relevance to institutions
  • information of direct relevance to content providers.

Of course my own area of interest is also relevant to those other players. Personal well-being is vital to the “student experience”, and thus to student retention, as well as to success in learning. That is of great interest to institutions. Knowing about individuals is of great value to those wanting to sell all kinds of services to to them, but particularly services to do with learning and resources supporting learning.

But now I ask people to think: where there is an overlap between information that the learner has an interest in, and information about learners of interest to institutions and content providers, surely the information should be under the control of the individual, not of those organisations?

What is the sum of this information?

Can we name that information and reclaim it?

Again, can people help me name this field, so my area of work can be better understood and recognised?

If you can, you earn 10 years worth of thanks…

Follower guidance: concept and rationale

The idea that I am calling “follower guidance” is about how to relate with chosen others to promote good work, well being, personal growth and development, in an essentially peer-to-peer manner — it’s an alternative to “mentoring”.

Detailing this vision will prepare the ground for thinking about technology to support the relationships and the learning that results from them, which will fill the space left when traditional control hierarchies no longer work well.

The motivation for the idea

Where do people get their direction from? What or who guides someone, and how? How do people find their way, in life, in education, in a work career, etc.? How do people find a way to live a good and worthwhile life, with satisfying, fulfilling work and relationships? All big questions, addressed, as circumstances allow, by others involved in those people’s education, in their personal and professional development, in advice and guidance, coaching and mentoring; as well as by their family and friends.

In my previous post I set out some related challenges. Since then, I was reminded of these kinds of question by a blog post I saw via Venessa Miemis.

To put possible answers in context: in traditionalist societies I would expect people’s life paths to have relatively few options, and the task of orientation and navigation therefore to be relatively straightforward. People know their allotted place in society, and if they are happy with that, fine. But the appropriate place for this attitude is progressively shrinking back into the childhood years, as the world has ever more variety — and ever less certainty — available to adults. Experts often have more options to hand than their own internal decision making can easily process. Perhaps I can illustrate this from my own situation.

Take CETIS, where I currently have a 0.6 FTE contract. It’s a brilliant place to work, within the University of Bolton’s IEC, with so many people who seem somehow to combine expertise and generosity with passion for their own interesting areas or work. It has never felt like a hierarchical workplace, and staff there are expected to be largely self-determining as well as self-motivated. While some CETIS people work closely together, I do so less, because other staff at Bolton are not so interested in the learner-centred side of learning technology and interoperability. Working largely by myself, it is not so easy to decide on priorities for my own effort, and it would be hard for anyone else to give an informed opinion on where I would best devote my time. Happily, the norm is for things to work out, with what I sense as priorities being accepted by others as worthwhile. But what if … ? It’s not the norm in CETIS culture for anyone to be told that they must stop doing what they think is most worthwhile and instead do something less appealing.

Or take Unlike Minds (“UM”), with whom I am currently investigating collaboration, both for myself and for CETIS. UM is a “capability network” — essentially a non-hierarchical grouping of people with fascinatingly rich and diverse backgrounds and approaches, but similarities of situation and motivation. Here, the starting point is that everyone is assumed to be independent and professional (though some, like me, have some employment). It is a challenge to arrange for very busy independent associates to spend significant amounts of their own time “following” the work of other UMs. But if they did so, they might well be able to contribute to filling any orientation deficit of others, as they would in turn be helped if they wanted. I would expect that the more colleagues know about each other’s work, the more they can help focus motivation; the richer will be the collective UM culture; and the more effective UM will become as a capability network.

I mention just these two, because I have personal knowledge, but surely this must apply to so many new-style organisations and networks that shun being governed ultimately by the necessity to maximise profit. Often no one is in a position to direct work from “the top”, either because the management simply don’t have the deep specialist knowledge to work out what people should be doing, or because there is no governance that provides a “top” at all. The risk in all of these cases is of a lack of coordination and coherence. There is also a risk that individuals perform below their potential, because they are not getting enough informed and trusted feedback on their current activities. How many independent workers these days, no matter how supposedly expert, really have the knowledge to ensure even their own optimum decisions? Very few indeed, I guess, if for no other reason that there is too much relevant available knowledge to be on top of it all.

Then there is the danger of over-independent experts falling into the trap of false guru-hood. Without proper feedback, where followers gather largely in admiration, a talented person may have the illusion of being more correct than he or she really is. Conversely, without dedicated and trusted feedback, the highly talented who lack confidence can easily undervalue what they have to offer. The starting point of my previous post was the observation that people are not reliable judges of their own abilities or personality, and the mistakes can be made in either direction.

That is my broad-brush picture of the motivation, the rationale, or the requirement. So how can we address these needs?

The essence of follower guidance

I will refer to the person who is followed, and who receives the guidance, as the “mover”; the other person I will call the “follower guide”. Here are some suggestions about how such a system could work, and they all seem to me to fit together.

  • Follower guidance is not hierarchical. The norm is for everyone to play both roles: mover and guide. Otherwise the numbers don’t add up.
  • Each mover has more than one follower guide. In my own experience, it is much more persuasive to have two or three people tell you something than one alone. The optimal number for a balance between effort and quality (in each situation and for each person) may vary, but I think three might be about right in many cases. The follower guidance idea differs from co-counselling.
  • The mentor role is different. There is a role for someone like a mentor, but in a follower guidance culture they would not be delivering the guidance, but rather trying to arrange the best matching of movers with follower guides.
  • Arrangements are by mutual agreement. It is essential that the mover and follower guide both want to play their roles with each other. Reluctant participants are unlikely to work. Good matches may be helped through mentoring.
  • Follower guides start by following. Central to the idea is that follower guides know the movers well, at least in the area which they are following. Guidance suggestions will then be well-informed and more likely to be well received, growing trust.
  • Follower guides may select areas to follow. The mover needs to spell out the areas of work or life that may be followed; but follower guides cannot be expected to be interested in all of someone’s life and work — nor can a mover be expected to trust people equally in different areas.
  • Follower guides offer questions, suggestions and feedback naturally. Dialogue may be invited through questions or personal suggestions, whenever it seems best. Movers may or may not accept suggestions or address questions; but they are more likely to respond to ideas that come from more than one follower guide.
  • The medium of dialogue needs to be chosen. Positive reinforcement is naturally given openly, e.g. as a comment on a blog post, or a tweet. The media for questions and critical feedback needs to be judged more carefully, to maintain trust. This is one way in which follower guidance may differ from simple following.
  • Follower guides are committed. Movers should be able to rely on their follower guides for feedback and opinion when they need it. That means the follower guides have to stay up to date with the mover’s actions or outputs. This is only likely if they have a genuine interest in the area of the mover’s work they are following. This also will help build trust.
  • Time spent should not be burdensome. If following comes from genuine interest, the time spent should be a natural part of the follower guide’s work. In any case, one can follow quite a lot in, say, half an hour a week. If guidance is natural, spontaneous and gentle, it may be delivered very briefly.
  • Follower guides should not all be older or wiser. This may be appropriate for mentors, but there is value in ideas from all quarters, as recognised in the idea of 360° feedback. Anyway the numbers would not work out.
  • Values fit needs care. Trust will be more easily established the better the values fit. The more secure and confident a mover is, the more they may be able to benefit from feedback from follower guides outside their value set.
  • Trust needs to be built up over time and maintained. Mentoring may help people to trust and to be trustworthy. If trust is nevertheless lost, it is unlikely that a follower guidance relationship would continue.
  • The follower guidance practices should be followed and guided. How could this best be done? Perhaps a question for the cyberneticians?

What do you think about the importance of each one of these points? I’d like to know. And could you imagine practising either side of this kind of relationship? Who with? What would come easily, what would you enjoy, and what would be challenging?

Where does this take us?

This concept is too large to be easily digested at one sitting. I hope I have given enough motivation and outline of the general idea that readers get the sense of what I am trying to get at. I’ve outlined above the way I could see it working, but there is so much more detail to work out. Depending on the response to this post, I will take the ideas forward here or elsewhere.

I do think that this kind of envisioning plays a useful part in the life of CETIS and the IEC. Colleagues are most welcome to criticise the ideas, and link them up to other research. If there already is related practice somewhere, that would be good to know. If people see what I am getting at, they can offer alternative solutions to the challenges addressed. Then, we might think about the kinds of (learning or educational) technology that might support such practices, and the information that might be managed and communicated. We might be able to see links with existing technologies and practices.

In the terms of Robert Kegan, I’m pointing towards a challenge of “modern” life, not, as Kegan focuses more on, in the transition between traditionalist and modern, but rather a challenge inherent in the individualistic nature of current modernism. As Brian said (in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian”) “You’ve all got to work it out for yourselves.” “Don’t let anyone tell you what to do!” This advice can help people grow to a maturity of individualism, but can also hold people back from further growth, through what Kegan calls “deconstructive postmodernism” towards
“reconstructive postmodernism”.

Most significant to me would be the attempt to implement a system such as this that I could participate in myself. This would include my trusted follower guides coming back to me with comments on this post, of course … At the time of writing, thanks to Neil and Alan for commenting on the preceding post, and I very much appreciate those kinds of comment.

E-portfolios and identity: more!

The one annual e-portfolio (and identity) conference that I attend reliably was this year co-sponsored by CRA, on top of the principal EIfEL — London, 11th to 13th July. Though it wasn’t a big gathering, I felt it was somehow a notch up from last time.

Perhaps this was because it was just a little more grounded in practice, and this could have been the influence of the CRA. Largely gone were speculations about identity management and architecture, but in was more of the idea of identity as something that was to be developed personally.

We heard from three real recent students, who have used their portfolio systems for their own benefit. Presumably they developed their identity? That’s not a representative sample, and of course these are the converted, not the rank and file dissatisfied or apathetic. A message that surprisingly came from them was that e-portfolio use should be compulsory, at least at some point during the student’s studies. That’s worth reflecting on.

And as well as some well-known faces (Helen, Shane, et al.) there were those, less familiar in these settings, of our critical-friendly Mark Stiles, and later Donald Clark (who had caused slight consternation by his provocative blog post, finding fault with the portfolio concept, and was invited to speak as a result). Interestingly, I didn’t think Donald’s presentation worked as well as his blog (it was based on the same material). In a blog, you can be deliberately provocative, let the objections come, and then gracefully give way to good counter-arguments. But in the conference there wasn’t time to do this, so people may have gone away thinking that he really held these ideas, which would be a pity. Next year we should be more creative about the way of handling that kind of contribution. Mark’s piece — may I call it a friendly Jeremiad? I do have a soft spot for Jeremiah! — seemed to go down much better. We don’t want learners themselves to be commodified, but we can engage with Mark through thinking of plausible ways of avoiding that fate.

Mark also offered some useful evidence for my view that learners’ interests are being systematically overlooked, and that people are aware of this. Just let your eye off the ball of learner-centricity for a moment, and — whoops! — your learner focus is sneakily transformed into a concern of the institution that wants to know all kinds of things about learners — probably not what the learners wanted at all. There is great depth and complexity of the challenge to be truly learner-focused or learner-centred.

One of the most interesting presentations was by Kristin Norris of IUPUI, looking at what the Americans call “civic identity” and “civic-mindedness”. This looks like a laudibly ambitious programme for helping students to become responsible citizens, and seems related to our ethical portfolios paper of 2006 as well as the personal values part of my book.

Kristin knows about Perry and Kegan, so I was slightly surprised that I couldn’t detect any signs in the IUPUI programme of diagnosis of the developmental stage of individual students. I would have thought that what you do on a programme to develop students ethically should depend on the stage they have already arrived at. I’ll follow up on this with her.

So, something was being pointed to from many directions. It’s around the idea that we need richer models of the learner, the student, the person. And in particular, we need better models of learner motivation, so that we can really get under their (and our own) skins, so that the e-portfolio (or whatever) tools are things that they (and we) really want to use.

Intrinsic motivation to use portfolio tools remains largely unsolved. We are faced again and again with the feedback that students don’t want to know about “personal development” or “portfolios” (unless they are creatives who know about these anyway) or even less “reflection”! Yes, there are certainly some (counterexemplifying Donald Clark’s over-generalisation) who want to reflect. Perhaps they are similar to those who spontaneously write diaries — some of the most organised among us. But not many.

This all brings up many questions that I would like to follow up, in no particular order.

  • How are we, then, to motivate learners (i.e. people) to engage in activities that we recognise as involving reflection or leading to personal development?
  • Could we put more effort into deepening and enriching the model we have of each of our learners?
  • Might some “graduate attributes” be about this kind of personal and ethical development?
  • Are we suffering from a kind of conspiracy of the social web, kidding people that they are actually integrated, when they are not?
  • Can we use portfolio-like tools to promote growth towards personal integrity?
  • “Go out and live!” we could say. “But as you do it, record things. Reflect on your feelings as well as your actions. Then, later, when you ‘come up for air’, you will have something really useful to reflect on.” But how on earth can we motivate that?
  • Should we be training young people to reflect as a habit, like personal hygiene habits?
  • Is critical friendship a possible motivator?

I’m left with the feeling that there’s something really exciting waiting to be grasped here, and the ePIC conference has it all going for itself to grasp that opportunity. I wonder if, next year, we could

  • keep it as ePIC — e-portfolios and identity — a good combination
  • keep close involvement of the CRA and others interested in personal development
  • put more focus on the practice of personal-social identity development
  • discuss the tools that really support the development of personal social identity
  • talk about theories and architectures that support the tools and the development?

Grasping the future

We had an IEC departmental meeting yesterday, with all kinds of interesting ideas being floated about how to move forwards. (For outsiders: the Institute for Educational Cybernetics is the department at Bolton that hosts CETIS). I’m now sure there is room for new development of an approach to technology dissemination that we could consider.

This idea didn’t quite make it into the main discussion yesterday, which is partly why I wanted to blog about it here. Coincidentally, this morning via LinkedIn I see an article from yesterday on TechCrunch about Oblong, which I can use to help explain.

Yesterday Scott was talking about doing lots of “cool” stuff (tools, books included) so that some of them have a chance to take off and be one of the next big things — most of them probably won’t if we’re honest (like my book on Electronic Portfolios…). I was rather feebly trying to say that I can see a related gap that the IEC is in a very good position to bridge. Let me explain better and more clearly now.

When we have good ideas, part of the thing we have to come to terms with is that others often don’t get it straight away. If you think about it, this is pretty obvious — the insight you have is dependent on your current state of awareness, that you have spent quite some time building up. But then comes the real problem. It is much too easy to see the job of getting others to adopt your idea in terms of just persuading them. The wonderful presentation; the super-clear explanation; the appeal to how useful the thing is by referring to the amazing things that can be done: any of these may tempt us to believe it is the answer.

But, as anyone with teaching experience knows, it is often a much longer process. Even if calculus were really wonderful, you couldn’t persuade people who can’t even do algebra properly, with the most persuasive presentation in the world. They really can’t get it yet. But you can think in terms of progressive learning, through the stages of maths that have been worked on for centuries now. Similarly, there are many people you can’t just win over to, say, logic programming. In my direct recent experience, I could say the same about concept mapping, and in particular the diagrammatic conventions that underlie both that and RDF graphs, and indeed Topic Maps. A very similar story could be told of various technology specifications or standards. Take a look at RDFa, for instance, and the supposedly pragmatic decision by schema.org to adopt microdata in preference. “But you just have to understand it”, one might complain, “and you’ll see how much better it is!”

(Aside: to see how much better RDFa really is, see Manu Sporny’s blog.)

The vital and central point is that many technical people, I believe, misconceive of the task. They see it in terms of presentational effort, whereas they would be much better off thinking of the task in terms of learning and development.

We could hear echoes of Piaget here, perhaps. People have stages of their cognitive development. But I’m not a follower of Piaget (any more than of Marx) and I’m proposing not to follow any fixed scheme here. Rather, I’m saying that people — technical people in particular — if they are to maximise the chances of something they have created being adopted widely, need to look at the real potential adopters and create helpful models of what the relevant developmental stages are for those potential adopters, rather than for humanity in general.

And that brings me back to our potential role — the IEC’s role — here. We know about, we are in touch with, we incorporate several technical wizards and several far-sighted and innovative educators (and even a few who are both!) I think we can take on a mission to work out how to educate the innovators, the creators, the producers, about this task, this responsibility if you like, for working towards wider adoption. We could tell people about how important and useful it is, centrally, to plan out a sequence of stages, to motivate non-adopters towards adoption. Each stage needs to be graspable by, and motivating to, the audience. And it’s not necessarily only plain learning that needs to be mapped out, but individual stages of development (remembering the Piaget concept again), and that can take time.

Maybe this is part of the essence of the idea of “timing” of innovations. I’m saying that it’s not just good fortune, but some of it can be reasonably predicted, given a good model of people’s cognitive developmental stages, their experience, and the knowledge and skills they have accumulated. Just focusing on technology adoption, there could be a rich seam of research here, taking case studies of technology adoption, and working out why adoption happened, or not.

So back to the serendipitous example. Obviously adoption is greatly helped by well-placed articles (such as the one linked above) from reputable sources. But the article itself gives more clues. I quote:

“both Kramer and Ubderkoffler agree that consumer technologies like the Wii and the Kinect are perfect in helping to transition people over to these future concepts of computing.”

Then, a bit later:

“But first, Oblong knows they need to be able to bring relatively affordable products to market. And again, that’s what Mezzanine is all about. “Our goal here is to change how people work together,” Kramer explains in a slightly (but only slightly) less ambitious statement.”

So they are perfectly aware that getting people to adopt this new technology involves providing motivating experiences, and if they can’t afford them they won’t have them. They are also aware of the distinction between the future aspirational goal, and the humbler steps that need to be taken to approach it.

So, it looks like some people — probably the people who are going to be successful in getting their things adopted — understand these points well. My experience suggests that many more don’t. I can certainly say I struggle to keep hold of the central points here, and am easily tempted away to variations of the simplistic “give them a bigger prod and they’ll understand” way of thinking. But surely, shouldn’t part of what we offer as education in educational technology (or indeed cybernetics) be to get a more truly useful set of ideas more firmly into people’s consciousness?

In the end, what I think I’m saying is that we need to help the current enthusiasts / experts / technology evangelists grasp the reality about how, so often, the adoption process is limited or bounded by the stage of development of the potential adopters, and thus refocus their efforts towards formulation and envisioning respectful, plausible models of how their (no doubt) great innovations can be grasped and adopted, step by step in a future process perhaps, if not (the desired) all at once, now!

Overhauling universities

Timely article from the BBC, “Universities need radical overhaul, says David Willetts” (2010-06-10) might provoke a positive response from people like us in CETIS, Bolton’s IEC, and the Centre for Recording Achievement (CRA). The BBC indicates that Willetts thinks universities faced “tough times” and needed to find cheaper and more flexible ways to teach. To which I’d add, more relevant and effective, perhaps?

What inefficiencies might be identified in higher education at present? For now, here are just a few first ideas, along with the kind of responses that CETIS, IEC or CRA could contribute to (though not in any order of impact, significance, importance, or difficulty, all of which need consideration).

1. Cost of producing learning materials and resources.
Response: greater use of open educational resources — see the CETIS OER topic.

2. Cost of staff.
Response: make greater use of peer support and assessment, perhaps starting with IEC’s IDIBL approach.

3. Irrelevance to employment and the economy.
Response: at the behest of learners themselves (see below) make more learning work-based, again like IDIBL, and let HEIs focus on Employer Engagement, as in the HE5P project undertaken by the CRA for HEFCE.

4. High student drop-out.
Response: ensure that students know what they want, are well motivated, know what they can do already, and have supportive PDP processes in place. Again, the CRA specialise in PDP and e-portfolio tools, and I have a particular interest in e-portfolio tools that are well-adapted to help good practice. This relates to ethical development that I have written about before. To counter the interminable arguments about the ideal aims of higher education, let properly-prepared learners choose. If they want employment-centric education, let them have it, not some poor ineffective attempt at such. If they want liberal arts with no requirement for consequent employment, again, let them have it. It’s not ultimately up to you or I or anyone to preach about what education should be for. And, surely, good preparation and real choice of objective should lead to more commitment?

5. Ineffective technology
OK, but several tools won’t perform as required to enable these efficiency gains. VLEs in silos, which you can’t extract information from, are a case in point. But the kind of cross-linking, enabling technology that CETIS people work on is surely well-placed. Look at Wookie, for example, allowing different applications to exist as widgets within web pages. Or look at the mobile technology work, brought together in a meeting about which many people twittered… For a full vision of an overhauled university, we would probably need to do more along the e-admin line, which isn’t perhaps appealing at first sight, but could make so much difference to the institutional overheads.

6. Lack of interoperability
Last but not least (in relevance to CETIS) we could list the inefficiencies due to lack of interoperability within the technology. For tasks that have to be done, this leads to inefficiencies such as rekeying; for tasks that are still very valuable but not absolutely necessary (such as many portfolio tasks) this probably leads to good things not being done at all, and consequent ineffectiveness. Not only to CETIS contribute very significantly to interoperability initiatives, as our name suggests, but we are maintaining a forward-looking discussion about the future of interoperability.

As I hinted at the beginning, the people I work with know about these things. It might be both very impressive, and very helpful to the likes of David Willetts, to bring these points together in a coherent vision of a university aimed at learner-centered effectiveness as well as efficiency.

Education and employment

Rather worrying to read a recent post from the CIPD, pointing out the great discrepancy between what people have studied recently and the jobs they get (or don’t get). Significant enough to get other people quoting it. These facts might reasonably lead one to the conclusion that we ought to have:

  1. effective personal development planning as the norm, including good employment-oriented “information, advice and guidance”, more reliably joined to educational opportunities, and including clear advice on what is not usually “learned”, but more often are aspects of personal style and values;
  2. more transparent connections between the actual skills and competence in demand from employers, and the intended learning outcomes of courses that purport to prepare people for employment;
  3. far more widespread, transparent and effective systems for labour market matching between job-seekers and openings, taking into account what really makes the difference between “just a job” and genuine employee engagement, satisfaction and development.

The learning technology we support and promote needs to take that into account as well. Great technology for learning tools or learning design, great open learning resources on ever-so-well managed repositories, are only really valuable when truly suitable individuals take learning opportunities both that fit them, and that do what can be done to prepare them for whatever can be reliably predicted about their future occupations. I don’t think we are clueless about the technology that supports the latter objectives, but I’d say it is harder to do it well.

Perhaps it is a question of balance. If the PDP, the IAG, the skills development, tracking and matching were done relatively well, it would be a good reason to invest more in the tools, the resources, and the methods, which are perhaps not so challenging in principle, and easier to show supposed benefits from, until confronted with the stark reminders mentioned at the beginning.

PLE, e-p, or what?

The concept of the personal learning environment could helpfully be more related to the e-portfolio (e-p), as both can help informal learning of skills, competence, etc., whether these abilities are formally defined or not.

Several people at CETIS/IEC here in Bolton had a wide-ranging discussion this Thursday morning (2010-02-18), focused around the concept of the “personal learning environment” or PLE. It’s a concept that CETIS people helped develop, from the Colloquia system, around 1996, and Bill Olivier and Oleg Liber formulated in a paper in 2001 — see http://is.gd/8DWpQ . The idea is definitely related to an e-portfolio, in that an e-p can store information related to this personal learning, and the idea is generally to have portfolio information continue “life-long” across different episodes of learning.

As Scott Wilson pointed out, it may be that the PLE concept overreached itself. Even to conceive of “a” system that supports personal learning in general is hazardous, as it invites people to design a “big” system in their own mind. Inevitably, such a “big” system is impractical, and the work on PLEs that was done between, say, 2000 and 2005 has now been taken forward in different ways — Scott’s work on widgets is a good example of enabling tools with a more limited scope, but which can be joined together as needed.

We’ve seen parallel developments in the e-portfolio world. I think back to LUSID, from 1997, where the emphasis was on individuals auditing and developing their transferable / employability skills. Then increasingly we saw the emergence of portfolio tools that included more functionality: presentation to others (through the web); “social” communication and collaboration tools. Just as widgets can be seen as the dethroning of the concept of monolithic learning technology in general, so the “thin portfolio” concept (borrowing from the prior “personal information aggregation and distribution service” concept) represents the idea that you don’t need that portfolio information in one server; but that it is very helpful to have one place where one can access all “your” information, and set permissions for others to view it. This concept is only beginning to be implemented. The current PIOP 3 work plans to lay down more of the web services groundwork for this, but perhaps we should be looking over at the widgets work.

Skills and competences have long been connected with portfolio tools. Back in 1997 LUSID had a framework structure for employability skills. But what is new is the recent greatly enlarged extent of interest in learning outcomes, abilities, skills and competencies. Recent reading for eCOTOOL has revealed that the ECVET approach, as well as being firmly based on “outcomes” (which ICOPER also focuses), also recognises non-formal and informal learning as central. Thus ECVET credit is not attached only to vocational courses, but also to the accreditation of prior learning by institutions that are prepared to validate the outcomes involved. Can we, perhaps, connect with this European policy, and develop tools that are aimed at helping to implement it? It takes far sighted institutions to give up the short term gain of students enrolled on courses and instead to assess their prior learning and validate their existing abilities. But surely it makes sense in the long run, as long as standards are maintained?

If we are to have learning technology — and it really doesn’t matter if you call them PLEs, e-portfolios or whatever — that supports the acquisition or improvement of skills and competence by individuals in their own diverse ways, then surely a central organising principle within those tools needs to be the skills, competencies or whatever that the individual wants to acquire or improve. Can we draw, perhaps on the insights of PLE and related work, put them together with e-portfolio work, and focus on tools to manage the components of competence? In the IEC, we have all our experience on the TENCompetence project that has finished, as well as ICOPER that is underway and eCOTOOL that is starting. Then we expect there will be work associated with PIOP 3 that brings in frameworks of skill and competence. Few people can be in a better position to do this work that we are in CETIS/IEC.

In part, I would formulate this as providing technology and tools to help people recognise their existing (uncertificated) skills, evidence them (the portfolio part) and then help them, and the institutions they attend, to assess this “prior learning” (APL) and bring it in to the world of formal recognition, and qualifications.

But I think there is another very important aspect to the technology connected with the PLE concept, and that is to provide the guidance that learners need to ensure they get on the “right” course. At the meeting, we discussed how employers often do not want the very graduates whose studies have titles that seem to related directly to the job. What has gone wrong? It’s all very well treating students like customers — “the customer is always right” — but what happens when a learner wants to take a course aimed at something one believes they are not going to be successful at? Perhaps the right intervention is to start earlier, helping learners clarify their values before their goals, understand who they are before deciding what they should do. This would be “personal learning” in the sense of learning about oneself. Perhaps the PDP part of the e-portfolio community, and those who come from careers guidance, know more about this, but even they sometimes seem not to know what to do for the best. To me, this self-knowledge requires a social dimension (with the related existing tools), and is something that needs to be able to draw on many aspects of a learner’s life (“lifewide” portfolio perhaps).

So, to reconstruct PLE ideas, not as monolithic systems, but as parts, there are two key parts in my view.

The first would be a tool for bringing together evidence residing in different systems, and organising it to provide material for reflection on, and evidence of, skills and competence across different areas of life, and integrating with institutional systems for recognising what has already been learned, as well as slotting people in to suitable learning opportunities. This would play a natural part in continuous professional development, and in the relatively short term learning education and training needs we have, which we can see we need from an existing working perspective, and thus, in the kind of workplace learning that many are predicting will need to grow.

The second may perhaps be not a tool but several tools to help people understand themselves, their values, their motives, their real goals, and the activities and employment that they would actually find satisfying, rather than what they might falsely imagine. Without this function, any learning education or training risks being wasted. Doing this seems much more challenging, but also much more deeply interesting to me.