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…

CPD-Eng – review of a JISC project in progress

I was asked to look into the CPD-Eng project by the JISC programme managers, specifically in conjunction with the JISC “Benefits Realisation” work, because this project in particular has a lot to do with portfolio technology and interoperability, and then with skills and competences in professional development.

CPD-Eng is a JISC-funded project, to quote from the JISC project page, “to integrate systems that support personalised IPD/CPD, applicable to professional frameworks.” The lead institution is the University of Hull, and much of the documentation can be found through their own project page.

The project start date was April 2009. At that date, the tender documentation spelled out the aspirations for the project. The main image that emerges from the tender documentation is not of a new e-portfolio system as such, but of an approach to integrating evidence that may reside on different systems, all of which has relevance to an individual’s CPD. “CPD-Eng will provide the innovative, personalised infrastructure that will support the work-based learner through a new suite of flexible pathways…”

The original plan was to deploy Sun’s Identity Management software, perhaps aiming towards Shibboleth in the longer term. These were overtaken by various events. Consultations with various people related to JISC lowered the perceived value of Shibboleth, and in any case there needed to be a more open approach to accommodate the wider potential usage of the tools.

One of the shaping factors was the requirement to integrate the Hull institutional VLE (“eBridge”), based on the SAKAI framework. Right from the outset there was explicit mention also of integrating e-portfolio systems that have adopted Leap2A. Clearly, one of the main areas of future evidence of the success of a project that claims to be about integrating systems will be the actual extent of integration carried out. In the project plan, WP7 states that the most important integration is between eBridge and other partners’ VLEs. The nature of the integration, however, was not specified at the outset, but remained to be filled in through earlier work in the project itself. A theme that does continue throughout the tender is about the ability of learners to control access to information that may be stored in different places.

The baseline report (version 0.9 of August 2009) spells out more graphically where the project started from. Perhaps the core point at the centre of the vision is the statement: “A portal system has been established alongside an Identity Management (IDM) system that allows self-service management of the learner’s identity. CPD-Eng will develop a robust and scalable approach to interoperability, access and identity management that is both easy to use and seamless, allowing the learner to control their personal e-portfolio-type technologies and share the content within them with whom they choose.” Compared to this, the rest of the baseline report is interesting background.

After the baseline report the project took stock of the situation. Some other portfolio products were “not very engineering”. TAS3 was not seen as very user-friendly. Academics still wanted the software to sit in SAKAI. Unfortunately, the lead programmer resigned to take up employment elsewhere, and the project was left without a developer. After looking into advertising for a replacement, and consulting with the JISC Programme Manager, it was decided to put the software development out to tender. MyKnowledgeMap (MKM: a York-based company with a track record of producing software in the area of skills and portfolios, for users in education and various professions) was judged as the most suitable partner, though they lacked experience of SAKAI. The project leads arranged for MKM employees to be trained by the University’s consultant, Unicon.

This was the situation for the following progress report of 2010-03. Three software modules were being developed within SAKAI:

  • Aggregator
  • Mapper / Tagger
  • Showcaser

The Aggregator module “provides a mechanism for users to gather their artefacts and items of evidence from across multiple sources.” While it is relatively easy simply to copy information from other sources into a system like this, the point here is explicitly “not” (emphasis original) to copy, where it is possible to establish access from the original location.

Tagging is conceived of similarly to elsewhere, in terms of adding free text tags to aid categorisation by individuals. Mapping, in contrast, is designed to allow users to connect artefacts to elements of established “skills, competency and assessment frameworks”. This function is vital within CPD practice, so that users can present evidence of meeting required standards. Such frameworks are stored externally. JISC is now funding some “Competence structures for e-portfolio tools interoperability” work finishing July 2011, and CPD-Eng can play a useful role in determining the standard form in which competence structures should be communicated. MKM does have existing techniques for this, but they will be critiqued and adapted as necessary before being adopted as a consensus.

Showcasing is conceived of similarly as in many portfolio tools. Official review is supported by routine copying of showcases to uneditable areas. This works for e.g. health professionals, because they want a carefully controlled system, though others like engineers need that less, and prefer to do without the extra burden of storage. It is planned to support review without necessarily copying showcases in a later release. Access to showcases was originally only via SAKAI, but it was later recognised that limiting to SAKAI access was not ideal, particularly as many professional bodies have their own e-portfolio systems.

Working with health professionals, archeologists and others (there is also interest from schools, and a pilot with BT), it became clear that a useful system should not be tightly bound to other institutional software or to SAKAI, so what was needed was an independent identity management system.

In the Benefits Realisation plan from the summer of 2010 came a clear restatement of the core aim of the work. “At its centre is a scalable, interoperable and robust access and identity management system that integrates and control access to personal e-portfolio technologies.” But what is the relationship between the CPD-Eng work and other identity management systems? Sun’s Identity Management software had been abandoned. The European funded TAS3 work (in which the University of Nottingham is a partner) was seen as too complex for professional end users. A question which remains outstanding is to clarify the relationship of the system devised with the trials funded by JISC under the PIOP 3 programme, involving PebblePad, the University of Nottingham and Newcastle University. It would be good to see a clear exposition of these and any other relationships. All that can be said at this stage is that in the perception of the CPD-Eng project, none of the other identity management systems really worked for them.

The next piece of documentation is the progress report from September 2010. This is where the questions really start to become clearer. Included in this massive report is the complete text of the final report from “Personalised systems to support CPD within Health Care”, a mini project extending CPD-Eng concepts to health care professions. In this very interesting inner report, there is a large body of evidence about CPD practice in the health professions. This leads to a second major question. What about the whole process side of portfolio practice? CPD-Eng has very clearly focused on the rather technical side of facilitating the access management for artefacts. This is certainly useful at the stage when all the evidence has been generated, when it remains to gather together appropriate items from different places.

Much portfolio practice centrally involves reflection on evidence as well as its collection and showcasing. The phrase “collect, select, reflect…” is often used in portfolio circles. (Helen Barrett adds direction/projection and connection.) Reflection is often vital in portfolio practice, because the mere presentation of a selection of artefacts is no guarantee of a clear and coherent understanding of how and why they fit together. Because unprompted reflection is hard, institutions often support the process. It is useful to be able to build in some aspect of process into the same tools which hold the information and resources to be reflected on, and it is useful to hold the reflections themselves in a place that they can be easily connected with the things on which they are reflecting.

Increasingly, it is recognised that the peer group is another vital aspect of this reflection process. In a situation where staff time is short, or the staff seem uninvolved, possibly the best stimulus for reflection and re-evaluation of ideas is the peer group. Portfolio systems designers themselves have recognised this, by integrating social tools into the portfolio software.

It is clear that MyShowcase is not primarily designed to support reflection. (More information about MyShowcase can be found at www.my-showcase.org which has a demo and links, and through www.mkmlabs.com.) However, one of the consequences of implementing a stand-alone version is that users found an immediate need for some of the functionality that is normally provided within full-feature e-portfolio systems. In particular, users want to collect evidence together and send a link to a tutor for feedback. The link is sent to the reviewer by e-mail, who can then access the system for the purpose of leaving feedback comments. Indeed, some users feel that fully-featured e-portfolio systems are just too complex for their users’ needs, and value a simple tool because it does less, and does not explicitly support reflection by users. So this is the only extra feature implemented in MyShowcase that comes from the fuller set normal in portfolio software.

If one has a hybrid system including MyShowcase and some other portfolio tool, the portfolio functionality will therefore mainly be fulfilled in the portfolio tool, not MyShowcase. But what of the feedback that has been designed into MyShowcase for standalone use? To be useful, it would have to seen within the portfolio system. And generally, any information used in MyShowcase needs to be presented to the associated e-portfolio system for use within whatever (e.g. reflective) processes the portfolio software is used for. We don’t want the flow of information to be only one-way, or there to be solely unidirectional two-stage processes. What is needed is an effective two-way integration, so that the chosen portfolio tool can access all the information gathered through MyShowcase, the user / learner can gather further feedback and reflect, and present the outcomes of that further reflection back into the MyShowcase pool, for onward presentation.

Recent discussion has confirmed that MyShowcase is not primarily conceived of as a replacement for a full e-portfolio system, though it does act as what we might call an “evidence resource management” tool. Perhaps we can now discern an ideal answer to where this might lead, and where things ought to be heading, and the questions that still need to be answered.

If a service such as MyShowcase is to work effectively alongside e-portfolio tools, there needs to be transfer of information all ways round. In addition to this, and because it can be implemented stand-alone, there needs to be Leap2A export and import directly between MyShowcase and a user’s personal storage.

Looking at things from a user’s perspective, a portfolio tool user should be able to make use of MyShowcase functionality transparently. It should be able to be used as invisible “middleware”, allowing the front end e-portfolio system to focus on an appropriate user interface, and portfolio and PDP processes (including reflection and feedback), with MyShowcase providing the funcationality that allow the user to link to evidential resources held in a variety of places, including VLEs, HR systems, other portfolio tools, social networking services, blogs, etc., possibly including sites with sensitive information that will only be displayed to authorised users.

The MyShowcase architecture in principle could provide resource management for “thin portfolio” services, where the storage is not in the portfolio system. Is it, or could it be, adapted for this?

As part of the PIOP 3 projects, Leap2A connection between different systems was been investigated by PebblePad, Nottingham and Newcastle, and this work needs to be carefully compared with the MyShowcase architecture. What exactly are the similarities and the differences? Are they alternatives? Can they be integrated, combining any strong points from both?

In order to facilitate this two-way interaction, there really needs to be substantial compatibility between the information models in all the connected systems, so that there can be meaningful communication between the systems. This does not necessarily mean a full implementation of Leap2A in each participating system, but it does mean at least a reasonable mapping between the information managed and corresponding Leap2A structures, because Leap2A is the only well-implemented and tested model we have at this time that covers all the relevant information. If there are requirements that are not covered by Leap2A, this is a good time to raise them so that they can be incorporated into discussion with other parties interested in Leap2A, and our common future thinking.

I hope I’ve made the issues clearer here. Here are collected recommendations for taking this work forward, whether within the current CPD-Eng and Benefits Realisation work or beyond it.

  • What the portfolio community really needs is multi-way integration of portfolio information, artefacts and permissions, based around Leap2A concepts.
  • Leap2A export and import by users should be provided for standalone implementations of MyShowcase, just as with other portfolio systems that have adopted Leap2A.
  • Showcases in MyShowcase need to be exportable as Leap2A (as with PebblePad WebFolios and Mahara Views).
  • For transparent integration between different sources of information in a portfolio architecture, identity management approaches need consolidating around good workable models such as OAuth
  • The PIOP 3 work by PebblePad Nottingham and Newcastle, as well as TAS3, need to be carefully considered, to extract any lessons relevant to CPD-Eng, even if their appearance is only in the final report.
  • The opportunity provided by any planned project meeting should be fully exploited in these directions.
  • Another meeting should be planned around the wider questions of e-portfolio interoperability architecture, covering not only the technical aspects, but the requirements of practice as well, such as reflection, feedback and comments on non-public items stored elsewhere.

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.