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…

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!

Future of Interoperability Standards – factors contributing to reuse

Reuse requires awareness: to support that, how?

As my inputs to the CETIS FIS meeting on 24th September were partly to do with extensibility and reuse, I facilitated a small but select group initially charged with talking about extensibility and reuse. It included Alan Paull, a colleague very active in the XCRI and HEAR work, and two others who I did not know previously, one (Roger) from a large computer business, and one (Neil) ploughing his own furrow. And rather than talking about the mechanics of extensibility and reuse, we found ourselves pulled back to more human issues.

A key emerging point, that perhaps deserves more attention, is that before anyone can reuse or extend another specification or standard, they have to know of it, and then know about it. How do people actually get to know about specs that they might find reuseful, or extendable? You can make a standard perfectly extendable, or reusable, but if the appropriate people do not know about it, it will not be reused or extended. What can we do about that?

It was suggested:

  • publish case studies of good practice
  • support the community of practice
  • maintain a standards map, functional and technical
  • signpost related standards

We do much of this already, of course, in CETIS, but it is still notable that many people (including Roger and Neil) only came across this meeting by accident. In HE, maybe CETIS is not unknown or unreachable, but outside, how do we reach people?

The next major point we came up with was that XML is not be best vehicle for extendability and reuse. There is a tendency for people to be lulled into writing their own XML schemas – a practice that CETIS has warned against for some time – and it is very easy to create XML schemas in a way that is hard to extend or reuse.

To address this, Roger indicated that his big company was already very interested in Semantic Web ideas. The underlying structure of RDF (not RDF/XML!) naturally lends itself to decomposing complex structures into nodes and links. The problem of extension largely disappears, but the problem of reuse remains, in that to get reuse of Semantic Web information, people have either to use the same URIs (both for subjects and properties) or to set up and use links to indicate equivalence. owl:sameAs is of course useful (see sameAs.org) but not a panacea. I have been saying for a long time that we need to be using something like skos:exactMatch and skos:closeMatch. So, perhaps we need to focus on

  1. tools to help people put in the links for the linked data
  2. helping people define the links in the first place
  3. understanding other difficulties that seem to be present, and overcoming them

Another point that I drew from the discussion was that the more that any data is used, the more motivation people have for keeping it up to date. Thus, the more that information about people is consolidated, the more there is a single copy that is used many times rather than several copies each of which is used less often. We need to keep kicking to kick-start the virtuous circle of using standards to help information to be consolidated, and further motivating people to consolidate it – and that naturally means to link it, probably in a linked data kind of way.

Motivation also depends on the economics and politics. What if changing the way that things are done (inevitably, along with the improvements we are suggesting) shifts costs from one party to another? It may be that costs are cut overall, but what if many costs are cut, but a few costs, of key players, are raised? We will have to keep aware of this happening, and think how to solve it when it arises.

Perhaps at a tangent to our main topic, we noted that XCRI-CAP is not a completely satisfying whole, and needs to be extended to cope with other areas of course-related information.

And the “ecosystem” that is the world of standards and specifications needs to take into account the motivation for standardisation in the first place. Perhaps CETIS could be a bit more ambitious about the niche we carve out for ourselves?

Future of interoperability standards – small points

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

1. Keep pressing for those URIs.

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

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

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

3. Prepare better for people building on your spec.

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

Developing Semantic-Web-friendly specifications

This serves a personal position statement for the CETIS Future of Interoperability Standards Meeting 2010-01-12

Why and how the Semantic Web

We want interoperability specifications and standards with a Semantic Web underlay,

  • because that is
    • the fundamental common denominator,
    • well-adapted to evolving systems,
    • good for reuse,
    • post-modern;
  • using and enabling a “linked data” strategy, with emphasis on:
    • URI-identified resources,
      • with types of resource that are widely agreed for a domain;
    • links between them,
      • using common DC-like relationships/properties/predicates;
  • but with no immediate need for RDF all at once…
    • for RDF, think more Turtle than RDF/XML;
    • any XML should be RDF friendly:
      • able to be clearly mapped and transformed to triples;
      • there may be blank nodes
        • which may be filled in one day;
    • can approach RDF via RDFa and/or GRDDL approaches;
    • may not need XML, as long what there is can be transformed to RDF;
  • using the DCMI Abstract Model as a reference point.

Where a community of practice exists

Where there is good existing practice with electronic tools, experience suggests that it is effective to start with an informal, community-driven specification initiative, and the community in question would be in the best position to decide if and when to offer the specification to a formal body for standardisation. Such an initiative could:

  • start from existing data;
  • inclusively unify current good practice.

This unification would involve:

  • establishing common conceptual models as groundwork (see below);
  • identifing elements that are close enough, and merging them;
  • retaining elements that are likely to be used in more than one system.

Good qualities for a target specification include:

  • the appropriate reuse of existing RDF-friendly specs;
  • ease of implementation;
  • graceful degradation for lesser-used features;
  • being able to be repurposed and reused in the same way that it reuses other specs.

Common conceptual models

Where there is as yet insufficient practice to fuel a specification effort by a community of practice, it is useful to get together as many people as are interested, from formal and informal groupings, and:

  • seek first to agree on a clear common conceptual model  where everyone’s point of view is represented, filling out hidden, elided concepts,
    • recognising that this involves all in development, as
    • it is a challenge to loosen up a conceptual scheme, so
    • people need support and the right context.

Such a conceptual modelling process can work well by being primed with personal discussions between those able to develop their conceptual models. It is essential to the viability of a common conceptual model that everyone with a significant variant opinion is drawn in to the process of working towards a common model. Each of these discussions needs to focus on mutual understanding and a mutual development of positions so that each position comes to include a partial model that is shared between the parties. This takes time – typically several hours, not a few minutes – but is very promising.

This deep communication and shared modelling process is certainly not well-adapted to formal committee procedure. Nor is it suitable for a collective process of a community of interest or of practice. But both formal and informal bodies can perfectly well encourage dialogues of this kind to happen, and seek to check whether they have in fact taken place sufficiently to provide the basis of a usable common model.

Clearly, some people find loosening their conceptual structures more difficult than others. Bodies, formal and informal, should ideally stress that this is necessary, provide encouragement (and perhaps even education or training) in how to do it, and finally discourage those who are unable or unwilling to do this from participating in these processes at all.

Information models, specifications and standards

After the agreement of a common conceptual model, information models can be based on it, as the basis for specifications and eventually standards. This does not mean that the whole conceptual model needs to be represented in any information model, nor even that complete parts of the conceptual model need to be. If no relevant information attaches to a particular concept in the conceptual model, it is quite reasonable to leave it out from a practical information model (resulting in what I have termed “elision”) as long as the conceptual model is kept in mind to refer back to.

Derivative information models should, rather:

  • feel comfortable to practitioners;
  • not be hard to implement;
  • but still be interoperable.

Notes and references

Development of a conceptual model

Reflecting on the challenging field of conceptual models, I thought of the idea of exposing my evolving conceptual model that extends across the areas of learner mobility, learning, evaluation/assessment, credit, qualifications and awards, and intended learning outcomes — which could easily be detailed to cover knowledge, skill and competence.

eurolmcm10

This is more or less the whole thing as it is at present. It will evolve, and I would like that to illustrate how a model can evolve as a result of taking into account other ideas. It also wants a great deal of explanation. I invite questions as comments (or directly) so that I can judge what explanation is helpful. I also warmly welcome views that might be contrasting, to help my conceptual model to grow and develop.

It originates in work with the European Learner Mobility team specifying a model for European Learner Mobility documents — that currently include the Diploma Supplement (DS) and Certificate Supplement. This in turn is based on the European draft standard Metadata for Learning Opportunities (MLO), which is quite similar to the UK’s (and CETIS’s) XCRI. (Note: some terminology has been modified from MLO.) Alongside the DS, the model is intended to cover the UK’s HEAR — Higher Education Achievement Report. And the main advance from previous models of these things, including transcripts of course results, is that it aims to cover intended learning outcomes in a coherent way.

This work is evolving already with valued input from colleagues I talk to in

but I wanted to publish it here so that anyone can contribute, and anyone in any of these groups can refer to it and pass it round — even if as a “straw man”.

It would have been better to start from the beginning, so that I could explain the origin of each part. However that is not feasible, so I will have to be content with starting from where I am, and hoping that the reasoning supporting each feature will become clear in time, as there is an interest. Of course, at any time, the reasoning may not adequately support the feature, and on realising that I will want to change the model.

Please comment if there are discrepancies between this model and your model of the same things, and we can explore the language expressing the divergence of opinion, and the possibility for unification.

Obviously this relates to the SC36 model I discussed yesterday.

See also the next version.

More PDP and e-portfolios – Reading

Yesterday I went to an interesting event in Reading (at the University) called “Future-proofing PDP and ePortfolios“. My role was only to answer questions in a Q&A session on interoperability, but as there were few technical people around it was called “Can I take away what I’ve put into our PDP system?”

Two really interesting points emerged.

  1. Many institutions feel stuck with Blackboard at present, even for their portfolio functionality. Generally, they are unhappy with this.
  2. There are a few interesting tools that work in Blackboard, and people are keen on using the wiki facility for building portfolio presentations.

The wiki tool in question is from Learning Objects. The general idea is that learners find wiki technology an easy way to write a presentation, and if that is what they want to do with a “portfolio”, it should work fine – as indeed any wiki technology. I don’t know how important the integration with the rest of the e-learning system would be.

But this in turn brings up the question, if wikis are used as a platform for constructing e-portfolio presentations, can we make them interoperable with other e-portfolio systems? It would be great if we could. I intend to ask around, and think around, this issue, and write more. The basic idea would be to get a new version of LEAP2 out – LEAP2R – that would be LEAP2 in RDFa – and then see if a wiki system can be tweaked to export and import XHTML+RDFa in LEAP2R format. We would of course also build transforms to convert between LEAP2A and LEAP2R.

Doing XML semantically

When looking at XML specifications, first look for what are the resources, or objects, or entities. When you have one of these contained in another, ask, what is their relationship? That will help inform a sensible version of the XML spec, if you really must have one.

Didn’t I do well getting the core ideas into less than however many words? OK, now for the full version…

Yesterday we (Scott and I) were visited by Karim Derrick of TAG Learning. Karim and TAG are championing a BSI initiative, scheduled to be BS 8518, for the transfer of assessment data – particularly focused on coursework. They are being generous: they are doing the development work, based on their own and their clients’ needs, and handing it over to BSI for standardisation, so that all can benefit.

One of the things that we are keen on in CETIS is doing standards and specifications in a sensible way. We have long had a strong line in discouraging people from doing ill-advised things (perhaps a bit like the supposed Google message of not being evil) but I’m not very well-adapted for that, so I welcome the complementary approach of positively trying to encourage people to do sensible things, which I think is gaining strength in CETIS. The inherent challenge is coming to some kind of collective view on how to standardise the subject matter in hand – even if this is, wait (until something happens), and only then, do it. Within this line of doing good things, one that we seem to agree on is to do with XML specifications. And so I come back to the main thrust of this post.

Doing XML semantically is what has happened in XCRI (thanks to Scott Wilson and others) and now, with my involvement, in LEAP2A. It is easy in an Atom-based specification to follow this pattern, because Atom’s simple basic structure invites any kind of portfolio item to be an entry, and the relationships between them to be Atom links. For the same reason, Atom tends to be easy to read. But it is not too difficult to do this as well in your own XML language, if you just take a little care. You should look at every element, to see whether it is a thing, a relationship, or data – in RDF terms, a resource, a property or predicate, or a literal. TAG’s draft specification has pupils, as it is designed primarily for schools, rather than students. Pupils are things, in these terms! It has centres, which are often where the teaching and the coursework assessment takes place. What is the relationship between a student and a centre? Just taking leave of the TAG proposal for a minute, and thinking of other possibilities, if there were always only one centre, and all the students belonged to that centre, there would be no need even to represent the students within (in XML terms) the centre. If there are different groups of students within a centre, it might make sense to have within the centre element, elements defining what the relationship is between the centre and this particular group of students.

Then, one part of the draft has pupil elements containing marksheets. Again, what is the relationship? If there is only one possible, you don’t need a container element standing between the pupil and individual marksheet elements. If there is more than one possible relationship, then it would make sense for to have a pupil element containing a wrapper for marksheets, and that wrapper would be associated with the relationship (properly; predicate in RDF terms).

I hope that gives some kind of hint, at least, on how to do XML in a way that makes sense both from the domain point of view, and semantically. The payoff is this. If the mapping to RDF is clear, then someone should be able, without too much difficulty, to create an XSLT to do the transform. Then, if someone else wants to do a different XML spec, or has already done so, and it also transforms to RDF, there is a good basis for knowing whether similar information presented in the two XML specs is actually the same, or not.

One particularly attractive version of this is to have an RDFa representation, which of course of its very nature yeilds RDF on transformation. So you can present exactly the same information in XHTML, readable by anyone in a browser, and formatted to make it easy to read and to understand, and still have all the information just as machine-processable as any XML spec. That’s just what I want to do for LEAP2.

All this is an extension on what I wrote earlier