Educational Technology Standardization in Europe

The current situation in Europe regarding the whole process of standardization in the area of ICT for Learning Education and Training (LET) is up in the air just now, because of a conflict between how we, the participants, see it best proceeding, and how the formal de jure standards bodies are reinforcing their set up.

My dealings with European learning technology standardization colleagues in the last few years have probably been at least as much as any other single CETIS staff member. Because of my work on European Learner Mobility and InLOC, since 2009 I have attended most of the meetings of the Workshop Learning Technologies (which also has an official page), and I have also been involved centrally in the eCOTOOL and to a lesser extend in the ICOPER European projects.

So what is going on now — what is of concern?

In CETIS, we share some common views on the how the standardization process should be taken forward. During the course of specification development, it is important to involve people implementing them, and not just have people who theorise about them. In the case of educational technology, the companies who are most likely to use the interoperability specifications we are interested in tend to be small and agile. They are helped by specifications that are freely available, and available as soon as they are agreed. Having to pay for them is an unwelcome obstacle. They need to be able to implement the specifications without any constraints or legal worries.

However, over the course of this last year, CEN has reaffirmed long standing positions which don’t match our requirements. The issue centres partly around perceived business models. The official standards bodies make money from selling copies of standards documents. In a paper based, slow-moving world, one can see some sense in this. Documents may have been costly to produce, and businesses relying on a standard wanted a definitive copy. We see similar issues and arguments around academic publishing. In both fields, it is clear that the game is continuing to change, but hasn’t reached a new stable state yet. What we are saying is that, in our area, this traditional business model is never likely to be be justified, and it’s diffcult to imagine the revenues materialising.

The European learning technology standardization community have been lucky in past years, because the official standards bodies have tolerated activity which is not profitable for them. Now — we can only guess, because of financial belts being tightened — CEN at least is not going to continue tolerating this. Their position is set out in their freely available Guides.

Guide 10, the “Guidelines for the distribution and sales of CEN-CENELEC publications”, states:

Members shall exercise these rights in accordance with the provisions of this Guide and in a way that protects the integrity and value of the Publications, safeguards the interests of other Members and recognizes the value of the intellectual property that they contain and the costs to the CEN-CENELEC system of its development and maintenance.
In particular, Members shall not make Publications, including national implementations and definitive language versions, available free of charge to general users without the specific approval of the Administrative Boards of CEN and/or CENELEC.

And, just in case anyone was thinking of circumventing official sales by distributing early or draft versions, this is expressly forbidden.

6.1.1 Working drafts and committee drafts
The distribution of working drafts, committee drafts and other proceedings of CEN-CENELEC technical bodies and Working Groups is generally restricted to the participants and observers in those technical bodies and Working Groups and they shall not otherwise be distributed.

So there it is: specification development under the auspices of CEN is not allowed to be open, despite our view that openness works best in any case, and that it is genuinely needed in our area.

As if this were not difficult enough, the problems extend beyond the copyright of standards documentation. After a standard is agreed, it has to be “implemented”, of course. What kind of use is permitted, and under what terms? A fully open standard will allow any kind of use without royalty or any other kind of restriction, and this is particularly relevant to developers of free and open source software. One specification can build on another, and this can get very tricky if there are conditions attached to implementation of specifications. I’ve come across cases where a standardization body won’t reuse a specification because it is not clear that it is licenced freely enough.

So what is the CEN position on this? Guide 8 (December 2011) is the “CEN-CENELEC Guidelines for Implementation of the Common IPR Policy on Patent”. Guide 8 does say that the use of official standards is to be free of royalties, but at the end of Clause 4.1 one senses a slight hesitation:

The words “free of charge” in the Declaration Form do not mean that the patent holder is waiving all of its rights with respect to the essential patent. Rather, it refers to the issue of monetary compensation; i.e. that the patent holder will not seek any monetary compensation as part of the licensing arrangement (whether such compensation is called a royalty, a one-time licensing fee, etc.). However, while the patent holder in this situation is committing to not charging any monetary amount, the patent holder is still entitled to require that the implementer of the above document sign a licence agreement that contains other reasonable terms and conditions such as those relating to governing law, field of use, reciprocity, warranties, etc.

What does this mean in practice? It seems unclear in a way that could cause considerable concern. And when thinking of potential cumulative effects, Definition 2.9 defines “reciprocity” thus:

as used herein, requirement for the patent holder to license any prospective licensee only if such prospective licensee will commit to license, where applicable, its essential patent(s) or essential patent claim(s) for implementation of the same above document free of charge or under reasonable terms and conditions

Does that mean that the implementer of a standard can impose any terms and condition that are arguably reasonable on its users, including payments? Could this be used to change the terms of a derivative specification? We — our educational technology community — really don’t need this kind of unclarity and uncertainty. Why not have just a plain, open licence?

What seems to be happening here is the opposite of the arrangement known as “copyleft“. While under “copyleft”, any derivative work has to be similarly licenced, under the CEN terms, it seems that patent holders can impose conditions, and can allow companies implementing their patents to impose more conditions or charge any reasonable fees. Perhaps CEN recognises that they can’t expect everyone to give them all of the cake? To stretch that metaphor a bit, maybe we are guessing that much of the educational technology community — the open section that we believe is particularly important — has no appetite for that kind of cake.

The CEN Workshop on Learning Technologies has suspended its own proceedings for reasons such as the above, and several of us are trying to think of how to go forward. It seems that it will be fruitless to try to continue under a strict application of the existing rules. The situation is difficult.

Perhaps we need a different approach to consensus process governance. Yes, that reads “consensus process governance”, a short phrase, apparently never used before, but packed full of interesting questions. If we have heavyweight bodies sitting on top of standardization, it is no wonder that people have to pay (in whatever way) for those staff, those premises, that bureaucracy.

It is becoming commonplace to talk of the “1%” extracting more and more resource from us “99%“. (See e.g. videos like this one.) And naturally any establishment tends to seek to preserve itself and feather its own nest. But the real risk is that our community is left out, progressively deprived of sustenance and air, with the strongest vested interests growing fatter, continually trying to tighten their grip on effective control.

So, it is all the more important to find a way forward that is genuinely collaborative, in keeping with a proper consensus, fair to all including those with less resource, here in standardization as in other places in society. I am personally up for collaborating with others to find a better way forward, and hope that we will make progress together under the CETIS umbrella — or indeed any other convenient umbrella that can be opened.

InLOC and OpenBadges: a reprise

InLOC is well designed to provide the conceptual “glue” or “thread” for holding together structures and planned pathways of achievement, which can be represented by Mozilla OpenBadges.

Since my last post — the last of the previous academic year, also about OpenBadges and InLOC — I have been invited to talk at OBSEG – the Open Badges in Scottish Education Group. This is a great opportunity, because it involves engaging with a community with real aspirations for using Open Badges. One of the things that interests people in OBSEG is setting up combinations of lesser badges, or pathways for several lesser badges to build up to greater badges. I imagine that if badges are set up in this way, the lesser badges are likely to become the stepping stones along the pathway, while it is the greater badge that is likely to be of direct interest to, e.g., employers.

All this is right in the main stream of what InLOC addresses. Remember that, using InLOC, one can set out and publish a structure or framework of learning outcomes, competenc(i)es, etc., (called “LOC definitions”) each one with its own URL (or IRI, to be technically correct), with all the relationships between them set out clearly (as part of the “LOC structure”).

The way in which these Scottish colleagues have been thinking of their badges brings home another key point to put the use of InLOC into perspective. As with so many certificates, awards, qualifications etc., part of the achievement is completion in compliance with the constraints or conditions set out. These are likely not to be learning outcomes or competences in their own right.

The simplest of these non-learning-outcome criteria could be attendance. Attendance, you might say, stands in for some kind of competence; but the kind of basic timekeeping and personal organisation ability that is evidenced by attendance is very common in many activities, so is unlikely to be significant in the context of a Badge awarded for something else. Other such criteria could be grouped together under “ability to follow instructions” or something similar. A different kind of criterion could be the kinds of character “traits” that are not expected to be learned. A person could be expected to be cheerful; respectful; tall; good-looking; or a host of other things not directly under their control, and either difficult or impossible to learn. These non learning outcome aspects of criteria are not what InLOC is principally designed for.

Also, over the summer, Mozilla’s Web Literacy Standard (“WebLitStd”) has been progressing towards version 1.0, to be featured in the upcoming MozFest in London. I have been tracking this with the help of Doug Belshaw, who after great success as an Open Badges evangelist has been focusing on the WebLitStd as its main protagonist. I’m hoping soon (hopefully by MozFest time) to have a version of the WebLitStd in InLOC, and this brings to the fore another very pragmatic question about using InLOC as a representation.

Many posts ago, I was drawing out the distinction between LOC (that is, Learning Outcome or Competence) definitions that are, on the one hand, “binary”, and on the other hand, “rankable”. This is written up in the InLOC documentation. “Binary” ones are the ones for which you can say, without further ado, that someone has achieved this learning outcome, or not yet achieved it. “Rankable” ones are ones where you can put people in order of their ability or competence, but there is no single set of criteria distinguishing two categories that one could call “achieved” and “not yet achieved”.

In the WebLitStd, it is probably fair to say that none of the “competencies” are binary in these terms. One could perhaps characterise them as rankable, though perhaps not fully, in that there may be two people with different configurations of that competency, as a result perhaps of different experiences, each of whom were better in some ways than the other, and each conversely less good in other ways. It may well be similar in some of the Scottish work, or indeed in many other Badge criteria. So what to do for InLOC?

If we recognise a situation where the idea is to issue a badge for an achievement that is clearly not a binary learning outcome, we can outline a few stages of development of their frameworks, which would result in a progressively tighter matching to an InLOC structure or InLOC definitions. I’ll take the WebLitStd as illustrative material here.

First, someone may develop a badge for something that is not yet well-defined anywhere — it could have been conceived without reference to any existing standards. To illustrate this case, an example of a title could be “using Web sites”. There is no one component of the WebLitStd that covers “using the web”, and yet “using” it doesn’t really cover Web literacy as a whole. In this case, the Badge criteria would need to be detailed by the Badge awarder, specifically for that badge. What can still be done within OpenBadges is that there could be alignment information; however it is not always entirely clear what the relationship is meant to be between a badge and a standard it is “aligned” to. The simplest possibility is that the alignment is to some kind of educational level. Beyond this it gets trickier.

A second possibility for a single badge would be to refer to an existing “rankable” definition. For example, consider the WebLitStd skill, “co-creating web resources”, which is part of the “sharing & collaborating” competency of the “Connecting” strand. To think in detail about how this kind of thing could be badged, we need to understand what would count (in the eye of the badge issuer) as “co-creating web resources”. There are very many possible examples that readily come to mind, from talking about what a web page could have on it, to playing a vital part in a team building a sophisticated web service. One may well ask, “what experiences do you have of co-creating web resources?” and, depending on the answer, one could roughly rank people in some kind of order of amount and depth of experience in this area. To create a meaningful badge, a more clearly cut line needs to be drawn. Just talking about what could be on a web page is probably not going to be very significant for anyone, as it is an extremely common experience. So what counts as significant? It depends on the badge issuer, of course, and to make a meaningful badge, the badge issuer will need to define what the criteria are for the badges to be issued.

A third and final stage, ideal for InLOC, would be if a badge is awarded with clearly binary criteria. In this case there is nothing standing in the way of having the criteria property of the Badge holding a URL for a concept directly represented as a binary InLOC LOCdefinition. There are some WebLitStd skills that could fairly easily be seen as binary. Take “distinguishing between open and closed licensing” as an example. You show people some licenses; either they correctly identify the open ones or they don’t. That’s (reasonably) clear cut. Or take “understanding and labeling the Web stack”. Given a clear definition of what the “Web stack” is, this appears to be a fairly clear-cut matter of understanding and memory.

Working back again, we can see that in the third stage, a Badge can have criteria (not just alignments) which refer directly to InLOC information. At the second and first stage, badge criteria need something more than is clearly set out in InLOC information already published elsewhere. So the options appear to be:

  1. describing what the criteria are in plain text, with reference to InLOC information only through alignment; and
  2. defining an InLOC structure specifically for the badge, detailing the criteria.

The first of these options has its own challenges. It will be vital to coherence to ensure that the alignments are consistent with each other. This will be possible, for example, if the aspects of competence covered are separate (independent; orthogonal even). So, if one alignment is to a level, and the second to a topic area, that might work. But it is much less promising if more specific definitions are referred to.

(I’d like to write an example at this point, but can’t decide on a topic area — I need someone to give me their example and we can discuss it and maybe put it here.)

From the point of view of InLOC, the second option is much more attractive. In principle, any badge criteria could be analysed in sufficient detail to draw out the components which can realistically be thought of as learning outcomes — properties of the learners — that may be knowledge, skill, competence, etc. No matter how unusual or complex these are, they can in principle be expressed in InLOC form, and that will clarify what is really “aligned” with what.

I’ll say again, I would really like to have some well-worked-out examples here. So please, if you’re interested, get in touch and let’s talk through some of interest to you. I hope to be starting that in Glasgow this week.

A new (for me) understanding of standardization

When engaging deeply in any standardization project, as I have with the InLOC project, one is likely to get new insights into what standardization is, or should be. I tried to encapsulate this in a tweet yesterday, saying “Standardization, properly, should be the process of formulation and formalisation of the terms of collective commitment”.

Then @crispinweston replied “Commitment to whom and why? In the market, fellow standardisers are competitors.” I continued, with the slight frustration at the brevity of the tweet format, “standards are ideally agreed between mutually recognising group who negotiate their common interest in commitment”. But when Crispin went on “What role do you give to the people expected to make the collective commitment in drafting the terms of that commitment?” I knew it was time to revert from micro-blogging to macro-blogging, so to speak.

Crispin casts me in the position of definer of roles — I disclaim that. I am trying, rather, firstly to observe and generalise from my observations about what standardization is, when it is done successfully, whether or not people use or think of the term “standardization”, and secondly, to intuit a good and plausible way forward, perhaps to help grow a consensus about what standardization ought to be, within the standardization community itself.

One of the challenges of the InLOC project was that the project team started from more or less carte blanche. Where there is a lot of existing practice, standardization can (in theory at least) look at existing practice, and attempt to promote standardization on the best aspects of it, knowing that people do it already, and that they might welcome (for various reasons) a way to do it in just one way, rather than many. But in the case of InLOC, and any other “anticipatory” standard, people aren’t doing closely related things already. What they are doing is publishing many documents about the knowledge, skills, competence, or abilities (or “competencies”) that people need for particular roles, typically in jobs, but sometimes as learners outside of employment. However, existing practice says very little about how these should be structured, and interrelated, in general.

So, following this “anticipatory” path, you get to the place where you have the specification, but not the adoption. How do you then get the adoption? It can only be if you have been either lucky, in that you’ve formulated a need that people naturally come to see, or that you are persuasive, in that you persuade people successfully that it is what they really (really) want.

The way of following, rather than anticipating, practice certainly does look the easier, less troubled, surer path. Following in that way, there will be a “community” of some sort. Crispin identifies “fellow standardisers” as “competitors” in the market. “Coopetition” is a now rather old neologism that comes to mind. So let me try to answer the spirit at least of Crispin’s question — not the letter, as I am seeing myself here as more of an ethnographer than a social engineer.

I envisage many possible kinds of community coming together to formulate the terms of their collective commitments, and there may be many roles within those communities. I can’t personally imagine standard roles. I can imagine the community led by authority, imposing a standard requirement, perhaps legally, for regulation. I can imagine a community where any innovator comes up with a new idea for agreeing some way of doing things, and that serves to focus a group of people keen to promote the emerging standard.

I can imagine situations where an informal “norm” is not explicitly formulated at all, and is “enforced” purely by social peer pressure. And I can imagine situations where the standard is formulated by a representative body of appointees or delegates.

The point is that I can see the common thread linking all kinds of these practices, across the spectrum of formality–informality. And my view is that perhaps we can learn from reflecting on the common points across the spectrum. Take an everyday example: the rules of the road. These are both formal and informal; and enforced both by traffic authorities (e.g. police) and by peer pressure (often mediated by lights and/or horn!)

When there is a large majority of a community in support of norms, social pressure will usually be adequate, in the majority of situations. Formal regulation may be unnecessary. Regulation is often needed where there is less of a complete natural consensus about the desirability of a norm.

Formalisation of a norm or standard is, to me, a mixed blessing. It happens — indeed it must happen at some stage if there is to be clear and fair legal regulation. But the formalisation of a standard takes away the natural flexibility of a community’s response both to changing circumstances in general, and to unexpected situations or exceptions.

Time for more comment? You would be welcome.

The pragmatics of InLOC competence logic

(21st in my logic of competence series.)

Putting together a good interoperability specification is hard, and especially so for competence. I’ve tried to work into InLOC as many of the considerations in this Logic of Competence series as I could, but these are all limited by the scope of a pragmatically plausible goal. My hypothesis is that it’s not possible to have a spec that is at the same time both technically simple and flexible, and intuitively understandable to domain practitioners.

Here I’ll write now about why I believe that, and later follow on to finalise on the pragmatics of the logic of competence as represented by InLOC.

Doing a specification like InLOC gives one an opportunity to attract all kinds of criticism from people, much of it constructive. No attempts to do such a spec in the past have been great successes, and one wonders why that is. Some of the criticism I have heard has helped me to formulate the hypothesis above, and I’ll try to explain my reasoning here.

Turn the hypothesis on its head. What would make it possible to have a spec that is technically simple, and at the same time intuitively understandable to domain practitioners? Fairly obviously, there would have to be a close correspondence between the objects of the domain of expertise, and the constructs of the specification.

For each reader, there may appear to be a simple solution. Skills, competences, learning outcomes, etc., have this structure — don’t they? — and so one just has to reproduce that structure in the information model to get a workable interoperability spec that is intuitively understandable to people — well, like me. Well, “not”, as people now say as a one-word sentence.

Actually, there is great diversity in the ways people conceive of and structure learning outcomes, competences and the like. Some structures have different levels of the same competence, others do not. Some competences are defined in a binary fashion, that allows one to say “yes” or “no” to whether people have that competence; other competences are defined in a way that allows people to be ranked in order of that competence. Some competence structures are quite vague, with what look like a few labels that give an indication of the kinds of quality that someone is looking for, without defining what exactly those labels mean. Some structures — particularly level frameworks like the EQF — are deliberately defined in generic terms that can apply across a wide range of areas of knowledge and skill. And so on.

This should really be no surprise, because it is clear from many people’s work (e.g. my PhD thesis) that different people simplify complex structures in their own different ways, to suit their own purposes, and in line with their own backgrounds and assumptions. There is, simply, no way in which all these different approaches to defining and structuring competence can be represented in a way that will make intuitive sense to everyone.

What one can do is to provide a relatively simple abstract representation that can cover all kinds of existing structures. This is just what InLOC is aiming to do, but up to now we haven’t been quite clear enough about that. To get to something that is intuitive for domain practitioners, one needs to rely on tools being built that reflect, in the user interface, the language and assumptions of that particular group of practitioners. The focus for the “direct” use of the spec then clearly shifts onto developers. What, I suggest, developers need is a specification adapted to their needs — to build those interfaces for domain practitioners. The main requirements of this seem to me to be that the spec:

  1. gives enough structure so that developers can map any competence structure into that format;
  2. does not have any unnecessary complexity;
  3. gives a readily readable format, debuggable by developers (not domain practitioners).

So when you look at the draft InLOC CWAs, or even better if you come to the InLOC dissemination event in Brussels on 16th April, you know what to expect, and you know the aims against which to evaluate InLOC. InLOC offers no magic wand to bring together incompatible views of diverse learning outcome and competence structures. But it does offer a relatively simple technical solution, that allows developers who have little understanding of competence domains to develop tools that really do match the intuitions of various domain practitioners.

Three InLOC drafts for CEN Workshop Agreements are currently out for public comment — links from the InLOC home page — please do comment if you possibly can, and please consider coming to our dissemination event in Brussels, April 16th.

Future Learners, new Opportunities and Technology

The wider CETIS community has often appreciated meeting up, with others sharing the same “special interests”, in “SIG” meetings. That kind of meeting took place, including old “Portfolio” SIG participants, on 11th Dec in Nottingham, and many interesting points came up.

The people who came to the meeting would not all use the label “portfolio”. We billed the meeting as exploring issues from the viewpoint of the learner, so neither institutions, nor providers of learning resources, were the focus. The e-portfolio community has indeed had the learner at the centre of thinking, but this meeting had many ideas that were not specifically “portfolio”.

Indeed, the main attraction of the day was Doug Belshaw talking, and leading a workshop, on the Mozilla Open Badges concept and technology. Badges are not in themselves portfolios, though they do seem to fit well into the same “ecosystem”, which perhaps may come gradually to supplant the current system of the established educational institutions monopolising the award of degrees, with those being necessary for many jobs. And Doug converted people! Several attendees who had not previously been convinced of the value of badges now saw the light. That can only be good.

For those with doubts, Doug also announced that the Mozilla team had agreed to introduce a couple more pieces of metadata into the Open Badges specification. That is definitely worth looking at closely, to see if we can use that extra information to fill gaps that have been perceived. One of these new metadata elements looks like it will naturally link to a definition of skill, competence, or similar, in the style of InLOC, which of course I think is an excellent idea!

The “lightning talks” model worked well, with 10 speakers given only 5 minutes each to speak. The presentations remain listed on the meeting web page, with a link to the slides. Topics included:

  • board games
  • peer assessment
  • students producing content
  • placement and employability

My own contribution was an outline argument of the case that InLOC is positioned to unlock a chain of events, via the vital link of employers taking non-institutional credentials seriously, towards “reinvigorating the e-portfolio landscape”.

So learner-focused learning technology community is alive and well, and doing many good things.

In parallel with the badges workshop, a small group including me talked over more subtle issues. For me, a key point is the need to think through the bigger picture of how badges may be used in practice. How will we differentiate between the likely plethora of badges that will be created and displayed? How will employers, for example, distinguish the ones that are both relevant to their interests, and issued by reputable people or bodies? Looking at the same question another way, what does it take to be the issuer of badges that are genuinely useful, and that will really help the labour market move on? Employers are no more going to wade through scores of badges than they currently wade through the less vital sections of an e-portfolio.

We could see a possible key idea here as “badging the badgers”. If we think through what is needed to be responsible for issuing badges that are really useful, we could turn that into a badge. And a very significant badge it would be, too!

The local arrangements were ably looked after by the Nottingham CIePD group, which seems to be the most active and highly-regarded current such group in UK HE. Ever since, under Angela Smallwood, Nottingham pioneered the ePARs system, they have consistently been in the forefront of developments in this area of learning technology. I hope that they, as well as other groups, will be able to continue work in this area, and continue to act as focal points for the learner-centric learning technology community.

InLOC: the reason for lack of posts

InLOC has been taking up more and more of my non-CETIS time, and along with other pressures, I have not got round to posting here for two whole months. Here are my good intentions…

First, I will try to tweet more, particularly with the hashtag #InLOC, which fortunately no one outside the InLOC projects seems to have used. If readers have anything relevant to say which touches InLOC concerns, please feel free to use that hashtag. I started this just a few days ago, as you can see with a Twitter search, about a newly published European document called “Rethinking education: investing in skills for better socio-economic outcomes“, which among other things takes forward the argument that we need “more focus on ‘learning outcomes’ – the knowledge, skills and competences that students acquire”. This is just the kind the boost we need to take InLOC into mainstream awareness. This is what I tweeted…

Via @philbarker New EC strategy “Rethinking Education” http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-12-1233_en.htm … < – useful for #InLOC

I am very industriously working at present with the InLOC team to get drafts of our deliverables ready in good time — we are tasked to draft three CWAs: “CEN Workshop Agreements”. As part of this, I will try to work in reading the Rethinking Education strategy, and to refer to any key arguments as part of the InLOC deliverables.

I have also been meaning to continue the “logic of competence” series, now started over two years ago, and bring readers up to date with the latest conclusions of InLOC.

Well, good intentions perhaps, but I hope that the act of writing this down publicly will help galvanise my efforts to produce the goods! I would also be most grateful for any prompts from anyone who follows this part of my work, and who would like to know more.

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.