The Benefits of Open Standards at JISC11

CETIS has been promoting and supporting the use of open standards and specifications in higher and further education for over 13 years. At the JISC conference yesterday we ran a session titled “The Benefits of Open Standards” to highlight some of the ways in which institutions are using standards behind the scenes to make life easier.

Paul Hollins, co-director of CETIS opened the session with the statement “Standards are the glue that hold systems together”. The aim of the session was to provide “real examples of how standards were being used” he said.

Wilbert Kraan followed with the “case for open standards” elaborating on the seven key roles that standards can play (as outlined in the 2009 briefing paper he wrote with Adam Cooper “Assessing the Business Case for Standards”

• Reduction in re-keying
• Reduced maintenance cost and disruption
• Durability of data
• Avoidance of lock-in
• Easier development paths
• Platform for collaboration
• Whole system economies

Wilbert concluded that the role of standards and specifications is to “codify the boring so that the exciting can happen on top of them”.

The first institutional example was presented by Patrick O’Reilly the IT Director at the University of Bolton. He described how he’d been persuaded to consider standards after sharing an office with CETIS for some years. The time to consider standards is often when systems need updating or changing, he said. He illustrated the point by describing how they had used the eXchanging Course Related Information (XCRI-CAP) specification when redesigning the Bolton Course database. Patrick described how during the role out of the new database the processes for producing the database were also updated so that the course prospectus is now produced from the new database directly, rather than being produced separately. This is lead to a significant reduction in re-keying of information into databases across the university. The second example was in migrating from WebCT to Moodle last year. Patrick explained that using existing standards for IMS content packaging and QTI meant that content was easy to migrate, saving staff time. Looking to the future Patrick stressed that there were further benefits for using standards, particularly in the university application process if UCAS adopts the XCRI-CAP standard.

Gary Wills and Bill Warburton, senior lecturers at Southampton, discussed how the IMS Question and Test Interoperability specification is being used at their institution. Gary opened with a brief overview of how QTI had developed and said it was a “good example of an open standard” because it had been developed by academics who understood the assessment process. Over a number of years Southampton has run JISC funded projects to develop QTI tools and pilot their use. The EASiHE project has used these tools with two student groups, higher surgical trainees and foundation and first year engineering maths students. Academics have been able to pool the questions they write and it has meant that they are not locked into any one assessment application. Bill Warburton discussed some of the problems of open standards, describing the process as a “three legged race” between system developers, standard developers and users, each having to wait for a response from the other before moving forward.

An open discussion followed for participants to question the speakers about the practicalities of using standards. This is a brief summary of some of the points raised. The first question was about the about the lack of standards for Cloud Computing, and whether Amazon and Microsoft would ever be persuaded to use Cloud standards. Referring to his earlier statement Wilbert replied that the problem was that the “Cloud is still too exciting”. When asked about how best to prepare developers for using standards, two different views emerged. At Southampton a top down approach of mandating the use of standards had been effective, whereas at Bolton persuading developers through examples elsewhere was more effective. Another question arose around adopting not only standards but standardised structures and frameworks and ways to integrate systems. These examples could help to build up a body of knowledge of standard implementations in the sector. One delegate questioned the competitive advantage to institutions in running their own email and learning environment systems, and suggested these might be areas to standardise or out source, but that standardising questions went to the heart of the teaching and learning process so institutions would be less likely to share. Gary Wills said that was true for some higher level courses, but not at entry level and probably not for formative assessment. The final comment in the discussion came from Brian Kelly from UKOLN who warned of the dangers of mandating standards and that the landscape of “open standards” was complex and not all standards can be considered truly “open”.

In summarising the session Paul Hollins said that when standards work “they become invisible”. Ten years ago work on the IMS enterprise spec had lead to its wide scale adoption in MIS systems, we don’t talk about it anymore because “it just works”, he said.

Feedback during the session was gather with the #cetisbos tag, Below are a few of the tweets:

#cetisbos #jisc11 QTI seems quite nice for representing assessment (only seen elevator pitch)

Open standards: business models of large scale suppliers huge barrier #jisc11 #cetisbos

Open standards become useful when they just work! (you don’t have to keep peeking under bonnet) #cetisbos

The discussion highlighted some of the draw backs of standards and specifications, but there are clearly situations in universities and colleges where they can be very useful and effective. We hope this session helped to encourage people to look again at using open standards.

The session presentations are available on the JISC 11 site

The CETIS white paper summarising the Future of Interoperability Standards event is also available on the CETIS website.

A Pre-release briefing paper is also available on the IMS QTI v2.1 specification

Information on XCRI-CAP is available on the XCRI site.