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The community sets priorities for the e-Framework

Sarah Holyfield and Christina Smart
Last modified 17 Jan, 2007
Published 08 Dec, 2005
The second JISC/CETIS Conference was held at Heriot Watt University, Edinburgh, on the 15th and 16th November. This, now annual, conference brings together many of the development community, particularly those working on JISC funded projects, along with domain experts and policy makers from further afield including the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and the Netherlands.

Places were limited and all the presentations are available with podcasts and slides on the website in case you missed it!

Please note - since this conference took place the e-Framework website has changed location and all the presentations and podcasts are available from the new conference site

About the conference

The original incentive for the first conference was the (then) new JISC e-Learning Programme, a strand of which was funding many technical development projects. That conference was concerned with looking at the domains in which development was taking place, sharing what was happening and taking this forward into the coming year. This year’s conference followed a similar pattern in exploring the work that has taken place over the last year and in planning for the future.

The focus of last year’s conference was the e-Learning Framework (ELF), which is based on a service oriented approach to technical infrastructure for e-Learning. One of the key developments that has taken place in the last twelve months is the creation of the e-Framework for Education and Research, which has broadened beyond the ELF to include the domains of research and administration. It has an international scope, with JISC and DEST (Australia) as partners, along with the Ministry of Education in New Zealand and SURF in the Netherlands as corresponding partners. In her introductory talk Sarah Porter, JISC’s Head of Development, explained how the e-Framework will ‘provide a coherent approach across all development areas’.

The conference addressed a number of domain areas within e-learning in some depth, but the gathering of many international colleagues also provided an opportunity for many meetings exploring the next phase of the e-Framework.

It is clear that a major shift in thinking is taking place away from the traditional patterns of provision of IT infrastructure that most institutions and colleges are familiar with, to a service oriented approach to e-learning. However there is a need to balance the tensions that arise between this exploratory work which doesn’t yet have any hard and fast answers, and the need to develop real artefacts and move towards institutional transformation.

The role of reference models has also emerged as an important area of work and this was a primary focus for the discussions that took place in the parallel themes. The key role these models play was explored in some depth by both Bill Olivier and Dan Rehak in their keynotes at the beginning of the conference. Whilst there seems to be a consensus about the significance of reference models for the e-Framework, there is considerable, and very interesting, debate taking place about what they actually are. Dan Rehak explored this question in his keynote. The challenge is to develop a shared understanding of this approach as we move forward.

Other progress that has taken place since the last conference include the many development and reference model projects funded through the JISC e-Learning Programme, the publication of e-learning strategies by both the DfES and HEFCE, the emergence of personalised learning as a key theme, and of course the rapid ongoing technical evolution of the internet itself.

A conference like this therefore plays a crucial role in bringing the community of developers, domain experts and policy makers together to share progress, explore common problems, debate issues and set the agenda for the future.

Opening plenaries

The conference was chaired by Oleg Liber.

Introducing the e-Framework

Sarah Porter, Head of Development for JISC

Sarah reflected on what had happened in the last year by asking – what ever happened to the ELF? Since last year the framework has evolved into the e-framework which has a broader scope and includes e-science and e-admin as well as e-learning. By developing a coherent approach the JISC is hoping to better support institutions by not asking them to implement infrastructures that are incompatible.

In addition to a broader scope the e-framework is now international - a joint venture between JISC and DEST with corresponding members including the Ministry of Education in New Zealand and SURF in the Netherlands.

The e-framework has three levels -

  • A Roadmap of education and system components
  • Consistent specifications, standards and documents
  • Technologies integration, including the toolkit, demonstrator and reference model projects.

Sarah illustrated this third level with two of the projects from the framework and tools strand of the e-learning programme, Making Tracks and Brockenhurst’s e-registers toolkit .

In the coming year the e-framework web site will be developed under the steer of the new e-framework editor Jon Mason. A new governance and stewardship model for the framework is also under development. The JISC are interested in fostering more participation from the commercial sector.

Sarah finished by discussing how the reference model projects are working in various areas trying to identify shared problems and develop common solutions.

Full presentation and audio

Why Reference models?

Bill Olivier Head of Technical Development for JISC

JISC is funding a number of reference models for a number of e-learning domains. Bill Olivier addressed this question by looking at the following areas:

  • what makes successful software development?
  • how can we sustain JISC funded software?
  • how can we involve the user community?
  • how can we make links between users and the services that support them?

Bill quoted the Chaos report of 1994 (updated 200?) which found that very few software development projects deliver on time and budget. A key factor in successful developments is user involvement. Historically the waterfall model of development has been used – but that is based on one piece of bespoke software being developed for a single organisation. More recently agile development approaches have grown in popularity – but they still apply to bespoke software. The types of development that JISC engages in are for multiple organisations.

In line with government policy JISC is developing open source software to encourage open development. However this means that developments need to have active user and developer communities by the time project funding ends to make them sustainable.

Reference Models provide a means of bridging the worlds of users and underlying technical services, although the name “reference models” may not be the right term. The JISC projects include a human domain map which defines stakeholders and purposes, functions and tasks. Another element should look at patterns, practices, processes and workflows – including what is happening now and what will be happening in the future. Bill presented how the technical element of a reference model might fit (map to) with an organisations needs.

Full presentation and audio

What Reference Models exist?

Dan Rehak Carnegie Mellon University

Dan had gathered information on existing reference models. At last year’s conference he showed a large number of e-learning systems architectures to demonstrate that there are many different and complex diagrams to represent systems. This year Dan had gathered a number of diagrams of reference models (and set them to music – Vivace’s Four Scottish Dances!). Established Reference models he looked at included SCORM, OSI, OAIS.

Dan gave an overview of the OSI, HL7 and SCORM models and concluded that abstract models can be successful, but these models may be very different from each other.

Dan suggested that in relation to the e-framework the reference models would provide a third dimension to the landscape, where the reference models float on top of the framework which floats above a sea of services. Dan finished with a set of questions:

  • What is a reference model?
  • Who is it for?
  • How will it be maintained developed and described?
  • And what consistency is required across models and processes? Which business processes need to be supported?

Full presentation and audio

e-framework web site

Jon Mason Editor, e-Framework

Jon is the newly appointed editor of the e-Framework. He spoke briefly about the e-Framework web site which is currently being scoped which will aim to have broad input and participation. Jon emphasized the need for a consistent way of presenting the outputs from projects and developing a common terminology. Jon used the metaphor of musical harmony which needs a unique mixture of dissonance and consonance to produce a harmony, we need to find a "harmonised common vocabulary".

Audio file from this presentation

Questions

At the end of the opening plenary the speakers responded to questions from the floor. Questions ranged from how accessibility issues are being addressed by the framework to whether reference models are static or whether they evolve. The question of how projects involve users was raised, and also how specific disciplines and professions are represented in the e-Framework. The panel were asked to identify the "low hanging fruit", projects that could provide quick wins. Finally one delegate suggested that in terms of selling the e-Framework to stakeholders we could learn from sales techniques where it is known that selling benefits works better than selling features.

Themes and report back sessions.

A central element of this conference was to explore a series of themes in some depth. Most of the themes for this year matched those from last year which allowed attendees to look at progress in their domain. The domains themselves are at different levels of maturity, ranging from e-assessment which has been worked on for many years to personal learning environments which is a relatively new domain area. Challenges and priorities for work for the year ahead were identified and all the themes presented their discussions to the whole conference in the final plenary.

The strands were:

  • Repositories
  • Assessment
  • e-Portfolio & PDP
  • Institution level system integration
  • Learning Design
  • Collaboration and innovation
  • Personal Learning/Research environments

All the presentations and sound recordings from the individual sessions and the plenaries are available from the conference web site and are recommended to those who are interested (no talks are longer than 20 minutes). Despite the distinctive areas being addressed, it was clear by the end of the conference how many shared areas of interest there were. A short summary of the plenary from each theme is provided below.

Systems Integration

Presented by Mark Stubbs

The world of systems integration means working in two domains simultaneously – the world of business processes, and that of technical development. Last year it was recognised that there was something that could not be characterised as either e-learning or e-research. There was a set of common problems needing common solutions, such as pulling together data that can be used for tracking from different systems such as VLEs and student record systems, or the question of managing versions for archiving purposes. There is a need to engage vendors because of the strategic decisions that are being made.

Much progress has been made, and Mark outlined the many projects that have been involved and the fruitful collaborations that have taken place. Draft specs are beginning to be used in regional pilot projects, and much more is understood about the domain. The area this group was concerned with now has an identity – ‘e-Admin’.

Tracking and archiving remain shared problems, and more have joined the list. There is a need to integrate these – authoring, e-portfolio, transcripts, versioning, assessment etc, and to bring the work that is taking place in reference models such as XCRI and COVARM, regional pilots and the Information Environment together. The question of engaging stakeholders was critical and there was a need to bridge the gap of ‘techie stuff’ and people and processes.

e-Admin can make a ‘BIG difference’ and enable the business of education to be carried more effectively in order to make space for learners and teachers to do their work.

Presentations and podcasts from this theme and plenary report back

Session facilitators – Scott Wilson and Sam Easterby-Smith

e-Portfolio

Presented by Peter Rees Jones and Simon Grant

In the world of lifelong learning, a learner will find themselves using a range of eportfolios from different educational, training and professional organisations and employers, so the key question is how these can be presented and used as an integrated whole. The eportfolio theme of the conference explored this area and focussed on the role of the eportfolio reference model project the technical and pedagogical issues it is addressing, any gaps that exist and priorities for the next period. A workshop took place to look at a key issue, develop a service flow related to it and identify the role of dialogue and mobile technology. This group then explored the nature of the specifications and standards that need to be developed and the concept of a ‘thin e-portfolio reference model for web services’.

In the plenary presentation, Peter and Simon discussed the range of reference models that were needed, and the ways in which some ‘low hanging fruit’ could be gathered which would demonstrate web services in action, such as admissions web services, and the question of integrating evidence of achievement from multiple sources. The concept of a thin ePortfolio was discussed which would join up ePortfolio-enabled services and ePortfolio-enabled repositories, however this would raise a number of issues including security and privacy, scalability, and multilinguality. Other issues identified included the question of ‘trusted providers’, and the fact that at present eportfolios relate to formal institutions, eventually they should also be available to non-institutional learners. There is a need to converge on ‘lightweight, functionally cohesive specifications’, and the CETIS LIPSIG is being renamed to become the ePortfolio SIG.

Presentations and podcasts from this theme and plenary report back

Session facilitators – Peter Rees Jones and Simon Grant

Repositories

Presented by Julie Allinson

The repositories working group sought to define some of the known unknowns in this domain. Although there is no current reference model project in this domain it is a mature area with widespread deployment of repositories both nationally and institutionally. Key tasks are to construct a typology/ecology of repositories and from that to define common repository services. The group considered the question of whether a new reference model for repositories is necessary or the existing OAIS model is sufficient as a high level model. In the next year there will be a focus on the issues such as defining a deposit API, handling complex objects, packaging, federation and integration with other systems. The JISC Digital Repositories Programme support team will seek to establish a dialogue within the development community about a deposit API for repositories. They will also scope the potential use of OAIS as a repositories reference model seeking input from the wider communities of JISC, the CETIS Metadata and Digital Repository SIG and UKOLN through discussion and meetings. Hopefully in the course of this work the unknown unknowns will emerge.

Presentations and podcasts from this theme and plenary report back

Session facilitators – Lorna M. Campbell and Phil Barker

Assessment

Presented by Hugh Davies

The assessment working group considered the priorities and challenges for the coming year by focusing on the reference model project and item banking.

The FREMA project ran a workshop on day one to evaluate the outcomes of the project so far. The FREMA model has a number of layers which narrow into a pyramid. At the base of the pyramid is the domain map, followed by common usage patterns, use cases, gap analysis service profiles, with the reference implementation at the tip. Issues raised during the workshop included, how will resources such as the CAA Centre be maintained?, How can JISC promote innovative practice? How do reference models work together?

On day two this group focussed on item banking considering issues of development, maintenance and item exchange. There were presentations from the Item banks infrastructure study, and Cambridge Assessment on data migration issues. The group felt that item banking should be promoted in the HE and FE sectors, since this is the reason for systems to interoperate between institutions.

Priorities identified by the assessment group included the sustainability of project teams and their technologies, for example the RQP (Remote Question Protocol) project. The group also discussed whether there needs to be an effort to promote the use of the QTI2 specification. JISC should also prioritise funding for client tools as well as services, since this would drive engagement and adoption in the wider JISC community.

Presentations and podcasts from this theme and plenary report back

Session facilitators – Rowin Young and Steve Jeyes

Learning Design

Presented by Patrick Mc Andrew

At last year’s conference this group stressed that learning design is not just another brick in the wall, since learning flow could orchestrate services together. Since then more working tools have become available such as SLED and RELOAD and are being used in the SLIDE demonstrator project. In addition, in Europe UNFOLD has become an active community for discussing learning design. To begin with this group explored what future technologies might be required in the learning design domain in a workshop. Groups then worked on ideas which were presented by different groups as mini plays. Ideas included a hospital simulation for medical students, a deductive learning activity framework and a curriculum mapper.

Presentations on day two included a presentation on the Learning to Learn project addressing how staff developers might need to mediate learning design to make it more accessible to teachers. The LADIE project presented their work on the development of a reference model for learning design. The project has mapped the problem space distinguishing pedagogy, process and services layers.

Like other projects LADIE is exploring the balance between a reference model that is an abstract analysis about what the world should be like and a concrete model about what already exists. Patrick concluded that learning design is a ‘Bridge over troubled water’ between pedagogy and technology which also relates to other areas of the e-framework. However there is still a need for more user friendly tools and projects to help real teachers use learning design with real students.

Presentations and podcasts from this theme and plenary report back

Session facilitators – Lisa Corley and Sheila MacNeill

Personal Learning Environments

Presented by Chuck Severance

This domain is only a year old but is gaining popularity and is a major theme in the DfES e-learning strategy. VLEs have been the focus of institutional e-learning in recent years – but the concept of personal learning environments is relatively new and needs scoping. This group discussed the notion of enhancing a user’s desktop into a learning environment. The group had a number of demonstrations and talks on the first day from the Manchester Framework project, the Learning Matrix, Sakai, PLEX (a portal prototype PLE) and Eclipse (a desktop prototype PLE).

The second day focused on the Personal Learning Environment Reference Model Project, with a lively discussion about the purpose of the reference model and some brainstorming to produce two models, one which defined the problem space and one which outlined a possible plug-in based architecture for a desktop PLE. For the coming year this group set the following priorities: to explore the relationship between PLEs and VLEs, and to develop and test prototypes and to explore how much the reference model work can be applied to research and information environments. The fundamental question to address is whether PLEs will be better for users than VLEs.

Presentations and podcasts from this theme and plenary report back

Session facilitators – Oleg Liber and Sharon Perry

Collaboration and innovation

Presented by Wilbert Kraan

This group began by discussing what this domain covers. Activities covered include a diverse range of social technologies, including chat and whiteboard, blogs/wikis. The group discussed service provider categories, and the distinction between social software that users can build on their own and Enterprise software which is installed in an institution. The problem is that at the moment formal education can ignore social software and vice versa, but there needs to be a way in which the two can interact. This idea links to the tension between PLEs and VLEs highlighted by the PLE group. The group discussed which activities the e-Framework needs to support these technologies in the areas of identity management, but also what reference models are needed in this area? This group had presentations about FOAF (Friend of a Friend) networks, ID management in the Netherlands, Elgg Learning Landscape and the LUSID projects.

Presentations and podcasts from this theme and plenary report back

Session facilitators – Wilbert Kraan and Paul Hollins

Feedback

Below are some comments about the conference.

Mark Stiles: It was a really good use of my time

Jon Mason: I wish we (Australia) had such an engaged community!...

.The areas of overlap between repositories, e-portfolios, and PLE/PRE certainly vindicates the analytical services-based approach being developed within the scope of the e-Framework. I really liked the one-liner from the Integration workshop report back that 'there's something important that's not directly e-learning or e-research – the shared integration problems in need of common solutions'. I agree that this might describe e-Admin but I also feel it is commentary that spans the whole scope of the e-Framework.

Jim Farmer: A historical perspective suggests the (JISC/CETIS) conferences and producing benefits that are not recognised, and will be worth much more than the cost…

..benefits include: Sharply improved IT management Better IT architecture Facilitating the transformation of Higher Education

Jim Farmer and Justin E. Tilton have written a report on the conference.

Brian Kelly: The event provided a valuable networking opportunity. Many thanks for providing this opportunity.

Mark Stubbs: The conference also provided an excellent opportunity to find out about and learn from other projects, UK and further afield.

See Mark’s summary of the significant progress made during the conference for the XCRI project on their blog

Chuck Severance: I felt that the best value was the communication between the interested projects. My guess is this contributes greatly to multi-project progress in this emerging area.

Steven Warburton: A key aspect that came out of the recent JISC/CETIS conference at Herriot Watt (for me) was the fascinating debate around the approaches to the issues of control, ownership and authority in relation to identity … issues that were constantly highlighted throughout the day by two fundamentally different philosophies.:

  1. Organic bottom up production of content/identity controlled by the individual and distributed across a number of domains:
  2. The other side is a model of identity controlled and categorised by framework of standards and set of categories that work in a top down fashion …

Steven’s full comments can be found on his blog

The feedback was overwhelmingly positive, some attendees suggested a little more time "for crosstalk", and to look at the reference model projects as a theme would also be useful. The conference provided an opportunity for sharing, discussing and agenda setting in this rapidly developing area, and it will very interesting to see the progress that has been made by this time next year!

 

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