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Regional Pilot projects explore service oriented approaches

Christina Smart
Last modified 18 Jun, 2008
Published 18 Jun, 2008
A number of the Distributed e-Learning Regional Pilot projects explored the potential of web service technologies to provide flexible tools and systems to support regional learners. This article focuses on those projects that piloted service oriented approaches and will be of interest to those using web services in their institution.

Back in 2004 the JISC funded a set of projects in the English regions to look at how institutions could use technology to better serve learners in their particular area. These Regional Pilot projects (part of the larger Distributed e-Learning Programme) aimed to "explore the use of e-learning systems and tools across a number of institutions across higher and further education within a region to facilitate wider participation in Higher education and provide better opportunities for life long learners." [1]

Each of the 21 projects addressed one of three themes:

  • Facilitating progression
  • Collaborative teaching and sharing resources across institutions
  • Supporting the independent lifelong learner

The outcomes from this diverse set of projects have been very positive. In terms of regional collaboration the synthesis study for the programme concluded that "DeL was instrumental in extending active participation in e-learning research and development across FE and HE in England" [2]. The rationale for these projects and the experience gained has also been discussed by Johnson and Davies, in their paper "How can you pilot lifelong? The experiences of the JISC distributed e-learning regional pilot projects" [3]. User perspectives of the systems developed by the projects have been told in a set of recent "stories" as well as a podcast "Timeline to the future"[4], [5]. However these "stories" have focused on the learner experience rather than the underlying technologies that the projects used, this article will focus on those projects which used web service technologies and their experiences of piloting these new approaches.

The original call [6] also steered projects towards trialling web services through the then e-Learning Framework (which later became known as the e-Framework for Education and Research [7]). The service oriented approach – which usually encompasses the deployment of web services – was believed to offer a number of benefits including being able to offer increased flexibility for institutions without having to get rid of legacy MIS systems [8]. Wilson also proposed that using web services could potentially offer institutions greater pedagogical flexibility [9]. The JISC were therefore keen for institutions to explore the pros and cons of service oriented approaches and also to establish some capacity in the sector to develop and deploy open source web services.

At the time the web service approach to integrating technologies was new to educational institutions. Sarah Davies – the programme manager for the pilot projects – explains: "A number of the projects were very interested in the service oriented approach and wanted to see whether it was possible to develop systems and tools using web services" [10].

Broadly speaking the regional projects piloting web services fell into two groups, those that used Phosphorix’s ioNode technology and those that developed web services tools and systems in-house [11]. The projects are listed in the table below.

Project
Expanded title
Short description

Approach
 
EELLS

East of England lifelong learning support

Provided services for vocational learners including a personal web space, an e-portfolio tool as well as facilitating the transfer of lifelong learner records between FE and HE institutions. [12] ioNode technologies
PDP4Life

Personal development planning for progression and lifelong learning

Developed a specification for a learner record to merge outputs from formal and informal learning, and focused on learners in the creative industries. [13] ioNode technologies
The Learning Matrix

Created a portal for learners with information on bridging courses, and transfer of learner records. [14] ioNode technologies
L4All

Lifelong Learning in London for All

Developed a portal supporting learning pathways, PDP and e-portfolios. [15] In-house
MANSLE

Manchester self-directed learning and e-portfolios

Trialled a system built on services from HORUS and ePET to support reflection in students on foundation degrees.[16] In-house
SUNIWE

Created a portal for students giving them access to MIS and course information. [17] In-house

We contacted several members of the project teams to gather their reflections on what piloting service oriented approaches had been like.

Projects that used IoNode technology

The Learning Matrix, EELLS and PDP4Life projects based their systems on ioNode technology. ioNodes are open source middleware servers that broker messages and data exchange between distributed institutional systems and were first developed by Phosphorix for the SHELL project [11].

The Learning Matrix project piloted an ioNode driven portal to allow non-traditional students considering progression to HE to access appropriate learning opportunities from a partnership of FE/HE providers. A successor to the SHELL project, the Learning Matrix developed a decentralised distributed network of ioNodes and data. EELLS developed and piloted a portal-based e-portfolio service for life long learners within the East of England. PDP4Life developed Personal Development Planning frameworks and systems to enable learners to merge formal and informal records of learning into a single database.

What worked

For Phosphorix providing the technical input for a number of concurrent projects had clear benefits. Selwyn Lloyd director of Phosphorix commented; "Through being the technology partners in the EELLS, PDP4Life and the Learning Matrix projects we were able to provide joined up and open development." [18]

In terms of outputs Selwyn also noted: "The main product that emerged from this work was the ioPortal. However, since Learning Matrix required course information to be exchanged between systems we were able to also contribute to the development of the XCRI schema."

Clearly these developments represented the start of a longer term shift towards web service technologies. "For us these developments represent a long term investment of effort, so the successes of the regional pilot projects are only just beginning to be realised with current JISC Projects IONW2[19], SOLVS [20], PDP4XL2[21], MOVE XCRI[22], GMSA XCRI[23] and WCC XCRI [24]", said Selwyn.

Sarah Davies also reflected that; "the ioNodes work has raised awareness and appreciation in the community about what can be achieved with web service technologies".[10]

Emerging challenges

The ioNode projects faced a number of challenges in implementing these new technologies. One issue is the difficulty of assessing at the beginning of a project just what it will be possible to achieve during the lifetime of the project. Again Selwyn Lloyd observed, "The real challenge was that projects such as the SHELL and the Learning Matrix were ahead of their time in terms of our developing web services for distributed records of learning achievements and aggregated offerings for learning modules."

All the projects were developing systems or portals for consortia of institutions. Inevitably this raised issues for projects. "Dealing with many providers led to difficulties for projects in managing business level buy-in for projects and therefore continuation of funding", said Selwyn.

Projects also required buy-in from users of the systems they were developing. Johnson and Davies (2007) reflected that:

"The projects had a challenging remit: to pilot new technologies or systems that meet the needs of lifelong learners within what was originally a 12-15-month time span. Although many projects saw benefits over that timescale, the greater win for lifelong learning, and the rationale for tools which aren’t just institutionally based, inevitably comes from longer-term user needs. This was recognised by those learners who recognised the potential of the technology to support them, but were unwilling to invest time in something that might not be sustained: how can you pilot lifelong learning?" [3]

These are perennial issues for projects and institutions. The emergence of a number of web 2.0 tools during the lifetime of the projects meant that users were very tempted to choose these tools over those offered by institutional projects [3].

Next steps for ioNodes

A number of the current e-Learning capital projects will be taking the ioNode work forward through the Cross-institutional use of e-learning to support lifelong learners programmes [25]. Building on the Learning Matrix project, ioNode technologies are underpinning the SOLVS (Supporting Ongoing Learning in Vocational Settings) and IONW2 (Interoperability Network Northwest) projects which are building regional and sectoral portals for learners [20], [19]. Like Learning Matrix, SOLVS and IONW2 will also use the XCRI course related information specification also developed through the e-Learning Programme [26]

In-house developments

The SUNIWE, L4All and MANSLE projects took the in-house route to developing systems and tools based on service oriented approaches.

The SUNIWE project had aimed to create a portal of personalised content for learners and pilot it in the Staffordshire University Regional Federation and the Wales e-Training Network [17]. The project built on the work of NIIMLE which had pioneered the use of IMS Enterprise Web Services to create a portal across institutions in Northern Ireland. The NIIMLE and SUNIWE approach contrasts with the SHELL and Learning Matrix approach by creating a centralised data store and information flow rather than the aggregation from distributed data stores approach of SHELL and the Learning Matrix.

The goal of the MANSLE project was to demonstrate and evaluate how e-portfolio web services from a variety of sources could be aggregated to support learners undertaking their PDP and e-portfolio development activities [16].

L4All aimed to support lifelong learners in the London region by providing them with access to information and resources that would help them progress from school to FE and HE. The project created a portal in which learners could plan their own learning pathways [15].

Successes

Like the ioNode based projects, these projects experienced a certain degree of success, but felt that there was a steep learning curve for development teams getting grips with web service approaches. Again the success of these projects may be realised in the longer term. Reflecting on how the work of the MANSLE project is being taken forward, Mark Johnson noted:

"We were able through MANSLE to provide a critique of the e-portfolio web service situation at that time, which provided a precursor to other work on the Personal Learning Environment project". [27]

George Magoulas makes the following observations about L4All:

"In the project we successfully integrated a set of external services, tools and resources exhibiting high heterogeneity. Using a broad range of technologies and standards we built a prototype system that combines these external services, tools and resources with our own in-house customisation and development in order to provide a complete system for lifelong learners." [28]

Issues

Both MANSLE and L4All were building a on a number of existing services and tools already developed by the e-Learning Programme. For L4All integrating a number of heterogeneous tools and services was very challenging:

"In some cases, it was necessary to extend the external service in order to cover the full L4All requirements or to writing mapping code in order to translate metadata between our system and that supported by the external service." [29]

An issue that the MANSLE project confronted was around definitions of web services:

"It was evident from early analysis that the interpretation and definition of the concept of "web services" and a service oriented architecture is extremely broad…What the project team considered to be pure web services – that is elements of code which enable data to be imported manipulated and exported entirely separate from the application or software tool in which they site were found to be extremely limited in number and scope." [30]

For the SUNIWE project team providing adequate security was the biggest problem. Sam Rowley, technical director for the project remarks:

"Whilst some IMS Enterprise Web Service operations were implemented and the portal channels were created and demonstrated, we ran into a dead-end trying to secure access to the portal and Web services using Shibboleth (which was the focus of another tranche of funding). By the time we determined that Shibboleth was unsuitable for our purposes we had run out of time to pilot the portals." [31]

Current projects

Like the ioNode projects these developments are being taken forward through the current JISC projects which will run until March 2009 [25], [32]

SURF-WBL WAY is building on SUNIWE by providing a portal as “a gateway for use by work-based learners, tutors, employers and work-based mentors”[33]. The My Plan project will further develop L4All portal for lifelong learners to provide further functionality and a games based interface [34]. The work started through the MANSLE project is being taken forward through the SPLICE project [35].

Project teams clearly remain positive about the potential of web services. Sam Rowley from the SUNIWE project remarks:

"Despite the failure of the SUNIWE pilots, we learned a lot about portal and Web service development and we remain convinced of the vast potential of a service-based approach across SURF."

Conclusion

In their final review of the DeL Regional Pilots projects Glenaffric created a "family tree" of JISC projects, mapping the precursors and successors of each project, illustrating visually how projects build on previous work. What the family tree shows is that, like the toolkit and demonstrator projects, these first regional pilot projects have laid the foundations for future work on using service oriented approaches in UK HE and FE institutional systems [2], [36].

Adopting these approaches will not provide a quick fix for institutions and clearly involves a significant investment of effort. However these project teams believe that service oriented approaches offer institutions a level of additional flexibility in how they build systems to support different student groups.

In terms of other long term benefits Mark Johnson from the MANSLE project reflects that using web services has enabled "a move from a technologically-driven approach to lifelong learning towards a pedagogically-driven, learner-empowerment approach" .

Few in the sector would argue against such a move.

References

[1] Distributed e-Learning Programme Regional Pilots web site

[2] Final Review of the JISC Distributed e-Learning Regional Pilot Projects

[3] How can you pilot lifelong learning? The experiences of the JISC distributed e-learning regional pilot projects. Johnson and Davies (2007)

[4] Stories from the regional pilot projects

[5] Podcast:Timeline to the future

[6] Distributed e-Learning programme regional pilots call

[7] e-Framework for Education and Research

[8] Service Oriented Frameworks Modelling the infrastructure for the next generation of e-Learning Systems (2004) Wilson, Blinco and Rehak

[9] Can web service technology really help enable coherent diversity in e-learning? (2005) Wilson

[10] Sarah Davies, personal communication.

[11] IoNode technology on the Phosphorix web site

[12] EELLs East of England Lifelong Learning Support on the JISC web site

[13] PDP4Life on the JISC web site

[14] The Learning Matrix project on the JISC web site

[15] L4ALL project on the JISC web site

[16] MANSLE project on the JISC web site

[17] SUNIWE project web site

[18] Selwyn Lloyd personal communication

[19] IONW2 (Interoperability North West) project on the JISC web site

[20] SOLVS (Supporting Ongoing Learning in Vocational Settings) project on the JISC web site

[21] PDP4XL2 project on the JISC web

[22] MOVE XCRI on the JISC web site

[23] GMSA XCRI on the JISC web site

[24] WCC XCRI on the JISC web site

[25] Cross Institutional use of e-learning to support lifelong learners programme (phase 1)

[26] XCRI (Exchanging Course Related Information) project

[27] Mark Johnson personal communication

[28] George Magoulas personal communication

[29] L4All project final report (pdf file)

[30] MANSLE project final report (word doc)

[31] Sam Rowley personal communication

[32] Cross Institutional use of e-learning to support lifelong learners programme (phase 2)

[33] Surf WBL Way project on the JISC web site

[34] The My Plan project on the JISC web site

[35] The SPLICE project on the JISC web site

[36] Review of the Toolkit and Demonstrator projects (pdf file)

 

Supported by JISC Supported by CETIS
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