Leap2A: Developing Portfolio Interoperability
Last modified 16 May, 2011
Published 16 May, 2011
The notion of lifelong learning is now almost universally accepted and in recent years there has been a rapid increase in the number of e-portfolio tools and systems in universities and colleges to support lifelong learning.
But technology supported lifelong learning has a fundamental problem; technologies change over a lifetime. Everyone will have some experience of this. Personally speaking, I no longer own a computer that will read the 3.5 inch floppy disks that my PhD thesis is stored on. And when it comes to storing a lifetime of learning resources and reflections that problem becomes more acute. For learners moving through the education system it is at points of transition, between school and college, college and university, university and professional body when they will want to move their data from one system to another.
To address the problem JISC CETIS and JISC have been working with a small community of system developers to create Leap2A, a simple specification for transferring data between e-portfolio systems and tools . Since 2007 the JISC e-Learning programme has funded a number of pilot projects on portfolio interoperability (PIOP) to test the specification  .
I spoke to a Lisa Gray and Rob Englebright JISC programme managers, Simon Grant from JISC CETIS, Shane Sutherland Director at Pebble Learning and Karim Derrick Development Director from TAG Developments ltd to discover the story so far.
The rationale behind the Leap2A spec development
Like a number of CETIS success stories the Leap2A story began in a CETIS Special Interest Group. Simon Grant from JISC CETIS was then co-ordinator of the group and has continued to nurture the development of the specification. Simon recalls: “Back in 2006 we had a meeting in Chester, when Leap2 was “born”. At that stage we had IMS LIP and IMS e-portfolio and people were saying surely there’s an easier way of doing this?”
The problem was that the existing specifications were complex and difficult to implement. It was felt that a simple specification could be created that would be much easier to use. The initial core group developing Leap2A included CETIS, Pebble Learning , and teams at Universities of Newcastle (home of ePet ) and Nottingham. Simon again: “In 2007 JISC provided a small amount of funding to those three partners to produce a core specification, not even a workable spec. The initial work was about developing a framework and establishing common ground.”
How Leap2A works
If an e-portfolio is defined as: “An e-portfolio is a purposeful aggregation of digital items - ideas, evidence, reflections, feedback etc. which "presents" a selected audience with evidence of a person's learning and/or ability.” 
Then Leap2A works by categorising these collections of things to enable transfer between systems.
“Leap2A offers a model for representing information and resources authored, owned, controlled or collected by individuals — * descriptions of what they have achieved, created, done or experienced;
- information about themselves, their abilities and qualities;
- any kind of supporting information or evidence from any source;
- their thoughts or reflections on anything past, present or future;
- their plans;
- and their presentations of selections of this information for other people” 
A key principle in Leap2A is that the information is owned by the learner. As Simon Grant explains: “It’s fundamentally about communicating learner owned information between different systems whether they are e-portfolio systems, tools or potentially e-admin systems in such a way that the individual learner is in control of the presentation of their own information.”
In terms of presenting e-portfolio content the core team had two ideas in mind, the CV and the artist’s portfolio, Simon Grant again: “For content there were two starting points, one is the traditional CV and the other is the artist’s portfolio. Leap2A is a merging of the two. A CV is about recording what you’ve done, qualifications and skills and evidence for those skills, typically a CV is accompanied by a covering letter. In contrast, the artist’s portfolio is a collection of work which speaks for itself but may go along with reflections on the artist’s development. Leap2A brings the two together and is designed to capture both artefacts as well as the reflections on them and also very importantly the feedback from mentors and peer group.”
It is also worth noting that the specification is based on Atom because it is a widely used blog standard and also provides a convenient framework for representing information that a person has written.
PIOP2: a full working spec and first pilot projects
Having established a core framework for the specification, the next step was to make that framework workable in different portfolio systems. In the second phase of work, between November 2008 and March 2009, JISC funded seven e-Portfolio Interoperability projects (PIOP) “to implement and test the emerging specification” .
- e-Portfolio Interoperability, University of London Computing Centre and partners
- Leap2A extension for ePet, University of Newcastle
- Leicestershire e-PF/ILP Loughborough College and partners
- MABLE: Moving Assets Between Learner’s Environments Pebble Learning
- Joint Proposal To Join PIOP From MyProgressfile.com and Interactive Solutions Interactive Solutions/Myprogessfile.com
- Nottingham Leap2A University of Nottingham
- JISC E-Portfolio Interoperability Project Synergetics and PF Global UK
The work essentially involved mapping these various systems to the Leap2A framework so that data described in one system when exported would find a home in the second system on import. In other words Leap2A formed a “common language” that each system could understand.
By piloting the specification the projects were able to iron out the major problems between systems, and demonstrate export and import in the ePet , Mahara , MyProgressFile  and PebblePad  systems. In fact Mahara and PebblePad use Leap2A as the format for internal back-up and restore.
By the end of PIOP2 Leap2A was a full working specification which could also handle personal data. The projects had achieved the simple specification they were after but there were still problems as Simon Grant explains: “We had something that worked and was tested up to a point. But there were annoying loose ends where people could do things in slightly different ways, which caused some problems on import.”
PIOP3: Testing Leap2A in different contexts and scenarios
The third round of funding aimed to extend the use of Leap2A to other users, scenarios and contexts. Seven further projects were funded in this phase from February to July 2010 including systems used in schools and professional bodies.
- Adding Leap2A import/export functionality to Multi-Port, MyKnowledgeMap
- PIOP 3 Newcastle, Newcastle University
- Nottingham Trent University/Desire2Learn Portfolio Interoperability Project, Nottingham Trent University
- Distributing e-Portfolio Content, Pebble Learning ltd
- Extension and development of Leap2A, TAG Developments
- eApel Leap2A, University of Derby
- Atomised Networked Transfer, University of Nottingham 
The TAG Developments team became involved at this point. The MAPS tool developed at TAG Developments and BLi Education ltd serves the schools sector and allows students to evidence their assessment achievements and capabilities as they progress through school. Karim Derrick Development Director explains how they became involved: “We’ve been working in the e-portfolio space since 1997 and whilst our interest isn’t specifically HE we still recognise the work on Leap2A as being the work as far as standardisation of e-portfolio goes and there is demand for that amongst our client base as they move from phases of education from institution to institution. So that’s why we wanted to be involved.”
The TAG team found the simplicity of the specification meant that it was very easy to implement Leap2A, “The specification is now well enough defined and sufficiently simple for a well constructed system to develop a LEAP2A exporter and importer in a matter of days.” 
In this third phase of work Pebble Learning developed a Moodle block to enable “Moodle users to export Moodle items as Leap2A assets and import them into compatible tools such as Mahara and PebblePad”. This capability might be particularly useful in the scenario where a learner transfers from a Further Education college where Moodle is the VLE in use to a university where PebblePad (or Mahara) is widely used.
Alongside the PIOP3 work there has been significant interest in Leap2A from the medical profession. Medbiquitous, a medical education standards body based in America has adopted Leap2A as the basis for their interoperability work , as has the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges Interoperability project in the UK . Simon Grant speculates why Leap2A is useful to these organisations: “These projects have become involved for two reasons: one because we based Leap2A on Atom which is a commonly understandable specification and the second is because of the open foundation licence regime we used which allows people to adapt and build on the specification.”
Systems that have implemented Leap2A
By the end of PIOP3 significant progress had been made and to date nine systems have implemented the Leap2A specification.
- Academy of Medical Royal Colleges Medical Interoperability Portfolio Standards http://www.mips.org.uk 
- ePet http://www.eportfolios.ac.uk/ePET 
- Mahara http://mahara.org 
- MedBiquitous http://www.medbiq.org/working_groups/educational_trajectory/index.html 
- MyKnowledgeMap http://www.myknowledgemap.com 
- MyProgressFile http://www.myprogressfile.com 
- PebblePad http://www.pebblepad.co.uk 
- TAG Developments http://www.maps-ict.com/ 
- University of Derby's e-APEL system http://www.eapel.org.uk 
This represents quite an achievement says Lisa Gray, manager of the programme: “Using a bottom up approach we’ve got to the point where we have something workable and usable. We’ve made a really big effort to keep it simple. So in Phase 2 the focus was on getting additional systems providers to implement the draft specification, which resulted in some tweaks to development. Phase 3 took the more developed specification to new system providers for further implementation and validation. So now we have a tested and usable specification that is working in practice."
Maintaining the simplicity of the specification has clear advantages for convincing developers to use Leap2A, as Shane Sutherland Director of the PebblePad projects explains:
“Now there’s a sort of imperative to use Leap2A, because it’s such a simple standard and one which has a graceful degradation from the simple to the highly granular. This makes it really difficult for developers to dismiss Leap2A.”
From the beginning this has been a community based activity, Rob Englebright a JISC Programme Manager argues that this has been vital to the success of Leap2A: “In working together around the spec and the underpinnings it needs to have in order to make it fit for purpose, there’s been a much better understanding of what people want from the portfolio systems themselves and it’s been a very pragmatic process.”
The next step for Leap2A is to get it more widely used. This month a new web site for the specification is available: http://www.leapspecs.org/2A which will help wider adoption. The site sets out the specification in a clear and understandable way and has a specification validator as well as case studies of how the spec is being used.
Figure 1: New Leap2A web site
“Awareness of Leap2A is pretty good but the next stage is to show people how easy it is to use, so the web site is a major step forward.” argues Shane Sutherland.
The new website also details a number of practice scenarios to illustrate how Leap2A might be useful in different situations . There are currently three broad practice scenarios based on; a student undertaking reflective coursework, a trainee teacher gathering and re-using competency evidence and a student transferring from one educational institution to another. There are also a number of interoperation scenarios on the site which consider which information would be transferred between systems in a range of situations .
Another aspect of getting Leap2A used more widely is identifying and talking to people who might be interested in using the specification. Lisa Gray and Rob Englebright are working together to identify key stakeholders. One group being targeted are developers of new systems for supporting PDP. Rob Englebright explains: “So our next bridge to cross is to move from what is really quite a neat well bound communicative community of practice to releasing it into the wider community. That’s where the rigour of what’s been done will be tested quite strenuously because those other system developers won’t care about Leap2A as much as the people who have been working on it so far.”
Another key group are the standards bodies who could potentially offer a sustainable home for the emerging specification. Lisa Gray again: “Because this is charting new ground we don’t have a model for what happens next so we need to make sure we’re talking to all the right people.”
Case studies and examples of use will be vital in convincing others to use Leap2A, but because practice and spec development have co-evolved there are still very few examples of learners wanting to export their data from one system and import it into another as Karim Derrick explains: “Someone asked me today how to get their data out of a system that had been used in a pilot project. I told them to use the Leap2A exporter so that they can recover all of their assets. What we don’t have evidence for is that learners want to put their assets into another system. In the bigger picture we’re still right at the beginning, and the reason we’re not moving very far is to do with the interoperability so we have to get these foundations in place in order to see it progress.”
New Competence structures programme
A new phase of work has now begun on competence structures . For many of those involved in the PIOP work this is vital to extending the usefulness of Leap2A, as Lisa Gray explains: “Leap2A is about learner owned information and at the moment it’s not possible to associate a set of personal evidence with a set of defined competencies. The competence structures spec will be complementary but stand alone as a framework for the relationships between a set of competencies. This means that where clear competence frameworks exist students will be able to build a body of evidence within their portfolio system of choice against those frameworks defined by their professional body.”
The competence work is very important for NVQ courses and professions where there are clear competence frameworks to follow, such as health and teaching. Karim Derrick again: “For me the competence work is fundamental so we’re embarking on that with Shane and co. It is the missing link I think without it, Leap2A won’t go very far, with it I’m quite excited about the next phase.”
On the horizon
Teams at PebblePad and the Universities of Newcastle and Nottingham are now working on a number of Leap2A compatible web services. The idea is to enable learners to keep their data in the original systems but access it via the web to be able to create presentations “on the fly”. As the portfolio field matures this networked model of e-portfolios is gaining popularity among system developers. Shane from Pebble Learning says it depends to what extent learners want to change original assets and to what extent they just want to refer back to them: “I wonder how many things are moved from one system to another are moved to be reused, it is probably a very small percentage. Most things that are moved just need to be referred back to.”
Leap2A has come a long way since 2006, with a new web site and the competence framework project underway there is potential for it to become more widely integrated into other portfolio and administrative systems. The ultimate aim is that users will never have to worry again about not being able to access their portfolio data.
Further information on Leap2A can be found at http://www.leapspecs.org/2A and information and project reports from the Portfolio Interoperability Pilot projects can be found on the JISC web site .
Thanks to Lisa Gray, Rob Englebright, Simon Grant, Shane Sutherland and Karim Derrick for taking time to talk to me.