Engaging in standards development, lowering entry barriers

I was hoping to live blog the the CETIS Future of Interoperability Standards (FIS) event last Friday, however a combination of the mainly group discussion focus of the day and more importantly lack of stable internet access thwarted that plan. So I’m now going to try and come to a more considered view of the day.

The second in a series, the focus of this event was on “technical approaches to creating standards: how should we model and document standards.” As with the initial event held in January this year, position papers were sought prior to the meeting. In total 12 were received covering most interested parties from developers to commercial companies.

In the morning we split into groups to discuss a number of common areas identified from the position papers. I was in the (small and select) group interested in requirements gathering. Most of the position papers did reflect that there there are recognised issues in setting the scale/scope of any specification/standard. And I think that most of the 30 or so people in the room recognised the issues around general engagement in the development process – which starts with requirements gathering.

One of the key issues (particularly in relation to educational technology standards, though I’m sure it is the same in other domains) is the tension between market forces and user needs. There is always a tension between the stability of a standard and its implementation/adoption. Often vendors don’t want to try anything new until it is stable, which can of course substantially delay the release and adoption of a specification/standard within a sector. If the big boys aren’t playing then often no-one else will. So, are (should) standards be about developing markets or about driving innovation? Is it possible to mitigate the risks involved in developing something new in unstable environments?

Some of the potential solutions we discussed were around a changing mindset to allow standards be more disposal, to have shorter release little and often approaches with more integrated feedback. We also discussed the possibility of some modelling some of the dependencies the standards processes and vendor development cycles – would that allow us some greater insight into more effective alignment?

However engagement with the standards development process is challenging. One of the suggestions that came from the “implementability” group that I’ve been thinking about quite a bit was that maybe some training around standards engagement is needed.
From personal experience I know going to spec development meetings can be initially quite intimidating. Getting your head around the language, the “rules” (written and unwritten), the personalities, the politics, all takes time. All the cliches around clubs/cliques are present. So maybe if people were better informed, some of the basics were covered in some kind of way, more people would be inclined to get involved and bring newer ideas with them.

I wouldn’t expect an influx of interest, this is always going to be a niche area attracting a certain type of geek 😉 Traditionally at CETIS it’s our staff who go to various standards/spec meetings then report back and forth between our communities and various bodies. But maybe there is something that we could help to develop some more ways to lower the barriers to effective engagement with standards bodies for anyone who was interested in being involved.

The FIS series are a set in the right direction to surface a range of issues around the standards development space, however the people in the room on Friday were all pretty experienced in the standards game – so maybe we need to target the layer below (if that exists). We at CETIS obviously have links to the JISC community, but this is something that should extend beyond that (imho). If you have any thoughts I’d really like to hear them.

The full set of position papers, notes from each of the discussion sessions from the meeting are available from the CETIS website.

Getting down to the business of building distributed virtual learning environments

Over the past few years we have been following and developing the notion of distributed learning environments. This culminated earlier this year with the publication of the CETIS briefing paper on Distributed Learning Environments and the JISC DVLE programme.

Yesterday all eight of the funded projects made their way (well, actually the level of rain made it feel a bit like swimming) to Bolton for their first meet-up. The programme is divided into two strands, with the first comprising of three projects of six months duration, finishing in December this year. Glasgow Metropolitan College and Glasgow University and concentrating development of a specific widget/VLE plug-in each. Teesside University is taking a more user centric approach by running a number of workshops and then developing widgets from ideas that emerge from them. The other strand is made up of the remaining five projects (MMU, University of Reading, the Open University, University of Edinburgh and Southampton University). These projects are funded for a year, and are investigating the larger issues of integrating more flexible and interoperable approaches to institutional learning environments. More information about the projects is available from the JISC website.

The main technologies in use across the programme are W3C widgets (mainly through using Apache Wookie incubating), Open Social and IMS LTI and Basic LTI and their new Basic Outcomes. To help bring everyone up to speed on each of these a large part of the morning was given our to presentations on each. Ross Gardler (OSS Watch) did the honours for Open Social, Scott Wilson (CETIS) for Wookie and Wilbert Kraan (CETIS) for IMS. Copies of the presentations will be available via the CETIS programme support page over the next day or so. These set the scene for a round of breakout discussions. Mark Stubbs has already blogged about some of the specific security/ authentication/wookie issues the W2C project is grabbling with.

I sat in on the Open Social group where the security issue also came up. Ross argued quite strongly that the technical issues around security have to a large extend been solved outside the education sector and we just need to trust the technology. However, the group did agree that there were cultural issues with education (particularly HE) around knowledge and understanding of identity and authentication which needed to be broken down. We also discussed the possibilities of using open social in a portfolio context. The University of Reading are looking to extend the functionality and interoperability of their in-house developed portfolio tool. The group discussing the IMS options spent quite a bit of time musing over the time/cost implications of developing full LTI integrations over using Basic LTI and the limitations of both – from the wider when will the spec be finalised issue to smaller I can build it but how long will it last, and in the long run does that actually matter?

In the afternoon we had more discussion particularly around wookie implementation. One concern around wookie for a number of projects was its sustainability. As with any (relatively) new technology, sustainability of external systems is a key concern for anyone looking to deploy it in a significant context. However, as Ross pointed out more than once, the fact that wookie in now in part of the Apache foundation, the chances of sustainability are greatly increased. The University of Bolton are also committed to its development and again as with anything, the more use it gets the stronger it becomes.

Along side the more technical discussion there was a concurrent discussion around user-engagement. As explained earlier the Teesside project is very much focussed on gathering real user needs and has designed face to face work shops (adapting templates creating by the RLO CETL and the Sharing the Load project). We discussed many approaches to “paper design” including having print outs of various mobile devices to remind people of the actually size of the finished app/widget. The group all agreed that scope creep, nicely illustrated by Scott Wilson from some recent workshop experience where they found delegates trying to design a whole VLE instead of a specific “thing”, was something that teams needed to be mindful of.

W2C is taking a different approach towards user engagement. They are using an external company to build their first official iphone app (due out sometime next week), followed later in the year by blackberry, android and widget versions. The team are going to use this initial app with students and staff to get feedback and inform future developments. The cost of external development they feel is offset by time savings for the team and gives them something tangible to test with. There also seemed to be a general consensus that actually seeing “the app for that” was incredibly powerful in terms of user engagement – particularly for VCs 🙂

There is a great deal of synergy between the projects and I hope that yesterday provided an opportunity to forge stronger relationships across the programme and beyond. It looks like there will be a number of apps/widgets to share with the community by the end of the year.

CETIS is providing support to the programme and we will be organising a number of open meetings over the next year for other to engage with the projects. So watch the space for more updates and information and if you are involved with similar work, please let us know.