BBC Jam suspended

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about BBC Jam after they presented at the Intrallect Future Visions Conference. Today the BBC Trust have announced they are suspending the service from 20th March after after complaints from commercial companies received by the European Commission. It’s always been controversial project, with many commercial vendors complaining about the amount of funding being put into the project and the impact it may have on their business.

I know that this doesn’t really have direct relevance to us in the HE sector, however I do think there are similarities between the BBC and British universities. Neither were set up as commercial companies, but increasingly they are having to adapt their structures to become more and more commercially viable. They are both affected by changes in technology – particularly the web.

Call me old fashioned, but I do believe in the Reithian values of BBC to educate, inform and entertain and I’ve never minded paying my licence fee as I do believe the BBC give incredible value for money. There have been some arguments that the BBC’s online development is pushing out new start ups – which I’m not sure I totally agree as I think, that mostly the BBC webpresence has helped to set standards for web design and usability. I just hope that now considerable work has been done in producing resources (not all done in-house either) that the suspension is temporary and people will be able to access the content again soon.

Impact of Open Source Software on Education series launch

Earlier this week (12 March) Penn State announced the launch of a new series of biweekly postings on the impact of open source software on education on their Terra Incognita blog. Although the series is based around open source software, other related topics including open educational resources and open courseware will be discussed too, and all contributions/discussions will be made freely available:

” our intent to not only provide a rich resource on the theme of this series, but to also contribute to the larger movement of free content by making the resources that we create widely and freely available. In an effort to do so, a few days after each posting, the articles, discussion, and a brief summary will be reformatted and made available on WikiEducator as Open Educational Resources. It is our hope that these resources will take a life of their own as they are reused, modified, and returned to the community.”

The first article is from Ruth Sabeen (UCLA) about their evaluation process which resulted in them choosing Moodle. More information about the series including the schedudule is available @

A couple of future contributions which caught my eye include Wayne Mackintosh on Bridging the educational divide with free content and free software (7 April) and James Dalziel on pedagogy, technology and open source -experiences from LAMS (16 May).

Maybe this kind of approach would be useful for JISC/DEST to help with the development of the eFramework initiative.

JISC Workflows meeting (13/02/07)

The purpose of this meeting was to see if and where there are commonalities between workflows and to see if there are any common points between domain specific workflows.

The agenda was very full with six presentations from six very diverse projects (ISIS/ASSIS; RepoMMan, Human Collaborative workflow; ePHPX(escience);COVARM;Kuali).

Steve Jeyes and Warwick Bailey described there experiences of using IMS Simple Sequencing, QTI and BPEL. They were surprised at how easy it was to use BPEL. This was due partly to the Active Ends visual editor. Warwick did point out that more work needs to be done to clarify just what is valuable about using BPEL. He proposed that it might have something to do with the ease of use and the ability to have long running calls and the use of xpath; but he would like to seem more work done in this area. He also stressed the importance of xsds and how the skill of creating elegant, extensible xsds is really undervalued. At Icoden they have found the .NET toolkit easier to use than java, but he did point out that may just be a personal preference.

Steve Jeyes highlighted the problems his team had with using simple sequencing (or not so simple sequencing as it maybe should be called) and the need for more work to be done in terms of integrating standards and workflows.

Richard Green from RepoMMan project then outlined some of the workflow issues they have been grappling with in their project and within the wider institutional context. The University of Hull’s vision of a repostitory encompasses storage, access, management and preservation of a wide range of file types from concept to completion. A user survey highlighted that their system users (primarily researchers) wanted a safe place which could be accessed anywhere, anytime and had support for versioning. So they have been creating a toolset to manage workflows for users and they have found UML useful for creating basic workflows. They are also trying to add in as much automation to workflows as possible for example by pre-populating metadata fields by using JHOVE (which btw he seemed very excited about as it actually does seem to do a lot of pre-populating of fields) and trying to get as much as possible from other services.

Scott Wilson then looked at issues surrounding human collaborative workflows (the non BPEL stuff :-)). Scott outlined the work he had been doing at McQuarrie University in relation to collaborative research practice and the development of RAMS (research activity management system) from LAMS. They have been looking at learning design as potential workflow method as there hasn’t been a lot of work done around communication and collaborative methods as workflows. One common characteristic of the research process is that the process can change at various stages during the lifecyle and very few systems support the levels of flexiblitity at runtime that this requires ( this is also true of learning design systems). Scott also pointed out the risks of trying to develop these types of systems when compared to the actual benefits and how easy it could be to develop systems for experts rather than practitioners (again very similar to learning design). One of the key issues for this work is the fact that in collaborative settings, seemingly simple workflows can actually exhibit complex behaviour which again reinforces the need for adaptable systems. In Scott’s opinion, collaborative processes don’t lend themselves to todays business process model methods. But they are hoping that the RAMS system will be a step in the right direction.

Rob Allan from the ePHPX then gave an eScience take on workflows. Naturally this sector is very concered with provenance, the use of metadata and authorisation to re-use data. One problem eScience has is that each domain within it tends to invent their own domain tools and he would like to see more work done on creating webservices that could be shared. He emphasised the need to make workflows easy for users and the need for guidelines and tutorials for the creation and use of webservices. There are some example tutorials available @

Rob also highlighted the need for well defined data modesl and/or semantic tools to support data interoperability between applications linked to workflows.

Next up was Balbir Barn talking about the approach taken by the COVARM project. During the project they used a UML model based solution. They used scenarios to identify services and workflows, and these matched quite closely to BPEL process definitions.

The experience of the project has reinforced the team’s belief in the model driven activity approach. He believes that there is a need for better methodology to support eframework activities and their approach could very well fit this gap. The domain information model they produced has a structural model which can be used to identify services. The synthesis of processes can provide a mapping to BPEL. However there are some techincal issues with this approach. Although UML models are mature there are some issues within the soa context. There is a need for testing framework requirements and to be able to see the service view and overall business process view in parallel.

The final presentation of the day was from Barry Walsh and Brian McGough from the Kuali project. The Kuali Enterprise Workflow started with financial information but has now broadened out to integrate student systems, research systems and HR – areas Barry described as ‘human mediated activities’. They had to develop robust and scalable functionality whilst remaing user centric. The ability to allow people to do things ‘in their way’ was fundatmental. They have developed a generic workflow engine which supports any kind of typical process within the areas they are working in.

Unfortunately I had to leave before the discussion session but some of the key messages I got from the day were:
*there isn’t a lot of convergence around workflows – people still want to do it their own way.
* more work needs to be done defining the differences between automated workflows and human workflows
*hand off points need to be clear, and we need to be able to identify appropriate tools/services for these points

A respresentative from the Mellon foundation attend the meeting and as far as I can gather JISC and Mellon are going to continue a dialogue around funding for workflow projects.

Future Visions (thoughts on the Intrallect Seminar)

Last Friday I attended the Intrallect Future Visions Seminar in Edinburgh. The brief for the four speakers was to look no further than three years forward, anticipate advances in technology but focus on the the benefits that people involved in in education will see as a result of these advances. The meeting venue had the advantage of having an interactive voting system, which meant there was a good level of interactivity for the audience during the presentations.

Martin Morrey of Intrallect kicked the day off with a look a the repositories space. He began by reflecting on some of the common assumptions of the 90’s. Remember when we all believed that the future lay in intelligent tutoring systems with structured, well catalogued, adaptive content . . . Well as we all know the reality hasn’t quite been like that. Systems aren’t really that intelligent, and we’re still struggling with the issues (both technical and pedagogical) of creating adaptable, reuseable content. The rise of google and social tagging have also challenged our assumptions about metadata use and creation. So what is the short term future for repositories? Well, Martin put forward the case that in the next three years repositories will be much more configurable. He envisioned single systems supporting a range of object types. Services will be in place for identifier registration, there will be a range of vocabulary application profiles, license registries and common authorisation and authentication services. Content will be able to be easily be reached and consumed by a range of learning systems which will be able to give users a variety of views of content.

Next we had Anne Eastgate, Director of the BBC Jam project. Anne gave an overview of this £150 million (yes, that’s right 150 million) 5 year project (2003-2008) development project which is producing freely available content for 5-16 year olds in the UK. Many of you will be aware of the controversy this project created when it was first put forward, with many commercial companies worried that this project would give the BBC an unfair advantage in the sector. To allay some of these fears, the project has been limited to producing material for 50% of the curriculum, but is still facing major hurdles from both the EU and the UK government in getting all the content it is producing online.

Although the content is freely available via the BBC Jam website, it has been restricted to a UK only service. The material has been produced using SCORM 2004 so it can be used in learning environments;. However reuse of the content is restricted to the target age range, so although much of the content maybe of use the the FE and ACL sectors, they wouldn’t be able to get a licence to run the materials in their VLEs. The BBC is currently negotiating licence arrangements with local education authorities for school use. The licence arrangements are primarily to ensure that the content is used with the appropriate age range of learners there are no additional charges for the content.

Despite the political problems faced by the project, content has been developed and is available now. All the content has been developed taking a learner centred approach and from the demo we were shown it is really engaging and interactive.

Colin Milligan, of the University of Strathclyde (currently project manager for CDLOR project) then looked at issues of identity and personalisation. Currently there is no one definition of personalised learning, however most people would agree that it is learner centred, flexible and customisable. The changing landscape of the education sector with growing numbers of part-tme students and the increase in informal learning has lead to the recognition of a need for new ways of measuring achievement. These changes go hand in hand with the developments in the online world and how people are adapting to those changes. For the first time we are faced with students who are coming to University with access to richer technology in their homes (or in their pockets) than are provided by many institutions – who needs a university email account anymore?

Colin took us on a whirlwind tour of the Web 2.0 landscape, outlining the potential that webservices can have for education by allowing more learner control over access and organisation content, as well as more flexible and appropriate collaborative tools for content creation and sharing eg. netvibes, flickr and zoho.

Changing the system is obviously not going to happen overnight, but with more students coming into higher education who have been working with say a portfolio system in schools maybe one driver for change which institutions will not be able to ignore.

The last presentation of the day came from Chris Pegler of the OU who looked at new learning activities and what will we want next? Chris took the opportunity to remind us of the challenges that we are still facing in e-learning. Although the potential is there for lots of positive additions to the learning landscape we are still being held back by other factors, technical and more importantly social. I particularly liked her question ‘is it rude not to look at someone when they are talking to you?’ – unsurprisingly the audience very much agreed with this statement, But when we start to think of this in a learning situation does this still apply? Should students always been looking at a lecturer? Is ‘continuous partial distraction’ acceptable? How many meetings do we all go to and sit and check our emails? Why should we expect students to be any different?

Using the kit in our pocket can also lead to its own set of challenges such as finding common programmes which everyone has – the lowest common demoninator, but these might not necessarily be the most appropriate for the learning activity.

Are we in danger of creating a new digital divide between the students who have 24/7 online, broadband access and those who don’t? Traditionally online success has been measured by the quantity of messages posted – is this really relevant? Increasing our students are working on a just in time basis so don’t have time to read/post lots of messages. Should we looking to synchronous activities more? This is something Chris is doing in her teaching. Web 2.0 technologies give a huge amount of choice, but do students want (or indeed need) that level of choice?

All of the presentations were engaging, raised lots of questions, though of course not all of the answers.
I felt it was a really good, stimulating day – well done to everyone at Intrallect for organising it.
Presentations from the day are available from the Intrallect website.

Let's see about LETSI

ADL are proposing the formation of a new international body to “advance the interoperability of technical systems enabling learning, education and training (LET) through the use of reference models based on de jure standards”.

Provisionally called LETSI (Learning-Education-Training Systems Interoperability) it is proposed that one of the first tasks of this body would be to take over governance of the SCORM.

The proposed purpose of LETSI is:

• to enable organizations with a material interest in learning, education, training (LET)
• who agree to accept a set of organizing principles
• to participate in evolving broadly applicable LET Interoperability Reference Model(s)
• informed by shared priorities and requirements
• based initially on the Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM)
• and to define and actualize related events, publications, technologies, and services
• through a process that is transparent, democratic and sustainable.

It is not proposed that this body replace any other international standards/specification develepment bodies, rather it will use exsiting standards/specs to develop reference models.

The ADL presented LETSI at the recent AICC meeting and a copy of the prospectus, which contains full information on the the proposed organisation, is available from the AICC blog. AICC are currently drafting a response to the proposal.

How, and if, this organistation will work is still to be fully realised. An inevitable question must be is there really a need for such a body? Particularly because many don’t really know about the differences
between IMS, IEEE LTSC, CEN/ISSS, ADL or ISO SC36, nor especially care to find out.

A start up meeting for LETSI is being held in London in March as part of the ISO meetings. More details on the March meeting is available from the ISO SC36 website.

JISC CETIS will be attending the March meetings and we will keep you updated on developments.