New Draft British Standard – Exchanging Course Related Information

The two parts of a draft British Standard (BS), “BS 8581 – Exchanging course related information – Course advertising profile” have recently been released for public comment on the British Standard Institute “Draft Review” website.

This standard is heavily based on the XCRI-CAP 1.2 specification, which has been developed and piloted over the past few years with support from JISC and CETIS, and would create a British Standard that is consistent with the European Standard “Metadata for Learning Opportunities – Advertising” (EN 15982, also to be adopted as BS) but extends it and provides more detail suited to UK application.

The two parts for public review, which closes on April 30th 2012, are:

Registration is required to access the drafts and comment.

Background information and details of implementations of XCRI may be found on the XCRI-CAP website.

EdTech Blogs – a visualisation playground

During the CETIS Conference today (Feb 22nd), I showed a few graphs, plots and other visualisations that show the results of text mining around 7500 blog posts, mostly from 2011 and into early 2012. These were crawled by the RWTH Aachen University “Mediabase“.

There are far too many to show here and each of three analyses has its separate auto-generated output, which is linked to below. Each of these outlines key aspects of the method and headline statistics. I am quite aware that it is bad practice just to publish a load of visualisations without either an explicit or implicit story. If this bothers you, you might want to stop now, or visit my short piece “East and West: two worlds of technology enhanced learning“, which uses the first method outlined below but is not such a “bag of parts”. If you want to weave your own story… read on!

Stage 1: Dominant Themes

The starting point is simply to look at the dominant themes in blog posts from 2011 and early 2012 through the lens of frequent terms used. Common words with little significance (stop words) are removed and similar words are aggregated (e.g. learn, learner, learning). This set of blog posts is then split into two sets: those from CETIS and those from a broadly representative set of Ed Tech blogs. The frequent terms are then filtered into those that are statistically more significant in the CETIS set and those that are statistically more significant in the Ed Tech set.

The results of doing this are: “Comparison: CETIS Blogging vs EdTech Bloggers Generally (Jan 2011-Feb 2012)

Co-occurrence Pattern - Ed Tech Blogger Frequent Terms

Co-occurrence Pattern - Ed Tech Blogger Frequent Terms. (see the "results" link above for explanation and more...)

Stage 2: Emerging and Declining Themes

Stage 2a: Finding Rising and Falling Terms

In this case, I home in on CETIS blogs only, but go back further in time: to January 2009. The blog posts are split into two sets: one contains posts from the last 6 months and the other contains posts since the end of January 2009. The distribution of terms appearing in each set is compared to find those which are statistically significant in the change, taking into account the sample size. This process identifies four classes of term: terms that appear anew in recent months, terms that rose from very low frequencies, those that rose from moderate or higher frequencies and those that fell (or vanished).

The results of doing this are: “Rising and Falling Terms – CETIS Blogs Jan 31 2012“. This has a VERY LARGE number of plots, many of which can be skipped over but are of use when trying to dig deeper. This auto-generated report also contains links to the relevant blog posts and ratings for “novelty” and “subjectivity”.

Significant Falling Terms

Significant Falling Terms

Stage 2b: Visualising Changes Over Time

Various terms were chosen from Stage 2a and the changes in time rendered using the (in-) famous “bubble chart”. Although these should not be taken too seriously since the quantity of data per time step is rather small, these allow for quite a lot of experimentation with a range of related factors: term frequency, number of documents containing the term, positive/negative sentiment in posts containing the term. Four separate charts were created for CETIS blogs from 2009-2012: Rising, Established, Falling and Familiar (dominant terms from Stage 1). The dominant non-CETIS terms are also available, but only for 2011.

Final Words

Due to some problems with the blog crawler, a number of blogs could not be processed or had incompletely extracted postings so this is not truly representative. The results are not expected to change dramatically but there will be some terms appearing and some disappearing when these issues are fixed. This posting will be altered and the various auto-generated reports will be re-generated in due course.

The R code used, and results from using the same methods on conference abstracts/papers are available from my GitHub. This site also includes some notes on the technicalities of the methods used (i.e. separate from the way these were actually coded).

The Network of Society of Scholars (Fiction)

As preparation for the session “Emerging Reality: Making sense new models of learning organisations” at this week’s CETIS Conference (which is a session hosted by the TELMap Project), I have created the following scenario to try to make real some plausible drivers/issues/etc. The session will be debating the plausibility of these and other issues and hence their potential shapers of future learning organisations. I will emend this posting once the outcomes of the workshop are published.

The scenario is pure fiction, an informal speculation about something that might happen by around 2020-5.

The Scenario

What is a “Society of Scholars”?

A Society of Scholars is based in one or more large old houses with a combination of study-bedrooms, communal cooking and social spaces, a library and a central seminar. Students and some of the Fellows live there while many Fellows live with their families and study there.

There are no fixed courses but a framework within which depth and breadth of scholarship is guided and measured. This framework is validated by an established University, which awards the degree and provides QA (all for a fee). The Network of Societies of ScholarsTM has additional ethical codes and strict membership rules.
The physical co-location is a central part of the Society, combined with the wider (virtual) network of peers.


Societies of Scholars sprang out of an initial “wild card” experiment where a small group of progressive academics with experience of inquiry-based learning pooled their redundancy payments from one of many rounds of staff-culling. A few sold their houses.

Their idea was to strip out the accumulation of both central services and formality of teaching and learning setting and to get back to basics while reducing cost and being able to do more of what they enjoy: thinking and talking. In doing this they hoped to attract students who were otherwise being asked to pay ever higher fees to endure ever more “commoditised” offerings and suffer poor employment prospects. The promise of high wages to pay off high debt is elusive for many who follow the conventional route. Graduate employment and student satisfaction are worse for those who opt for the newer “no frills degree course” offerings, which have cut costs without re-inventing the educational experience.

For several years they struggled to attract students but gradually a few gifted students managed to develop ultra-high web reputations started to attract more applications. The turning point was the winning of an international prize for work on “Smart Cities”, which led to a media frenzy in 2018. This triggered a spate of endowments of new Societies by successful entrepreneurs and the establishment of satellite societies to Cambridge and Oxford Universities in the UK and ETH Zurich in Switzerland with others quickly following (all recognising the threat but also the early-mover opportunity).

Character of a Society of Scholars

Societies are highly reputation conscious as are the individuals within them. They are highly effective at using the web, what we called “new media” in the naughties and in media management generally.

With the exception of assessment, Fellows and Students undertake essentially the same kind of activities; the Students strive to emulate the attitude and work of the fellows. Both divide their time between private study, informal and formal discussion. Collaboration works. There is no “Fellows teach Students”; all teach each other through the medium of the seminar. All consider “teaching the world” to be an important (but not dominating) part of what they do.

The selection process plays a key role in shaping the character of the Society. Students are admitted NOT primarily on the basis of examination grades but on evidence of self-discipline, self-awareness and especially self-directed intellectual activity.

Course and Assessment

There are no specified courses and all Students follow a unique pathway of their own. Fellows offer guidance and almost all Students piece together a collection of topics that are identifiable (e.g. similar to a conference theme, a textbook, etc). There is no fixed minimum or maximum period of study.

Societies typically focus on 3-4 disciplines but always adopt a multi-disciplinary perspective, for example computer science, electronic engineering, built environment and social theory was the combination that led to the “Smart Cities” prize.

Online resources are exploited to the fullest extent. Free or cheap MOOCs (massively open online courses, especially the form pioneered by Stanford University and are combined with the for-fee examinations offered alongside them.

Wikipedia is considered to be a “has been”; Society members (across the Network) and others collaborate on DIY textbooks using a system build on top of “git” (permitting multiple versions, derivatives, etc see GitHub for a “social coding” example) and a decentralised network of small servers. While being widely useful this activity is also a valued learning activity with the side effect of promoting coherence in the study pathway.

Assessment is complicated primarily by the idiosyncrasy of all pathways but also by the need to connect achievement to the breadth/depth framework. An award is typically evidenced by a mixture of: externally taught and examined modules; public examinations of the University of London; a patchwork of personal work (a “portfolio”); contributions to the DIY textbooks; seminar performance.

Demand and Expansion

Societies of Scholars are niche occupiers in a much wider higher education landscape. Demand is no more than 5% and supply  only about 3% in 2025. There is a feeling that graduates of the Societies are the “new elite”.

While some politicians call for the massification of the Society concept, society at large recognises that they need a special kind of student: more of an intellectual entrepreneur. The rise of the Society of Scholars has, however, started to change the way society understands (and answers) questions like: “what is the purpose of education?”; “how does learning happen?”… The long-term effect of this change on the face of education is not known yet (2025).

Employers in particular have understood what Societies offer and, while graduate unemployment for those following a conventional route to a degree remains close to 2012 levels, Society graduates are highly employable. Employers value: creativity, good communication skills, media-savvy people, multi-disciplinary thinking, self-motivation, intellectual flexibility, collaborative and community-oriented lifestyle.

The Drivers/Issues

This is a summary of some of the implicit or explicit assumed drivers/issues embedded in the scenario and which determine the plausibility of it (or alternatives). They are intentionally phrased as statements that could be disagreed with, argued for, …

  1. Physical co-location and (especially intimate) face-to-face interactions will continue to be seen to be an essential aspect of high quality education. Students who can afford (or otherwise access) this will generally do so. Employers will value awards arising from courses containing it more highly than those that do not. Telegraph newspaper article.
  2. Graduate unemployment will be an issue for years to come. Effective undergraduates will find ways to distinguish themselves. HESA Statistics
  3. Wikipedia (and similar centralised “web commons” services) are unsustainable in their current form. As the demand from users rises and the support from contributors and sponsors wanes (it becomes less cool to be a Wikipedian) a point of unsustainability is reached. One option is to monetise but another is to “go feral” and transition to peer-to-peer or decentralised approaches. Digital Trends article.
  4. Universities and colleges will increase the supply of course and educational components, disaggregated from “the course”, “the programme” and “the institutional offering”. Examinations, Award Granting and Quality Assurance are all potentially independent marketable offerings. David Willets article on the BBC (see “Flexible Learning”)
  5. Cheap large-scale online courses are capable of replacing a significant percentage of conventional teaching time. The “Introduction to AI” course demonstrated this: see
  6. Employers are conservative when it comes to education. While employers bemoan narrow knowledge of graduates, poor “soft skills”, etc, their shortlisting criteria continue to favour candidates with conventional degree titles and high grades from research-intensive universities. They will generally fail to take advantage of rich portfolio evidence.

The Stanford “Introduction to AI” Course – the sign of a disruptive innovation?

Over on the JISC Observatory website a recent interview with Seb Schmoller has just been published in which he talks about his experiences – from the perspective of an online distance educator – of the recent large scale open online course “Introduction to AI” run in association with Stanford University. As the interview unfolded it occurred to me that the aspects of the course that had struck Seb as being of potentially profound importance fitted the criteria for a “low end disruptive innovation” in the terminology of innovation theorist Clayton M Christensen. Low end disruption refers to the way apparently well-run businesses could be disrupted by newcomers with cheaper but good-enough offerings that focus on core customer needs and often make use generic off-the-shelf technologies.

Interesting stuff to ponder…

(interview on the JISC Observatory site)

Data Protection – Anticipating New Rules

On January 25th 2012, the European Commission released its proposals for significant reform of data protection rules in Europe (drafts had been leaked in late 2011). These proposals have been largely welcomed by the Information Commissioners Office , although it also recommends further thought over some of the proposals. The dramatic changes in the scale and scope of handling personal information in online retailing and social networking since the 1990’s, when current rules were implemented, is an obvious driver for change. The rise of “cloud computing” is a related factor.

What might this mean for the UK education system, especially for those concerned with educational technology?

On the whole, the answer is probably a fairly bland “not much” since we are, as a sector, pretty good at being responsible with personal data. Sector ethics, regardless of legislation, is to be institutionally concerned and careful and, providing enough time is available to adapt systems (of working and IT), this should be a relatively low impact change. There are, however, a few implications worthy of comment…

The Principle of Data Portability

Unless you know nothing about CETIS, it should come as no surprise that “data portability” caught my eye. EC Fact Sheet No. 2 says:

‘The Commission also wants to guarantee free and easy access to your personal data, making it easier for you to see what personal information is held about you by companies and public authorities, and make it easier for you to transfer your personal data between service providers – the so-called principle of “data portability”.’

Notice that this includes “public authorities”. Quite how this principle will affect practice remains to be seen but it does appear to have implications at the level of individual educational establishments and sector services such as the Learning Records Service (formerly MIAP). It is conceivable that this requirement will be satisfied by “download as HTML”, a rather lame interpretation of making it easier to transfer personal data, but I do hope not.

So: are there candidate interoperability standards? Yes, there are:

  • LEAP2A for e-portfolio portability and interoperability,
  • A European Standard, EN 15981, “European Learner Mobility Achievement Information” (an earlier open-access version is available as a CEN Workshop Agreement, CWA 16132)

These do not cover absolutely everything you might wish to “port” but widespread adoption as part of demonstrating compliance with a legislative “data portability” requirement is an option that is available to us.

It is also worth noting Principle 7 of “Information Principles for the UK Public Sector” (pdf) – see also my previous posting – which is entitled “Citizens and Businesses Can Access Information About Themselves” and recommends information strategies should go “… beyond the legal obligations” and  identify opportunities  “to proactively make information about citizens available to them by default”, noting that this would negate the cost of process and systems for responding to Subject Access Requests. I hope that this attitude is embraced and that the software is designed on a “give them everything” principle rather than “give them the minimum we think the law requires”. Software vendors should be thinking about this now.

There are some interesting possibilities for learner mobility if learners have a right to access and transfer fine grained achievement and progress information, especially where that is linked to well defined competence (etc) structures. Can we imagine more nomadic learners, especially those who may be early adopters of offerings from the kind of new providers that David Willetts and colleagues are angling for?

The Right to be Forgotten

This right is clearly aimed squarely at the social network hubs and online retailers (see the EC Fact Sheet No.3, pdf). It isn’t very  likely that anyone would want to have their educational experiences and achievements forgotten unless they plan to “vanish”. Indeed, it would be surprising if existing records retention requirements would be changed and the emerging trend of having secure document storage and retrieval services under user control – e.g. DARE – seems set to continue and be the way we manage this issue cost-effectively.

The right to be forgotten may be more of a threat to realising the “learning analytics” dream, even if only in adding to existing uncertainty, doubt and sometimes also fear. We need some robust and widely accepted protocols to define legally and ethically acceptable practice.

Uniformity of Legislation

The national laws that were enacted to meet the existing data protection requirements are all different and the new proposals are to have a single uniform set of rules. This makes sense from the point of view of a multi-nation business, although it will not be without critics. This is just one factor that could make a pan-European online Higher Education initiative easier to realise, whether a single provider or a collaboration. I perceive signs that people are moving closer to viable approaches to large scale online distance education using mature technologies, and possibly English as the language of instruction and assessment; looming “low-end disruptions” (see the Wikipedia article on “Disruptive Innovation“) for the academy as we know it. [Look out for an interview with Seb Schmoller which has influenced my views, due to be published soon on the JISC Observatory website.]

This is, of course, just some initial impressions on some proposals. I am sure there is a great deal that I have missed from a fairly quick scan of material from the commission and there is bound to be a lot of carping from those with businesses built around exploiting personal data so the final shape of things might be quite different.