Where are the customers?

All of us in the learning technology standards community share the challenge of knowing who our real customers are. Discussion at the January CEN Workshop on Learning Technologies (WS-LT) was a great stimulus for my further reflection — should we be thinking more of national governments?

Let’s review the usual stakeholder suspects: education and training providers; content providers; software developers; learners; the European Commission. I’ll gesture (superficially) towards arguing that each one of these may indeed be stakeholders, but the direction of the argument is that there is a large space in our clientele and attendance for those who are directly interested and can pay.

Let’s start with the the providers of education and training. They do certainly have an interest in standards, otherwise why would JISC be supporting CETIS? But rarely do they implement standards directly. They are interested, so our common reasoning goes, in having standards-compliant software, so that they can choose between software and migrate when desired, avoiding lock-in. But do they really care about what those standards are? Do they, specifically, care enough to contribute to their development and to the bodies and meetings that take forward that development?

In the UK, as we know, JISC acts as an agent on behalf of UK HEIs and others. This means that, in the absence of direct interest from HEIs, it is JISC that ends up calling the shots. (Nothing inherently wrong with that – there are many intelligent, sensible people working for JISC.) Many of us play a part in the collective processes by which JISC arrives at decisions about what it will fund. We are left hoping that JISC’s customers appreciate this, but it is less than entirely clear how much they appreciate the standardisation aspect.

I’ll be even more cursory about content providers, as I know little about that field. My guess is that many larger providers would welcome the chance of excluding their competitors, and that they participate in standardisation only because they can’t get away with doing differently. Large businesses are too often amoral beasts.

How about the software vendors, then? We don’t have to look far for evidence that large purveyors of proprietary software may be hostile in spirit to standardisation of what their products do, and that they are kept in line, if at all, only by pressure from those who purchase the software. In contrast, open source developers, and smaller businesses, typically welcome standards, allowing work to be reused as much as possible.

In my own field of skills and competence, there are several players interested in managing the relevant information about skills and competence, including (in the UK) Sector Skills Councils, and bodies that set curricula for qualifications. But they will naturally need some help to structure their skill and competence information, and for that they will need tools, either that they develop themselves or buy. It is those tools that are in line to be standards compliant.

And what of the learners themselves? Seems to me “they” (including “we” users) really appreciate standards, particularly if it means that our information can be moved easily between different systems. But, as users, few of us have influence. Outside the open source community, which is truly wonderful, I can’t easily recall any standards initiative funded by ordinary users. Rather, the influence we and other users have is often doubly indirect: filtered through those who pay for the tools we use, and through those who develop and sell those tools.

The European Commission, then? Maybe. We do have the ICT Standardisation Work Programme (ICTSWP), sponsored by DG Enterprise and Industry. I’m grateful that they are sponsoring the work I am doing for InLOC, though isn’t the general situation a bit like JISC? It is all down to which priorities happen to be on the agenda (of the EC this time), and the EC is rather less open to influence than JISC. Whether an official turns up to a CEN Workshop seems to depend on the priorities of that official. AndrĂ© Richier (the official named in “our” bit of the ICTSWP) often turns up to the Workshop on ICT Skills, but rarely to our Workshop. In any case they are not the ultimate customers.

What are the actual interests of the EC? Mobility, evidently. There has been so much European funding over the years with the term “mobiity” attached. Indeed, the InLOC work is seen as part of the WS-LT’s work on European Learner Mobility. Apart from mobility, the EC must have some general interest in the wellbeing of the European economy as a whole, but this is surely difficult, where the interests of different nations surely diverge. More of this later.

In the end, many people don’t turn up, for all these reasons. They don’t turn up at the WS-LT; they don’t turn out in any real strength for the related BSI committee, IST/43; few of the kinds of customer I’m thinking about even turn up at ISO SC36.

Who does turn up then? They are great people. They are genuinely enthusiastic about standardisation, and have many bright ideas. They are mostly in academia, small (often one-person) consultancy, projects, networks or consortia. They like European, national, or any funding for developing their often genuinely good ideas. Aren’t so many of us like that? But there were not even many of us lot at this WS-LT meeting in Berlin. And maybe that is how it goes – when starved of the direct stimulus of the people we are doing this for, we risk losing our way, and the focus, enthusiasm and energy dwindles, even within our idealistic camp.

Before I leave our esteemed attendees, however, I would like to point out the most promising bodies that were represented at the WS-LT meeting: KION from Italy and the University of Oslo’s USIT, both members of RS3G, the Rome Student Systems and Standards Group, an association of software providers. They are very welcome and appropriate partners with the WS-LT.

Which brings me back to the question, where are the other (real) customers? We could ask the same thing of IST/43, and of ISO SC36. Which directly interested parties might pay? Perhaps a good place to start the analysis is to divide the candidates roughly between private and public sectors.

My guess here is that private sector led standardisation works best in the classic kinds of situation. What would be the point of a manufacturer developing their own range of electrical plugs and sockets? Even with telephones, there are huge advantages in having a system where everyone can dial everyone else, and indeed where all handsets work everywhere (well, nearly…). But the systems we are working with are not in that situation. There are reasons for these vendors to want to try their own new non-standard things. And much of what we do leads, more than follows, implementation. That ground sometimes seems a bit shaky.

Private sector interest in skills and competence is focused in the general areas of personnel, recruitment, HR, and training. Perhaps, for many businesses, the issues are not seen as complex enough to merit the involvement of standards.

So what are the real benefits that we see from learning technology standardisation, and put across to our customers? Surely these include better, more effective as well as efficient education; in the area of skills and competence, easier transition between education and work; and tools to help with professional and vocational development. These relate to classic areas of direct interest from government, because all governments want a highly skilled, competent, professional work force, able to “compete” in the global(ised) economy, and to upskill themselves as needed. The foundations of these goals are laid in traditional education, but they go a long way beyond the responsibilities of schools, HEIs, and traditional government departments of education. Confirmation of the blurring of boundaries comes from recalling that the the EC’s ICTSWP is sponsored not by DG Education and Culture, but DG Enterprise and Industry.

My conclusion? Government departments need our help in seeing the relevance of learning technology standardisation, across traditional departmental boundaries. This is not a new message. What I am adding to it is that I think national government departments and their agencies are our stakeholders, indeed our customers, and that we need to be encouraging them to come along to the WS-LT. We need to pursuade them that different countries do share an interest in learning technology standardisation. This would best happen alongside their better involvement in national standards bodies, which is another story, another hill to climb…