What is CEN TC 353 becoming?

The CEN TC 353 was set up (about seven years ago) as the European Standardization Technical Committee (“TC”) responsible for “ICT for Learning Education and Training” (LET). At the end of the meeting I will be describing below, we recognised that the title has led some people to think it is a committee for standardising e-learning technology, which is far from the truth. I would describe its business as being, effectively, the standardization of the representation of information about LET, so that it can be used in (any kind of) ICT systems. We want the ICT systems we use for LET to be interoperable, and we want to avoid the problems that come from vendors all defining their own ways of storing and handling information, thus making it hard to migrate to alternative systems. Perhaps the clearest evidence of where TC 353 works comes from the two recent European Standards to our name. EN 15981, “EuroLMAI”, is about information about learner results from any kind of learning, specifically including the Diploma Supplement, and the UK HEAR, that document any higher education achievements. EN 15982, “MLO” (Metadata for Learning Opportunities) is the European equivalent of the UK’s XCRI, “eXchanging Course-Related Information”, mainly about the information used to advertise courses, which can be of any kind. Neither of these are linked to the mode of learning, technology enhanced or not; and indeed we have no EN standards about e-learning as such. So that’s straight, then, I trust …

At this CEN TC 353 meeting on 2014-04-08 there were delegates from the National Bodies of: Finland; France (2); Germany; Greece; Norway; Sweden (2); UK (me); and the TC 353 secretary. That’s not very many for an active CEN TC. Many of the people there have been working with CETIS people, including me, for several years. You could see us as the dedicated, committed few.

The main substance of the day’s discussion was about two proposed new work items (“NWIs”), one from France, one from Sweden, and the issues coming out of that. I attended the meeting as the sole delegate (with the high-sounding designation, “head of delegation”) from BSI, with a steer from colleagues that neither proposal was ready for acceptance. That, at least, was agreed by the meeting. But something much more significant appeared to happen, which seemed to me like a subtle shift in the identity of TC 353. This is entirely appropriate, given that the CEN Workshop on Learning Technologies (WS-LT), which was the older, less formal body, is now acccepted as defunct — this is because CEN are maintaining their hard line on process and IPR, which makes running an open CEN workshop effectively impossible.

No technical standardization committee that I know of is designed to manage pre-standardization activities. Floating new ideas, research, project work, comparing national initiatives, etc., need to be done before a proposal reaches a committee of this kind, because TC work, whether in CEN, or in our related ISO JTC1 SC36, tends to be revision of documents that are presented to the committee. It’s very difficult and time consuming to construct a standard from a shaky foundation, simply by requesting formal input and votes from national member bodies. And when a small team is set up to work under the constraints of a bygone era of confidentiality, in some cases it has proved insurmountably difficult to reach a good consensus.

Tore Hoel, a long-time champion of the WS-LT, admitted that it is now effectively defunct. I sadly agree, while appreciating all the good work it has done. So TC 353 has to explore a new role in the absence of what was its own Workshop, which used to do the background work and to suggest the areas of work that needed attention. Tore has recently blogged what he thinks should be the essential characteristics of a future platform for European open standards work, and I very much agree with him. He uses the Open Stand principles as a key reference.

So what could this new role be? The TC members are well connected in our field, and while they do not themselves do much IT systems implementation, they know those people, and are generally in touch with their views. The TC members also have a good overview of how the matters of interest to TC 353 relate to neighbouring issues and stakeholders. We believe that the TC is, collectively, in quite a good position to judge when it is worth working towards a new European Standard, which is after all their raison d’etre. We can’t see any other body that could perform this role as well, in this specific area.

As we were in France, the famous verse of Rouget de Lisle, the “Marseillaise” came to my mind. “Aux armes, citoyens, Formez vos bataillons!” the TC could be saying. What I really like, on reflection, about this aspect of the French national anthem is that it isn’t urging citizens to join some pre-arranged (e.g. royal) battalions, but to create their own. Similarly, the TC could say, effectively, “now is the time to act — do it in your own ways, in your own organisations, whatever they are — but please bring the results together for us to formalise when they are ready.”

For me, this approach could change the whole scene. Instead of risking being an obstacle to progress, the CEN TC 353 could add legitimacy and coherence to the call for pre-standardization activity in chosen areas. It would be up to the individuals listening (us wearing different hats) to take up that challenge in whatever ways we believe are best. Let’s look at the two proposals from that perspective.

AFNOR, the French standards body, was suggesting working towards a European Standard (EN) with the title “Metadata for Learning Opportunities part 2 : Detailed Description of Training and Grading (face to face, distance or blended learning and MOOCs): Framework and Methodology”. The point is to extend MLO (EN 15982), including perhaps some of those characteristics of courses (learning opportunities), perhaps drawn from the Norwegian CDM or its French derivative, that didn’t make it into the initial version of MLO for advertising. There have from time to time in the UK been related conversations about the bits of the wider vision for XCRI that didn’t make it into XCRI-CAP (“Course Advertising Profile”). But they didn’t make it probably for some good reason — maybe either there wasn’t agreement about what they should be, or there wasn’t any pressing need, or there weren’t enough implementations of them to form the basis for effective consensus.

Responding to this, I can imagine BSI and CETIS colleagues in the UK seriously insisting, first, that implemention should go hand in hand with specification. We need to be propertly motivated by practical use cases, and we need to test ideas out in implementation before agreeing to standardize them. I could imagine other European colleagues insisting that the ideas should be accepted by all the relevant EC DGs before they have a chance of success in official circles. And so on — we can all do what we are best at, and bring those together. And perhaps also we need to collaborate between national bodies at this stage. It would make sense, and perhaps bring greater commitment from the national bodies and other agencies, if they were directly involved, rather than simply sending people to remote-feeling committees of standards organisations. In this case, it would be up to the French, whose Ministry of Education seems to be wanting something like this, to arrange to consult with others, to put together an implemented proposal that has a good chance of achieving European consensus.

We agreed that it was a good idea for the French proposal to use the “MOOC” label to gain interest and motivation, while the work would in no way be limited to MOOCs. And it’s important to get on board both some MOOC providers, and related though different, some of the agencies who aggregate information about MOOCs (etc.) and offer information about them through portals so that people can find appropriate ones. The additional new metadata would of course be designed to make that search more effective, in that more of the things that people ask about will be modelled explicitly.

So, let’s move on to the Swedish proposal. This was presented under the title “Linked and Open Data for Learning and Education”, based on their national project “Linked and Open Data in Schools” (LODIS). We agreed that it isn’t really on for a National Body simply to propose a national output for European agreement, without giving evidence on why it would be helpful. In the past, the Workshop would have been a fair place to bring this kind of raw idea, and we could have all pitched in with anything relevant. But under our new arrangements, we need the Swedes themselves to lead some cross-European collaboration to fill in the motivation, and do the necessary research and comparison.

There are additional questions also relevant to both proposals. How will they relate to the big international and American players? For example, are we going to get schema.org to take these ideas on, in the fullness of time? How so? Does it matter? (I’m inclined to think it does matter.)

I hope the essentials of the new approach are apparent in both cases. The principle is that TC 353 acts as a mediator and referee, saying “OK” to the idea that some area might be ripe for further work, and encouraging people to get on with it. I would, however, suggest that three vital conditions should apply, for this approach to be effective as well as generally acceptable.

  1. The principal stakeholders have to arrange the work themselves, with enough trans-national collaboration to be reasonably sure that the product will gain the European consensus needed in the context of CEN.
  2. The majority of the drafting and testing work is done clearly before a formal process is started in CEN. In our sector, it is vital that the essential ideas are free and open, so we want a openly licenced document to be presented to the TC as a starting point, as close as can be to the envisioned finishing point. CEN will still add value through the formal process and formal recognition, but the essential input will still be openly and freely licenced for others to work with in whatever way they see fit.
  3. The TC must assert the right to stop and revoke the CEN work item, if it turns out that it is not filling a genuine European need. There is room for improvement here over the past practice of the TC and the WS-LT. It is vital to our reputation and credibility, and to the ongoing quality of our output, that we are happy with rejecting work that it not of the right quality for CEN. Only in this way can CEN stakeholders have the confidence in a process that allows self-organising groups to do all the spadework, prior to and separate from formal CEN process and oversight.

At the meeting we also heard that the ballot on the TC 353 marketing website was positive. (Disclosure: I am a member of the TC 353 “Communications Board” who advised on the content.) Hopefully, a consequence of this will be that we are able to use the TC 353 website both to flag areas for which TC 353 believes there is potential for new work, and to link to the pre-standardization work that is done in those areas that have been encouraged by the TC, wherever that work is done. We hope that this will all help significantly towards our aim of effectively open standardization work, even where the final resulting EN standards remain as documents with a price tag.

I see the main resolutions made at the meeting as enacting this new role. TC 353 is encouraging proposers of new work to go ahead and develop mature open documentation, and clear standardization proposals, in whatever European collaborations they see fit, and bring them to a future TC meeting. I’d say that promises a new chapter in the work of the TC, which we should welcome, and we should play our part in helping it to work effectively for the common good.

4 thoughts on “What is CEN TC 353 becoming?

  1. Thanks for the update Simon.

    My feeling is that the decision-making process in all of the ed-tech standards bodies and consortia I have been involved with are flawed in practice. So, I think “TC 353 acts as a mediator and referee” implies some scaffolding. “Rules of the game”, to follow the idea of a referee. The way membership is constituted, and represented, does not make for effective decision-making. Neither does a rigid system of objective criteria (e.g. the proposal must include work from at least 4 member states), which is a problem if rules are seen this way.

    So… where am I going?
    I don’t imagine TC353 will be anything other than a fairly blunt tool using largely qualitative “rules”, based on proxies of quality. These qualities should probably be more explicit, and less reliant on who happens to be available to attend meeting X, etc.
    The proxies should derive from an pre-standardisation process based on merit, inclusion, evidence, and openness.

    In short: I believe the TC should *demand* organised pre-standardisation, and not attempt to facilitate it. In doing so, I hope it would stimulate some organisation.

    [I acknowledge that this short comment has left a LOT un-argued, and un-justified, in what is a complex topic.]

    Cheers, Adam

    • Thanks for your comments here, Adam. It looks like we both broadly agree with Tore as to what should be the features of pre-standardization process.

      Maybe we are in violent agreement? Where I think we are agreeing is that the TC should not be itself organising (“facilitating” is your word) the pre-standardization process, but playing a part in motivating it (“demanding” is your word). I’m not sure how far the terms differ. The important point, to me, is that the TC does not try to own the pre-standardization process, but makes standards for entry into the EN track. I personally don’t think this should be a “sit and wait” stance, imagining that the “EN” cachet is of some obvious value to people in LET-ICT. We should constitute a large sensory mechanism, involving all the mirror committees, to earn us some kind of authority to say what is needed at present in the European standardization of LET-ICT. And we should be using those same National Body networks to invite together groups of people, including implementers, who seem appropriate for any particular piece of work. But we should not be funding anything. The only reward at the end of the day is an EN to your credit.

      Does that make sense?

  2. Thanks for the very full report of the meeting, Simon.

    You can count me in on the violent agreement that the key to all this lies in the pre-standardization stage. But “pre-standardisation” covers a multitude of different sorts of activity. In my view, you could see the problem as the conflation of specifications development and standardisation, which I think should not occur in the same place.

    But I am probably more sceptical than your account suggests TC353 was about the ability of the formal standardisation committees to bootstrap their own pre-standardisation processes. Pre-standardisation is obviously prior to standardisation – and that means that it responds to causal influences (such as commercial dynamics) which lie outside the standardisation community. Why are these lacking?

    I think that the main reason that education does not standardise like other commercial sectors is that so much is run by government, which through its regulatory action acts as a sort of proxy standards issuer. The difference being that while technical standards enable diversity – just as you argue the point – regulatory standards suppress diversity. When these regulations are issued by civil servants who are duty bound to avoid risk (and therefore to avoid any sort of innovation) you have the reason why government-led ed-tech has suffered from a chronic failure to innovate over the last twenty years.

    I think there is some hope in the current questions being asked around the ETAG group (Education Technology Action Group set up by the UK DfE) – but I am not at all optimistic that the current bureaucratic community that is bound to have the chief influence over this process will agree to set up more genuinely innovative, market-led processes with any greater enthusiasm than turkeys will vote for Christmas.

    Which is why I think the most likely outcome is that the genuinely innovative ed-tech is going to come out of the US and not out of Europe.

    Which will not dissuade any of us from continuing to try and break the log-jam. My efforts focus on arguing the case that the role of government is to put in place the infrastructure for competitive markets, rather than trying to forge a consensus that I think is bound to be premature, when we are still in a world where there is very weak empirical evidence for ed-tech having any significant effect on teaching and learning. But who knows from which direction a breakthrough is most likely to occur?

    Best, Crispin.

    • Hi Crispin — thanks for your thoughts (and apologies I didn’t see them earlier)

      To take the debate forward, perhaps we could focus on your distinction “to put in place the infrastructure for competitive markets, rather than trying to forge a consensus”. To me, this assumes something about consensus that, while understandable, is not necessarily true. That is, you seem to assume that consensus is about how to do the thing itself. Rather, as I see it consensus could also be about the “infrastructure for competitive markets”.

      For any market, there are necessarily some shared assumptions. Not fixed in stone, of course, but assumptions for the time being. The more assumptions that are shared, maybe the keener and more competitive the market will become? Well it’s possible anyway. But then, what if some of those assumptions are mistaken?

      In a pluralist (economic) society, that’s the real challenge that I see. The challenge — and this can be address by standardization or otherwise — is to optimise the shared assumptions, and to allow variant shared assumptions where this seems fruitful. In technology for learning (or better, information systems for learning) one of the big questions is, what is the model of learning that is actually shared? In other words, what assumptions are being made about education, about training, or about learning in general? Are these assumptions sound?

      That’s where my suggestions for pre-standardization are relevant. Don’t constrain the sets of assumptions that people may want to make, but ask them to bring them all to the table. If there is consensus, all well and good. If not, let’s try to understand each other’s assumptions, and work on creating a space where there is room for all, and where people understand the relationship between different sets of assumptions.

      Can you work with that?