E-portfolios and identity: more!

The one annual e-portfolio (and identity) conference that I attend reliably was this year co-sponsored by CRA, on top of the principal EIfEL — London, 11th to 13th July. Though it wasn’t a big gathering, I felt it was somehow a notch up from last time.

Perhaps this was because it was just a little more grounded in practice, and this could have been the influence of the CRA. Largely gone were speculations about identity management and architecture, but in was more of the idea of identity as something that was to be developed personally.

We heard from three real recent students, who have used their portfolio systems for their own benefit. Presumably they developed their identity? That’s not a representative sample, and of course these are the converted, not the rank and file dissatisfied or apathetic. A message that surprisingly came from them was that e-portfolio use should be compulsory, at least at some point during the student’s studies. That’s worth reflecting on.

And as well as some well-known faces (Helen, Shane, et al.) there were those, less familiar in these settings, of our critical-friendly Mark Stiles, and later Donald Clark (who had caused slight consternation by his provocative blog post, finding fault with the portfolio concept, and was invited to speak as a result). Interestingly, I didn’t think Donald’s presentation worked as well as his blog (it was based on the same material). In a blog, you can be deliberately provocative, let the objections come, and then gracefully give way to good counter-arguments. But in the conference there wasn’t time to do this, so people may have gone away thinking that he really held these ideas, which would be a pity. Next year we should be more creative about the way of handling that kind of contribution. Mark’s piece — may I call it a friendly Jeremiad? I do have a soft spot for Jeremiah! — seemed to go down much better. We don’t want learners themselves to be commodified, but we can engage with Mark through thinking of plausible ways of avoiding that fate.

Mark also offered some useful evidence for my view that learners’ interests are being systematically overlooked, and that people are aware of this. Just let your eye off the ball of learner-centricity for a moment, and — whoops! — your learner focus is sneakily transformed into a concern of the institution that wants to know all kinds of things about learners — probably not what the learners wanted at all. There is great depth and complexity of the challenge to be truly learner-focused or learner-centred.

One of the most interesting presentations was by Kristin Norris of IUPUI, looking at what the Americans call “civic identity” and “civic-mindedness”. This looks like a laudibly ambitious programme for helping students to become responsible citizens, and seems related to our ethical portfolios paper of 2006 as well as the personal values part of my book.

Kristin knows about Perry and Kegan, so I was slightly surprised that I couldn’t detect any signs in the IUPUI programme of diagnosis of the developmental stage of individual students. I would have thought that what you do on a programme to develop students ethically should depend on the stage they have already arrived at. I’ll follow up on this with her.

So, something was being pointed to from many directions. It’s around the idea that we need richer models of the learner, the student, the person. And in particular, we need better models of learner motivation, so that we can really get under their (and our own) skins, so that the e-portfolio (or whatever) tools are things that they (and we) really want to use.

Intrinsic motivation to use portfolio tools remains largely unsolved. We are faced again and again with the feedback that students don’t want to know about “personal development” or “portfolios” (unless they are creatives who know about these anyway) or even less “reflection”! Yes, there are certainly some (counterexemplifying Donald Clark’s over-generalisation) who want to reflect. Perhaps they are similar to those who spontaneously write diaries — some of the most organised among us. But not many.

This all brings up many questions that I would like to follow up, in no particular order.

  • How are we, then, to motivate learners (i.e. people) to engage in activities that we recognise as involving reflection or leading to personal development?
  • Could we put more effort into deepening and enriching the model we have of each of our learners?
  • Might some “graduate attributes” be about this kind of personal and ethical development?
  • Are we suffering from a kind of conspiracy of the social web, kidding people that they are actually integrated, when they are not?
  • Can we use portfolio-like tools to promote growth towards personal integrity?
  • “Go out and live!” we could say. “But as you do it, record things. Reflect on your feelings as well as your actions. Then, later, when you ‘come up for air’, you will have something really useful to reflect on.” But how on earth can we motivate that?
  • Should we be training young people to reflect as a habit, like personal hygiene habits?
  • Is critical friendship a possible motivator?

I’m left with the feeling that there’s something really exciting waiting to be grasped here, and the ePIC conference has it all going for itself to grasp that opportunity. I wonder if, next year, we could

  • keep it as ePIC — e-portfolios and identity — a good combination
  • keep close involvement of the CRA and others interested in personal development
  • put more focus on the practice of personal-social identity development
  • discuss the tools that really support the development of personal social identity
  • talk about theories and architectures that support the tools and the development?

CPD-Eng – review of a JISC project in progress

I was asked to look into the CPD-Eng project by the JISC programme managers, specifically in conjunction with the JISC “Benefits Realisation” work, because this project in particular has a lot to do with portfolio technology and interoperability, and then with skills and competences in professional development.

CPD-Eng is a JISC-funded project, to quote from the JISC project page, “to integrate systems that support personalised IPD/CPD, applicable to professional frameworks.” The lead institution is the University of Hull, and much of the documentation can be found through their own project page.

The project start date was April 2009. At that date, the tender documentation spelled out the aspirations for the project. The main image that emerges from the tender documentation is not of a new e-portfolio system as such, but of an approach to integrating evidence that may reside on different systems, all of which has relevance to an individual’s CPD. “CPD-Eng will provide the innovative, personalised infrastructure that will support the work-based learner through a new suite of flexible pathways…”

The original plan was to deploy Sun’s Identity Management software, perhaps aiming towards Shibboleth in the longer term. These were overtaken by various events. Consultations with various people related to JISC lowered the perceived value of Shibboleth, and in any case there needed to be a more open approach to accommodate the wider potential usage of the tools.

One of the shaping factors was the requirement to integrate the Hull institutional VLE (“eBridge”), based on the SAKAI framework. Right from the outset there was explicit mention also of integrating e-portfolio systems that have adopted Leap2A. Clearly, one of the main areas of future evidence of the success of a project that claims to be about integrating systems will be the actual extent of integration carried out. In the project plan, WP7 states that the most important integration is between eBridge and other partners’ VLEs. The nature of the integration, however, was not specified at the outset, but remained to be filled in through earlier work in the project itself. A theme that does continue throughout the tender is about the ability of learners to control access to information that may be stored in different places.

The baseline report (version 0.9 of August 2009) spells out more graphically where the project started from. Perhaps the core point at the centre of the vision is the statement: “A portal system has been established alongside an Identity Management (IDM) system that allows self-service management of the learner’s identity. CPD-Eng will develop a robust and scalable approach to interoperability, access and identity management that is both easy to use and seamless, allowing the learner to control their personal e-portfolio-type technologies and share the content within them with whom they choose.” Compared to this, the rest of the baseline report is interesting background.

After the baseline report the project took stock of the situation. Some other portfolio products were “not very engineering”. TAS3 was not seen as very user-friendly. Academics still wanted the software to sit in SAKAI. Unfortunately, the lead programmer resigned to take up employment elsewhere, and the project was left without a developer. After looking into advertising for a replacement, and consulting with the JISC Programme Manager, it was decided to put the software development out to tender. MyKnowledgeMap (MKM: a York-based company with a track record of producing software in the area of skills and portfolios, for users in education and various professions) was judged as the most suitable partner, though they lacked experience of SAKAI. The project leads arranged for MKM employees to be trained by the University’s consultant, Unicon.

This was the situation for the following progress report of 2010-03. Three software modules were being developed within SAKAI:

  • Aggregator
  • Mapper / Tagger
  • Showcaser

The Aggregator module “provides a mechanism for users to gather their artefacts and items of evidence from across multiple sources.” While it is relatively easy simply to copy information from other sources into a system like this, the point here is explicitly “not” (emphasis original) to copy, where it is possible to establish access from the original location.

Tagging is conceived of similarly to elsewhere, in terms of adding free text tags to aid categorisation by individuals. Mapping, in contrast, is designed to allow users to connect artefacts to elements of established “skills, competency and assessment frameworks”. This function is vital within CPD practice, so that users can present evidence of meeting required standards. Such frameworks are stored externally. JISC is now funding some “Competence structures for e-portfolio tools interoperability” work finishing July 2011, and CPD-Eng can play a useful role in determining the standard form in which competence structures should be communicated. MKM does have existing techniques for this, but they will be critiqued and adapted as necessary before being adopted as a consensus.

Showcasing is conceived of similarly as in many portfolio tools. Official review is supported by routine copying of showcases to uneditable areas. This works for e.g. health professionals, because they want a carefully controlled system, though others like engineers need that less, and prefer to do without the extra burden of storage. It is planned to support review without necessarily copying showcases in a later release. Access to showcases was originally only via SAKAI, but it was later recognised that limiting to SAKAI access was not ideal, particularly as many professional bodies have their own e-portfolio systems.

Working with health professionals, archeologists and others (there is also interest from schools, and a pilot with BT), it became clear that a useful system should not be tightly bound to other institutional software or to SAKAI, so what was needed was an independent identity management system.

In the Benefits Realisation plan from the summer of 2010 came a clear restatement of the core aim of the work. “At its centre is a scalable, interoperable and robust access and identity management system that integrates and control access to personal e-portfolio technologies.” But what is the relationship between the CPD-Eng work and other identity management systems? Sun’s Identity Management software had been abandoned. The European funded TAS3 work (in which the University of Nottingham is a partner) was seen as too complex for professional end users. A question which remains outstanding is to clarify the relationship of the system devised with the trials funded by JISC under the PIOP 3 programme, involving PebblePad, the University of Nottingham and Newcastle University. It would be good to see a clear exposition of these and any other relationships. All that can be said at this stage is that in the perception of the CPD-Eng project, none of the other identity management systems really worked for them.

The next piece of documentation is the progress report from September 2010. This is where the questions really start to become clearer. Included in this massive report is the complete text of the final report from “Personalised systems to support CPD within Health Care”, a mini project extending CPD-Eng concepts to health care professions. In this very interesting inner report, there is a large body of evidence about CPD practice in the health professions. This leads to a second major question. What about the whole process side of portfolio practice? CPD-Eng has very clearly focused on the rather technical side of facilitating the access management for artefacts. This is certainly useful at the stage when all the evidence has been generated, when it remains to gather together appropriate items from different places.

Much portfolio practice centrally involves reflection on evidence as well as its collection and showcasing. The phrase “collect, select, reflect…” is often used in portfolio circles. (Helen Barrett adds direction/projection and connection.) Reflection is often vital in portfolio practice, because the mere presentation of a selection of artefacts is no guarantee of a clear and coherent understanding of how and why they fit together. Because unprompted reflection is hard, institutions often support the process. It is useful to be able to build in some aspect of process into the same tools which hold the information and resources to be reflected on, and it is useful to hold the reflections themselves in a place that they can be easily connected with the things on which they are reflecting.

Increasingly, it is recognised that the peer group is another vital aspect of this reflection process. In a situation where staff time is short, or the staff seem uninvolved, possibly the best stimulus for reflection and re-evaluation of ideas is the peer group. Portfolio systems designers themselves have recognised this, by integrating social tools into the portfolio software.

It is clear that MyShowcase is not primarily designed to support reflection. (More information about MyShowcase can be found at www.my-showcase.org which has a demo and links, and through www.mkmlabs.com.) However, one of the consequences of implementing a stand-alone version is that users found an immediate need for some of the functionality that is normally provided within full-feature e-portfolio systems. In particular, users want to collect evidence together and send a link to a tutor for feedback. The link is sent to the reviewer by e-mail, who can then access the system for the purpose of leaving feedback comments. Indeed, some users feel that fully-featured e-portfolio systems are just too complex for their users’ needs, and value a simple tool because it does less, and does not explicitly support reflection by users. So this is the only extra feature implemented in MyShowcase that comes from the fuller set normal in portfolio software.

If one has a hybrid system including MyShowcase and some other portfolio tool, the portfolio functionality will therefore mainly be fulfilled in the portfolio tool, not MyShowcase. But what of the feedback that has been designed into MyShowcase for standalone use? To be useful, it would have to seen within the portfolio system. And generally, any information used in MyShowcase needs to be presented to the associated e-portfolio system for use within whatever (e.g. reflective) processes the portfolio software is used for. We don’t want the flow of information to be only one-way, or there to be solely unidirectional two-stage processes. What is needed is an effective two-way integration, so that the chosen portfolio tool can access all the information gathered through MyShowcase, the user / learner can gather further feedback and reflect, and present the outcomes of that further reflection back into the MyShowcase pool, for onward presentation.

Recent discussion has confirmed that MyShowcase is not primarily conceived of as a replacement for a full e-portfolio system, though it does act as what we might call an “evidence resource management” tool. Perhaps we can now discern an ideal answer to where this might lead, and where things ought to be heading, and the questions that still need to be answered.

If a service such as MyShowcase is to work effectively alongside e-portfolio tools, there needs to be transfer of information all ways round. In addition to this, and because it can be implemented stand-alone, there needs to be Leap2A export and import directly between MyShowcase and a user’s personal storage.

Looking at things from a user’s perspective, a portfolio tool user should be able to make use of MyShowcase functionality transparently. It should be able to be used as invisible “middleware”, allowing the front end e-portfolio system to focus on an appropriate user interface, and portfolio and PDP processes (including reflection and feedback), with MyShowcase providing the funcationality that allow the user to link to evidential resources held in a variety of places, including VLEs, HR systems, other portfolio tools, social networking services, blogs, etc., possibly including sites with sensitive information that will only be displayed to authorised users.

The MyShowcase architecture in principle could provide resource management for “thin portfolio” services, where the storage is not in the portfolio system. Is it, or could it be, adapted for this?

As part of the PIOP 3 projects, Leap2A connection between different systems was been investigated by PebblePad, Nottingham and Newcastle, and this work needs to be carefully compared with the MyShowcase architecture. What exactly are the similarities and the differences? Are they alternatives? Can they be integrated, combining any strong points from both?

In order to facilitate this two-way interaction, there really needs to be substantial compatibility between the information models in all the connected systems, so that there can be meaningful communication between the systems. This does not necessarily mean a full implementation of Leap2A in each participating system, but it does mean at least a reasonable mapping between the information managed and corresponding Leap2A structures, because Leap2A is the only well-implemented and tested model we have at this time that covers all the relevant information. If there are requirements that are not covered by Leap2A, this is a good time to raise them so that they can be incorporated into discussion with other parties interested in Leap2A, and our common future thinking.

I hope I’ve made the issues clearer here. Here are collected recommendations for taking this work forward, whether within the current CPD-Eng and Benefits Realisation work or beyond it.

  • What the portfolio community really needs is multi-way integration of portfolio information, artefacts and permissions, based around Leap2A concepts.
  • Leap2A export and import by users should be provided for standalone implementations of MyShowcase, just as with other portfolio systems that have adopted Leap2A.
  • Showcases in MyShowcase need to be exportable as Leap2A (as with PebblePad WebFolios and Mahara Views).
  • For transparent integration between different sources of information in a portfolio architecture, identity management approaches need consolidating around good workable models such as OAuth
  • The PIOP 3 work by PebblePad Nottingham and Newcastle, as well as TAS3, need to be carefully considered, to extract any lessons relevant to CPD-Eng, even if their appearance is only in the final report.
  • The opportunity provided by any planned project meeting should be fully exploited in these directions.
  • Another meeting should be planned around the wider questions of e-portfolio interoperability architecture, covering not only the technical aspects, but the requirements of practice as well, such as reflection, feedback and comments on non-public items stored elsewhere.

CEN WS-LT 2011-01-17 Brussels

At this useful meeting, on the premises of European Schoolnet, the question of e-portfolio information was introduced, and other business carried forward. Many of the familiar people were there: though among those missed were Scott, Mark Stubbs, Cleo Sgouropoulou. Dan Rehak was absent, but Angelo Panar was there in his place. I turned out to be the only UK person. A bright new face was Eleni Kargioti, from Q&R, a Greek company contracted to CEDEFOP to do interesting things with their Europass web site.

Jan Pawlowski, in the chair, changed the agenda a bit to include a presentation from Eleni, and to include discussion on the EC’s Standardisation Work Programme in ICT. “Our” bit is Domain 7: eSkills and eLearning. We have an obvious interest in having EC policy matched with what we think is important. The idea this time was just to gently edit, not to change anything substantive. As the term “e-portfolio” has now been included under out interest in European Learner Mobility, I persuaded people for the corresponding inclusion of “Professional Development” under the “elearning” interest heading.

We did discuss the InLOC proposal (integrating learning outcomes and competences), which has been very delayed this year mainly due to confusion over the resignation of DIN from providing the workshop secretariat. It has just last week been finally resubmitted to CEN who are doing their bit and passing it on. This is a vital proposal that I have been jointly authoring, as it follows on from the earlier European Learner Mobility work that led to the EuroLMAI specifications. Now, the secretarial question has nearly been resolved, with AENOR (Spanish national body) offering to take on the workshop on condition that InLOC is funded.

I made a presentation about the need for standardisation in area of e-portfolio information. It’s on Slideshare. After a brief history, I point out the key motivations, which include the fact of the Korean-led ISO SC36 e-portfolio reference model work. I outline the Leap2A model, and give thoughts about how Leap2A and the NL profile of IMS eP might be brought together. Renewed CEDEFOP involvement makes this work even more timely.

I also drew attention to the forthcoming ISO SC36 meeting in Strasbourg in March. We need to get together with our usual suspect colleagues (including Erlend, Tore and Christian who all plan to be there) and focus relevant ideas.

Eleni Kargioti gave a very heartening presentation, reflecting the fact that CEDEFOP is back in touch. There is now great potential for collaboration over Europass in several ways. Perhaps CETIS should follow this up, develop a relationship with CEDEFOP perhaps through Q&R, and make the connections with the HEAR work, for example.

Joris Klerkx talked about the Interoperability of Registries work. As I know little about learning resources or repositories, it mainly went over my head, though it did look vaguely plausible. The slight issue here is that there may be competition between this work and e-portfolio information work for funding in the coming year’s work programme. So, from our side, we need to find who is really interested in e-portfolio work and make a convincing case by the end of February, to maximise the chance of benefiting from the opportunity for Leap2A being a key part of a future European Standard, just as XCRI provided perhaps the majority of ideas for MLO.

The next meeting of the Workshop is in Madrid, April 11, followed the next day by TC353. After that, we are investigating a summer meeting for the Workshop in conjunction with the EUNIS conference, which is in Dublin in June; the following WS-LT and TC353 meeting is still scheduled for October 13 in Sweden.

E-portfolio Scotland

The Scottish e-portfolio scene seems to have comparatively many colleges, many of which use or are interested in Mahara. It may be even more promising than England for exploring company e-portfolio use, and we should try to ensure Scots are represented in any work on skills frameworks for e-portfolio tools.

That was the most interesting conclusion for me in a generally interesting day conference, e-Portfolio Scotland at Queen Margaret University on Friday (2010-09-10). I was given a plenary spot about Leap2A, and the audience responded well to my participative overtures — which is where I gathered this valuable information — and asked some intelligent questions. Mahara and PebblePad are well used, with Blackboard’s offering less so. Reassuringly, Leap2A came up in the presentations / demonstrations of Mahara and PebblePad, and in the final plenary by Gordon Joyes, so the audience would not be doubt about how central Leap2A is. (We just have to carry on following through and delivering!)

It was interesting to meet so many new faces. Apart from Gordon, there was Derrin Kent, and Susi Peacock on her home ground, but I didn’t know any of the others well. There seemed to be a roughly even split between HE and FE, with a very few from professions and schools. Perhaps I ought to spend more e-portfolio time in Scotland…

The vendors present included Calibrand, who I first met at the EIfEL conference this summer, and Taskstream, who have been represented in many e-portfolio conferences over several years. I suggested to the latter that they really need to take on Leap2A to get more into the UK market. A Manchester-based company, OneFile, sells a “Portfolio Assessment Solution” that I had not come across at all before, and their location has obvious potential for future discussion. But perhaps the most interesting vendor there, also giving a presentation, was Linda Steedman, MD of eCom Scotland. Their company has got beyond being a micro-business and offers an “Enterprise Skills Management” tool called SkillsLocker. I was impressed by her presentation, ranging across accreditation of prior learning, work-based learning, and what is now fashionably called “talent management” rather than HR. It seems they are well-connected, with AlphaPlus among others; also that they have done some valuable work cross mapping different skill definitions — I intend to follow this up.

Though perhaps not quite so central to JISC as those working in the HE sector, we still need to find some way of supporting the adoption of Leap2A-friendly portfolio tools in such commercially-based concerns. Work- and skills-based learning and training is a natural successor to HE-based PDP and skills development, and we really need to link in to it to make HE portfolio use more universally motivating.

One big remaining challenge was broadly acknowledged: dealing with these skill and competence representation issues that we do have on our agenda. The vision I was putting around, with no dissenting voices, was to decouple portfolio tools from any particular skills framework, and to have the frameworks published with proper URIs (in good Linked Data style). Then any tool should be able to work with any skills framework, and Leap2A information would include the relevant URIs. Though there remains the problem with HE that they tend to define skills at a different level to industry demands, FE is comparatively much closer to their employers, and they have common reference points in National Occupational Standards. So, among other things, any help we can get to persuade Sector Skills Councils to give proper URIs and structure to their NOSs will be most welcome, and maybe the Scottish e-portfolio community can help with this, and with defining the needed structures?

Portfolios need verifiability

Having verified information included in learner-owned portfolios looks attractive to employers and others, but perhaps it would be better to think in terms of verifiable information, and processes that can arrange verification on demand.

Along with Scott Wilson and others, I was at a meeting recently with a JISC-funded project about doing electronic certificates, somewhat differently from the way that Digitary do them. Now, the best approach to certifying portfolio information is far from obvious. But Higher Education is interested in providing information to various people about activities and results of those who have attended their institution, and employers and others are keen to know what can be officially certified. When people start by imagining an electronic transcript in terms their understanding of a paper transcript, inevitably the question of how to make it “secure” will come up, echoing questions of how to prevent forgery of paper certificates.

Lately, I have been giving people my opinion that portfolio information and institutionally (“primary source”) verified information are different, and don’t need to interact too closely. Portfolio holders may write what they like, just as they do in CVs, and if certificates or verification are needed, perhaps the unverified portfolio information can provide a link to a verified electronic certificate of achievement information (like the HEAR, the UK Higher Education Achievement Report, under development). This meeting moved my understanding forward from this fairly simple view, but there are still substantial gaps, so I’ll try to set out what I do understand, and ask readers for kind suggestions about what I don’t.

As Scott could tell you much more ably than me, there are plenty of problems with providing digitally signed certificates for graduates to keep in their own storage. I won’t go into those, just to say that the problem is a little like banknotes: you can introduce a new clever technology that is harder to forge, but sooner or later the crooks will catch up with you, and you have to move on to ever more complex and sophisticated techniques. So, in what perhaps I may call “our” view, it seems normally preferable to keep original verified information at source, or at some trusted service provider delegated by the primary source. There are then several ways in which this information can be shown to the people who wish to rely on its verified authority. In principle, these are set out in Scott’s page on possible architectures for the HEAR. But in detail, again at the meeting I realised something I hadn’t figured out before.

We have already proposed in outline a way in which each component part of an achievement document could have its own URI, so that links could be made to particular parts, and differential permissions given to each part. (See e.g. the CEN EuroLMAI PDF.) If each part of an achievement document is separately referenceable, the person to whom the document refers (let’s call this person the holder again) could allow different people to view different parts, for different times, etc., providing that achievement information servers can store that permission information alongside the structured achievement information itself.

Another interesting technical approach, possible at least in PebblePad (Shane Sutherland was helpfully contributing to the meeting), is transparently to include information from other servers, to view and manage in your portfolio tool. The portfolio holder would directly see what he or she was making available for others to view. The portfolio system itself might have general permission to access any information on the achievement information server, with the onward permissions managed by the portfolio system. Two potential issues might arise.

  1. What does giving general permission to an e-portfolio system mean for security? Would this be too much like leaving an open door into the achievement information server?
  2. As the information is presented by the portfolio server, how would the viewer know that the information really comes from the issuer’s server, and is thus validated? A simple mark may not be convincing.

A potential solution to the second point might start with the generation of a permission token on the issuer’s server whenever a new view is put together on the portfolio system. Then the viewer could request a certificate that combined just the information that was presented in that view. But, surely, there must be other more general solutions?

The approach outlined above might be satisfactory just for one achievement information server, but if the verified information covering a portfolio is distributed across several such servers, the process might be rather cumbersome, confusing even, as several part certificates would have to be shown. Better to deal with such certificates only as part of a one-off verification process, perhaps as part of induction to a new opportunity. Instead, if the holder were able to point from a piece of information to the one or more parts of the primary records that backed it up, and then to set permissions within the portfolio system for the viewer to be able to follow that link, the viewer could be given the permission to see the verified information behind any particular piece of information. Stepping back a little, it might look like this. Each piece of information in a portfolio presentation or system is part of a web of evidence. Some of that evidence is provided by other items in the portfolio, but some refers to primary trustable sources. The method of verification can be provided, at the discretion of the portfolio holder, for permitted viewers to follow, for each piece of information.

One last sidestep: the nice thing about electronic information is that it is very easy to duplicate exactly. If there is a piece of information on a trusted server, belonging to a portfolio holder, it is in principle easy for the holder to reproduce that piece of information in the holder’s own personal portfolio system. Given this one-to-one correspondence, for that piece of information there is exactly one primary source of verification, which is the achievement information server’s version of just that piece of information. The information in the portfolio can be marked as “verifiable”, and associated with its means of verification. A big advantage of this is that one can query a trusted server in the least revealing way possible: simply to say, does this person have this information associated with them? The answer would be, “yes”, or “no”, or “not telling” (if the viewer is not permitted to see that information).

Stepping back again, we no longer need any emphasis on representing “verified” information within a portfolio itself, but instead the emphasis is on representing “verifiable” information. The task of looking after this information then becomes one of making sure that the the verification queries are successful just when they should be. What does this entail? These are the main things that I am unclear about in this vision, and would be grateful to know. How do we use and transform personal information while retaining its verifiability? What is required to maintain that verifiability?

linked portfolios?

There’s been continued development of interest within CETIS around the issue of linked data. Most people seem to start from the assumption that linked data is public data, and of course that isn’t going to work in e-portfolio land. (See e.g. this W3C guide in construction.) I see it as a creative challenge for CETIS to get hold of the issue of linking personal data, the issues it involves, and perhaps leading on to initial guidance for others implementing systems. This is perhaps needed to make progress with Leap2R.

Wilbert Kraan was in the Bolton office today, and I had a brief chat that opened up some of these issues to me. (He is a CETIS Semantic Web authority.) We could approach linked personal data in at least two ways:

  1. named graphs with permissions attached;
  2. security policies for particular URIs.

The named graph approach would seem to fit well with the way that e-portfolio systems make information available. Mahara has “views”, PebblePad has “webfolios”, which are somewhat similar in structure. They are both the means for presenting subsets of one’s information to particular audiences. So, if an e-portfolio had a SPARQL query facility attached, it would have to give no information by default, but only information derived from the graphs specifically named in the query. It is, I am assured, quite possible to restrict permission to access particular named graphs in a way very similar to restricting access to any web document.

But does that give too little to those who want to write really interesting SPARQL queries involving personal information? Or would the necessary permission processes be too cumbersome? What if an individual could create permissions, or an access regime, for individual bits of his or her information? That might be more in keeping with the spirit of the Semantic Web. In which case, perhaps we could envisage two strengths of control:

  • filtering triples output from a SPARQL query to ensure that they only contained restricted URIs if the querying agent had permission to have those URIs;
  • filtering the inferencing process so that triples containing restricted URIs were only used in the inferencing process if they querying agent had permission to use them.

We would need to look into what the effects of these might be. Maybe we might conclude that the latter was an appropriate way of keeping sensitive data really private, while the former might be OK for personal information that was not sensitive? That is no more than a guess. If this approach proved to be feasible, it might provide a way, not only for the principled permission to use particular personal information, but a really effective approach to keeping data private while still allowing it to be linked where allowed.

The point here is just to open up the agenda. If we are to take the future of linked data and the Semantic Web seriously, in any case we need to think through what we do to link personal information. Just assuming that no one will want to link personal data is very unlikely to work in the long run.

PLE, e-p, or what?

The concept of the personal learning environment could helpfully be more related to the e-portfolio (e-p), as both can help informal learning of skills, competence, etc., whether these abilities are formally defined or not.

Several people at CETIS/IEC here in Bolton had a wide-ranging discussion this Thursday morning (2010-02-18), focused around the concept of the “personal learning environment” or PLE. It’s a concept that CETIS people helped develop, from the Colloquia system, around 1996, and Bill Olivier and Oleg Liber formulated in a paper in 2001 — see http://is.gd/8DWpQ . The idea is definitely related to an e-portfolio, in that an e-p can store information related to this personal learning, and the idea is generally to have portfolio information continue “life-long” across different episodes of learning.

As Scott Wilson pointed out, it may be that the PLE concept overreached itself. Even to conceive of “a” system that supports personal learning in general is hazardous, as it invites people to design a “big” system in their own mind. Inevitably, such a “big” system is impractical, and the work on PLEs that was done between, say, 2000 and 2005 has now been taken forward in different ways — Scott’s work on widgets is a good example of enabling tools with a more limited scope, but which can be joined together as needed.

We’ve seen parallel developments in the e-portfolio world. I think back to LUSID, from 1997, where the emphasis was on individuals auditing and developing their transferable / employability skills. Then increasingly we saw the emergence of portfolio tools that included more functionality: presentation to others (through the web); “social” communication and collaboration tools. Just as widgets can be seen as the dethroning of the concept of monolithic learning technology in general, so the “thin portfolio” concept (borrowing from the prior “personal information aggregation and distribution service” concept) represents the idea that you don’t need that portfolio information in one server; but that it is very helpful to have one place where one can access all “your” information, and set permissions for others to view it. This concept is only beginning to be implemented. The current PIOP 3 work plans to lay down more of the web services groundwork for this, but perhaps we should be looking over at the widgets work.

Skills and competences have long been connected with portfolio tools. Back in 1997 LUSID had a framework structure for employability skills. But what is new is the recent greatly enlarged extent of interest in learning outcomes, abilities, skills and competencies. Recent reading for eCOTOOL has revealed that the ECVET approach, as well as being firmly based on “outcomes” (which ICOPER also focuses), also recognises non-formal and informal learning as central. Thus ECVET credit is not attached only to vocational courses, but also to the accreditation of prior learning by institutions that are prepared to validate the outcomes involved. Can we, perhaps, connect with this European policy, and develop tools that are aimed at helping to implement it? It takes far sighted institutions to give up the short term gain of students enrolled on courses and instead to assess their prior learning and validate their existing abilities. But surely it makes sense in the long run, as long as standards are maintained?

If we are to have learning technology — and it really doesn’t matter if you call them PLEs, e-portfolios or whatever — that supports the acquisition or improvement of skills and competence by individuals in their own diverse ways, then surely a central organising principle within those tools needs to be the skills, competencies or whatever that the individual wants to acquire or improve. Can we draw, perhaps on the insights of PLE and related work, put them together with e-portfolio work, and focus on tools to manage the components of competence? In the IEC, we have all our experience on the TENCompetence project that has finished, as well as ICOPER that is underway and eCOTOOL that is starting. Then we expect there will be work associated with PIOP 3 that brings in frameworks of skill and competence. Few people can be in a better position to do this work that we are in CETIS/IEC.

In part, I would formulate this as providing technology and tools to help people recognise their existing (uncertificated) skills, evidence them (the portfolio part) and then help them, and the institutions they attend, to assess this “prior learning” (APL) and bring it in to the world of formal recognition, and qualifications.

But I think there is another very important aspect to the technology connected with the PLE concept, and that is to provide the guidance that learners need to ensure they get on the “right” course. At the meeting, we discussed how employers often do not want the very graduates whose studies have titles that seem to related directly to the job. What has gone wrong? It’s all very well treating students like customers — “the customer is always right” — but what happens when a learner wants to take a course aimed at something one believes they are not going to be successful at? Perhaps the right intervention is to start earlier, helping learners clarify their values before their goals, understand who they are before deciding what they should do. This would be “personal learning” in the sense of learning about oneself. Perhaps the PDP part of the e-portfolio community, and those who come from careers guidance, know more about this, but even they sometimes seem not to know what to do for the best. To me, this self-knowledge requires a social dimension (with the related existing tools), and is something that needs to be able to draw on many aspects of a learner’s life (“lifewide” portfolio perhaps).

So, to reconstruct PLE ideas, not as monolithic systems, but as parts, there are two key parts in my view.

The first would be a tool for bringing together evidence residing in different systems, and organising it to provide material for reflection on, and evidence of, skills and competence across different areas of life, and integrating with institutional systems for recognising what has already been learned, as well as slotting people in to suitable learning opportunities. This would play a natural part in continuous professional development, and in the relatively short term learning education and training needs we have, which we can see we need from an existing working perspective, and thus, in the kind of workplace learning that many are predicting will need to grow.

The second may perhaps be not a tool but several tools to help people understand themselves, their values, their motives, their real goals, and the activities and employment that they would actually find satisfying, rather than what they might falsely imagine. Without this function, any learning education or training risks being wasted. Doing this seems much more challenging, but also much more deeply interesting to me.

Development of a conceptual model 5

This conceptual model now includes basic ideas about what goes on in the individual, plus some of the most important concepts for PDP and e-portfolio use, as well as the generalised formalisable concepts processes surrounding individual action. It has come a long way since the last time I wrote about it.

The minimised version is here, first… (recommended to view the images below separately, perhaps with a right-click)


and that is complex enough, with so many relationship links looking like a bizarre and distorted spider’s web. Now for the full version, which is quite scarily complex now…


Perhaps that is the inevitable way things happen. One thinks some more. One talks to some more people. The model grows, develops, expands. The parts connected to “placement processes” were stimulated by Luk Vervenne’s contribution to the workshop in Berlin of my previous blog entry. But — and I find hard to escape from this — much of the development is based on internal logic, and just looking at it from different points of view.

It still makes sense to me, of course, because I’ve been with it through its growth and development. But is there any point in putting such a complex structure up on my blog? I do not know. It’s reached the stage where perhaps it needs turning into a paper-length exposition, particularly including all the explanatory notes that you can see if you use CmapTools, and breaking it down into more digestible, manageable parts. I’ve put the CXL file and a PDF version up on my own concept maps page. I can only hope that some people will find this interesting enough to look carefully at some of the detail, and comment… (please!) If you’re really interested, get in touch to talk things over with me. But the thinking will in any case surface in other places. And I’ll link from here later if I do a version with comments that is easier to get at.

LEAP2A in ALT newsletter

The LEAP2A specification – for e-portfolio portability and interoperability – means a lot to the developers who have worked on it, but can be a challenge to describe concisely to others who are less familiar with this technology. Recently it was suggested that I write a short article to do just that, and it appeared in Issue 16 of the ALT Newsletter, May 2009.

More PDP and e-portfolios – Reading

Yesterday I went to an interesting event in Reading (at the University) called “Future-proofing PDP and ePortfolios“. My role was only to answer questions in a Q&A session on interoperability, but as there were few technical people around it was called “Can I take away what I’ve put into our PDP system?”

Two really interesting points emerged.

  1. Many institutions feel stuck with Blackboard at present, even for their portfolio functionality. Generally, they are unhappy with this.
  2. There are a few interesting tools that work in Blackboard, and people are keen on using the wiki facility for building portfolio presentations.

The wiki tool in question is from Learning Objects. The general idea is that learners find wiki technology an easy way to write a presentation, and if that is what they want to do with a “portfolio”, it should work fine – as indeed any wiki technology. I don’t know how important the integration with the rest of the e-learning system would be.

But this in turn brings up the question, if wikis are used as a platform for constructing e-portfolio presentations, can we make them interoperable with other e-portfolio systems? It would be great if we could. I intend to ask around, and think around, this issue, and write more. The basic idea would be to get a new version of LEAP2 out – LEAP2R – that would be LEAP2 in RDFa – and then see if a wiki system can be tweaked to export and import XHTML+RDFa in LEAP2R format. We would of course also build transforms to convert between LEAP2A and LEAP2R.