Learning about learning about …

I was recently reading a short piece from Peter Honey (of learning styles fame)
in a CIPD blog post in which he writes, saving the most important item for last in his list:

Learning to learn – the ultimate life-skill

You can turn learning in on itself and use your learning skills to help you learn how to become an increasingly effective learner. Learning to learn is the key to enhancing all the above.

It’s all excellent stuff, and very central to the consideration of learning technology, particularly that dedicated to supporting reflection.

Then I started thinking further (sorry, just can’t help it…)

If learning to learn is the ultimate life skill, then surely the best that educators can do is to help people learn to learn.

But learning to learn is not altogether straightforward. There are many pitfalls that interfere with effective learning, and which may not respond to pure unaided will-power or effort. Thus, to help people learn to learn, we (as educators) have to know about those pitfalls, those obstacles, those hazards that stand in the way of learning generally, and we have to be able somehow at least to guide the learners we want to help around those hazards.

There are two approaches we could take here. First, we could try to diagnose what our learners are trying to learn, what is preventing them, and maybe give them the knowledge they are lacking. That’s a bit like a physician prescribing some cure — not just medicine, perhaps, but a cure that involves a change of behaviour. Or it’s a bit like seeing people hungry, and feeding them — hungry for knowledge, perhaps? If we’re talking about knowledge here, of course, there is a next stage: helping people to find the knowledge that they need, rather than giving it to them directly. I put that in the same category, as it is not so very different.

There is a second, qualitatively different approach. We could help our learners learn about their own learning. We could guide them — and this is a highly reflective task — to diagnose their own obstables to learning. This is not simply not knowing where to look for what they want to know, it is about knowing more about themselves, and what it may be within them that interferes with their learning processes — their will to learn, their resolve (Peter Honey’s article starts with New Year’s resolutions) or, even, their blind spots. To pursue the analogy, that is like a physician giving people the tools to maintain their own health, or, proverbially, rather than giving a person a fish, teaching them to fish.

Taking this further starts to relate closely in my mind to Kelly’s Personal Construct Psychology; and also perhaps to Kuhn’s ideas about the “Structure of Scientific Revolutions”. Within a particular world view, one’s learning is limited by that world view. When the boundaries of that learning are being pushed, it is time to abandon the old skin and take up a new and more expansive one; or just a different one, more suited to the learning that one wants. But it is hard — painful even (Kelly recognised that clearly) and the scientific establishment resists revolutions.

In the literature and on the web, there is the concept called “triple loop learning”, and though this doesn’t seem to be quite the same, it would appear to be going in the same direction, even if not as far.

What, then, is our task as would-be educators; guides; coaches; mentors? Can we get beyond the practices analogous to Freudian psychoanalyis, which are all too prone to set up a dependency? How can we set our learners truly free?

This may sound strange, but I would say we (as educators, etc.) need to study, and learn about, learning about learning. We need to understand not just about particular obstacles to learning, and how to get around those; but also about how people learn about their own inner obstacles, and how they can successfully grow around them.

As part of this learning, we do indeed need to understand how, in any given situation, a person’s world view is likely to relate to what they can learn in that situation; but further, we need to understand how it might be possible to help people recognise that in themselves. You think not? You think that we just have to let people be, to find their own way? It may be, indeed, that there is nothing effective that we are wise enough to know how to do, for a particular person, in a particular situation. And, naturally, it may be that even if we offer some deep insight, that we know someone is ready to receive, they may choose not to receive it. That is always a possibility that we must indeed respect.

And there cannot be a magic formula, a infallible practice, a sure method, a way of forcibly imbuing people with that deep wisdom. Of course there isn’t — we know that. But at least we can strive in our own ways to live with the attitude of doing whatever we can, firstly, not to stand in the way of whatever light may dawn on others, but also, if we are entrusted with the opportunity, to channel or reflect some of that light in a direction that we hope might bear fruit.

Again, it is not hard to connect this to systems thinking and cybernetics. Beyond the law of requisite variety — something about controlling systems needing to be at least as complex as the systems they are controlling — the corresponding principle is practically commonplace: to help people learn something, we have to have learned more than we expect them to learn. In this case, to help people learn about their own learning, we have to have learned about learning about learning.

People are all complex. It is sadly common to fail to take into account the richness and complexity of the people we have dealings with. To understand the issues and challenges people might have with learning about their own learning, we have to really stretch ourselves, to attend to the Other, to listen and to hear acutely enough with all our senses, to understand enough about them, where they come from, where they are, to have an idea about what may either stand in the way, or enable, their learning about their learning. Maybe love is the best motivator. But we also need to learn.

Right then, back on the CETIS earth (which is now that elegant blue-grey place…) I just have to ask, how can technology help? E-portfolio technology has over the years taken a few small steps towards supporting reflection, and indeed communication between learners, and between learners and tutors, mentors, educators. I think there is something we can do, but what it is, I am not so sure…

Learning about learning about learning — let’s talk about it!

What is my work?

Is there a good term for my specialist area of work for CETIS? I’ve been trying out “technology for learner support”, but that doesn’t fully seem to fit the bill. If I try to explain, reflecting on 10 years (as of this month) involvement with CETIS, might readers be able to help me?

Back in 2002, CETIS (through the CRA) had a small team working with “LIPSIG”, the CETIS special interest group involved with Learner Information (the “LI” of “LIPSIG”). Except that “learner information” wasn’t a particularly good title. It was also about the technology (soon to be labelled “e-portfolio”) that gathered and managed certain kinds of information related to learners, including their learning, their skills – abilities – competence, their development, and their plans. It was therefore also about PDP — Personal Development Planning — and PDP was known even then by its published definition “a structured and supported process undertaken by an individual to reflect upon their own learning, performance and/or achievement and to plan for their personal, educational and career development”.

There’s that root word, support (appearing as “supported”), and PDP is clearly about an “individual” in the learner role. Portfolio tools were, and still are, thought of as supporting people: in their learning; with the knowledge and skills they may attain, and evidence of these through their performance; their development as people, including their learning and work roles.

If you search the web now for “learner support”, you may get many results about funding — OK, that is financial support. Narrowing the search down to “technology for learner support”, the JISC RSC site mentions enabling “learners to be supported with their own particular learning issues”, and this doesn’t obviously imply support for everyone, but rather for those people with “issues”.

As web search is not much help, let’s take a step back, and try to see this area in a wider perspective. Over my 10 years involvement with CETIS, I have gradually come to see CETIS work as being in three overlapping areas. I see educational (or learning) technology, and related interoperability standards, as being aimed at:

  • institutions, to help them manage teaching, learning, and other processes;
  • providers of learning resources, to help those resources be stored, indexed, and found when appropriate;
  • individual learners;
  • perhaps there should be a branch aimed at employers, but that doesn’t seem to have been salient in CETIS work up to now.

Relatively speaking, there have always seemed to be plenty of resources to back up CETIS work in the first two areas, perhaps because we are dealing with powerful organisations and large amounts of money. But, rather than get involved in those two areas, I have always been drawn to the third — to the learner — and I don’t think it’s difficult to understand why. When I was a teacher for a short while, I was interested not in educational adminstration or writing textbooks, but in helping individuals learn, grow and develop. Similar themes pervade my long term interests in psychology, psychotherapy, counselling; my PhD was about cognitive science; my university teaching was about human-computer interaction — all to do with understanding and supporting individuals, and much of it involving the use of technology.

The question is, what does CETIS do — what can anyone do — for individual learners, either with the technology, or with the interoperability standards that allow ICT systems to work together?

The CETIS starting point may have been about “learner information”, but who benefits from this information? Instead of focusing on learners’ needs, it is all too easy for institutions to understand “learner information” as information than enables institutions to manage and control the learners. Happily though, the group of e-portfolio systems developers frequenting what became the “Portfolio” SIG (including Pebble, CIEPD and others) were keen to emphasise control by learners, and when they came together over the initiative that became Leap2A, nearly six years ago, the focus on supporting learners and learning was clear.

So at least then CETIS had a clear line of work in the area of e-portfolio tools and related interoperability standards. That technology is aimed at supporting personal, and increasingly professional, development. Partly, this can be by supporting learners taking responsibility for tracking the outcomes of their own learning. Several generic skills or competences support their development as people, as well as their roles as professionals or learners. But also, the fact that learners enter information about their own learning and development on the portfolio (or whatever) system means that the information can easily be made available to mentors, peers, or whoever else may want to support them. This means that support from people is easier to arrange, and better informed, thus likely to be more effective. Thus, the technology supports learners and learning indirectly, as well as directly.

That’s one thing that the phrase “technology for learner support” may miss — support for the processes of other people supporting the learner.

Picking up my personal path … building on my involvement in PDP and portfolio technology, it became clear that current representations of information about skills and competence were not as effective as they could be in supporting, for instance, the transition from education to work. So it was, that I found myself involved in the area that is currently the main focus of my work, both for CETIS, and also on my own account, through the InLOC project. This relates to learners rather indirectly: InLOC is enabling the communication and reuse of definitions and descriptions of learning outcomes and competence information, and particularly structures of sets of such definitions — which have up to now escaped an effective and well-adopted standard representation. Providing this will mean that it will be much easier for educators and employers to refer to the same definitions; and that should make a big positive difference to learners being able to prepare themselves effectively for the demands of their chosen work; or perhaps enable them to choose courses that will lead to the kind of work they want. Easier, clearer and more accurate descriptions of abilities surely must support all processes relating to people acquiring and evidencing abilities, and making use of related evidence towards their jobs, their well-being, and maybe the well-being of others.

My most recent interests are evidenced in my last two blog posts — Critical friendship pointer and Follower guidance: concept and rationale — where I have been starting to grapple with yet more complex issues. People benefit from appropriate guidance, but it is unlikely there will ever be the resources to provide this guidance from “experts” to everyone — if that is even what we really wanted.

I see these issues also as part of the broad concern with helping people learn, grow and develop. To provide full support without information technology only looks possible in a society that is stable — where roles are fixed and everyone knows their place, and the place of others they relate to. In such a traditionalist society, anyone and everyone can play their part maintaining the “social order” — but, sadly, such a fixed social order does not allow people to strike out in their own new ways. In any case, that is not our modern (and “modernist”) society.

I’ve just been reading Herman Hesse’s “Journey to the East” — a short, allegorical work. (It has been reproduced online.) Interestingly, it describes symbolically the kind of processes that people might have to go through in the course of their journey to personal enlightenment. The description is in no way realistic. Any “League” such as Hesse described, dedicated to supporting people on their journey, or quest, would practically be able to support only very few at most. Hesse had no personal information technology.

Robert K. Greenleaf was inspired by Hesse’s book to develop his ideas on “Servant Leadership“. His book of that name was put together in 1977, still before the widespread use of personal information techology, and the recognition of its potential. This idea of servant leadership is also very clearly about supporting people on their journey; supporting their development, personally and professionally. What information would be relevant to this?

Providing technology to support peer-to-peer human processes seems a very promising approach to allowing everyone to find their own, unique and personal way. What I wrote about follower guidance is related to this end: to describe ways by which we can offer each other helpful mutual support to guide our personal journeys, in work as well as learning and potentially other areas of life. Is there a short name for this? How can technology support it?

My involvement with Unlike Minds reminds me that there is a more important, wider concept than personal learning, which needs supporting. We should be aspiring even more to support personal well-being. And one way of doing this is through supporting individuals with information relevant to the decisions they make that affect their personal well-being. This can easily be seen to include: what options there are; ideas on how to make decisions; what the consequences of those decision may be. It is an area which has been more than touched on under the heading “Information, Advice and Guidance”.

I mentioned the developmental models of William G Perry and Robert Kegan back in my post earlier this year on academic humility. An understanding of these aspects of personal development is an essential part of what I have come to see as needed. How can we support people’s movement through Perry’s “positions”, or Kegan’s “orders of consciousness”? Recognising where people are in this, developmental, dimension is vital to informing effective support in so many ways.

My professional interest, where I have a very particular contribution, is around the representation of the information connected with all these areas. That’s what we try to deal with for interoperability and standardisation. So what do we have here? A quick attempt at a round-up…

  • Information about people (learners).
  • Information about what they have learned (learning outcomes, knowledge, skill, competence).
  • Information that learners find useful for their learning and development.
  • Information about many subtler aspects of personal development.
  • Information relevant to people’s well-being, including
    • information about possible choices and their likely outcomes
    • information about individual decision-making styles and capabilities
    • and, as this is highly context-dependent, information about contexts as well.
  • Information about other people who could help them
    • information supporting how to find and relate to those people
    • information supporting those relationships and the support processes
    • and in particular, the kind of information that would promote a trusting and trusted relationship — to do with personal values.

I have the strong sense that this all should be related. But the field as a whole doesn’t seem have a name. I am clear that it is not just the same as the other two areas (in my mind at least) of CETIS work:

  • information of direct relevance to institutions
  • information of direct relevance to content providers.

Of course my own area of interest is also relevant to those other players. Personal well-being is vital to the “student experience”, and thus to student retention, as well as to success in learning. That is of great interest to institutions. Knowing about individuals is of great value to those wanting to sell all kinds of services to to them, but particularly services to do with learning and resources supporting learning.

But now I ask people to think: where there is an overlap between information that the learner has an interest in, and information about learners of interest to institutions and content providers, surely the information should be under the control of the individual, not of those organisations?

What is the sum of this information?

Can we name that information and reclaim it?

Again, can people help me name this field, so my area of work can be better understood and recognised?

If you can, you earn 10 years worth of thanks…

ICT Skills

Several of us in CETIS have been to the CEN Workshop Learning Technologies (WS-LT), but as far as I know none yet to a closely related Workshop on ICT Skills. Their main claim to fame is the European e-Competence Framework (e-CF), a simpler alternative to SFIA (developed by the BCS and partners). It was interesting on several counts, and raises some questions we could all give an opinion on.

The meeting was on 2011-12-12 at the CEN meeting rooms in Brussels. I was there on two counts: first as a CETIS and BSI member of CEN WS-LT and TC 353, and second as the team leader of InLOC, which has the e-CF mentioned in its terms of reference. There was a good attendance of 35 people, just a few of whom I had met before. Some members are ICT employers, but more are either self-employed or from various organisations with an interest in ICT skills, and in particular, CEPIS (not to be confused with CETIS!) of which the BCS is a member. A surprising number of Workshop members are Irish, including the chair, Dudley Dolan.

The WS-LT and TC353 think a closer relationship with the WS ICT Skills would be of mutual benefit, and I personally agree. ICT skills are a vital component of just about any HE skills programme, essential as they are for the great majority of graduate jobs. As well as the e-CF, which is to do with competences used in ICT professions, the WS ICT Skills have recently started a project to agree a framework of key skills for ICT users. So for the WS-LT there is an easy starting point for which we can offer to apply various generic approaches to modelling and interoperability. The strengths of the two workshops are complementary: the WS-LT is strong in the breadth of generalities about metadata, theory, interoperability; the WS ICT Skills is strong in depth, about practice in the field of ICT.

The meeting revealed that the two workshops share several concerns. Both need to manage their CWAs, withdrawing outdated ones; both are concerned about the length and occasional opaqueness of the procedure to fund standardisation expert team work. Both are concerned with the availability and findability of their CWAs. André Richier is interested in both Workshops, though more involved in the WS ICT Skills. Both are concerned, in their own different ways, with the move through education and into employment. Both are concerned with creating CWAs and ENs (European “Norm” Standards), though the WS-LT is further ahead on this front, having prompted the formation of CEN TC353 a few years ago, to deal with the EN business. The WS ICT Skills doesn’t have a TC, and it is discussing whether to attempt ENs without a TC, or to start their own TC, or to make use of the existing TC353.

On the other hand, the WS ICT Skills seems to be ahead in terms of membership involvement. They charge money for voting membership, and draw in big business interest, as well as small. Would the WS-LT (counterintuitively perhaps) draw in a larger membership if it charged fees?

I was lucky to have a chance (in a very full agenda) to introduce the WS-LT and the InLOC project. I mentioned some of the points above, and pointed out how relevant InLOC is to ICT skills, with many links including shared experts. While understanding is built up between the two workshops, it was worth stressing that nothing in InLOC is sector-specific; we will not be developing any learning outcome or competence content; and that far from being in any way competitive, we are perfectly set up for collaboration with the WS ICT Skills, and the e-CF.

Work on e-CF version 3 is expected to be approved very soon, and there is a great opportunity there to try to ensure that the InLOC structures are suited to representing the e-CF, and that any useful insights from InLOC are worked into the e-CF. The e-CF work is ably led by Jutta Breyer who runs her own consultancy. Another project of great interest to InLOC is their work on “end user” ICT skills (the e-CF deals with professional competences), led by Neil Farren of the ECDL Foundation. The term “end user” caused some comment and will probably not feature in the final outputs of this project! Their project is a mere month or so ahead of InLOC in time. In particular, they envisage developing some kind of “framework shell”, and to me it is vital that this coordinates well with the InLOC outputs, as a generalisation-specialisation.

Another interesting piece of work is looking at ICT job profiles. The question of how a job profile relates to competence definitions is something that needs clarifying and documenting within the InLOC guidelines, and again, the closer we can coordinate this, the better for both of us.

Finally, should there be an EN for the e-CF? It is a tricky question. Sector Skills Councils in the UK find it hard enough to write National Occupation Standards for the UK – would it be possible to reach agreement across Europe? What would it mean for SFIA? If SFIA saw it as a threat, it would be likely to weigh in strongly against such a move. Instead, would it be possible to persuade SFIA to accept a suitably adapted e-CF as a kind of SFIA “Lite”? Some of us believe that would help, rather than conflict with, SFIA itself. Or could there be an EN, not rigidly standardising the descriptions of “e-Competences”, but rather giving an indication for how such frameworks should be expressed, with guidelines on ICT skills and competences in particular?

Here, above all, there is room for detailed discussion between the Workshops, and between InLOC and the ongoing ICT Skills Workshop teams, to achieve something that is really credible, coherent and useful to interested stakeholders.

The future of Leap2A?

We’ve done a great job with Leap2A in terms of providing a workable starting point for interoperability of e-portfolio systems and portability of learner-ownable information, but what are the next steps we (and JISC) should be taking? That’s what we need to think about.

The role of CETIS was only to co-ordinate this work. The ones to take the real credit are the vendors and developers of e-portfolio and related systems, who worked well together to make the decisions on how Leap2A should be, representing all the information that is seen as sharable between actual e-portfolio tools, allowing it to be communicated between different systems.

The current limitations come from the lack of coherent practice in personal and professional development, indeed in all the areas that e-portfolio and related tools are used for. Where some institutions support activities that are simply different from those supported by a different institution, there is no magic wand that can be waved over the information related to one activity that can turn it into a form that supports a fundamentally different one. We need coherent practice. Not identical practice, by any means, but practice where it is as clear as possible what the building blocks of stored lifelong learning information are.

What we really need is for real users — learners — to be taking information between systems that they use or have used. We need to have motivating stories of how this opens up new possibilities; how it enables lifelong personal and professional development in ways that haven’t been open before. When learners start needing the interoperability, it will naturally be time to start looking again, and developing Leap2A to respond to the actual needs. We’ve broken the deadlock by providing a good initial basis, but now the baton passes to real practice, to take advantage of what we have created.

What will help this? Does it need convergence, not on individual development practice necessarily, but on the concepts behind it? Does it need tools to be better – and if so, what tools? Does it need changes in the ways institutions support PDP? In November, we held a meeting co-located with the annual residential seminar of the CRA, as a body that has a long history of collaboration with CETIS in this area.

And how do we provide for the future of Leap2A more generally? Is it time to form a governing group of software developers who have implemented Leap2A? Is there any funding, or are there any initiatives, that can keep Leap2A fresh and increasingly relevant?

Please consider sharing your views, and contributing to the future of Leap2A.

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.

Education and employment

Rather worrying to read a recent post from the CIPD, pointing out the great discrepancy between what people have studied recently and the jobs they get (or don’t get). Significant enough to get other people quoting it. These facts might reasonably lead one to the conclusion that we ought to have:

  1. effective personal development planning as the norm, including good employment-oriented “information, advice and guidance”, more reliably joined to educational opportunities, and including clear advice on what is not usually “learned”, but more often are aspects of personal style and values;
  2. more transparent connections between the actual skills and competence in demand from employers, and the intended learning outcomes of courses that purport to prepare people for employment;
  3. far more widespread, transparent and effective systems for labour market matching between job-seekers and openings, taking into account what really makes the difference between “just a job” and genuine employee engagement, satisfaction and development.

The learning technology we support and promote needs to take that into account as well. Great technology for learning tools or learning design, great open learning resources on ever-so-well managed repositories, are only really valuable when truly suitable individuals take learning opportunities both that fit them, and that do what can be done to prepare them for whatever can be reliably predicted about their future occupations. I don’t think we are clueless about the technology that supports the latter objectives, but I’d say it is harder to do it well.

Perhaps it is a question of balance. If the PDP, the IAG, the skills development, tracking and matching were done relatively well, it would be a good reason to invest more in the tools, the resources, and the methods, which are perhaps not so challenging in principle, and easier to show supposed benefits from, until confronted with the stark reminders mentioned at the beginning.

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.


eCOTOOLeCOmpetences TOOLs – is a 2-year European project in which Bolton / CETIS are collaborating principally through me. We are producing an information model for the Europass Certificate Supplement (ECS), applied to training in the agricultural sector.

The kick-off meeting was in Essen, December 14th to 16th, and this post is an attempt to summarise our agreed starting point.


The University of Duisberg-Essen (UDE) is leading the project, and the 8 partners besides UDE and ourselves are

  • BIBB, the German Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training
  • MAICh, the Mediterranean Agronomic Institute of Chania, Crete
  • ELOT, the Greek national body for standardization
  • Agro-Know Technologies, a Greek “research-oriented enterprise”
  • UZEI, the Czech Institute of Agricultural Economics and Information
  • KGZS, the Chamber of Agriculture and Forestry of Slovenia
  • ISFOL, the Italian Institute for the Development of Vocational Training
  • KION SpA, a company developing information systems for Italian universities

ISFOL and BIBB include their respective National Europass Centres.

We know several of the people involved through previous work. Christian M. Stracke, the overall project director, has been involved in many European standards bodies and projects. Cleo Sgouropoulou (ELOT) and Simone Ravaioli (KION) are part of the core team working with me on the European Learner Mobility work, assisted by Christian, our Scott (also working on this project), Alessandra Biancolini (ISFOL) and others. To understand this project, it is useful to set it in the context of this and other related work.

What the project is doing

At the meeting, Christian Stracke described as the “story in brief” how eCOTOOL provides the missing ingredient to add to a mix of

to create a “Europass CS with Competence as Application Profile and XML.” What this means in practice is (I hope) explained in what follows.

What is the ECS, and how could it be used?

Well then, what is this Europass Certificate Supplement? Its cousin the Europass Diploma Supplement (EDS) is better known, as the EDS has much in common with transcripts offered to graduates, and the HEAR (Higher Education Achievement Report) that is expected to supersede the transcript in the UK. The ECS, in contrast, does not have details of the results of individual learners. Exactly the same certificate is given to all those who successfully complete the same course. It is not designed for the kind of academic study where learners get marks and grades depending on their exam results, but rather for the kind of training course where people pass or fail. Either you can do something, or you can’t, the view would be, and being awarded the Certificate says that you can, because you did the course. The key information held in the ECS is the detailing of what it is that someone can do after successful completion of the course, which is just what the EDS does not record. This is done in the ECS Section 3, called “Profile of skills and competences”. However, the paper ECS does not define any specified structure to this section, leaving it simply as a text box. This is adequate for human reading, but inadequate for precise automatic use of the information contained.

Despite the lack of official definition, a common practice has built up in ECS use to list perhaps 5 to 15 items in Section 3, each comprising one sentence starting with an action verb. The expectation seems to be that a list of skill and competence items is defined specifically for each ECS offered, which may be common to several courses across different providers. This at least offers a little more informal standardization, and perhaps increases the ease of translation, but still does not address automatic processing well.

But, surely, there is much that could be done with an ECS with more electronic detail and structure, particularly in that Section 3. Here are a few ideas, based on ones that came up at the meeting.

  • National Europass Centres would be able to manage the national collection of ECS documents, being able, for instance, to search for all ECSs that had a particular skill or competence line.
  • Learners and training providers would be able to search for courses that had ECSs containing particular skills or competences. Learners (or their employers) could use this to plan their training; training providers could look for competitors, or gaps in the training market.
  • ECS information could be downloaded into e-portfolio tools for use by learners, without the need to cut and paste; or possibly even presented through e-portfolio tools, without any need for an actual downloading or copying. This, in turn, would facilitate the creation of CVs or other presentations that were searchable by recruiters for particular skills or competences.

The other “ingredients” of eCOTOOL are interesting for their illustration of the kind of approach to be taken.

PAS 1093 – what’s that?

Translated into English, this “Publicly Available Standard” deals with “Human Resource Development with special consideration of Learning, Education and Training – Competence Modelling in Human Resource Development”. In the Foreword, it is described as “This Publicly Available Specification (PAS) is a Reference Framework for the development as well as for the structural comparison and evaluation of competence Modeling in Human Resource Development.”

What PAS 1093 does do is give a structure for HR staff to go through the process of documenting the competences that are relevant to them. “Reference Framework” is a very slippery label, and PAS 1093 may not do other things that might be associated with the label. Probably, the essential “framework” could be summarised in a just few pages, but what is also useful about the document is that it sets out some of the thinking behind managing competence information.

An English language version was distributed to project members. It is held at http://www.qed-info.de/downloads.

EQF: the European Qualifications Framework

Much of the documentation for the EQF can be found though its European Commission page.

One obvious aim of the project is to include EQF terminology where appropriate into the information available through ECS documents. Clearly, one place for this is in Section 5, “Official basis of the certificate”, but ideally there might be a way of tracking though individual skills and competences in Section 3 to a corresponding EQF level, if that is not the same as the overall level of the certificate. There are two essential aspects to EQF terminology:

  • the levels, 1 to 8;
  • the distinction between knowledge, skill and competence;

and we may also want to find a good way of representing which of these categories a particular line or definition falls into.


The European Credit system for Vocational Education and Training (ECVET) is nicely introduced by that linked page on the European Commission site. ECVET intends to do for vocational education and training something like what the ECTS (the credit transfer system) does for university education, helping learners move between courses and between countries, both during and after their VET. However, implementation is not envisaged until 2012 and after.

ECVET depends partly on representing the intended learning outcomes of VET opportunities. Some countries have defined standards like the UK’s National Occupational Standards, which serve to underpin the UK’s National Vocational Qualifications. In principle, if similar national standards were established across Europe, and cross-related to each other, this might provide the right basis for ECVET to work.

The eCOTOOL project takes the agricultural sector as a test case for establishing what can be done. We will have to deal with considerable diversity, including such variations as the fact that in the UK, there are different NVQs, NOSs and Sector Skills Councils for agriculture (LANTRA) and food and drink (Improve), while in other countries they are taken together. To me, that makes quite a lot of sense, as some countries retain much farm-based production, whereas in the UK food raw materials have for a long time come from UK farms and abroad.

Relationship to my other work

I’ve had an interest in National Occupational Standards and representing competencies for several years now, partly though work done for XCRI and the ioNW2 project funded by JISC and run by GMSA, and partly what I have written for TENCompetence project workshops. Most recently, there are very strong connections with the European Learner Mobility work I mentioned above, the ICOPER project we are also now involved in, and all the skill and competence related discussions I have been involved in through our CETIS work on competences, and the related CEN WS-LT competency group. All of this feeds in to my role in eCOTOOL.

My role in eCOTOOL

Our main responsibility in eCOTOOL is for WP1, which is called “Application Profile Development of Europass CS”. In the kick-off meeting we had to explain that the term “application profile” really just meant an information model, but one that could well be created on the basis of other established specifications. Much as we did in the European Learner Mobility work, this will mean starting with the ECS structure as it is, and working out how best to represent that as elements in an information model. Obviously, we need to be able to represent existing plain document ECS examples, but we also want to look carefully at possible integration with other Europass documents (including the DS, which we have worked extensively on), and we want to bear in mind all the likely uses of this kind of competence information.

One particular issue that I will focus on first will be the relationship between the one-line versions of a skill or competence that currently appear in Section 3 of ECS documents, and the fuller definition of skills and competences that would not actually appear in an ECS document, but which are often implicit in course offerings. One of the issues that also impinges greatly on the portfolio interoperability work involving LEAP2A is how to represent structures of related skill and competence definitions. All this has to be done, of course, in a way that allows useful tools for applications that are really wanted by end users – in our case, particularly learners and training bodies in the area of agricultural VET.

I would (of course!) welcome any comments or correspondence, as it would be good to integrate as many good ideas as we can grasp.

Development of a conceptual model 3

I spent 3 days in Lyon this week, in meetings with European project colleagues and learning technology standardization people. This model had a good airing, and there was lots of discussion and feedback. So it has developed quite a lot over the three days from the previous version.

So, let’s start at the top left. The French contingent wanted to add some kind of definition of structure to the MLO (Metadata for Learning Opportunities) draft CWA (CEN Workshop Agreement) and it seemed like a good idea to put this in somewhere. I’ve added it as “combination rule set”. As yet we haven’t agreed its inclusion, let alone its structure, but if it is represented as a literal text field just detailing what combinations of learning opportunities are allowed by a particular provider, that seems harmless enough. A formal structure can await future discussion.

Still referring to MLO, the previous “assessment strategy” really only related to MLO and nothing else. As it was unclear from the diagram what it was, I’ve taken it out. There is usually some designed relationship between a course and a related assessment, but though perhaps ideally the relationship should be through intended learning outcomes (as shown), it may not be so — in fact it might involve those combination rules — so I’ve put in a dotted relationship “linked to”. The dotted relationships are meant to indicate some caution: in this case its nature is unclear; while the “results in” relationship is really through a chain of other ones. I’ve also made dotted the relationship between a learning opportunity specification and a qualification. Yes, perhaps the learning opportunity is intended to lead to the award of a qualification, but that is principally the intention of the learning opportunity provider, and may vary with other points of view.

Talking about the learning opportunity provider, discussion at the meetings, particularly with Mark Stubbs, suggested that the important relationships between a provider and an learning opportunity specification are those of validation and advertising. And the simple terms “runs” and “run by” seem to express reasonably well how a provider relates to an instance. I am suggesting that these terms might replace the confusingly ambiguous “offer” terminology in MLO.

Over on the right of the diagram, I’ve tidied up the arrows a bit. The Educational Credit Information Model CWA (now approved) has value, level and scheme on a par, so I though it would be best to reflect that in the diagram with just one blob. Credit transfer and accumulation schemes may or may not be tied to wider qualifications frameworks with levels. I’ve left that open, but represented levels in frameworks separately from credit.

I’ve also added a few more common-sense relationships with the learner, who is and should be central to this whole diagram. Learners aspire to vague things like intended learning outcomes as well as specific results and qualifications. They get qualifications. And how do learners relate to learning opportunity specifications? One would hope that they would be useful for searching, for investigation, as part of the process of a learner deciding to enrol on a course.

I’ve added a key in the top right. It’s not quite adequate, I think, but I’m increasingly convinced that this kind of distinction is very helpful and important for discussing and agreeing conceptual models. I’m hoping to revisit the distinctions I made in my book, and to refine the key so that it is even clearer what kind of concept each one is.

Development of a conceptual model 2

As promised, the model is gently evolving from the initial one posted.


Starting from the left, I’ve added a “creates” relationship between the assessing body and the assessment specification, to mirror the one for learning. Then, I’ve reversed the arrows and amended the relationship captions accordingly, for some of the middle part of the diagram. This is to make it easier to read off scenarios from the diagram. Of course, each arrow could be drawn in either direction in principle, just by substituting an inverse relationship, but often one direction makes more sense than the other. I’ve also amended some other captions for clarity.

An obvious scenario to read off would be this: “The learner enrols on a course, which involves doing some activities (like listening, writing, practical work, tests, etc.) These activities result in records (e.g. submitted coursework) which is assessed in a process specified by the assessing body, designed to evaluate the intended learning outcomes that are the objectives of the course. As a result of this summative assessment, the awarding body awards the learner a qualification.” I hope that one sounds plausible.

The right hand side of the diagram hadn’t had much attention recently. To simplify things a little, I decided that level and framework are so tightly joined that there is no need to separate them in this model. Then, mirroring the idea that a learner can aspire to an assessment outcome, it’s natural also to say that a learner may want a qualification. And what happens to credits after they have been awarded? They are normally counted towards a qualification — but this has to be processed, it is not automatic, so I’ve included that in the awarding process.

I’m still reasonably happy with the colour and shape scheme, in which yellow ovals are processes or activities (you can ask, “when did this happen?”), green things are parts of the real world, things that have concrete existence; and blue things are information.