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?

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.

What can be conceptually modelled?

Is there a useful, simple, easily understandable set of categories (or “top ontology” ) for helping people know what kind of thing they are thinking of when doing conceptual modelling or concept maps?

I started to think about this kind of thing when writing my book on e-portfolios, because I wanted a decent basis for discussion of what kind of information there is, or could be, in e-portfolios — and also, what kinds of things can e-portfolios refer to. I couldn’t find anything that was simple enough and easy enough to understand, or that I thought would really be helpful to my readers. So I wrote a short section on that in my book.

But then, doing all this recent conceptual modelling work, for European Learner Mobility and other things, the same issues came back. For example when we talk about a “qualification”, what on earth are we talking about? Is is a (physical) piece of paper? A definition of some sort? A status in society? A string of letters? Perhaps the concept of qualification is multi-faceted, and means all these things and more. But that isn’t much use for a conceptual model, where concepts need to be related to other concepts. These different meanings of “qualification” participate in radically different relationships with other concepts.

So, I’ve taken the ideas started off in my book, and put them in a separate web page, which can be developed as people share their feedback with me. It is intended to help people reflect on and understand what kind of concept or thing they mean, when doing conceptual modelling, so aiding communication in and about concept maps.

Here, then, is a link to the page with my “top ontology” — open to discussion and development. Please comment (through whatever medium), and help me make it into a useful resource.

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.

Book finally available

My book, “Electronic Portfolios: Personal information, personal development and personal values” has recently been published, and is eventually available on Amazon UK etc. (or .fr or .de or .com)

The publishers have it in their catalogue.

I was very surprised by the high list price, which I have had no influence over. I would publish it for no more than half that price. Perhaps the publishers aren’t expecting all that many sales? But I hope that doesn’t stop people ordering it for their libraries. It is relevant to many different people, and the principles should be valid for a few years, so I’d say it’s worth having in any library where there are educators using e-portfolios, or developers developing them.

Skills frameworks, interoperability, portfolios, etc.

Last Thursday (2009-04-16) I went to a very interesting meeting in Leeds, specially arranged, at the Leeds Institute of Medical Education, between various interested parties, about their needs and ideas for interoperability with e-portfolio tools – but also about skills frameworks.

It was interesting particularly because it showed more evidence of a groundswell of willingness to work towards e-portfolio interoperability, and this has two aspects for the people gathered (6 including me). On the one hand, the ALPS CETL is working with MyKnowledgeMap (MKM) – a small commercial learning technology vendor based in York – on a project involving health and social care students in their 5 HEIs around Leeds. They are using the MKM portfolio tool, Multi-Port, but are aware of a need to have records which are portable between their system and others. It looks like being a fairly straightforward case of a vendor with a portfolio tool being drawn in to the LEAP2A fold on the back of the success we have had so far – without the need for extra funding. The outcome should be a classic interoperability win-win: learners will be able to export their records to PebblePad, Mahara, etc., and the MKM tool users will be able to import their records from the LEAP2A-implementing systems to kick-start their portfolio records there with the ALPS CETL or other MKM sites.

MKM tools, as suggested by the MKM name, do cover the representation of skills frameworks, and this forms a bridge between two threads to this meeting: first, the ALPS CETL work, and second, the more challenging area of medical education, where frameworks – of knowledge, skill or competence – abound and are pretty important for medical students and in the professional development of medical practitioners, and health professionals more generally.

In this more challenging side of the meeting, we discussed some of the issues surrounding skills frameworks in medical education – including the transfer of students at undergraduate level; the transfer between a medical school like Leeds and a teaching hospital, where the doctors may well soon be using the NHS Foundation Year e-portfolio tools in conjunction with their further training and development; and then on to professional life.

The development of LEAP2A has probably been helped greatly by not trying to do too much all at once. We haven’t yet fully dealt with how to integrate skills frameworks into e-portfolio information. At one very simple level we have covered it – if each skill definition has a URI, that can be referred to by an “ability” item in the LEAP2A. But at another level it is greatly challenging. Here in medical education we have not one, but several real-life scenarios calling for interoperable skills frameworks for use with portfolio tools. So how are we actually going to advise the people who want to create skills frameworks, about how to do this in a useful way? Their users, using their portfolio tools, want to carry forward the learning (against learning outcomes) and evidence (of competence) to another setting. They want the information to be ready to use, to save them repetition – potentially wasteful to the institution as well as the learner.

The answer necessarily goes beyond portfolio technology, and needs to tackle the issues which several people are currently working on: European projects like TENCompetence and ICOPER, where I have given presentations or written papers; older JISC project work I have been involved with (ioNW2, SPWS); and now the recently set up a CETIS team on competences.

Happily, it seems like we are all pushing at an open door. I am happy to be able to respond in my role as Learning Technology Advisor for e-portfolio technology, and point MKM towards the documentation on – and those with experience of implementing – LEAP2A. And the new competence team has been looking for a good prompt to hold an initial meeting. I imagine we might hold a meeting, perhaps around the beginning of July, focused on frameworks of skills, competence, knowledge, and their use together with curriculum learning outcomes, with assessment criteria, and with portfolio evidence? The Leeds people would be very willing to contribute. Then, perhaps JISC might offer a little extra funding (on the same lines as previous PIOP and XCRI projects) to get together a group of medical educators to implement LEAP2A and related skills frameworks together – in whatever way we all agree is good to take forward the skills framework developments.

LEAP2A progress

The Portfolio InterOperability Projects (PIOP) partners have been working hard on our LEAP2A spec for portfolio interoperability and portability, and at our meeting last week we ironed out some of the last things necessary to agree a good working specification, able to represent just about any information that is in common use in more than one e-portfolio system. The spec just allows for export/download and import/upload so far, rather than web services, but that will come later.

The spec has been developed with and by developers for developers, so it is relatively easy to implement, being based on Atom. Several people working on e-portfolio-related projects were at the JISC e-Learning Programme meeting yesterday (at Aston) and there was plenty of positive and encouraging comment around.

Anyone interested is very welcome to comment on where we have got to, and send me suggestions for improvement so that any other relevant system dealing with similar information can have the appropriate information also represented in LEAP2A, to enable interoperability with the rest of our established partners.