What is CEN TC 353 becoming?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where are the customers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.