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…

Standardization process – ISO SC36

In mid March I spent several days at the ISO SC36 meeting in Strasbourg, an experience which was … how can I say this … frustrating. Let me give some background, explain my frustration, then offer ideas about causes and possible remedies.

ISO/IEC JTC1 SC36 (official ISO page; own web site) is the International Organization for Standardization’s committee on ITLET — information technologies for learning education and training. It currently meets twice a year at points round the globe, and as it was meeting relatively close by, and was dealing with an item of considerable importance to my work (e-portfolio reference model) I chose to attend: not, however, for the full week and more, but just for the WG3 meetings, which spanned 4 days. These meetings are attended by representatives of national standards bodies — in our case, BSI.

What happens at these meetings is governed by procedural rules that participants explain are necessary, and to which they are resigned, rather than interpreting creatively. The problem is not just the process itself, which would not be too bad if everything ran according to plan, but the way in which it is applied inflexibly. Even if it is clear that a draft presented to a committee needs a lot of revision, participants have to stick to wading through as many comments as national bodies have provided. As each national body provides comments independently, many of the comments conflict. Comments can be general, technical, or editorial, and the committee has to find a resolution on each one, fitting in to just one of the few acceptable formulae. This might be fine if everything was going the way the procedure writers imagined, but when it isn’t, it can be excruciating. The only way I found to make it tolerable is to multi-task, and to do other work at the same time as the committee proceedings when the matter in hand was of no great importance (though this does depend on having a good Internet connection available).

The result is great inconvenience, and either an inefficient process where people are only giving part of their attention, or a frustrating waste of time if you try to give the whole of your attention. It’s not that these processes don’t need to be gone through — they do — but better ways must be possible, and surely need to be implemented. For instance, what if the editors received feedback from national bodies, and produced an integrated redraft, dealing as well as they can with all the comments? No physical meeting is needed for this. This inability to change the process to suit the actual situation seems to feed the whole procedural problem.

The consequence of inefficiency could be that busy people are less likely to engage with the process than they might otherwise have been. Or perhaps the people who are really influential in large organisations will just stay at home, and send some minion to do the negotiation for them. That would compromise the nature of any agreement that is able to be reached. Many of the people who do appear at such meetings are either academics, with their own research agenda, or independent or semi-independent professionals, who use the opportunity to network, and in the worst cases (happily not evident at all among the people I met) such people can even use the processes to advance their own business interests at the expense of others. This is hardly the ideal recipe for an effective, meaningful, significant standards-setting body.

Sometimes, committee output is “just a technical report”, with no official status as a standard. Now in CEN, the processes is usefully differentiated: in our area there is an informal Workshop (WS-LT) to discuss things and come to agreements, and a formal Technical Committee (TC353), made up of national body representatives, to take decisions on standardisation. But in ISO, there is no similar division of role.

It seems to me that, particularly in the current economic climate, the SC36 mode of operation may not be sustainable, as people come to apply some kind of cost-benefit analysis. If we want such standardisation bodies to continue in the future, I’d say we need to review the processes deeply, coming to a new understanding of what structures and practices are helpful towards what ends. (We can then ask those who care about those ends to finance the process.)

Of course the following speculation is not of itself going to make changes happen. However, it is just possible that conversations about the issues may help towards a consensus about how to move things forward. (Co-incidentally, see my private blog about the piece by Theodore Zeldin on the Pont de l’Europe in Strasbourg.)

First, I would move most of the ISO process away from face-to-face. We do need to get to know others personally, but this could be done more effectively through something more like an annual conference, with the majority of time devoted to networking, and some presentations of the live issues that most need discussion, in preparation for the consensus process.

Second, I would adapt the processes so that they are better tuned to producing durable consensus. How to do this is too large a topic to address here.

Third, I would put in several checks at different stages of the work to confirm that whatever was being discussed was genuinely of importance to significant stakeholders. When a work item failed such a test, it would be dismissed. This would probably reduce the workload very significantly.

Fourth, I would try (though I don’t know how) to ensure that all participants

  • properly understand consensus process
  • are committed to acting transparently
  • come to the proceedings with good will

Even if bodies like ISO don’t get round to it, it would be good for those who care to formalise some set of principles such as the ones I am suggesting above, resulting in what could be seen as agreed standards for standards bodies. If we had a list of criteria by which to judge standards bodies and standardisation process, we could agree to support and attend only bodies that conformed. This would apply not only to official “de jure” standardisation bodies, but also to the many other bodies (including all those we know in CETIS) that prepare and publish interoperability specifications.

If anyone knows of any such existing guidelines, I’d be grateful to learn of them.

CEN WS-LT 2011-01-17 Brussels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Future of Interoperability Standards – factors contributing to reuse

Reuse requires awareness: to support that, how?

As my inputs to the CETIS FIS meeting on 24th September were partly to do with extensibility and reuse, I facilitated a small but select group initially charged with talking about extensibility and reuse. It included Alan Paull, a colleague very active in the XCRI and HEAR work, and two others who I did not know previously, one (Roger) from a large computer business, and one (Neil) ploughing his own furrow. And rather than talking about the mechanics of extensibility and reuse, we found ourselves pulled back to more human issues.

A key emerging point, that perhaps deserves more attention, is that before anyone can reuse or extend another specification or standard, they have to know of it, and then know about it. How do people actually get to know about specs that they might find reuseful, or extendable? You can make a standard perfectly extendable, or reusable, but if the appropriate people do not know about it, it will not be reused or extended. What can we do about that?

It was suggested:

  • publish case studies of good practice
  • support the community of practice
  • maintain a standards map, functional and technical
  • signpost related standards

We do much of this already, of course, in CETIS, but it is still notable that many people (including Roger and Neil) only came across this meeting by accident. In HE, maybe CETIS is not unknown or unreachable, but outside, how do we reach people?

The next major point we came up with was that XML is not be best vehicle for extendability and reuse. There is a tendency for people to be lulled into writing their own XML schemas – a practice that CETIS has warned against for some time – and it is very easy to create XML schemas in a way that is hard to extend or reuse.

To address this, Roger indicated that his big company was already very interested in Semantic Web ideas. The underlying structure of RDF (not RDF/XML!) naturally lends itself to decomposing complex structures into nodes and links. The problem of extension largely disappears, but the problem of reuse remains, in that to get reuse of Semantic Web information, people have either to use the same URIs (both for subjects and properties) or to set up and use links to indicate equivalence. owl:sameAs is of course useful (see sameAs.org) but not a panacea. I have been saying for a long time that we need to be using something like skos:exactMatch and skos:closeMatch. So, perhaps we need to focus on

  1. tools to help people put in the links for the linked data
  2. helping people define the links in the first place
  3. understanding other difficulties that seem to be present, and overcoming them

Another point that I drew from the discussion was that the more that any data is used, the more motivation people have for keeping it up to date. Thus, the more that information about people is consolidated, the more there is a single copy that is used many times rather than several copies each of which is used less often. We need to keep kicking to kick-start the virtuous circle of using standards to help information to be consolidated, and further motivating people to consolidate it – and that naturally means to link it, probably in a linked data kind of way.

Motivation also depends on the economics and politics. What if changing the way that things are done (inevitably, along with the improvements we are suggesting) shifts costs from one party to another? It may be that costs are cut overall, but what if many costs are cut, but a few costs, of key players, are raised? We will have to keep aware of this happening, and think how to solve it when it arises.

Perhaps at a tangent to our main topic, we noted that XCRI-CAP is not a completely satisfying whole, and needs to be extended to cope with other areas of course-related information.

And the “ecosystem” that is the world of standards and specifications needs to take into account the motivation for standardisation in the first place. Perhaps CETIS could be a bit more ambitious about the niche we carve out for ourselves?

Future of interoperability standards – small points

This is a rather ephemeral statement of position-of-the-month on the future of interoperability standards, for the CETIS meeting on 24th September. I have just three things to note: two issues from helping to create the EuroLMAI CEN Workshop Agreement (moving towards an EN European Standard) and one issue from Leap2A.

1. Keep pressing for those URIs.

For EuroLMAI, we want URIs for our classes and properties, so that we can be good citizens of the Semantic Web. How hard is that? Well, first, whose domain are they going to be in? As this is a prospective CEN standard, one would have thought they would be keen to help by providing suitable URIs. Maybe they are, and maybe they will provide them, but, being a European institution, it does seem to take time, and plenty of it! It looks like we will have to use a PURL server like purl.org instead, at least for the time being. That is sort of OK, but there is a time penalty for accessing things through a PURL server, so it does slow things down and have the potential for increased frustration. And it doesn’t look half as official: there is some PR cost.

2. Do keep a clear conceptual model, as it helps later on as well.

In the EuroLM work, I was always keen on, and played a large part in, getting a good conceptual model with good definitions, meant to serve as a relatively firm foundation on which to build the specifications and standards. Recent experience suggests that not only is this useful in the initial work, but it is also useful to have the conceptual model to hand when checking the detail of the spec. My own experience reflects what may be obvious, that it is easy, when revising a draft much later on, to forget why something was done in a certain way. A little doubt in the mind, and it is too easy to edit something back to what looks like a common-sense position, but actually represents something that you carefully argued against on the basis of having taken the pains to build that clear and agreed conceptual model. (The problem being that we all habitually take our own personal cognitive short cuts, which may seem like common sense, and too often these end up being represented in formal structures when they shouldn’t be.)

3. Prepare better for people building on your spec.

OK, so your new spec is really gaining ground. You’ve done a fair job of capturing requirements and representing structures that everyone can relate to. You’ve not built a monster, but something that covers more or less just what it needs to cover, coherently. So now you shouldn’t be surprised that people want to take your spec and adapt it to their needs. Perhaps they will need to add a class or two of their own, perhaps some of their own properties, perhaps some categories or vocabularies, which may overlap with the default ones you have provided with the spec. How are you going to recommend that they proceed, in each case? This is a real question that is taxing me with Leap2A at the moment, and is a learning experience, as I find I am not as well prepared as I would have liked to be. I’d like to be able to document a page on “Building on Leap2A”, which might perhaps refer to the DCMI “Singapore Framework”.

What’s in a standard name?

“Confusion” and “names” go together rather too easily. How might we take forward the representation of names in specifications and standards?

In June I noticed some RS3G work on defining person metadata, which I took an interest in, having grappled with this for Leap2A. Then last month I discovered somewhat to my surprise that I was a co-author of the rather oddly titled “Conformance Guidelines – The Path to a pan-European Asset (final draft) By example of the natural person” from SEMIC, the Semantic Interoperability Centre Europe. This document also deals with the representation of names, though differently.

In subsequent discussion, I have been drawn in to the peculiarities of Spanish surnames (they officially must have exactly two) and how other naming systems in the world are sometimes radically different from the EU passport convention of just “surname” and “given names”, echoed by UK birth certificates, driving licences, etc. Wikipedia has an article on Arabic names, for example. One thing is clear: it is not easy, and it matters to people how their name is rendered.

The RS3G idea refers to CETIS’s HEAR work, which in turn was based on some fields from MIAP (now the Learning Records Service) Common Data Definitions. However, CDDs look like they have been quietly superseded, and what looks like the current GovTalk version of name schemas is now at the Cabinet Office site. In particular, CDDs dealt with name order by having a boolean field to show if the family name was first, to cope with e.g. some Chinese practice. This does not seem to be in the GovTalk version, and indeed doesn’t seem to have caught on more widely either. Instead, people seem to be relying on a full name field to represent the ordering of the structured name fields. Strangely, GovTalk keeps titles and suffixes with their own separate fields, rather as they are in vCard.

Most people seem to agree these days that one or more full name fields are useful, giving the name as complete as someone wants it. This full name is not necessarily a full legal name. It may have parts at the beginning or end, e.g. titles or qualifiers, and these may or may not have legal standing. Thinking of the Arabic example, it may have a full rendition of a name that will not fit in to the patterns familiar to us. It may or may not be unique.

For use in the UK or the EU, there is likely to be one field for given names or forenames, and one field for family name or surname. Obviously, this tallies with usage in birth certificates, driving licences, passports and other official documents. This may suffice where it is the official legal name is all that is required, but it leaves many questions unanswered, and for a fuller picture we need to go beyond the common ground.

The reality looks to me more like this. In our dealings with different people and different bodies, we typically have identifiers, unique to that body or to those people, and we also have names that we are known as (by people) in those contexts. These may or may not overlap, and I suspect that it is the overlap which often causes problems.

My own case is a very common case in point. When asked to give my “name”, I will usually say “Simon” or “Simon Grant” if it might appear likely that there is another Simon in the context. However, I have learned not to put my name on airline reservation forms like this, as I get questioned. They want my official name, to tie in with my passport, where my Given Names field is “Andrew Simon”. The airline is interested, not in what I am called by my friends, but in my official identity, so they can check against the passport, which in turn can be checked against police records, etc. But it’s curious, isn’t it – I could probably pass my ticket on to anyone called Andrew Grant and they would be able to fly with it, but not anyone with a different name. Perhaps they should really ask for my passport number, though that is not as easy to check at a glance. At least some people get it right: on-line purchase forms ask for my name “as on the card”, which is clear, and in other contexts the practice of context-specific names is well-established: I think of stage names, noms-de-plume, and other professional names.

The most reasonable view seems to me that every name field in a specification or standard should be at least have an explanation of the context for that name, and be adequate for representing appropriate name information for everyone whose data is to be transferred using that spec or standard. If a standard or specification deals with transferring information about people who are all likely to have EU passports, it is reasonable to specify “Surname” and “Given names” as two fields, as on a passport. If the use cases of a different spec all involve Spanish citizens, then it is reasonable to have two fields, one for the first surname and another for the second surname. It would not, however, be reasonable for such a spec to have those fields as mandatory if it was going to be used for information about people of Arabic birth.

This discussion underlines my reservations about vCard and related specs, and is vital to setting an agenda for reviving the discussions about future specifications for names.

In Leap2A, what we have done is roughly to follow MIAP’s Common Data Definitions, as mentioned above. At least that gives the option of noting whether a name is a legal name or a preferred name. But, while it may suffice for the time being, it does not look good in the long term, and I hope that whenever Leap2A next changes, in a couple of years perhaps, we will move on to something more universal.

Achievement information documents, e.g. degree certificates and transcripts, also need names. We are just finalising the draft of the EuroLMAI (European Learner Mobility Achievement Information) European Standard, which should be highly influential on technical solutions adopted for the UK HEAR (Higher Education Achievement Report). I would like to see a better approach to names for these standards. What?

Given that the scope of EuroLMAI is Europe (perhaps the EU and a little beyond) it does seem reasonable to have one field for given names and one for surname, or pair of surnames in the Spanish case, as on the standard passport or other official identity documents. But what is most important after that? Two things seem to me to be vital. First, and most important, the name by which the student appears or appeared in the institutional student records. Is this always the same as the “official” legal name? If you print out a certificate for someone of Arab birth, what is more appropriate for the name printed on the certificate? I would have thought, a name as complete as the learner wants it to be. This would point towards a full name, like the UK govtalk Person Requested Name, as long as this was agreed with the student.

The second thing that might well be useful, though less important, would be the name that the student was actually known by to teaching staff and to peers. This would be closer to the “nickname” concept in other specifications. This would be particularly useful if it was not the same as the official name(s), when seeking feedback from staff and from peers, or when following up to check things after graduation.

So perhaps a wider range of potentially useful name information could be represented in four fields. Leaving any of these out from a specification or standard seems to me to risk being unable adequately to cover the use cases of this kind of achievement document.

  1. Official (passport) Given names
  2. Official (passport) Surname(s)
  3. Full formatted name as shown on certificates
  4. Personal name known by in face-to-face interactions

These can only be represented by vCard with a strain. Surname is OK, but a single field of all given names seems different from a vcard “Given”. Full formatted name could be vCard’s “FN”, though vCard’s FN is presumably meant for the main name on a “business” card, which might well not be the same. Is the personal name indicated above the same as vCard’s “NICKNAME” or not? I don’t know. Unfortunately, there is only slightly less strain fitting these into the UK GovTalk fields.

Where do we go from here? Call me “confused”…

Addendum, 2010-08-31

By happy coincidence, Paul Heald of Sigma Systems distributed a very interesting document yesterday to various people including Scott Wilson and other colleagues. It is called “Student Identity Defined: A Comparison of the Data Elements of Four Higher-Education Standards” revised August 30th 2010. It does indeed suggest that the discussion is ready to be taken forward to another level. And I find it is helping, gradually, to relieve my confusion.


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.

Developing Semantic-Web-friendly specifications

This serves a personal position statement for the CETIS Future of Interoperability Standards Meeting 2010-01-12

Why and how the Semantic Web

We want interoperability specifications and standards with a Semantic Web underlay,

  • because that is
    • the fundamental common denominator,
    • well-adapted to evolving systems,
    • good for reuse,
    • post-modern;
  • using and enabling a “linked data” strategy, with emphasis on:
    • URI-identified resources,
      • with types of resource that are widely agreed for a domain;
    • links between them,
      • using common DC-like relationships/properties/predicates;
  • but with no immediate need for RDF all at once…
    • for RDF, think more Turtle than RDF/XML;
    • any XML should be RDF friendly:
      • able to be clearly mapped and transformed to triples;
      • there may be blank nodes
        • which may be filled in one day;
    • can approach RDF via RDFa and/or GRDDL approaches;
    • may not need XML, as long what there is can be transformed to RDF;
  • using the DCMI Abstract Model as a reference point.

Where a community of practice exists

Where there is good existing practice with electronic tools, experience suggests that it is effective to start with an informal, community-driven specification initiative, and the community in question would be in the best position to decide if and when to offer the specification to a formal body for standardisation. Such an initiative could:

  • start from existing data;
  • inclusively unify current good practice.

This unification would involve:

  • establishing common conceptual models as groundwork (see below);
  • identifing elements that are close enough, and merging them;
  • retaining elements that are likely to be used in more than one system.

Good qualities for a target specification include:

  • the appropriate reuse of existing RDF-friendly specs;
  • ease of implementation;
  • graceful degradation for lesser-used features;
  • being able to be repurposed and reused in the same way that it reuses other specs.

Common conceptual models

Where there is as yet insufficient practice to fuel a specification effort by a community of practice, it is useful to get together as many people as are interested, from formal and informal groupings, and:

  • seek first to agree on a clear common conceptual model  where everyone’s point of view is represented, filling out hidden, elided concepts,
    • recognising that this involves all in development, as
    • it is a challenge to loosen up a conceptual scheme, so
    • people need support and the right context.

Such a conceptual modelling process can work well by being primed with personal discussions between those able to develop their conceptual models. It is essential to the viability of a common conceptual model that everyone with a significant variant opinion is drawn in to the process of working towards a common model. Each of these discussions needs to focus on mutual understanding and a mutual development of positions so that each position comes to include a partial model that is shared between the parties. This takes time – typically several hours, not a few minutes – but is very promising.

This deep communication and shared modelling process is certainly not well-adapted to formal committee procedure. Nor is it suitable for a collective process of a community of interest or of practice. But both formal and informal bodies can perfectly well encourage dialogues of this kind to happen, and seek to check whether they have in fact taken place sufficiently to provide the basis of a usable common model.

Clearly, some people find loosening their conceptual structures more difficult than others. Bodies, formal and informal, should ideally stress that this is necessary, provide encouragement (and perhaps even education or training) in how to do it, and finally discourage those who are unable or unwilling to do this from participating in these processes at all.

Information models, specifications and standards

After the agreement of a common conceptual model, information models can be based on it, as the basis for specifications and eventually standards. This does not mean that the whole conceptual model needs to be represented in any information model, nor even that complete parts of the conceptual model need to be. If no relevant information attaches to a particular concept in the conceptual model, it is quite reasonable to leave it out from a practical information model (resulting in what I have termed “elision”) as long as the conceptual model is kept in mind to refer back to.

Derivative information models should, rather:

  • feel comfortable to practitioners;
  • not be hard to implement;
  • but still be interoperable.

Notes and references