Question and Test tools demonstrate interoperability

As the QTI 2.1 specification gets ready for final release, and new communities start picking it up, conforming tools demonstrated their interoperability at the JISC – CETIS 2012 conference.

The latest version of the world’s only open computer aided assessment interoperability specification, IMS’ QTI 2.1, has been in public beta for some time. That was time well spent, because it allowed groups from across at least eight nations across four continents to apply it to their assessment tools and practices, surface shortcomings with the spec, and fix them.

Nine of these groups came together at the JISC – CETIS conference in Nottingham this year to test a range of QTI packages with their tools, ranging from the very simple to the increasingly specialised. In the event, only three interoperability bugs were uncovered in the tools, and those are being vigorously stamped on right now.

Where it gets more complex is who supports what part of the specification. The simplest profile, provisionally called CC QTI, was supported by all players and some editors in the Nottingham bash. Beyond that, it’s a matter of particular communities matching their needs to particular features of the specification.

In the US, the Accessible Portable Item Profile (APIP) group brings together a group of major test and tool vendors, that are building a profile for summative testing in schools. Their major requirement is the ability to finely adjust the presentation of questions to learners with diverse needs, which is why they have accomplished by building an extension to QTI 2.1. The material also works in QTI tools that haven’t been built explicitly for APIP yet.

A similar group has sprung up in the Netherlands, where the goal is to define all computer aided high stakes school testing in the country in QTI 2.1 That means that a fairly large infrastructure of authoring tools and players is being built at the moment. Since the testing material covers so many subjects and levels, there will be a series of profiles to cover them all.

An informal effort has also sprung up to define a numerate profile for higher education, that may yet be formalised. In practice, it already works in the tools made by the French MOCAH project, and the JISC Assessment and Feedback sponsored QTI-DI and Uniqurate projects.

For the rest of us, it’s likely that IMS will publish something very like the already proven CC QTI as the common core profile that comes with the specification.

More details about the tools that were demonstrated are available at the JISC – CETIS conference pages.

Approaches to building interoperability and their pros and cons

System A needs to talk to System B. Standards are the ideal to achieve that, but pragmatics often dictate otherwise. Let’s have a look at what approaches there are, and their pros and cons.

When I looked at the general area of interoperability a while ago, I observed that useful technology becomes ubiquitous and predictable enough over time for the interoperability problem to go away. The route to get to such commodification is largely down to which party – vendors, customers, domain representatives – is most powerful and what their interests are. Which describes the process very nicely, but doesn’t help solve the problem of connecting stuff now.

So I thought I’d try to list what the choices are, and what their main pros and cons are:

A priori, global
Also known as de jure standardisation. Experts, user representatives and possibly vendor representatives get together to codify whole or part of a service interface between systems that are emerging or don’t exist yet; it can concern either the syntax, semantics or transport of data. Intended to facilitate the building of innovative systems.

  • Has the potential to save a lot of money and time in systems development
  • Facilitates easy, cheap integration
  • Facilitates structured management of network over time


  • Viability depends on the business model of all relevant vendors
  • Fairly unlikely to fit either actually available data or integration needs very well

A priori, local
i.e. some type of Service Oriented Architecture (SOA). Local experts design an architecture that codifies syntax, semantics and operations into services. Usually built into agents that connect to each other via an ESB.

  • Can be tuned for locally available data and to meet local needs
  • Facilitates structured management of network over time
  • Speeds up changes in the network (relative to ad hoc, local)


  • Requires major and continuous governance effort
  • Requires upfront investment
  • Integration of a new system still takes time and effort

Ad hoc, local
Custom integration of whatever is on an institution’s network by the institution’s experts in order to solve a pressing problem. Usually built on top of existing systems using whichever technology is to hand.

  • Solves the problem of the problem owner fastest in the here and now.
  • Results accurately reflect the data that is actually there, and the solutions that are really needed


  • Non-transferable beyond local network
  • Needs to be redone every time something changes on the local network (considerable friction and cost for new integrations)
  • Can create hard to manage complexity

Ad hoc, global
Custom integration between two separate systems, done by one or both vendors. Usually built as a separate feature or piece of software on top of an existing system.

  • Fast point-to-point integration
  • Reasonable to expect upgrades for future changes


  • Depends on business relations between vendors
  • Increases vendor lock-in
  • Can create hard to manage complexity locally
  • May not meet all needs, particularly cross-system BI

Post hoc, global
Also known as standardisation, consortium style. Service provider and consumer vendors get together to codify a whole service interface between existing systems; syntax, semantics, transport. The resulting specs usually get built into systems.

  • Facilitates easy, cheap integration
  • Facilitates structured management of network over time


  • Takes a long time to start, and is slow to adapt
  • Depends on business model of all relevant vendors
  • Liable to fit either available data or integration needs poorly

Clearly, no approach offers instant nirvana, but it does make me wonder whether there are ways of combining approaches such that we can connect short term gain with long term goals. I suspect if we could close-couple what we learn from ad hoc, local integration solutions to the design of post-hoc, global solutions, we could improve both approaches.

Let me know if I missed anything!

PROD; a practical case for Linked Data

Georgi wanted to know what problem Linked Data solves. Mapman wanted a list of all UK universities and colleges with postcodes. David needed a map of JISC Flexible Service Delivery projects that use Archimate. David Sherlock and I got mashing.

Linked Data, because of its association with Linked Open Data, is often presented as an altruistic activity, all about opening up public data and making it re-usable for the benefit of mankind, or at least the tax-payers who facilitated its creation. Those are a very valid reasons, but they tend to obscure the fact that there are some sound selfish reasons for getting into the web of data as well.

In our case, we have a database of JISC projects and their doings called PROD. It focusses on what JISC-CETIS focusses on: what technologies have been used by these projects, and what for. We also have some information on who was involved with the projects, and were they worked, but it doesn’t go much beyond bare names.

In practice, many interesting questions require more information than that. David’s need to present a map of JISC Flexible Service Delivery projects that use Archimate is one of those.

This presents us with a dilemma: we can either keep adding more info to PROD, make ad-hoc mash-ups, or play in the Linked Data area.

The trouble with adding more data is that there is an unending amount of interesting data that we could add, if we had infinite resources to collect and maintain it. Which we don’t. Fortunately, other people make it their business to collect and publish such data, so you can usually string something together on the spot. That gets you far enough in many cases, but it is limited by having to start from scratch for virtually every mashup.

Which is where Linked Data comes in: it allows you to link into the information you want but don’t have.

For David’s question, the information we want is about the geographical position of institutions. Easily the best source for that info and much more besides is the dataset held by the JISC’s Monitoring Unit. Now this dataset is not available as Linked Data yet, but one other part of the Linked Data case is that it’s pretty easy to convert a wide variety of data into RDF. Especially when it is as nicely modelled as the JISC MU’s XML.

All universities with JISC Flexible Delivery projects that use Archimate. Click for the google map

All universities with JISC Flexible Delivery projects that use Archimate. Click for the google map

Having done this once, answering David’s question was trivial. Not just that, answering Mapmans’ interesting question on a list of UK universities of colleges with postcodes was a piece of cake too. That answer prompted Scott and Tony’s question on mapping UCAS and HESA codes, which was another five second job. As was my idle wonder whether JISC projects by Russell group universities used Moodle more or less than those led by post ’92 institutions (answer: yes, they use it more).

Russell group led JISC projects with and without Moodle

Russell group led JISC projects with and without Moodle

Post 92 led JISC projects with or without Moodle

Post '92 led JISC projects with or without Moodle

And it doesn’t need to stop there. I know about interesting datasets from UKOLN and OSSWatch that I’d like to link into. Links from the PROD data to the goodness of and already exist, as do links to MIMAS’ names project. And each time such a link is made, everyone else (including ourselves!) can build on top of what has already been done.

This is not to say that creating Linked Data out of PROD was for free, nor that no effort is involved in linking datasets. It’s just that the effort seems less than with other technologies, and the return considerably more.

Linked Data also doesn’t make your data automatically usable in all circumstances or bug free. David, for example, expected to see institutions on the map that do use the Archimate standard, but not necessarily as a part of a JISC project. A valid point, and a potential improvement for the PROD dataset. It may also have never come to light if we hadn’t been able to slice and dice our data so readily.

An outline with recipes and ingredients is to follow.

The cloud is for the boring

Members of the Strategic Technologies Group of the JISC’s FSD programme met at King’s Anatomy Theatre to, ahem, dissect the options for shared services and the cloud in HE.

The STG’s programme included updates on projects of the members as well as previews of the synthesis of the Flexible Service Delivery programme of which the STG is a part, and a preview of the University Modernisation Fund programme that will start later in the year.

The main event, though, was a series of parallel discussions on business problems where shared services or cloud solutions could make a difference. The one I was at considered a case from the CUMULUS project; how to extend rather than replace a Student Record System in a modular way.

View from the King's anatomy theatre up to the clouds

View from the King's anatomy theatre up to the clouds

In the event, a lot of the discussion revolved around what services could profitably be shared in some fashion. When the group looked at what is already being run on shared infrastructure and what has proven very difficult, the pattern is actually very simple: the more predictable, uniform, mature, well understood and inessential to the central business of research and education, the better. The more variable, historically grown, institution specific and bound up with the real or perceived mission of the institution or parts thereof, the worse.

Going round the table to sort the soporific cloudy sheep from the exciting, disputed, in-house goats, we came up with following lists:


  • email
  • Travel expenses
  • HR
  • Finance
  • Student network services
  • Telephone services
  • File storage
  • Infrastructure as a Service

In house:

  • Course and curriculum management (including modules etc)
  • Admissions process
  • Research processes

This ought not to be a surprise, of course: the point of shared services – whether in the cloud or anywhere else – is economies of scale. That means that the service needs to be the same everywhere, doesn’t change much or at all, doesn’t give the users a competitive advantage and has well understood and predictable interfaces.

ArchiMate modelling bash outcomes

What’s more effective than taking two days out and focus on a new practice with peers and experts?

Following the JISC’s FSD programme, an increasing number of UK Universities started to use the ArchiMate Enterprise Architecture modelling language. Some people have had some introductions to the language and its uses, others even formal training in it, others still visited colleagues who were slightly further down the road. But there was a desire to take the practice further for everyone.

For that reason, Nathalie Czechowski of Coventry University took the initiative to invite anyone with an interest in ArchiMate modelling (not just UK HE), to come to Coventry for a concentrated two days together. The aims were:

1) Some agreed modelling principles

2) Some idea whether we’ll continue with an ArchiMate modeller group and have future events, and in what form

3) The models themselves

With regard to 1), work is now underway to codify some principles in a document, a metamodel and an example architecture. These principles are based on the existing Coventry University standards and the Twente University metamodel, and the primary aim of them is to facilitate good practice by enabling sharing of, and comparability between, models from different institutions.

With regard to 2), the feeling of the ‘bash participants was that it was well worth sustaining the initiative and organise another bash in about six months’ time. The means of staying in touch in the mean time have yet to be established, but one will be found.

As to 3), a total of 15 models were made or tweaked and shared over the two days. Varying from some state of the art, generally applicable samples to rapidly developed models of real life processes in universities, they demonstrate the diversity of the participants and their concerns.

All models and the emerging community guidelines are available on the FSD PBS wiki.

Jan Casteels also blogged about the event on Enterprise Architect @ Work