“After Sustainability” – education for noble savages

I came across John Foster’s blog post, introducing his recent book “After Sustainability”, first through resilience.org. Lancaster University being where he teaches, and near where I live, we met up for a rich conversation, and he kindly lent me a copy of the book. Very interesting reading it is, too! So here I am writing a kind of review, for the Cetis blog, because I do think that the kind of thinking he is championing has implications for educational technology. I add more of my views towards the end. The message of the book’s nicely chosen title should be clear enough. The idea of “sustainability” has, in many parts of society, taken over the mainstream from ideas of growth and development. It’s easy to criticise the idea of limitless growth, so there have always been its critics. This book focuses criticism around the word “progress”, which I see as neatly ambivalent between growth and development: could it even be too ambivalent to base a clear argument on? Could there still be development, of our consciousness at least, even while in material terms we head for “degrowth”? I remember an excellent history teacher at school pointing out that popular culture has swung, over centuries, between, on the one hand, looking back to a “golden age” which we might strive to work back towards, and on the other hand, something more like “we’ve never had it so good”, and presumably, with more “progress”, it will get better and better. I wonder whether (as I guess my teacher believed) the truth might be more ambivalent than that. Perhaps, with one pair of spectacles, one may see progress; but with another, at the same time, decline and fall. T. S. Eliot seems to be saying something very similar, in his “Four Quartets”. And again, compare the long history of the idea of the “noble savage”. The main thrust of the book’s argument is well made and well received. It does seem clear that many people are clinging on to implausible optimism in the face of the mounting evidence of climate change: change at a level that will lead to severe, if not catastrophic consequences. Foster is asking us to acknowledge that: to stop the denial, and shift our hopes across to something deeper and more realistic. To explore this territory, he probes the philosophical foundations of why it is so hard to look behind the self, into the darkness. Even the concept of “resilience”, which is so well represented in the vanguard of environmental thinking these days, is really quite problematic. If one prepares in detail to be resilient to one kind of predicted shock, the risk is that one may be even less well prepared for other unexpected shocks. Can we imagine a good, general purpose, cybernetic resilience, perhaps, even in the face of what happened to Beer’s experiments with Allende in Chile? Foster puts more of his personal view in the third and final part of the book, corresponding to his use of the term “retrieval”. (This is where the book extract in his blog post is taken from.) “Retrieval […] means learning from environmental tragedy to recognise the essential human wholeness that contemporary progressive civilisation denies and thwarts.” It is both a practical and philosophical task. I won’t go into the philosophical side here, though it seems to make sense within the philosophical tradition. And I’m a little uncomfortable with the term “retrieval”, which to most people in IT will conjure up “information retrieval” — surely not the intended connotation! I would personally prefer simply “recovery”, which I take in Eliot’s sense: “There is only the fight to recover what has been lost / And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions / That seem unpropitious.” (That was around 1940.) But the main point of contact with educational technology, to me, comes along with Foster’s pointing to the constructs: predictable ↔ unpredictable; and planned ↔ wild. Indeed, in Chapter 8, “Towards a toolkit”, the book has a section headed “Education in transition: knowledge for its own sake, or for the sake of retrieval?” He is pointing out that it is all very well training people in the kinds of skills that are likely to be useful in a “transition” economy, but also that we need wider, more general “education that empowers us to make sense of some things as intrinsically valuable, and so to create for ourselves any ends we have.” So we see here a different take on the debates in my two areas of specialism: e-portfolios, and skills and competence. If e-portfolios are merely glorified electronic CVs, showing incumbent employers the things that they have said they want, then they are surely doing us a disservice. But the other, strong trend in e-portfolio practice is rather the opposite, towards reflection — towards critical thinking, not towards conformity to past predictions. And in the areas of defining needed skills and competence, I see a parallel debate going on. It is relatively easy to take what is past and current practice, and to analyse the skills and competence needed to perform in those current roles in current contexts. A narrow portfolio based on a reductionist approach to skills is, according to the view I share, going nowhere fast. But, despite the challenge of grasping, let alone doing something better, I believe it is perfectly possible to conceive of a structure of higher level skills that should indeed be the basis of any transition — to retrieval, recovery, or however you want to put your vision of what realistic hope there may be in our very uncertain future. I think I take a rather different tack to Foster here. Where he is talking about “wildness”, about what comes across to me as more “tribal”, intuitive loyalties perhaps based on place, I would rather emphasise the necessary skills in living and working with each other as equals. I think this is more of a different “take” than a real disagreement. There are many of these skills, and among them a set to do with finding consensus, that are equally in place in the standardization community where I have been working for several years now. To my mind, tribal loyalties can be fickle and conflicted, and while they are held together by instinctive bonds of kinship, they are more prone to loss of trust when hierarchical forms of control lead to large inequalities of power, and opposing interests, reminiscent of class interests. What I look for includes education for collaboration, for consensus, for peer governance, for the resilience gained through using everyone’s intelligence together. The richness and variety available from properly peer-to-peer processes is, it seems to me, much more likely to be able to cope with the unexpected. Even the darkness within ourselves is less dark to others, if we can trust them in a spirit of mutual respect. Foster uses the interesting term “existential resilience”, and that relates in me to what develops over time with other people, through trusting relationships that allow vulnerability. It takes an exceptional individual to have that existential resilience alone. One of the ways we can back up discussion of, and education about, personal resilience is to appeal to theories such as George Kelly’s Personal Construct Theory. To quote a useful current piece from Wikipedia:
Transitional periods in a person’s life occur when he or she encounters a situation that changes his or her naive theory (or system of construction) of the way the world is ordered. They can create anxiety, hostility, and/or guilt and can also be opportunities to change one’s constructs and the way one views the world.
Vulnerability could be a useful term to indicate the mental state of someone who is going beyond anxiety, hostility and guilt to change their personal construct system to cope better with a changed world. This again looks close to Rob Hopkins’ working definition of resilience from 2011 in transitionculture.org:
“The capacity of an individual, community or system to adapt in order to sustain an acceptable level of function, structure, and identity”
So, today I’ll conclude by putting the “Cetis” question again, how can we use technology to support, enable, enhance, facilitate (etc.) education that has enduring relevance after sustainability? I hope I’ve given some leads above as to the ground from which answers might be explored.

E-portfolios and badges for the common good

I learned several things at the e-portfolio and identity conference (ePIC) 2014 that I attended 9th and 10th July.

1. People agree it’s political

The response to my presentation (What will we need to learn and have evidence for? on Slideshare) reassured me that many of the excellent people at the conference shared something like my sense that the world of learning, education, e-portfolios and open badges is more political now than it has ever been in the past history of this conference. It is not simply well-meaning educators helping “their” learners to a richer, more fulfilling education, learning and life (a great aim though that remains). It is, to me, increasingly about what kind of society we want.

Learning about learning about …

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

Learning to learn – the ultimate life-skill

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

Privacy? What about self-disclosure?

When we talk about privacy, we are often talking about the right to privacy. That is something like the right to limit or constrain disclosure of information relating to oneself. I’ve often been puzzled by the concept of privacy, and I think that it helps to think first about self-disclosure.

Self-disclosure is something that we would probably all like to control. There’s a lot of literature on self-disclosure in many settings, and it is clearly recognised as important in several ways. I like the concept of self-disclosure, because it is a positive concept, in contrast to the rather negative idea of privacy. Privacy is, as its name suggests, a “privative” concept. Though definitions vary greatly, one common factor is that definitions of privacy tend to be in terms of the absence of something undesirable, rather than directly as the presence of something valuable.

Future Learners, new Opportunities and Technology

The wider CETIS community has often appreciated meeting up, with others sharing the same “special interests”, in “SIG” meetings. That kind of meeting took place, including old “Portfolio” SIG participants, on 11th Dec in Nottingham, and many interesting points came up.

The people who came to the meeting would not all use the label “portfolio”. We billed the meeting as exploring issues from the viewpoint of the learner, so neither institutions, nor providers of learning resources, were the focus. The e-portfolio community has indeed had the learner at the centre of thinking, but this meeting had many ideas that were not specifically “portfolio”.

Indeed, the main attraction of the day was Doug Belshaw talking, and leading a workshop, on the Mozilla Open Badges concept and technology. Badges are not in themselves portfolios, though they do seem to fit well into the same “ecosystem”, which perhaps may come gradually to supplant the current system of the established educational institutions monopolising the award of degrees, with those being necessary for many jobs. And Doug converted people! Several attendees who had not previously been convinced of the value of badges now saw the light. That can only be good.

For those with doubts, Doug also announced that the Mozilla team had agreed to introduce a couple more pieces of metadata into the Open Badges specification. That is definitely worth looking at closely, to see if we can use that extra information to fill gaps that have been perceived. One of these new metadata elements looks like it will naturally link to a definition of skill, competence, or similar, in the style of InLOC, which of course I think is an excellent idea!

The “lightning talks” model worked well, with 10 speakers given only 5 minutes each to speak. The presentations remain listed on the meeting web page, with a link to the slides. Topics included:

  • board games
  • peer assessment
  • students producing content
  • placement and employability

My own contribution was an outline argument of the case that InLOC is positioned to unlock a chain of events, via the vital link of employers taking non-institutional credentials seriously, towards “reinvigorating the e-portfolio landscape”.

So learner-focused learning technology community is alive and well, and doing many good things.

In parallel with the badges workshop, a small group including me talked over more subtle issues. For me, a key point is the need to think through the bigger picture of how badges may be used in practice. How will we differentiate between the likely plethora of badges that will be created and displayed? How will employers, for example, distinguish the ones that are both relevant to their interests, and issued by reputable people or bodies? Looking at the same question another way, what does it take to be the issuer of badges that are genuinely useful, and that will really help the labour market move on? Employers are no more going to wade through scores of badges than they currently wade through the less vital sections of an e-portfolio.

We could see a possible key idea here as “badging the badgers”. If we think through what is needed to be responsible for issuing badges that are really useful, we could turn that into a badge. And a very significant badge it would be, too!

The local arrangements were ably looked after by the Nottingham CIePD group, which seems to be the most active and highly-regarded current such group in UK HE. Ever since, under Angela Smallwood, Nottingham pioneered the ePARs system, they have consistently been in the forefront of developments in this area of learning technology. I hope that they, as well as other groups, will be able to continue work in this area, and continue to act as focal points for the learner-centric learning technology community.

What is my work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the sum of this information?

Can we name that information and reclaim it?

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

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

Critical friendship pointer

I picked up a tweet yesterday via Paul Chippendale from an HBR blog called “You Are (Probably) Wrong About You” by Heidi Grant Halvorson. This seems to me a useful tying together of several important things: (e-)portfolios, reflection, critical friendship, and how to run P2P organisations. She writes:

Who knows you best? Well, the research suggests that they do — other people’s assessment of your personality predicts your behavior, on average, better than your assessment does.
In his fascinating book Strangers to Ourselves, psychologist Timothy Wilson summarizes decades of research [...] showing us just how much of what we do during every moment of every day [...] is happening below our conscious awareness. Some of it we can notice if we engage in a little self-reflection, but much of it we simply cannot — it’s not directly accessible to us at all.

This might remind us first of the perennial problem of e-portfolios and reflection. People tend to reflect only in their own way in their own time, and this is not necessarily helpful for their personal development. It is not easy for practitioners to persuade people to use e-portfolio tools to reflect in a fruitful way. And when it comes to putting together a presentation of one’s abilities and qualities using an e-portfolio tool, the result is therefore not always realistic.

Often what is more effective is a personal one-to-one approach, where the person in the helping role might be called a mentor, a coach, a personal tutor, or something else. But here we run into the problem of the moment: resources. In many related fields, resource is being taken away from personal contact, with learners left to fend for themselves, given only a website to browse.

If only … we could create an effective peer-to-peer mentoring service. This approach has certainly been explored in many places, not least in Bolton, but I do not have personal experience of this, nor do I currently know of authoritative reviews of what is seen as genuinely effective. One might expect pitfalls of schemes under that name to include a formulaic approach; a lack of genuine insight into the “mentee”; and a reliance on older-to-younger mentoring, rather than a more strictly peer-to-peer approach. In Bolton it would appear to be still a minority practice, and the support is clearly given by more advanced to less advanced students. In this kind of setting, what is the chance of a peer mentor helping to correct someone’s misconceptions about their own abilities?

The term “critical friend” seems to me to address some of these potential deficiencies with peer mentors. If the people in question really are friends, if they know each other well and trust each other, surely there is more of a possibility of bringing up and challenging personal misconceptions, given the mutual desire and a supportive culture. The Wikipedia article provides helpful background. There are many other useful sources of ideas about this idea, also known as “critical colleague”, “critical companion” or “learning partner”, all pointing in the same general direction. The idea has taken root, even if it is not yet a well-known commonplace.

The critical friend concept is certainly inspiring, but how many people have colleagues who are both willing and well-positioned to act in this role? In my experience, friends seldom see the range of professional behaviour that one would want constructive critique of, and colleagues seem rather more able to offer positive suggestions in some areas than in others. The challenge seems partly in bringing such practice into the mainstream, where it does not seem odd, or too upsetting to a culture too weak for anything more strenuous than laissez-faire.

What I believe we need is more practiced and reported experimentation along the lines of benefiting from what colleagues are prepared naturally to do, not expecting everyone to have counselling skills, or a sufficient rapport with each other to be the person … well … that we would like them to be! And in any case there are potential problems with small closed groups of people, whether pairs or slightly larger, all commenting on each other’s performance. It could easily lead to a kind of “groupthink”.

My guess is that there is a robust peer-to-peer solution waiting to be more widely acknowledged, tested, and incorporated into work cultures. I have provisionally thought of it as “follower guidance“, but I will save writing more on that to later, and hope that people may comment in the meantime on how would you address the challenges of people mis-assessing their own abilities and qualities. Really, we need to have a culture that promotes good self-knowledge, not only to help personal and professional development, but also to serve as the bedrock of an effective P2P culture.

p.s. I have now written more on the follower guidance idea.

Reviewing the future for Leap2

JISC commissioned a Leap2A review report (PDF), carried out early in 2012, that has now been published. It is available along with other relevant materials from the e-Portfolio interoperability JISC page. For anyone following the fortunes of Leap2A, it is highly worthwhile reading. Naturally, not all possible questions were answered (or asked), and I’d like to take up some of these, with implications for the future direction of Leap2 more generally.

The summary recommendations were as follows — these are very welcome!

  1. JISC should continue to engage with vendors in HE who have not yet implemented Leap2A.
  2. Engagement should focus on communities of practice that are using or are likely to use e-portfolios, and situations where e-portfolio data transfer is likely to have a strong business case.
  3. JISC should continue to support small-scale tightly focused developments that are likely to show immediate impact.
  4. JISC should consider the production of case studies from PebblePad and Mahara that demonstrate the business case in favour of Leap2A.
  5. JISC should consider the best way of encouraging system vendors to provide seamless import services.
  6. JISC should consider constructing a standardisation roadmap via an appropriate BSI or CEN route.

That tallies reasonably with the outcome of the meeting back in November last year, where we reckoned that Leap2A needs: more adoption; more evidence of utility; to be taken more into the professional world; good governance; more examples; and for the practitioner community to build around it models of lifelong development that will justify its existence.

Working backwards up the list for the Leap2A review report, recommendation 6 is one for the long term. It could perhaps be read in the context of the newly formed CETIS position on the recent Government Open Standards Consultation. There we note:

Established public standards bodies (such as ISO, BSI and CEN), while doing valuable work, have some aspects that would benefit from modernisation to bring them more into line with organisations such as W3C and OASIS.

The point then elaborated is that the community really needs open standards that are freely available as well as royalty-free and unencumbered. The de jure standards bodies normally still charge for copies of their standards, as part of their business model, which we see as outdated. If we can circumvent that issue, then BSI and CEN would become more attractive options.

It is the previous recommendation, number 5 in the list above, that I will focus on more, though. Here is the fuller version of that recommendation (appearing as paragraph 81).

One of the challenges identified in this review is to increase the usability of data exchange with the Leap2A specification, by removing the current necessity for separate export and import. This report RECOMMENDS that JISC considers the best way of encouraging system vendors to provide seamless data exchange services between their products, perhaps based on converging practice in the use of interoperability and discovery technologies (for example future use of RDF). It is recognised that this type of data exchange may require co-ordinated agreement on interoperability approaches across HEIs, FECs and vendors, so that e-portfolio data can be made available through web services, stressing ease of access to the learner community. In an era of increasing quantities of open and linked data, this recommendation seems timely. The current initiatives around courses information — XCRI-CAP, Key Information Sets (KIS) and HEAR — may suggest some suitable technical approaches, even though a large scale and expensive initiative is not recommended in the current financially constrained circumstances.

As an ideal, that makes perfect sense from the point of view of an institution transferring a learner’s portfolio information to another institution. However, seamless transfer is inherently limited by the compatibility (or lack of it) between the information stored in each system. There is also a different scenario, that has always been in people’s minds when working on Leap2A. It is that learners themselves may want to be able to download their own information, to keep for use, at an uncertain time in the future, in various ways that are not necessarily predictable by the institutions that have been hosting their information. In any case, the predominant culture in the e-portfolio community is that all the information should be learner-ownable, if not actually learner-owned. This is reflected in the report’s paragraph 22, dealing with current usage from PebblePad.

The implication of the Leap2A functionality is that data transfer is a process of several steps under the learner’s control, so the learner has to be well-motivated to carry it out. In addition Leap2A is one of several different import/export possibilities, and it may be less well understood than other options. It should perhaps be stressed here that PebblePad supports extensive data transfer methods other than Leap2A, including zip archives, native PebblePad transfers of whole or partial data between accounts, and similarly full or partial export to HTML.

This is followed up in the report’s paragraph 36, part of the “Challenges and Issues” section.

There also appears to be a gap in promoting the usefulness of data transfer specifically to students. For example in the Mahara and PebblePad e-portfolios there is an option to export to a Leap2A zip file or to a website/HTML, without any explanation of what Leap2A is or why it might be valuable to export to that format. With a recognisable HTML format as the other option, it is reasonable to assume that students will pick the format that they understand. Similarly it was suggested that students are most likely to export into the default format, which in more than one case is not the Leap2A specification.

The obvious way to create a simpler interface for learners is to have just one format for export. What could that format be? It should be noted first that separate files that are attached to or included with a portfolio will always remain separate. The issue is the format of the core data, which in normal Leap2A exports is represented by a file named “leap2a.xml”.

  1. It could be plain HTML, but in this case the case for Leap2A would be lost, as there is no easy way for plain HTML to be imported into another portfolio system without a complex and time-consuming process of choosing where each single piece of information should be put in the new system.
  2. It could be Leap2A as it is, but the question then would be, would this satisfy users’ needs? Users’ own requirements for the use of exports is not spelled out in the report, and it does not appear to have been systematically investigated anywhere, but it would be reasonable to expect that one use case would be that users want to display the information so that it can be cut and pasted elsewhere. Leap2A supports the display of media files within text, and formatting of text, only through the inclusion of XHTML within the content of entries, in just the same way as Atom does. It is not unreasonable to conclude that limiting exports to plain Leap2A would not fully serve user export needs, and therefore it is and will continue to be unreasonable to expect portfolio systems to limit users to Leap2A export only.
  3. If there were a format that fully met the requirements both for ease of viewing and cut-and-paste, and for relatively easy and straightforward importing to another portfolio system (comparable to Leap2A currently), it might then be reasonable to expect portfolio systems to have this as their only export format. Then, users would not have to choose, would not be confused, and the files which they could view easily and fully through a browser on their own computer system would also be able to be imported to another portfolio system to save the same time and effort that is currently saved through the use of Leap2A.

So, on to the question, what could that format be? What follows explains just what the options are for this, and how it would work.

The idea for microformats apparently originated in 2000. The first sentence of the Wikipedia article summarises nicely:

A microformat (sometimes abbreviated µF) is a web-based approach to semantic markup which seeks to re-use existing HTML/XHTML tags to convey metadata and other attributes in web pages and other contexts that support (X)HTML, such as RSS. This approach allows software to process information intended for end-users (such as contact information, geographic coordinates, calendar events, and the like) automatically.

In 2004, a more sophisticated approach to similar ends was proposed in RDFa. Wikipedia has “RDFa (or Resource Description Framework –in– attributes) is a W3C Recommendation that adds a set of attribute-level extensions to XHTML for embedding rich metadata within Web documents.”

In 2009 the WHATWG were developing Microdata towards its current form. The Microformats community sees Microdata as having grown out of Microformats ideas. Wikipedia writes “Microdata is a WHATWG HTML specification used to nest semantics within existing content on web pages. Search engines, web crawlers, and browsers can extract and process Microdata from a web page and use it to provide a richer browsing experience for users.”

Wikipedia quotes the Schema.org originators (launched on 2 June 2011 by Bing, Google and Yahoo!) as stating that it was launched to “create and support a common set of schemas for structured data markup on web pages”. It provides a hierarchical vocabulary, in some cases drawing on Microformats work, that can be used within the RDFa as well as Microdata formats.

Is it possible to represent Leap2A information in this kind of way? Initial exploratory work on Leap2R has suggested that it is indeed possible to identify a set of classes and properties that could be used more or less as they are with RDFa, or could be correlated with the schema.org hierarchy for use with Microdata. However, the solution needs detail adding and working through.

In principle, using RDFa or Microdata, any portfolio information could be output as HTML, with the extra information currently represented by Leap2A added into the HTML attributes, which is not directly displayed, and so does not interfere with human reading of the HTML. Thus, this kind of representation could fully serve all the purposes currently served by HTML export of Leap2A. It seems highly likely that practical ways of doing this can be devised that can convey the complete structure currently given by Leap2A. The requirements currently satisfied by Leap2A would be satisfied by this new format, which might perhaps be called “Leap2H5″, for Leap2 information in HTML5, or maybe alternatively “Leap2XR”, for Leap2 information in XHTML+RDFa (in place of Leap2A, meaning Leap2 information in Atom).

Thus, in principle it appears perfectly possible to have a single format that simultaneously does the job both of HTML and Leap2A, and so could serve as a plausible principal export and import format, removing that key obstacle identified in paragraph 36 of the Leap2A review report. The practical details may be worked out in due course.

There is another clear motivation in using schema.org metadata to mark up portfolio information. If a web page uses schema.org semantics, whether publicly displayed on a portfolio system or on a user’s own site, Google and others state that the major search engines will create rich snippets to appear under the search result, explaining the content of the page. This means, potentially, that portfolio presentations would be more easily recognised by, for instance, employers looking for potential employees. In time, it might also mean that the search process itself was made more accurate. If portfolio systems were to adopt export and import using schema.org in HTML, it could also be used for all display of portfolio information through their systems. This would open the way to effective export of small amounts of portfolio information simply by saving a web page displayed through normal e-portfolio system operation; and could also serve as an even more effective and straightforward method for transferring small amounts of portfolio information between systems.

Having recently floated this idea of agreeing Leap2 semantics in schema.org with European collaborators, it looks like gaining substantial support. This opens up yet another very promising possibility: existing European portfolio related formats could be harmonised through this new format, that is not biased towards any of the existing ones — as well as Leap2A, there is the Dutch NTA 2035 (derived from IMS ePortfolio), and also the Europass CV format. (There is more about this strand of unfunded work through MELOI.) All of these are currently expressed using XML, but none have yet grasped the potential of schema.org in HTML through microdata or RDFa. To restate the main point here, this means having the semantics of portfolio information embedded in machine-processable ways, without interfering with the human-readable HTML.

I don’t want to be over-optimistic, as currently money tends only to go towards initiatives with a clear business case, but I am hopeful that in the medium term, people will recognise that this is an exciting and powerful potential development. When any development of Leap2 gets funded, I’m suggesting that this is what to go for, and if anyone has spare resource to work on Leap2 in the meanwhile, this is what I recommend.