Using standards to make assessment in e-textbooks scalable, engaging but robust

During last week’s EDUPUB workshop, I presented a demo of how an IMS QTI 2.1 question item could be embedded in an EPUB3 e-book in a way that is engaging, but also works across many e-book readers. Here’s the why and how.

One of the most immediately obvious differences between a regular book and an e-textbook is the inclusion of little quizzes at the end of a chapter that allow the learner to check their understanding of what they’ve just learned. Formative assessment matters in textbooks.

Embed innovation or implant potential?

This thought on etextbooks is an overflow from a conversation I was having about a workshop aimed at scoping what we would like the etextbooks of the future to look like. By defining an area of interest as “etextbooks” we were implying a continuity with textbooks, the implication seems to be that etextbooks will pick up where paper text books leave off. That, I think is different from 20 or so years ago when we were talking about how computer based learning marked a step change in how education was delivered. In that case much of the talk was about how technology will radically change education. Even if my characterisation of the two cases as opposing is a bit crude (as it is), it’s worth comparing the two approaches. I’ll do that here, just briefly.

In a galaxy far, far, far away . . .

Do you ever get the feeling that you are living in a parallel universe? I do. Particularly this week when the “Major players in the MOOC Universe” infographic was published by The Chronicle of Higher Education this week. It was retweeted, google+’ed everywhere almost instantly. But this wasn’t a view of the MOOC universe I know of, there were quite a few bits missing. A bit like the “World Series” this was an almost completely U.S centric view. The big bang MOOC moment certainly didn’t happen slightly north of this universe.

Despite the efforts of informed commentators such as Audrey Watters, to correct the new revisionism of the history of MOOCs, the U.S centric vision seems to be winning out. Martin Weller’s response to Donald Clark’s take on MOOC developments eloquently states a number of my concerns about revisionism and the development of MOOCs and the so called MOOC wars.

But I can sort of see myself in this universe, all be it, in a very small dark corner. I can see, and know who the “big shiny lights” are in the centre, and dream of being part of the rebel alliance, and becoming an apprentice of Obi Weller Kenobi . . .

Yesterday though I felt almost like I had crossed into the 13th dimension. I entered a place where no-one had heard of MOOCs. Yes that’s right – they hadn’t heard of MOOCs. My colleague Lorna Campbell and I had been invited to the Scottish eLearning Alliance Local Authority SIG meeting to give an overview of our work. Lorna spoke about open educational resources, and as is my want of late, I did a bit about MOOCs. Unsurprisingly for increasingly cash strapped local authorities the free part of open was very attractive. Those in charge of developing and running training programmes are always looking for new ways to enhance their offerings. However as the discussion progressed it became clear that there is still one key missing ingredient that all the open content and courses in universe(s) don’t include, and that is time. You need time to engage with learning. Although online provision of education/resources has fundamentally changed access points, it hasn’t meant that we need less time to engage.

As you know dear reader, I have done my fair share of MOOCing over the past few months. It’s probably been the best (well actually it’s been the only) PDP I’ve done in my eight years with Cetis. But I am in an incredibly privileged position where I have been able to combine professional and personal development. I have been able to legitimately use some work time to contribute to a number of courses, and in turn in my own small way contribute to some of the wider discourse and dialogue. So although I was delighted to read that Coursera are now going to be providing course for K12 teachers, I couldn’t help but have a slight sinking feeling of this being staff development on the cheap. Will teachers be given some legitimate study time and recognition to take part or will it just be the really motivated ones (who probably aren’t the ones who really need this time of development) that will just “find the time” to take part? Will there be state wide flipped classrooms for teacher staff development ? Wouldn’t it be great if there was?

There’s also a huge assumption that everyone has the (digital) literacies needed to engage successfully with any kind of online learning. This was a key concern for some of the people at yesterday’s meeting. There’s a reason distance learning providers such as the OU have developed extensive study skills resources for their students. A MOOC on MOOCing isn’t daft idea, it just sounds slightly daft when you say it out loud.

Anyway I guess to end this slightly rambling post, that we need to remember that despite the hype in “our” universe(s), there’s a whole set of parallel universes that haven’t heard about MOOCs yet. They could very well benefit from MOOCs and from open education in general, but education is more than resources and courses. It’s about human interaction and time. In our rush to create new universes let’s not forget these universal principles and cherish the time that a University degree gives to students and indeed the time that any educational experience deserves.

eTextBooks Europe

I went to a meeting for stakeholders interested in the eTernity (European textbook reusability networking and interoperability) initiative. The hope is that eTernity will be a project of the CEN Workshop on Learning Technologies with the objective of gathering requirements and proposing a framework to provide European input to ongoing work by ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC36, WG6 & WG4 on eTextBooks (which is currently based around Chinese and Korean specifications). Incidentally, as part of the ISO work there is a questionnaire asking for information that will be used to help decide what that standard should include. I would encourage anyone interested to fill it in.

The stakeholders present represented many perspectives from throughout Europe: publishers, publishing industry specification bodies (e.g. IPDF who own EPUB3, and DAISY), national bodies with some sort of remit for educational technology, and elearning specification and standardisation organisations. I gave a short presentation on the OER perspective.

Many issues were raised through the course of the day, including (in no particular order)

  • Interactive and multimedia content in eTextbooks
  • Accessibility of eTextbooks
  • eTextbooks shouldn’t be monolithic and immutable chunks of content, it should be possible to link directly to specific locations or to disaggregate the content
  • The lifecycle of an eTextbook. This goes beyond initial authoring and publishing
  • Quality assurance (of content and pedagogic approach)
  • Alignment with specific curricula
  • Personalization and adaptation to individual needs and requirements
  • The ability to describe the learning pathway embodied in an eTextbook, and vary either the content used on this pathway or to provide different pathways through the same content
  • The ability to describe a range IPR and licensing arrangements of the whole and of specific components of the eTextbook
  • The ability to interact with learning systems with data flowing in both directions

If you’re thinking that sounds like a list of the educational technology issues that we have been busy with for the last decade or two, then I would agree with you. Furthermore, there is a decade or two’s worth of educational technology specs and standards that address these issues. Of course not all of those specs and standards are necessarily the right ones for now, and there are others that have more traction within digital publishing. EPUB3 was well represented in the meeting (DITA is the other publishing standard mentioned in the eTernity documentation, but no one was at the meeting to talk about that) and it doesn’t seem impossible to meet the educational requirements outlined in the meeting within the general EPUB3 framework. The question is which issues should be prioritised and how should they be addressed.

Of course a technical standard is only an enabler: it doesn’t in itself make any change to teaching and learning; change will only happen if developers create tools and authors create resources that exploit the standard. For various reasons that hasn’t happened with some of the existing specs and standards. A technical standard can facilitate change but there needs to a will or a necessity to change in the first place. One thing that made me hopeful about this was a point made by Owen White of Pearson that he did not to think of the business he is in as being centred around content creation and publishing but around education and learning and that leads away from the view of eBooks as isolated static aggregations.

For more information keep an eye on the eTernity website

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.

The ICT Dilemma facing Senior Management in FE

Earlier this week I was invited into a Further Education College to participate in a Technology Strategy working Group. I’m really very pleased to be invited to these kinds of discussions as I see them as crucial in informing both my work for JISC CETIS and the IEC Department in Bolton. Perhaps on the down side it is a often a (much needed) harsh reality check on the challenges faced by institutions in applying technologies and technology policy across their enterprise, not just in the teaching and Learning domain.

I have previously “blogged” about, what I see as, often poorly informed and quite “Draconian” policies regarding internet usage within FE colleges including, for example the wholesale blocking of students’ internet access to social networking sites. It’s easy and too simplistic to suggest that this is resolved solely by increased knowledge amongst administrators, education, or by a more sophisticated understanding of ICT by those responsible for policy. There are major issues at the policy level, which Colleges are obliged to deal with.

There is some discussion as to what level of technical understanding should senior Management in institutions have. Lawrie Phipps, JISC programme Manager “blogged” about this very subject earlier this week. And he raises some important issues and questions.

What has prompted my current thinking on this situation are recent guidelines produced by Ofsted in structuring grades for College Assessment within the Leadership and Management effectiveness. Two of the criteria “Safeguarding” and “Equality and Diversity” are what are termed as Limiting grades; which in effect means should a college receive an “ineffective” grade on one of these criteria it is unlikely that overall effectiveness of the college would be assessed as anything but “inadequate” which in turn triggers a series of requirements of the college.

Whilst these two criteria are clearly extremely important the emphasis of college’s maybe, understandably, concentrated on these criteria. Quality of provision, which falls within the teaching, learning, and Assessment criteria, could be compromised. Whilst Ofsted recognizes the need to equip students with the skills necessary to navigate the digital space safely; the balance is precarious.

Clearly any college that blocks access to all sensitive sites and social networking sites is “effective” with its safeguarding policy but would, in my view, be quite inadequate with its teaching, Learning and assessment provision. The former however carries much greater weight.

I’m sure there is good practice in dealing with this in the FE sector but it does present a real challenge to senior Management