How do I go about doing InLOC?

It’s been three years now since the European expert team started work on InLOC, working out a good model for representing structures and frameworks of learning outcomes, skill and competence. As can be expected of forward-looking, provisional work, there has not yet been much take-up, but it’s all in place, and more timely now than ever. Then yesterday I received a most welcome call from a training company involved in one particular sector, who are interested in using the principles of InLOC to help their LMS map course and module information to qualification frameworks. Yes! I enthusiastically replied.  

Why, when and how should we use frameworks of skill and competence?

When we understand how frameworks could be used for badges, it becomes clearer that we need to distinguish between different kinds of ability, and that we need tools to manage and manipulate such open frameworks of abilities. InLOC gives a model, and formats, on which such tools can be based.

I’ll be presenting this material at the Crossover Edinburgh conference, 2014-06-05, though my conference presentation will be much more interactive and open, and without much of this detail below.

The growing need for open frameworks of learning outcomes

(A contribution to Open Education Week — see note at end.)

What is the need?

Imagine what could happen if we had a really good sets of usable open learning outcomes, across academic subjects, occupations and professions. It would be easy to express and then trace the relationships between any learning outcomes. To start with, it would be easy to find out which higher-level learning outcomes are composed, in a general consensus view, of which lower-level outcomes.

Some examples … In academic study, for example around a more complex topic from calculus, perhaps it would be made clear what other mathematics needs to be mastered first (see this recent example which lists, but does not structure). In management, it would be made clear, for instance, what needs to be mastered in order to be able to advise on intellectual property rights. In medicine, to pluck another example out of the air, it would be clarified what the necessary components of competent dementia care are. Imagine this is all done, and each learning outcome or competence definition, at each level, is given a clear and unambiguous identifier. Further, imagine all these identifiers are in HTTP IRI/URI/URL format, as is envisaged for Linked Data and the Semantic Web. Imagine that putting in the URL into your browser leads you straight to results giving information about that learning outcome. And in time it would become possible to trace not just what is composed of what, but other relationships between outcomes: equivalence, similarity, origin, etc.

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…

Developing a new approach to competence representation

InLOC is a European project organised to come up with a good way of communicating structures or frameworks of competence, learning outcomes etc. We’ve now produced our interim reports for consultation: the Information Model and the Guidelines. We welcome feedback from everyone, to ensure this becomes genuinely useful and not just another academic exercise.

The reason I’ve not written any blog posts for a few weeks is that so much of my energy has been going into InLOC, and for good reason. It has been a really exciting time working with the team to develop a better approach to representing these things. Many of us have been pushing in this direction for years, without ever quite getting there. Several projects have been nearby, including, last year, InteropAbility (JISC page; project wiki) and eCOTOOL (project web site; my Competence Model page) — I’ve blogged about these before, and we have built on ideas from both of them, as well as from several other sources: you may be surprised at the range and variety of “stakeholders” in this area that we have assembled within InLOC. Doing the thinking for the Logic of Competence series was of course useful background, but nor did it quite get there.

What I want to announce now is that we are looking for the widest possible feedback as further input to the project. It’s all too easy for people like us, familiar with interoperability specifications, simply to cook up a new one. It is far more of a challenge, as well as hugely more worthwhile and satisfying, to create something genuinely useful, which people will actually use. We have been looking at other groups’ work for several months now, and discussing the rich, varied, and sometimes confusing ideas going around the community. Now we have made our own initial synthesis, and handed in the “interim” draft agreements, it is an excellent time to carry forward the wide and deep consultation process. We want to discuss with people whether our InLOC format will work for them; whether they can adopt, use or recommend it (or whatever their role is to do with specifications; or, what improvements need to be made so that they are most likely to take it on for real.

By the end of November we are planning to have completed this intense consultation, and we hope to end up with the desired genuinely useful results.

There are several features of this model which may be innovative (or seem so until someone points out somewhere they have been done before!)

  1. Relationships aren’t just direct as in RDF — there is a separate class to contain the relationship information. This allows extra information, including a number, vital for defining levels.
  2. We distinguish the normal simple properties, with literal objects, which are treated as integral parts of whatever it is (including: identifier, title, description, dates, etc.) from what could be called “compound properties”. Compound properties, that have more than one part to their range, are a little like relationships, and we give them a special property class, allowing labels, and a number (like in relationships).
  3. We have arranged for the logical structure, including the relationships and compound properties, to be largely independent of the representation structure. This allows several variant approaches to structuring, including tree structures, flat structures, or Atom-like structures.

The outcome is something that is slightly reminiscent both of Atom itself, and of Topic Maps. Both are not so like RDF, which uses the simplest possible building blocks, but resulting in the need for harder-to-grasp constructs like blank nodes. The fact of being hard to grasp leads to people trying different ways of doing things, and possibly losing interoperability on the way. Both Atom and Topic Maps, in contrast, add a little more general purpose structure, which does make quite a lot of intuitive sense in both cases, and they have been used widely, apparently with little troublesome divergence.

Are we therefore, in InLOC, trying to feel our way towards a general-purpose way of representing substantial hierarchical structures of independently existing units, in a way that makes more intuitive sense that elementary approaches to representing hierarchies? General taxonomies are simply trying to represent the relationships between concepts, whereas in InLOC we are dealing with a field where, for many years, people have recognised that the structure is an important entity in its own right — so much so that it has seemed hard to treat the components of existing structures (or “frameworks”) as independent and reusable.

So, see what you think, and please tell me, or one of the team, what you do honestly think. And let’s discuss it. The relevant links are also available straight from the InLOC wiki home page. And if you are responsible for creating or maintaining structures of intended learning outcomes, skills, competences, competencies, etc., then you are more than welcome to try out our new approach, that we hope combines ease of understanding with the power to express just what you want to express in your “framework”, and that you will be persuaded to use it “for real”, perhaps when we have made the improvements that you need.

We envisage a future when many ICT tools can use the same structures of learning outcomes and competences, saving effort, opening up interoperability, and greatly increasing the possibilities for services to build on top of each other. But you probably don’t need reminding of the value of those goals. We’re just trying to help along the way.