Schools based apprenticeships: another landscape

When I started in Further Education nearly 40 years ago, our major role was supporting apprenticeships. Every September stream of youngsters who were working for national companies such as British Telecom and the National Grid and local engineering and construction companies would queue up to enrol for their one day in college to study for a National Certificate.

With the expansion of academic higher education and the abolition of grant aided apprenticeships in the 1980s such programmes fizzled out.

Only now has government appreciated the importance of such schemes and is making the apprenticeship a core option within its 14-19 agenda alongside academic routes such as the traditional A Level and ‘new’ Diploma. Much of the delivery will be based in schools.

Rebuilding an apprenticeship framework for 14-19 year olds from nothing within schools that have generally focussed on academic subjects will not be easy and may be some reason why at least 13 government quangos such a the Sector Skills Councils (that identify the required competences) to the UK Commission for Education and Skills (that has to find ways of engaging employers) have been created.

So where will IT will be used for these youngsters?

Just a short (and not comprehensive) list:

  • Information and Guidance systems which assess students abilities, provide career and labour market intelligence information and provide the opportunities to record ‘action plans’.
  • Local prospectus systems that identify the opportunitie available within schools

  • Systems that support employers in providing the necessary information for work placements

  • Systems that support the students and their advisors in finding work placements.

  • Tracking systems that monitor the attendance and progress of students at school, college and in work placement

  • Content delivery systems that provide underpinning knowledge in an innovative and interactive way. (Comeback learning objects!)

  • Portfolio systems that store validated students achievements for assessment.

  • Online testing systems for key/ functional skills and the underpinning knowledge for the Technical Certificate

  • Qualification awarding and recording systems that are linked to the Qualification and Credit Framework.

  • Support networks for teachers that provide exemplars of good practice and resources.

  • Systems that ‘feed’ attendance and achievement data to national DCFS collection systems.

  • …..

……….and the challenge for JISC.

Given that the Unique Learner Number will enable infinite opportunities for collation and aggregation, to identify where data standards and the interoperation of systems are required and how privacy and security can be maintained.

As mentioned in earlier blogs, this work will be conducted within a context of government imposed tight delivery deadlines and a commercial provider sector will exploit the open doors to provide quick and profitable solutions.

On a personal note, my apprenticeship is now over and having obtained my qualification for a bus pass, this will be my final blog for CETIS.

I would like thank all those friends within the JISC community that have made my work so satisfying and enjoyable and wish you all success, happiness and good health for the future.

Don’t get stuck in the swamp!

I have rather worn out my ‘tie quip’. For those few who have not heard it, the adornment of a tie around my neck indicates that I am on that day working for an international company. Pearson. The lack of such adornment indicates that I am spending one of my two contracted days per week for CETIS.

This sharing of my time between the public and private sectors gives me a fairly unique understanding of the conflicting and shared pressures that face these two areas.

My commercial colleagues are driven by the market. Up to now there has been little appetite to invest in technology based tools to support teaching and learning as so many pioneers in such as teaching materials have met untimely and expensive ends (administration and information systems are another matter!).

Things are changing rapidly. There is a recognition that the prevalence of technology from the mobile phone to the software that supports networking communities within our ‘customers’ lives has meant that there are now significant commercial opportunities from the development of appropriate tools and services.

System that underpin the sharing of learning objects or exemplar lessons or match an individual’s achievements to employment opportunities are coming off the drawing board. Major international companies with publishing assets and expertise are well placed to integrate such tools into their existing business offerings.

The English government’s multi-billion ‘Building Schools for the Future Programme’ that has led to many local authorities sub-contracting their information technology systems and infrastructure to the private sector will provide a ready and easy channel for such commercial products to be installed.

This may not be such a bad thing. The products will probably work, be user friendly, rugged, regularly updated and heavily supported.

Teaching, learning and employability will be enhanced.

Interoperability will be focussed on what is important such as the ability to work across diverse platforms rather than satisfying speculative possibilities.

So where does JISC and CETIS fit into this world ?

I suspect that increasingly there will be a closer relationship between the JISC community and the private sector. Just as engineering companies such as Rolls Royce have relied on universities to develop such as rotor blade material technology the major publishers will be looking at HE to provide answers to such as identity management, maintaining trust and security and, yes, appropriate interoperability.

For example, ‘trust and security’ is a very topical example of where work is needed. The public are becoming uneasy about tens of thousands of health professionals having access to medical records or even more educational administrators through ‘Contactpoint’ being able to identify which agencies (including such as social services) have been involved with their children.

Can our JISC community provide solutions?

So a plea, for my JISC colleagues:

Keep a close eye on the private sector and what they are doing and especially what they are doing in the schools sector where there are so many easy commercial pickings. Some privately funded initiatives will inspire you. Others will identify necessary areas of research and development. Some will identify easily developed non-commercial products such as Moodle extensions

Our learning technology landscape has changed.

The secure ground is increasingly being taken by big business. JISC better not be left with the (Mark Stubb’s inspired) swamps.

It’s not getting any easier in FE

I visited a large further education college earlier in the week that had just been told that its income allocation from its main provider, the Learning and Skills Council, was to be reduced by £4m for 2008-9: a 20% reduction on their 2007-2008 allocation. We know that from 2010 colleges will be competing with schools for their share of 14-19 budget allocations controlled by the Learning and Skills Council’s successor, the local authorities. For 2008-9 schools will still receive more than colleges for teaching the same courses and many are focussing on developing vocational centres in direct competition with their local college.

For example, in Newark, a new £1.6m ‘Construction Centre’ has just been opened by Ed Balls, the secretary of state for children,schools and families.

Having spent most of my working life in FE and having had to manage challenges in trying to maintain income within ever changing contexts, I have much sympathy for the management within this sector. As ever as a leader within a college, one will look at the use of technology to bring efficiencies and to enable new income streams (such as Train to Gain contracts) to be realised.

In the past over complex tools, lack of data interoperability and most importantly lack of user confidence (and time for familiarisation) meant that investment in IT rarely brought the expected benefits. Recent research from Becta has shown that the use of IT within colleges to enhance teaching and learning was generally dependent on a few enthusiastic champions. Once a beacon college lost its champions the innovative and extensive use of computer based systems usually regressed.

So what is changing?

First of all, there is a rapid increase in the confidence  of academic staff and administrators to use IT. We in our JISC bubble wrongly assumed in the past that our academic colleagues would be happy to use the exciting tools and resources we found and developed for them. I remember at Newark and Sherwood College spending fifteen minutes providing ‘just an overview’ of TOIA, frustrating those colleagues who just wanted a quick and dirty way to produce an online multi-choice test. (They never asked for further details of the various facilities that that tool offered).  

Staff, through their use of a multitude of administration systems, electronic whiteboards and ad-hoc online materials, are now generally confident enough not only to employ technology, but also to dismiss the spurious claims of many a software vendor.

Secondly, interoperability is no longer something that just we in CETIS get excited about, but is a requirement that is increasingly demanded by the users.

“Why cannot I move data from my electronic whiteboard to the VLE?”

“Why do we have to type our students results into a spreadsheet to send to an awarding body?”

“Why do I have to log on to so many systems to process the assessment of a piece of student project work?”

Becta has picked up on this mood and is working with both the existing skills and expectations of the practitioners in the schools and college sectors to provide through such the Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF) a mechanism to satisfy these and similar demands. Purists may whittle on about the inadequacies of SIF but the pragmatists believe that it is good enough, is open to refinement and can immediately bring some savings in the costs of moving data around educational systems.

Thirdly, the need to save money is forcing colleges to merge to form ‘regional centre’s. Regionalisation means that ICT is vital to support monitor and track the performance of distributed student cohorts. Online materials, assessment evidence recording systems and electronic registration are becoming common place for work based learning. Larger colleges have more scope to build on good practice in the use of learning technologies

Fourthly, the provision of online assessment for many a qualification has enabled on demand formative and summative assessment. College income, so dependent on student achievement can be realised earlier and, due to repetitive student practice, with greater confidence.

…and finally, the pending links with local authorities for funding will mean that college administration, information and student guidance systems will become subsumed into developments instigated by such government initiatives as Building Schools for the Future and Every Child Matter and the expectations that SIF can realise.

We are therefore looking at a sector that has been forced to accept technology to support flexible delivery , to compete effectively with private providers for such as Train to Gain and to interoperate effectively with local authority and government information systems.

Staff within FE are hungry for easy to use cost effective tools and interoperability where it can help the bottom line.

Please carry on listening to them.

The challenges that FE now faces may be HEs in the future!

Offender eLearning: an issue of accessibility?

Prompted by my discovery of the Learning and Skills Council funded Offender Learning and Skills Service, I attended a NIACE conference in Bradford at the beginning of the month concerned with e-learning for offenders. Offender learning covers a wide range of institutions from Category A prisons to institutions providing support for non-custodial offenders.

The priority for all custodial institutions is security. Prison governors have tremendous authority and are obviously nervous about the use of the internet and other means of communications, In most institutions CDs and pen drives are banned, necessitating tightly controlled computer networks (where they exist at all).  

The requirements for offender learning in order to assist rehabilitation and a reduction in re-offending are clear.

It has been well publicised that a significant proportion of offenders require basic literacy and numeracy education. Less well known is the need for English as a second language courses. In London 50% of inmates are foreign nationals.

Craft workshops in prisons need to replicate those in the real world and therefore require appropriate technology. Timetabling of traditionally delivered courses can so often be affected by the logistics of prison management. e-Enabled distance learning could offer solutions.  

Many who are near to being released after long sentences need interactive simulations (such as for the use of cash machines) to prepare them for a different kind of world from the one in place when they started their sentence. Employability and the need for inmates to obtain evidence to build positive images of themselves for prospective employers is becoming increasingly important.  

The focus on the need for security, though, means that technological solutions have to be tailored to individual environments within a context of the need for confidence by institutional managers and governors. The picture is somewhat clouded by the role of the private sector who have responsibility for 30% of provision and have strict service level agreements (which currently are unlikely to include elearning) with the Home Office. 

Offender Learning is not just a Learning and Skills Council agenda. It must also be remembered that there are many prisoners studying for Open University degrees and there are other obvious opportunities for HEIs to deliver professional development programmes to an expanding and captive market (sorry!). In an environment where prisoners with Masters degrees are studying level 2 (GCSE) programmes to meet LSC targets, HE should be becoming more engaged. 

There are the seeds of infrastructural developments that are helping.

Within the need for security, some institutions such as Wormwood Scrubs are developing computer equipped learning centres. Learndirect have installed online centres with limited online external assessment facilities that have satisfied the concerns of governors.

The Learner Summary Record is being piloted to provide both on and off line summaries of learning outcomes and results and a record of action planning discussions. This will be linked to the Unique Learner Number and with the permission of the ‘owner’ will be capable of being shared with other agencies once a sentence is completed to enhance employability prospects.  

POLARIS, a VLE service with limitations (no internet links) is being piloted  for a handful of London institutions. Electronic whiteboards that in addition to showing tutor input, also displays the current screens of the students are available to enable the tutor to monitor for inappropriate use. 

So where can JISC help? 

There is a promise of government activity in this area and our advice will be sought. 

A few suggestions: 

Firstly we should recognise that there are many prospective HE students within our prisons and offender institutions.

Secondly we should look  at tailoring those (often JISC funded) technological mainstream solutions that satisfy both prison governor’s needs for security and the offender’s needs for learning and future employability. Systems that will enable national services that can provide only the  ‘approved’ URLs that can be accessed by inmates; tools that more effectively monitor computer usage; the provision of appropriate learning simulations and interactions and the provision of secure information and guidance services linked to employment are just a few ideas for consideration. There must be many more.

Finally, should we not be expanding our accessibility agenda to include offenders within our penal system?

MIAP: Vision or Reality?

A personal view……..

 My colleague at CETIS, Mark Power recently published an update concerning the MIAP vision: a system driven by the Unique Learner Number that will collect data from a range of partners to support progression and advice and guidance for lifelong learning students. A number of partner provided data bases including the Learner Achievement Record, the UK Register of Learning Providers and the Qualification an Curriculum’s Framework details of fundable units of study will, according to the vision, underpin a range of exciting educational services. 

I recently attended a workshop for college management information systems staff covering progress to this ‘new information environment’. We were told that the ‘Unique Learner Number’ is being successfully allocated to individual students and will be included in college Individualised Student Record (ISR) returns (the key to individual college funding) from next year. The prospect that the ISR process would be superseded by ‘real time dips’ into Learner Achievement Records (cross-referenced to Learning Providers) was not on the table. Data collection would still firmly be in the hand of colleges. We were also told that progress to the vision of individuals being able to access, for CV builders and personal skills development and employment applications, their Learner Achievement Records containing details  from awarding bodies of the qualifications they had achieved was well on track. 

I felt that this latter statement was a bit optimistic  A pilot for much of the technology underpinning the vision is the Minerva system that will support assessment of the new (14-19) Diplomas by the aggregation of the achievements of the components that make up the qualification. The Unique Learner Number delivery system (as mentioned above) for this application is in place but I understand that the required UK Register of Learning Providers is not yet ready and awarding bodies are still at the investigation stage for the standards necessary for the data transfer. So how far are we away from the reality of a system that collects data from many sources to support student support and progression? 

I believe that there are two other challenges that still have to be faced. 

The first concerns comprehensive engagement with those non- government stakeholders involved in the process. The awarding bodies will need to be persuaded to give up ownership of student qualification achievement data. They argue that if others can make commercial use of this data then “why should they be excluded from such businees opportunities”. More importantly the users (the learners) have to be convinced that their achievement (and failure ?) data can be made safely available to other (all be it well meaning) agencies. A single ‘tick box’ on a course application form will not give the user the sensitivity to indicate which data can be released through MIAP to others. The whole climate surrounding personal data has also changed. Individuals are becoming increasingly aware that once data is released from a database it cannot be retrieved, however worthy the initial application. The government has not helped user confidence with its recent catalogue of data losses. The services of the new government ‘data agency’ that will collect ‘appropriate data’ will need to be monitored. As recent reports within The Times has demonstrated, a fear is bubbling up that these MIAP initiatives are part of a government inspired ‘big brother’ programme focussed on Identity Cards. 

The second challenge concerns transparency over the real cost of these developments. The cost per candidate for the Minerva system for the Diploma component aggregation process is already escalating. The cost benefit of the MIAP inspired services to the lifelong learner must be objectively assessed. If it all works, there are real benefits to the individuals but if the costs are too high then the private sector could cherry pick those services from the MIAP inspired catalogue of applications that can support their other educational products.  Opportunities for comprehensive interoperabilty and sharing  of data will be lost.

I wish MIAP and its vision of faciliating comprehensive data transfer well. The systems involved could underpin positive skills development for lifelong learners (and this includes HE students too!). I welcome the Learning and Skills Council’s initiative to pro-actively develop ‘focus groups’ to engage ‘stakeholders’ with their MIAP facilitated developments and would actively encourage involvement from as many as possible and, especially, representatives of our JISC community.  The most important stakeholders, the lifelong learners, will need the authority on privacy, security and cost effectiveness that we, at JISC, could provide.

With trust through engagement with stakeholders and with the confidence that concerns of users and other have been completely addressed then, hopefully…………….the vision can really become a reality

From the other side of the fence: another update from the wider FE community

The start of another year in FE and an enormous number of changes for our colleagues trying to administer and deliver in the sector.

The Diplomas will be starting in September and as the delivery will be co-ordinated by Gateway consortia of schools and colleges the opportunities for hiccoughs are great. The Minerva system for aggregating achievements from all the components that make up Diplomas should be ready but the distribution of funds to partners could be problematical. As a student has to achieve all the components to obtain a Diploma, one can see a ‘pass the parcel’ blame game if one partner fails to deliver the necessary success for a component. The Diploma will herald the use of the Unique Learner Number for 14 year olds (FE students will be allocated them from September) which will enable through MIAP the aggregation and distribution of a great deal of personal achievement and aspiration data.

From September every 16 year old will have a guarantee of an apprenticeship. Information and Guidance support will have to be ratcheted up to meet the demand of 14-16 year olds and systems for assessing competences, functional skills and background knowledge (the Technical Certificate) will have to be more effectively delivered by Awarding Bodies. Employers need engaging especially as the many of the apprentices will be those who are currently not in education, employment or training. Information systems to support them are considered important.

Information and Guidance is also fundamental to the shift in adult part time FE. Employer needs for the training of their staff will increasingly be delivered through the brokerage services of Train to Gain. Skills accounts will be available for individuals wishing to update their skills. Rather like mobile phone top up cards the credits on these accounts will be exchanged to pay for course fees. The government can manipulate demand by charging less for courses that meet their strategies.

The principle that students must pay a contribution for their part time vocational studies is now well established. Unless the student has no level 2 (GCSE level) qualifications from next year students on part time courses will be expected to pay 42.5% of the cost of their course.

MIS managers within the sector are having to face a change in their systems that record enrolments and achievements for funding by the Learning and Skills Councils. With three different funding models (14.18, adult learner and employer) to deal with, curriculum leaders are grappling with spreadsheets to develop the most cost effective mix of provision and timetabling.

Distance learning is still not treated more favourably and auditing systems are still required to collate the hours of tutorial support that are aggregated to determine the funding.

One important factor in funding is that one years funding for a provider can be severely diminished by poor performance in a previous year. Innovative ise of ICT can have a big part to play.

So where are the pressure points where JISC can help with standards and exemplar services?

Firstly for administration and the modelling of income and expenditure and the provision of services that complement the returns made to the LSC. Secondly for Information and Guidance and thirdly for Teaching and Learning.

For these latter two, Becta’s developing strategy for schools and FE focuses on ‘providing Learning Experiences that have access to technology wherever and whenever they require it’. 

They suggest that this could only be achieved if the following were available: 

  • a wide range of tools for the creation and manipulation of multimedia texts
  • a wide range of online resources
  • information on per
    sonal learning goals and student progress
  • collaborative tools and the opportunities to share with others
  • the ability to continue learning from one environment to the next
  • systems to provide protection (inappropriate content and contacts) and
    data security
  • access to formal learning support and teaching when required.

The outcomes of JISC previous and current initiatives can obviously support the attainment of many of these needs.

One important factor within this strategy is a move away from institutional systems for teaching and learning towards a recognition that the future is in providing more directed opportunities for students to obtain and share their own resources and increasingly to use Web 2.0 social networking  systems for collaboration.

Having said that the funding pressures on Adult and Continuing Learning (yoga and holi
day language course) has encouraged several providers either in collaboration or independently to use Moodle to support teaching and learning. JISC RSCs have been pro-active in many cases such as RSC North in support of initiatives in the
Tees Valley.

This sector needs help in staff development of a (generally) part time work force and providing the necessary quality and innovative practice to fight off other providers who can now annually bid for 10% of ACLs traditional work.

FE has grown up with its view on online content. It is expected to be free and for text is generally printed for use. Video clips are more effective than animations for describing such skills as changing a washer on a tap and several centres such as Bolton
Community College are developing catalogues of such clips to be shared by others.

Online assessment is generally normal now for many qualifications. One college I visited is expanding 10 fold the number of work stations dedicated to online testing. Educational purists may grumble but the ability for students to repeatedly take mock tests until they prove themselves ready for the ‘real thing’ is significantly raising achievement and with less expensive teaching is greatly improving income for their colleges.

One other bright spot in development is that concerned with offender learning in prisons and other similar institutions. A great deal of money is being spent on learning centres within institutions where internet access will be available but only to selected sites. A big opportunity for those developing interactions that support the teaching of basic literacy and numeracy and from what I hear about the employers views of some undergraduates something that HE could do with as well!!

Clive Church 1 February 2008

What is happening in the ‘work base learning sector’

As with the school’s sector there is enormous political will to deliver improvements in the development of skills training and education, The Leitch review aimed at developing skills training to improve the competitive edge of the British economy has become something of a mantra.


Vocational and especially skills based education has for many years suffered from low status compared with academic routes for learning. The government wants the meeting of employer’s skills and education needs by HE institutions to have equal status with research and academic activities.


Ironically the status of skills based education is being perhaps somewhat undermined by the government’s agenda to tackle the 16-18 NEET (not in education, employment and training) problems by obliging students within this category to take ‘apprenticeships’.


As far as skills delivery is concerned the Leitch agenda objectives prevail: level focussed, demand led, employer driven and qualification captured.


The ‘levels’ is easy (ish). Every qualification will be approved by the appropriate Sector Skills Council and will according to the level of language used for the outcomes be given an academic level between 0 and 7 (HE is 4 to 7). Each qualification will be sub-divided into ’10 hour credits of learning’, each of which can be assessed independently.


‘Demand led’ is relatively easy too. Provide prospective students with Skills Accounts that the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) can top up as necessary (and avoiding the past problems with the similar Individual Learning Accounts of the 1990s) allow students to trade in their accounts for appropriate courses. For the employer who is unsure of the training opportunities that are available expand ‘Train to Gain’ and introduce a ‘National Employers Service’. Train to Gain brokers will link the employees of Small and Medium Sized Enterprises (SMEs) with training providers. Currently focussing in low level skills this brokerage service will expand over the nest 3 years to include HE based skills with a budget virtually doubling to just over a billion pounds.  The computer based register of learning providers and the qualification/ credit details recorded on the Qualification Credit (QCF) database will support their work. For larger employers with more than 5000 employees a regionally based national Employer Service will provide support and manage accounts. It is hoped that the work of this agency will encourage most internal staff development to be formalised and therefore recordable within the national database of Learner Achievement Records (of more later). Currently employers spend £33bn on training bit only 33% leads to accredited qualifications and the CBI is asking the government for £470m to provide an employer based accreditation service pilot linked to the QCF.


Employer driven?

 It will be the responsibility of the Sector Skills Councils to be responsive to employers’ needs in their development of national qualifications containing units of competence and understanding. The responsibility of employers to provide some kind of accreditation for in-hose training is yet to be agreed.


Capturing the qualifications will be orchestrated by the QCA/ MIAP QCF system which will record with the use of the ‘Unique Learner Number’ student achievement of a minimum of 10 guided learning hours of expertise (a credit).

The QCA/MIAP system consisting of details of learning providers, accredited qualifications and unit/credit details and learner records is expected to be fully operational by 2010. For more details see

MIAP expecting to service 2.5 million adult learners in their initial launch.

As part of the MIAP service, learners’ records will be subject to regular ‘Rules of Combination’ exercises by which students and their advisors will be pointed to future study opportunities that are based on their current profiles. Using the Unique Learner Number (initiated by the 14-19 agenda) IT based guidance services introduced for this age group will be expanded to support a new Adult Careers Service that will be closely linked with Job Centre Plus.


There is an implied confidence that the private computer services sector will be able to provide the required technical infrastructure.


FE is fully aware of the changes it will be making; Funding models will be changing to meet the demand led agenda with employers/ individuals carrying more of the cost for higher level (level 4 and above skills education). Increasingly the focus will move from education validated by recording achievement/ competence to recording achievement/ competence supported by education/ training to compensate for ‘gaps in expertise/ knowledge.  More assessment and underpinning knowledge/ skills based delivery will be conducted off site.


FE has been competing with private providers in this space for many years. With employer based provision planned within the recent Comprehensive Spending Review to be more than doubled to 1.2 million by 2011 there is plenty of profit to be made by responsive and flexible private providers.


Such private companies have been adept at providing vocational competence recording tools, online assessment (and assessment practice) systems and online content. Awarding bodies are increasingly likely to join with such companies to deliver a total service to companies and their employees that leave little space for colleges.


So what are the challenges for HE?


Competing with colleges and private providers for employer based education and training by offering better more flexible and responsive provision; marrying the QCF system with those planned for recording HE delivered achievements and accrediting prior achievement and learning ( a priority action for work based foundation degrees).


…and the challenges for JISC (blue sky thinking apart)?


Ensuring that there are close links with those private companies providing the services that underpin so much of this government’s skills agenda to harvest developments (such as data standards) that have an impact on JISC projects; anticipating issues such as identity management and trust systems for research and development that could hold up national implementations and develop and provide innovative services that can build on and complement those systems that underpin and support the government’s skills agenda


Clive Church  3rd December 2007




What is happening in the schools sector

There is a great deal of aspiration within this sector.


Politically there has been a sense that the Labour government has spent many years talking about significant change through technology but now has limited time to deliver it.


One must not forget the principal driver for this sector……….. the re-enforcement of ‘personalisation’: understanding each individual child’s needs so that education can be ‘bespokely’ tailored within a safe and secure environment.


Systems that join up data from children services, probation services and other agencies that engage with families are being developed. If linked up through the Unique Learner Number with details of educational attainment, then comprehensive data to support teaching and learning and Information and Guidance will be available to both the professionals within the classroom and the support staff within Connexions or the local authority. The 14-19 prospectus agenda that will attempt to link up a child’s aspirations and goals with educational opportunities using a UCAS style application system will complement these initiatives.


Within HE one often neglects the experience of individual staff and especially the students in exploiting technology to support teaching and learning. Electronic whiteboards are common within school and FE classrooms. It is not now uncommon to find schools and colleges that have installed a whiteboard in virtually every classroom. Teachers are adept through their communities to find appropriate content and innovative use of proprietary (generally Microsoft) supplied tools to engage their classes by using this technology.

Commercial content is commonly available within schools. The elearning credits system gave schools free materials. Initially a good deal for suppliers, the best are recognising that once they have to compete for future school resources they will have to raise their game with both individuality and assured interoperability. The suppliers’ trade organisation Besa, is recognising this through its renewed interest in standards and particularly ‘common cartridge’.


It was apparent from Becta’s recent Harnessing Technology conference that a child’s ability to use technology to support their education has to be recognised. Children are adept at using the internet, communications tools and social software, The challenge is not to try and institutionalise these tools but to provide facilitation mechanisms to point children in appropriate (and safe) directions that enhance both their studies and knowledge of progression opportunities. Connexions are already piloting such systems to get students to share their knowledge from work experience of employers and careers.


(Institutionalising the tools for teaching and learning? A big debate is needed).


Becta are hedging their bets with much work being performed on delivering Learning Platforms for every secondary school through the Building Schools for the Future programme alongside the recognition of the power that most children have in their mobile phones and computers to support their education.


The Diplomas for 14-19 year olds will be the first qualification that needs the Unique Learner Number. The first students will register for this qualification next September by which Minerva, the tool that aggregates the necessary achievement components from different awarding bodies will have to be ready.


So, what are we seeing from this part of our educational community: standardisation of enterprise data (XML based data models are rife…don’t forget the IT requirements to support the government’s target culture or schools); the development of SOA based solutions to facilitate user driven enterprise systems; innovative bottom up use of technology (and increasingly Web 2.0 tools) to support teaching and learning and information and guidance; online assessments for an increasing number of qualifications; online marking and quality assurance (Edexcel scanned in 11 million scripts for online marking last summer); more innovative online content and the adoption(ish) of common cartridge; pragmatic use of metadata and vocabularies for content (focussed on IPR); an increasing recognition that eportfolios are no more than the results of aggregated content (and another enterprise system)……..


Most importantly the school’s sector possesses millions of users (teachers and students) who now (and increasingly will) have the confidence and knowledge of computer based tools and systems to develop exciting new pedagogic approaches to teaching and learning.


In the introduction, I mentioned the urgency on behalf of the government for action and implementation on its personalisation agenda. Many of these IT based initiatives in support of this goal could fail. The government has not a good reputation for IT projects (and data security) but many will succeed and, fail or succeed, many will require support from the academic learning technology community.


Over to you JISC.


Clive Church, 29th November 2007





Where have all the standards gone? A personal view

I have to make an admission.

The promises that I made eight years ago when I first started doing work for CETIS that data would be able to move freely from application to application and platform to platform because of the work of the various standards bodies has but for a couple of notable exceptions (such as SCORM and Enterprise) been disappointingly fulfilled. In retrospect we failed to push strongly enough the difference between compliance (a supplier says standards are conformed to), conformance (others agree with the supplier) and interoperability (the standards actually work in enabling the data to be transferred). Many were frustrated that so little time was allocated to testing true interoperability rather than being content with conformance.

Yet despite this, commercial pragmatism has meant that I am now tapping away using a Microsoft tool that will enable these few words to be transferred not only to other applications but to be sent anywhere in the world and read (well, if you have got this far). The interoperability that is available to me seems to satisfy all my requirements and that of many others!

Why more standards?

I hate to say it (perhaps it comes from once being a Young Conservative) that it is the big businesses that drive interoperability. It is a commercial decision as to whether interoperability is going to bring greater profit. In many cases it has not been worth the risk. Will those QTI items interoperate with every available ‘conformant’ assessment engine? Does it make sense to enable others to sell their QTI items to play on my platform?


There are now government initiatives (that means ‘money’) that is forcing those big commercial guys that are into learning technology solutions to re-consider .

Where is the biggest educational market and chance of healthy returns?

Schools, and certainly not HE.  There are millions of customers (pupils) which means economies of scale and profit

Let’s consider a few government initiatives which are based on schools.

Firstly, ‘Every Child Matters’

From the website:

“The Government’s aim is for every child, whatever their background or their circumstances, to have the support they need to:

  • Be healthy
  • Stay safe
  • Enjoy and achieve
  • Make a positive contribution
  • Achieve economic well-being

This means that the organisations involved with providing services to children – from hospitals and schools, to police and voluntary groups – will be teaming up in new ways, sharing information and working together, to protect children and young people from harm and help them achieve what they want in life”. Children and young people will have far more say about issues that affect them as individuals and collectively”. Sharing information! If one needs to drill down vast quantities of information to obtain required data. that will need a standard. Children to have a greater say. That will mean web serices, APIs and perhaps the re-usable components of an ‘eframework’. To make this work a Unique Learner Number is required and we all know that these will be rolled out next year to meet the needs of the new 14-19 qualification, ‘The Diploma’. 

Secondly, The ‘Learner Achievement Record’. A requirement for The Dipoma  (above) where achievements from different awarding bodies need to be aggregated to assess whether a qualification can be awarded. To share this information standards are being developed for coures details and qualification achievements.  Perhaps still an aspiration, but a national database (using the Unique Learner Number as the key) of qualification achievements for a lifetime’s learning for all individuals in the country (not just The Diploma students) will be decided upon by next summer. The savings from such a system in collecting data for government are important but the commercial opportunities in providing profitable services such as recruitment and sales channels should make the  roll out a certainty. (Just consider what Amazon could make of a knowledge of ones educational background). 

And finally, ‘The 14-19 Prospectus’. At first sight an XCRI type project on sharing course information, but look closer and it aims to bring together student details, individual learning plans and other details to feed Infomation and Guidance and College Application services: services that will become richer once, via the Unique Learner Number, the available data is enhanced by ‘the joining up’ with Learner Achievement and ‘Every Child Matters’ resources. So driven by government initiatives, business is finally interested in standards.  A couple of examples: the big publishers have engaged with IMS to produce the ‘Common Cartridge’ to enable content (including assessment items) to be shared and BESA (the British Educational Suppliers Association) is after pragmatically produced usable standards to ensure that their products ‘play’ on schools based learning platforms.  Where have all the standards gone?……gone to commerce, every one!

Clive 1st June 2007

It has been some times since I ‘blogged’

Since I last ‘put fingers to keyboard’ I have been boring folk with my view that over the last year the ‘centre of gravity’ of learning technology standards developments have moved to the schools and FE sectors from HE. Driven by the e-Strategy and other governemnt schools based agendas such as ‘Every Child Matters’, Becta, MIAP and others have been obliged to deliver solutions. to strictly imposed deadlines. The focus so far has been in two areas: joining social service systems up with school administration systems and learning platforms for schools. Both have required standards based developments: the Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF) underpinned by the adoption of a Unique learner Number (ULN) has been adopted for the former and Becta has produced specifications (all around standards and extendability) that suppliers of learning platforms have to satisfy. Additionally, the Qualification and Curriculum Authority, in order to meet the requirements of the new vocational Specilaised Diploma will have to produce data standards by the Autumn for course details and qualification achievements.

Obviously such developments will have an impact for the JISC communities. Firstly, there will be a concentration  of minds around where standards are really needed (rather than ‘could be useful’) and there will be a requirement for JISC to focus on those areas of detail which could impede national projects if not attended to. Solutions to the problems of Identity Management and the scalability of SOA implementations are just two that need urgent attention.

So to survive , JISC has to be sufficiently engaged in influencing and engaging with learning technology based solutions in the schools and tertiary sector in order to anticpate those areas that need the efforts and expertise of our community?

So what have I been doing for my one day per week in addition to boring my colleagues at mangement meetings with the above?

Well I have been supportng Peter with ePortfolio develovepment (around assessment) and with the help of Nottingham University finding out about Lifelong Learning Networks,