XCRI Support Project wraps up

March sees the end of the JISC funded XCRI Support Project as it signs off leaving the development of the XCRI (eXchanging Course Related Information) specification for sharing (and advertising) course information looking very healthy indeed.

The support project picked up where the original XCRI Reference Model project left off. Having identified the marketing and syndication of course descriptions as a significant opportunity for innovation – due to the general practice in this area being one of huge efforts around re-typing of information to accommodate various different systems, sites and services…then to have that information maintained separately in various places – the XCRI Reference Model project mapped out the spaces of course management, curriculum development and course marketing and provided the community with a common standard for exchanging course related information. This would streamline approaches to the syndication of such information and give us the benefits of cost savings when it comes to collecting and managing the data and opens up the opportunities for a more sustainable approach to lifelong learning services that rely on course information from learning providers.

Over the course of the next three years the XCRI Support project developed the XCRI Course Advertising Profile (XCRI-CAP), an XML specification designed to enable course offerings to be shared by providers (rather like an RSS feed) and by other services such as lifelong learning sites, course search sites and other services that support learners in trying to find the right courses for them. Through the supervision and support of several institutional implementation projects the support project – a partnership between JISC CETIS at the University of Bolton (http://bit.ly/PZdKw), Mark Stubbs of Manchester Metropolitan University (http://bit.ly/PZdKw) and Alan Paull of APS Limited (http://bit.ly/cF6Fhd) – promoted the uptake and sustainability of XCRI through engagement with the European standards process and endorsement by the UK Information Standards Board. Through this work the value of XCRI-CAP was demonstrated so successfully as to ensure it was placed on the strategic agenda of national agencies.

Hotcourses manages the National Learning Directory under contract from the Learning and Skills Council (LSC). With over 900,000 course records and 10,000 learning providers the NLD is possibly the largest source of information about learning opportunities in the UK, which learners and advisers can access through dozens of national, regional and local web portals. Working with a number of Further Education colleges Hotcourses is now developing and piloting ‘bulk upload’ facilities using XCRI to ease the burden on learning providers supplying and maintaining their information on the NLD. UCAS also continues to make progress towards XCRI adoption. Most recently, at the ISB Portfolio Learning Opportunities and Transcripts Special Interest Group on January 27, 2010, UCAS colleagues described a major data consolidation project that should pave the way for a data transfer initiative using XCRI, and cited growing demand from UK HEIs for data transfer rather than course-by-course data entry through UCAS web-link. The project is a two-phase one, with XCRI implementation in phase II, which is due to deliver sometime in 2011.

Having ensured that the specification gained traction and uptake the project has worked extensively at developing the core information used by XCRI into a European Norm with harmonisation from other standards that addressed this space developed elsewhere across Europe. It is this process which has seen the evolution of XCRI from a standalone specification to a UK application profile of a recognised international standard. This could now be transitioned to an actual British Standard through BSI IST 43 (the committee of the British Standards Institution which looks at technical standards for learning education and training). At the same time adoption of the specifications were continued to be supported through engagement with policymakers and suppliers while the technical tools developed for adopters continued to be updated and maintained.

XCRI Aggregator DemoA couple of key tools were developed by the support project to assist implementers of XCRI. An aggregator engine was setup and maintained by the project and is demonstrated at http://www.xcri.org/aggregator/. This shows how its possible to deploy an aggregator setup that pulls in courses from several providers, and offers a user interface with basic features such as searching, browsing, bookmarking, tags and so on. It also demonstrates some value-added aspects such as geocoding the course venues and displaying them on Google Maps. Once you’ve had a look at the demonstrator you can get hold of the code for it at http://bit.ly/9eViM2
The project also developed an XCRI Validator to help implementers check their data structure and content. This goes beyond structural validation to also analyse content and provide advice on common issues such as missing information. Currently the development of this is very much at a beta stage but implementers can try out this early proof-of-concept at http://bit.ly/aeLArY. Accompanying this is a blog post describing how to use the validator at http://bit.ly/aHoJtH

Up to press there have been around 15-20 “mini-projects” which were funded to pilot implementation of XCRI within institutions. These looked at developing course databases using the specification, extending existing systems and methods to map to XCRI and the general implementation of generating the information and the exporting of this via web services. Not to say that this was the only project activity around XCRI. Various other Lifelong Learning projects have had an XCRI element to them along the way and all these have contributed to forming an active community around the development and promotion of the spec.

This community’s online activity is centred around a wiki and discussion forum on the XCRI Support Project website at http://xcri.org and while the support project is now officially at an end, the website will stay around as long as there is a community using it – currently its maintained by CETIS. Some XCRI.org content may move to JISC Advance as XCRI moves from innovation into mainstream adoption. However, as long as people are trying out new things with XCRI – whether thats vocabularies and extensions or new exchange protocols – then XCRI.org provides a place to talk about it, with the LLL & WFD project at Liverpool (CCLiP – http://www.liv.ac.uk/cll/cclip/) currently looking at how to improve the site and provide more information for non-technical audiences.

More information on the XCRI projects can be found at the JISC website, specifically at http://bit.ly/awevwQ

New release of Elgg is just around the corner

Last week I interviewed Ben Werdmuller of Curverider, one of the brains behind the popular, open-source, social networking platform, Elgg (http://elgg.org). Here Ben talks to us about the upcoming release of the new system, Elgg 1.0.


Elgg 1.0 is released soon – could you tell us what the significant developments are in this new version. What’s different from the current version and what your thinking was behind the decisions you made for the development of the platform.

Elgg 1.0 is a complete re-architecture of the Elgg software, taking into account the lessons and use cases that have been established since 2003. I’m extremely excited about the outcome; the new system is a fully-fledged social application engine. It can be used as an enterprise social network – and we’ve geared the features to make this use case as powerful and as usable as possible – but you can also use it to power any socially-aware application, or to add social functionality to existing software.


We’ve always espoused the “one size does not fit all” view of software. This version is significantly more flexible in terms of development, while being faster to develop for. Things like a model-view-controller architecture allow you to easily add, for example, an iPhone interface, or different kinds of feed formats to supplement RSS. The new input/output API (which plugins can add to) allows you to easily develop Java clients, for example for mobile phones.


The result is that, although Elgg is extremely flexible, you’re never in a situation where you have to hire an overpriced consultant to fit the software to your needs. It’s very simple. And of course, the software is free and open source, the documentation will be extensive, and there will be a set of equally free plugins to add functionality to it.


We’re all extremely excited about the Elgg 1.0 release, which happens on June 18th. We think it’s the best way to bring social technology to the enterprise, and it’s been engineered with that in mind.

I’ve read somewhere that Elgg 1.0 will be “featureless”. What does that mean?

Elgg 1.0 on its own will have no end-user features. We’re forcing nothing on you. Basically, we’ll provide some distributions with certain plugins pre-installed – one with a blog, file repository and RSS aggregator to match Elgg prior to 1.0, for example – but you can also pick, a la carte, exactly which features you need. We want to encourage you to decide which features you need, rather than the traditional situation, which is to adapt your requirements around what comes with the software.


Of course, to say that Elgg 1.0 comes with no features at all is disingenuous. The core contains a collection of very powerful back-end functionality which underlies everything: the granular access controls, cross-site tagging, internationalisation and templating that we’ve always had in Elgg, as well as very powerful auditing, full import/export, authentication management, event handling and administrator tools.

From a developer’s perspective, will there be Code documentation & a manual?
For instance, the RSS doesn’t update properly, but without knowing where all the code is, and what it affects, it’s very much trial and error. Finding dependencies has to be carried out in an ad hoc way, using find and replace.

Yes. We’ve gone to great lengths to provide extensive code documentation, and a development manual is also being simultaneously written with the software. An end-user manual and similar materials are also on the cards, and we will be available to provide on-site training.

On the topic of data portability you’re working with the Open Data Definition. Could you give us an overview of what it does and what led to its development.

We’ve been talking about data portability and the issue of data ownership since Elgg was established in 2003, and have remained ahead of the curve on the issue. (I was interviewed with Marc Canter and others about it in 2006: http://blogs.zdnet.com/social/?p=43) Recently, largely in light of Facebook’s decisions, the web industry has caught up and begun talking about how to allow users to move themselves and/or their data from one network to another.


I attended the Data Sharing Summit in the valley last September, alongside representatives from Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Six Apart and others. I also had a subsequent meeting where I gave my feedback on what eventually became the Google Social Graph API. In both cases, it became clear that a lot of the companies behind the social web aren’t actually able to discuss true portability or interoperability; their business models won’t allow it. Just the words “data ownership” make the big players very nervous indeed, although they are tentatively in favour of exploring data portability. Basically, though, they’re not going to touch it until it becomes a big enough selling point that their business models dictate that they must.


There are other players at work developing standards, but they’re often very academic in nature. They’re very interesting, and have some very complicated and intelligent thought processes behind them, but they are simply not ready to be incorporated into a piece of software right now. RSS and even HTML are widespread and usable by virtue of their simplicity. By and large, it’s going to take years before most of these formats develop into something similar, and I doubt many of them ever will. Simply put, although they’re powerful, they’re far too complicated for non-academic coders to bother with. For a format to take off, you need that widespread adoption.


Open Data Definition is a different take on the same problem. It’s a very simple XML format that allows for full import/export between networks, works as a syndication feed a la RSS, and can be used in continuous “fire hose” data stream applications. It’s also deliberately designed to be trivial to code support for.


You can find out more at http://opendd.net and the accompanying mailing list.

How does the ODD relate to the LEAP 2.0 portfolio interoperability work-in-progress, as it sounds like there might be a lot of overlap?

Whereas LEAP 2.0 is an educational specification, Open Data Definition is designed for a wider audience. It’s not even specific to social networks, although it is perfect for that use case. However, the format is flexible enough that the LEAP folks could easily build an implementation on top of it. We’ll be releasing generic import / export libraries, so it could be a very quick way for them to establish a working format.

From an interoperability angle, does Elgg 1.0 play well with others, and if so, how?

As well as its full API system, which allows for various kinds of interoperability, Elgg 1.0 has extensive Pluggable Authentication Modules (PAM) support. This means that it’s easier than ever to include third-party authentication; everything from OpenID to SAML 2 is possible, although we have no plans to build in support for the latter ourselves. The PAM system works with both the web-based authentication and the import/export API, so you can expand the way you access both.


Elgg 1.0 will also support OpenSocial, and plugins will allow for integrations with other types of open standard. To further our commitment to integrating with existing enterprise systems, WSDL support is also in the works.

Thanks Ben. So…when can we expect the release of v1.0?

It will be launched at the ElggJam at the Roxy Bar and Screen in London on June 18th. I’ll be talking about the new features and how they can be harnessed, of course, and there will be other speakers talking about how they’re using Elgg. The keynotes include Stan Stanier from the University of Brighton, as well as the rugby legend Will Carling, who both run Elgg-powered sites. It’s going to be a great day, and although places are limited, we’ll make sure people can access the talks via the Internet.

LLG Social Network springs to life

Well…touch wood I’ve not spoken too soon.

As part of my work operating the JISC CETIS Lifelong Learning Group I decided that I wanted to set up a space where the people working in (or just interested in) this area could get together for discussions and the like, make connections – not only across projects but wider. I looked at Google Groups (limited functionality), Elgg (didn’t want to have to install and host it) and EduSpaces (built using Elgg but bloody awful interface). I then got to Ning.

Creating a network is as simple as it gets, then you have the facility to change the look (either using Ning templates or putting together your own CSS…I’ve recently switched to the latter), decide what tools are going to be available…the usual suspects are there – forum, RSS and blogging, but then you can flex your muscles a bit and switch on/off some other treats (Groups? Check. Video? Check. OpenSocial Gadgets? I’ve left that one for now…)

I started off by inviting a small selection of people at first. People that I had talked to about this kind of thing before and whom I felt confident would engage. This was then followed up with an open invite to the 2 strands of the JISC eLearning Programme that I’m primarily involved with supporting – The Cross Institutional Support for Lifelong Learners (I and II) and HE in FE. Membership has slowly grown over time, with the odd bit of forum posting taking place but only recently do I feel it’s suddenly turned a corner and is now starting to look like an engaging space.

I think this was helped by the fact that the JISC Programme Managers agreed to encourage projects to get involved, particularly with a view to building up some content on the challenges projects are tackling so that we could build on it at the latest programme meeting (yesterday).

Perfect. One of the major reasons I wanted a network like this one is so we could have a place to continue and build upon the discussions and relationships that come about at these meetings. So many times I’ve been to a programme meeting where I hear lots of interesting people sharing lots of interesting ideas and thoughts, identifying shared issues and saying, “We really want to talk to you, you and you as your work is very similar to ours”. And then? Then you leave the meeting and everything goes quiet until 6 months pass by and you all get together again and…well, you know the rest.

So, more members have signed up. People are plugging upcoming events of interest to the community. Members are pulling in the RSS feed from their project blogs and some are even setting up blogs within the network. Oh and the video? Yep, we’ve got one on there now – what a great way for a project to introduce themselves.

Forgive me for sounding like a bit of loved-up fanboy but it’s nice to see something I have a keen desire to see blossom…well, blossoming :)

Still early days, I know. But there is life there…and I’m looking forward to seeing it grow.

Oh yeah… http://cetisllg.ning.com ;)