Heads up for HEDIIP

A while back I summarised the input about semantics and academic coding that Lorna and I had made on behalf of Cetis for a study on possible reforms to JACS, the Joint Academic Coding System. That study has now been published.

JACS is mainatained by HESA (the Higher Education Statistics Agency) and UCAS (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service) as a means of classifying UK University courses by subject; it is also used by a number of other organisations for classification of other resources, for example teaching and learning resources. The report (with appendices) considers the varying requirements and uses of subject coding in HE and sets out options for the development of a replacement for JACS.

Of course, this is all only of glancing interest, until you realise that stuff like Unistats and the Key Information Set (KIS) are powered by JACS.
- See more at Followers of the apocalypse

If you’re not sure why this should interest you (and yet for some reason have read this far) David Kernohan has written what I can only describe as an appreciation of the report, Hit the road JACS, from which the quote above is taken.

hediip_logoTo move forward from this and the other reports commissioned from the Redesigning the HE data landscape study, the Higher Education Data and Information Improvement Programme (HEDIIP) is being established to enhance the arrangements for the collection, sharing and dissemination of data and information about the HE system. Follow them on twitter.

ebooks 2013

Every year for the past dozen or so years the Department of Information Sciences at UCL have organised a meeting on ebooks. I’ve only been to one of them before, two or three years ago, when the big issues were around what publishers’ DRM requirements for ebooks meant for libraries. I came away from that musing on what the web would look like if it had been designed by publishers and librarians (imagine questions like: “when you lend out our web page, how will you know that the person looking at the screen is a member of your library?”…). So I wasn’t sure what to expect when I decided to go to this year’s meeting. It turned out to be far more interesting than I had hoped, I latched on to three themes of particular interest to me: changing paradigms (what is an ebook?), eTextBooks and discovery.

Changing paradigms

With the earliest printed books, or incunabula, such as the Gutenberg Bible, printers sought to mimic the hand written manuscripts with which 15th cent scholars were familiar; in much the same way as publishers now seek to replicate printed books as ebooks.

With the earliest printed books, or incunabula, such as the Gutenberg Bible, printers sought to mimic the hand written manuscripts with which 15th cent scholars were familiar; in much the same way as publishers now seek to replicate printed books as ebooks.

In the first presentation of the day Lorraine Estelle, chief executive of Jisc Collections, focussed on access to electronic resources. Access not lending; resources not ebooks. She highlighted the problems of using yesterday’s language and thinking as being problematic in this context, like having a “horseless carriage” and buying it hay. [This is my chance to make the analogy between incunabula and ebooks again, see right.] The sort of discussions I recalled from the previous meeting I attended reflect this thinking, publishers wanting a digital copy of a book to be equivalent to the physical book, only lendable to one person at a time and to require replacing after a certain number of loans.

We need to treat digital content as offering new possibilities and requiring new ways of working. This might be uncomfortable for publishers (some more than others) and there was some discussion about how we cannot assume that all students will naturally see the advantages, especially if they have mostly encountered problematic content that presents little that could not be put on paper but is encumbered with DRM to the point that it is questionable as to whether they really own the book. But there is potential as well as resistance. Of course there can be more interesting, more interactive content–Will Russell of the Royal Society of Chemistry described how they have been publishing to mobile devices, with tools such as Chem Goggles that will recognise a chemical structure and display information about the chemical. More radically, there can also be new business models: Lorraine suggested Institutions could become publishers of their own teaching content, and later in the day Caren Milloy, also of Jisc Collections, and Brian Hole of Ubiquity Press pointed to the possibilities of open access scholarly publishing.

Caren’s work with the OAPEN Library is worth looking through for useful information relating to quality assurance in open monograms such as notifying readers of updates or errata. Caren also talked about the difficulties in advertising that a free online version of a resource is available when much of the dissemination and discovery ecosystem (you know, Amazon, Google…) is geared around selling stuff, difficulties that work with EDitEUR on the ONIX metadata scheme will hopefully address soon.

Brian described how Ubiquity Press can publish open access ebooks by driving down costs and being transparent about what they charge for. They work from XML source, created overseas, from which they can publish in various formats including print on demand, and explore economies of scale by working with university presses, resulting in a charge to the author (or their funders) of about £150 for a chapter assuming there is nothing to complex in that chapter.


All through the day there were mentions of eTextBooks, starting again with Lorraine who highlighted the paperless medic and how his quest to work only with digital resources is complicated by the non-articulation of the numerous systems he has to use. When she said that what he wanted was all his content (ebooks, lecture handouts, his own notes etc.) on the same platform, integrated with knowledge about when and where he had to be for lectures and when he had exams, I really started to wonder how much functionality can you put into an eContent platform before it really becomes a single-person content-oriented VLE. And when you add in the ability to share notes with the social and communication capability of most mobile devices, what then do you have?

A couple of presentations addressed eTextBooks directly, from a commercial point of view. Jenni Evans spoke about Vital Source and Andrejs Alferovs about Kortext both of which are in the business of working with institutions distributing online textbooks to students. Both seem to have a good grasp of what students want, which I think should be useful requirements to feed into eTextBook standardization efforts such as eTernity, these include:

  • ability to print
  • offline access
  • availability across multiple devices
  • reliable access under load
  • integration with VLE
  • integration with syllabus/curriculum
  • epub3 interactive content
  • long term access
  • ability for student to highlight/annotate text and share this with chosen friends
  • ability to search text and annotations


There was also a theme of resource discovery running through the day, and I have already mentioned in passing that this referenced Google and Amazon, but also social media. Nick Canty spoke about a survey of library use of social media, I thought it interesting that there seemed to be some sophisticated use of the immediacy of Twitter to direct people to more permanent content, e.g. to engagement on Facebook or the library website.

Both Richard Wallis of OCLC and Robert Faber of OUP emphasized that users tend to use Google to search and gave figures for how much of the access to library catalogue pages came direct from Google and other external systems, not from their own catalogue search interface. For example the Biblioteque Nationale de France found that 80% of access to their catalogue pages cam directly from web search engines not catalogue searches, and Robert gave similar figures for access to Oxford Journals. The immediate consequence of this is that if most people are trying to find content using external systems then you need to make sure that at least some (as much as possible, in fact) of your content is visible to them–this feeds in to arguments about how open access helps solve discoverability problems. But Richard went further, he spoke about how the metadata describing the resources needs to be in a language that Google/Bing/Yahoo understand, and that language is schema.org. He did a very good job distinguishing between the usefulness of specialist metadata schema for exchanging precise information between libraries or publishers, but when trying to pass general information to Google:

it’s no use using a language only you speak.

Richard went on to speak about the Google Knowledge graph and their “things not strings” approach facilitated by linked data. He urged libraries to stop copying text and to start linking, for example not to copy an author name from an authority file but to link to the entry in that file, in Eric Miller’s words to move from cataloguing to “catalinking”.


So was this really about ebooks? Probably not, and the point was made that over the years the name of the event has variously stressed ebooks and econtent and that over that time what is meant by “ebook” has changed. I must admit that for me there is something about the idea of a [e]book that I prefer over a “content aggregation” but if we use the term ebook, let’s use it acknowledging that the book of the future will be as different from what we have now as what we have now is from the medieval scroll.

Picture Credit
Scanned image of page of the Epistle of St Jerome in the Gutenberg bible taken from Wikipedia. No Copyright.

Learning Resource Metadata is Go for Schema

The Learning Resource Metadata Initiative aimed to help people discover useful learning resources by adding to the schema.org ontology properties to describe educational characteristics of creative works. Well, as of the release of schema draft version 1.0a a couple of weeks ago, the LRMI properties are in the official schema.org ontology.

Schema.org represents two things: 1, an ontology for describing resources on the web, with a hierarchical set of resource types each with defined properties that relate to their characteristics and relationships with other things in the schema hierarchy; and 2, a syntax for embedding these into HTML pages–well, two syntaxes, microdata and RDFa lite. The important factor in schema.org is that it is backed by Google, Yahoo, Bing and Yandex, which should be useful for resource discovery. The inclusion of the LRMI properties means that you can now use schema.org to mark up your descriptions of the following characteristics of a creative work:

audience the educational audience for whom the resource was created, who might have educational roles such as teacher, learner, parent.

educational alignment an alignment to an established educational framework, for example a curriculum or frameworks of educational levels or competencies. Expressed through an abstract thing called an Alignment Object which allows a link to and description of the node in the framework to which the resource aligns, and specifies the nature of the alignment, which might be that the resource ‘assesses’, ‘teaches’ or ‘requires’ the knowledge/skills/competency to which the resource aligns or that it has the ‘textComplexity’, ‘readingLevel’, ‘educationalSubject’ or ‘educationLevel’ expressed by that node in the educational framework.

educational use a text description of purpose of the resource in education, for example assignment, group work.

interactivity type The predominant mode of learning supported by the learning resource. Acceptable values are ‘active’, ‘expositive’, or ‘mixed’.

is based on url A resource that was used in the creation of this resource. Useful for when a learning resource is a derivative of some other resource.

learning resource type The predominant type or kind characterizing the learning resource. For example, ‘presentation’, ‘handout’.

time required Approximate or typical time it takes to work with or through this learning resource for the typical intended target audience

typical age range The typical range of ages the content’s intended end user.

Of course, much of the other information one would want to provide about a learning resource (what it is about, who wrote it, who published it, when it was written/published, where it is available, what it costs) was already in schema.org.

Unfortunately one really important property suggested by LRMI hasn’t yet made the cut, that is useRightsURL, a link to the licence under which the resource may be used, for example the creative common licence under which is has been released. This was held back because of obvious overlaps with non-educational resources. The managers of schema.org want to make sure that there is a single solution that works across all domains.

Guides and tools

To promote the uptake of these properties, the Association of Educational Publishers has released two new user guides.

The Smart Publisher’s Guide to LRMI Tagging (pdf)

The Content Developer’s Guide to the LRMI and Learning Registry (pdf)

There is also the InBloom Tagger described and demonstrated in this video.

LRMI in the Learning Registry

As the last two resources show, LRMI metadata is used by the Learning Registry and services built on it. For what it is worth, I am not sure that is a great example of its potential. For me the strong point of LRMI/schema.org is that it allows resource descriptions in human readable web pages to be interpreted as machine readable metadata, helping create services to find those pages; crucially the metadata is embedded in the web page in way that Google trusts because the values of the metadata are displayed to users. Take away the embedding in human readable pages, which is what seems to happen when used with the learning registry, and I am not sure there is much of an advantage for LRMI compared to other metadata schema,–though to be fair I’m not sure that there is any comparative disadvantage either, and the effect on uptake will be positive for both sides. Of course the Learning Registry is metadata agnostic, so having LRMI/schema.org metadata in there won’t get in the way of using other metadata schema.

Disclosure (or bragging)

I was lucky enough to be on the LRMI technical working group that helped make this happen. It makes me vary happy to see this progress.

At the end of the JLeRN experiment

The JLeRN experiment was a toe dipped in the learning registry, a trial at different approach to sharing information about learning resources and how they are used that focusses on getting the information out there and not on worrying over the schemas and formats in which the information is conveyed. That experiment (JLeRN, not the Learning Registry as a whole) is drawing to a close, so we had a meeting earlier this week to review what had been done, what had been learnt and what was left to do and learn.

Sarah Currier had arranged for projects that had worked with JLeRN blog something about what they had done before the meeting, here’s the email with a summary of them, if you haven’t come across JLeRN before you might want to have a look through them before reading on. What I want to describe here is my own understanding of where the Learning Registry is and to report some of the issues about it raised at the meeting.

The Learning Registry: Nodes or a network?

The learning registry as a network from a presentation by Dan Rehak and others.. © Copyright 2011 US Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative: CC-BY-3.0.

The learning registry as a network from a presentation by Dan Rehak and others.. © Copyright 2011 US Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative: CC-BY-3.0.

From the outset the Learning Registry was conceived as a network, the software created would be nodes that connected together to share data about resources. Some of the details have been put on the back burner since those early descriptions, for example the ideas of communities and gateway nodes haven’t been much developed.

The community map on the Learning Registry website shows three nodes (the red pins), including the JLeRN node; Steve Midgely told us via email “There are a few development nodes out there that we know of: Agilix, Illinois Dept of Commerce and California Dept of Ed. To my knowledge there are no production nodes beyond the ones we currently run. Several companies have expressed interest in taking over our production nodes including Dell, Cisco and Amazon.” To that tally I can add the EngRich node at Liverpool. Steve adds that the only network he knows of is the LR public network. Now, I’m not sure about the other nodes, but I do know that the JLeRN and EngRich nodes haven’t interacted with the public network in any meaningful way (yet).

So I think we have to say that, to date, there isn’t really much to prove the concept of the Learning Registry as a network. There are, however some developments in the works that I think will change that, for example the Learning Registry Index, see below.

The other aspect of the development of the Learning Registry against the vision shown in the diagram above is that of services being built to interact with the data in the nodes (these are shown as square in the diagram above). This is crucial since the Learning Registry is no more than plumbing to shift data around, it does nothing with that data that would interest a teacher or learner. It is left to others to develop services that meet user needs–Pat Lockley summed this up quite nicely in his presentation showing how the learning registry was targeted at developers and promoted relationships between developers, service managers and users more than was the case with traditional repository software.

“I think the major point of my slides was to suggest the learning registry is a “developer’s repository” – not that you need a developer to use it, more that you develop services around a node. Also, I feel there is a greater role for the developer in the ecosystems around a node than around a repository – the services on offer, and the scope of services you create seem richer – partially as any data can be stored.”

Well, there are some services for getting data in, there is the OAI-PMH to Learning Registry Publish Utility, and there is Pat’s RSS importer, Ramanathan, and his Google analytics data importer, Pliny. Also at least two projects–Scott Wilson’s SPAWS and Liverpool University’s EngRich–had involved the submission of data to Learning Registry nodes as part of the services they created.

But putting data in is meeting a service manager’s needs, it’s no good in itself since it doesn’t meet any user needs. There are a few user oriented services built off data in the Learning Registry. Pat showed us a couple of Chrome plugins, demos here and here. These are great as proofs of concept, and really important as such, they help show non-technical people what the learning registry is for. But there then follows some expectation management while you explain the limitations of the demonstrators. Other projects had embedded means of getting data out of the Learning Registry nodes into their project outputs, for example EngRich have an iLike widget for the Liverpool student portal that shows what resources students on specific courses have recommended based on data in their Learning Registry node.

Steve Midgely provided us with some very promising information, “the Gates foundation is funding several groups to build index and search services on top of Learning Registry (called Learning Registry Index) and that will require running nodes of some kind.”

Does it work?
One message that I picked up during the meeting and elsewhere is that the Learning Registry, as software, works. The people who set up nodes seem to have done so quickly, the people who used the APIs didn’t report problems in doing so. That’s a good place to be starting.

At a deeper level I guess we need to wait until there are more services built off the data in the Learning Registry to find out whether the Learning Registry works as a concept. Some known problems have been deliberately pushed out of scope in the development of the Learning Registry, one key one is not worrying about what formats and schemas for the data that goes in. This is good if you are submitting data, but unless some level of agreement is reached it does place the onus for making sense of the data on the people who are creating services that use the data. So far, the extent to which this (reaching agreement or making sense of arbitrary data) is possible in the context of the Learning Registry is untested.

Other questions remain over how the learning registry will function as a network, for example how duplicate and complementary records about the same resource will be dealt with when many people might be providing information about the same resource.

Why use it?
Owen Stephens and David Kay were at the meeting asking some very pertinent questions. Neither are particularly caught up in the education technology world, with more of a background in information systems for libraries, where of course there are different approaches to solving similar problems. So, why use the Learning Registry rather than raw couchDB, or some other schemaless, NoSQL, document store (e.g. MongoDB, which is popular for research data management), or free text indexing and search software such as Lucene/Solr, or RDF triple stores, or just a traditional relational database with SQL? To some extent the aim at the moment is to try and answer some of those questions: we won’t know if we don’t try it. But it’s valid to ask how far have we got to answering them, and here is my appraisal.

Schemaless sharing of data still appeals to me because I don’t think we know what schema we want to use to share some of the interesting information about the use of resources for teaching and learning. I think the RDF approach will influence the data that is submitted, for example there is interest in using the Learning Registry to store LRMI style metadata. LRMI is adding properties to schema.org so that educational characteristics of resources can be described, and schema.org is only a step or two away from semantic web approaches such as RDF. But some influences of RDF we don’t want. For example there is a tendency at times for RDF approaches to fixate on ontologies. That would stall us. So, for example in LRMI it is possible to say that a resource “aligns” with some point in an educational framework: i.e. it is useful for teaching some topic in a standard curriculum, or assessing some skill required by a competency framework. That’s really useful, but the vocabulary for the nature of the alignment has had to be left open (“teaches” and “assess” are two suggested terms, others are that the resource has a certain “text complexity” or requires a “reading level” or other “educational level”)–the understanding of what education is about varies so much over the world and between settings that agreement on a closed ontology seems unattainable. Still, you could use RDF if you didn’t specify and ontology, and if you could make sense of the RDF without one.

Another weakness of RDF in this context, as I understand it, is its ability to deal with subjective opinions. As soon as a teacher or learner sees an assertion that resource X is good for teaching topic Y (to continue the example used above) they should be asking “says who”. Engineering students at Liverpool are more interested in what other Engineering students find useful, especially those at Liverpool, than they are in the opinions of physics students. Yes, you can have named graphs in RDF and provide information about who asserted which triples, but it goes beyond what is usual, whereas in it is built in from the start in the Learning Registry concept of paradata.

All of that is somewhat conjectural though, because as yet there is little in the Learning Registry that is not metadata that could be expressed in some standard schema such as LOM XML or DC RDF.

Other schemaless data stores
Why not use just CouchDB, without the Learning Registry API, or MongoDB, or Lucene? All of these would make sense for single instance data stores, which is pretty much what we have now with single more-or-less isolated nodes rather than a network. And, yes, I am sure that some way of sharing data between them could be worked up if that is what you wanted. So again any advantages of the Learning Registry is still putative at this stage.

One advantage of the Learning Registry is that, as I mentioned above, it does seem to work: it does seem to come out of the package as a functional way of storing and sharing data that is tailored to education. So as an introduction to No SQL databases it’s not a bad place for the education community to start.

In summary
In a post about the end of the JLeRN project David Kay has quoted Simon Schama on his not being sure whether the French Revolution was over. I’ll quote what Chairmain Mao supposedly said when asked what he thought of the French Revolution; “it’s too early to tell”. The things to look out for are a functioning network of nodes and user-facing services being delivered from data in those nodes. Then we can ask whether that data could be shared in any other way. For the time being I think that the main achievement of JLeRN and the UK’s involvement in the Learning Registry is that it has started people thinking about alternatives to relational databases and they have taken first steps into working with these. Too often, I think, data has been squeezed into an relational data where the benefits of doing so are simply that it is what the developer happens to be familiar with. If all you have is a hammer then you can have real problems dealing with screws.

[updated to correct an attribution error as to who was comparing JLeRN to the French revolution]