Bridging the tool development gap

A post this morning on the WebPA discussion list raised an issue that I’ve long felt has a negative impact on the uptake of JISC project outputs: how to support the use of tools produced by JISC projects in an institutional environment that is not interested in supporting them.

WebPA is a great project success story, being adopted by a number of institutions and winning a Bronze Award at the 2008 IMS Learning Impact awards.  It provides an innovative approach to peer assessment evaluation, allowing individual marks for each participant in a piece of group work.  The system generated a lot of interest when they presented at a CETIS event last year.

The poster has identified WebPA as a possible tool to support his teaching, but says:

Unfortunately there is little if any chance of the application ever being hosted on my University servers, I won’t even waste my time trying to get this on their radar […] I should say that while I am not completely IT illiterate I am not going to install the application myself since this is well beyond my personal skill level.

This highlights what I feel is a gap in the project lifecycle: bridging the support gap between the production of useable tools and enabling those outputs to be used in real educational contexts.  Although some lecturers have a high level of technical confidence and competence, this absolutely cannot be expected for the vast majority, and there seems to be a lack of support for those who are keen to use these innovative tools but lack the confidence or expertise to do so.  How do we encourage institutions to be willing to broaden their horizons and support those lecturers who wish to use what they feel are the best tools for their teaching practice?  The poster references commercial companies which host open source systems such as Moodle, but what about newer systems that lack the wide uptake that make providing support and hosting services commercially attractive?

So who should be responsible for supporting projects after the end of their formal funding period, and supporting lecturers and institutions in using these tools?  We’ve addressed this issue before in relation to supporting emerging developer communities in an open source model, but what about tools that are ready for use in actual teaching practice?

Say what you see


Something that’s always puzzled me is how often I hear the acronym CETL pronounced in what seems to me to be the ‘wrong’ way, so I ran a quick Twtpoll to find out what people thought the ‘right’ way should be.

 I was surprised to see so many vote for ‘kettle’, although @Lawrie pointed out that that is how it was pronounced by the minister who launched the scheme which may well explain it.  There was also a vote for ‘rhymes with beetle’ from @dkernohan (there’s always one :p ), although he didn’t specify whether it should be ‘seetle’ or ‘keetle’.

Nicest story of all was also from @dkernohan :)

As a linguist, I’d argue that it should be ‘settle': ce- in English is almost invariably pronounced ‘se’, and the sound in the word it’s short for (‘centre’) is also pronounced with an ‘s’.  It’s very interesting to see how widespread the anomalous pronunciation of CETL as ‘kettle’ actually is.

Many thanks to everyone who voted!

Navigating through the competences maze

Relativity - M C Escher

Around 35 delegates struggled through Wednesday’s sweltering heat and the baffling mysteries of Manchester Metropolitan University Business School’s internal layout to discuss a range of issues around competences for learning, assessment and portfolio.  Delegates represented a wide range of knowledge and expertise, from novices looking to find out ‘what it’s all about’ to experienced practitioners and developers.

It was an impressively international turn out, with delegates from Norway, Greece, Austria, Spain and Belgium joining the UK contingent, mainly representing the iCoper project which is exploring the linking of assessment with competences.  Assessment interests were also represented by the University of Southampton, who are working on the automatic construction of statements of competency from QTI XML, exploring the underlying modelling of competencies for machine processing.  The majority of delegates came from a strong (e)portfolio background, with interests in the movement of information into and out of eportfolios.  JISC and CETIS participants also highlighted the relevance of this work to JISC’s Curriculum Design projects.

The morning session featured a number of short presentations (all presentations from the day can be found here) on competences requirements in the field of medical education, an area which is relatively advanced in the use of competence frameworks.  Claire Hampshire (MMU), Julie Laxton (ALPS CETL), Karen Beggs (NHS Education for Scotland) and Jad Nijjar (iCoper and Synergetics) covered a range of topics, including the desire for non-hierarchic representations, the management of massive amounts of data, and addressing the various points in a student’s career at which  information can move between one system and another.  The ownership of data in portfolios, including competency information, is an ongoing issue that still is not clear, with at least three actors involved: the data subject, data controller and data processor.  Three main points of interoperability were identified: across time (for example, undergraduate to postgraduate), across specialities (for example, from psychiatry to gynecology), and from elearning experiences to portfolios.

After coffee, Paul Horner (Newcastle University), Shane Sutherland (PebblePad), Dave Waller (MyKnowledgeMap) and Tim Brown (NHS Education for Scotland) delivered short presentations on various tools for handling competence information.  One key issue that emerged from this session was the strong need for a specification to enable the sharing of profiles between systems: while evidence can be exported as HTML, entire profiles cannot be moved between systems except in unwieldy formats such as .pdfs.  Interoperability is needed for both import and export.  There is a noticeable move away by customers from monolithic approaches towards using a variety of (Web 2.0) tools, and developers are working on building open APIs to support this. 

What struck me most from both sessions was the way in which developments around eportfolios and competence recording are very firmly rooted in actual teaching and learning practice, with requirements emerging directly from real-world practice and tool developments directly benefiting teachers and learners.

In the afternoon the meeting split into four groups, ostensibly to work on identifying and representing information structures for a purported competences specification.  In practice, my group spent most of our time discussing widely around the whole area of competences, eportfolios and assessment, but as a newbie in this field I found this hugely helpful.  Overall conclusions from the groups identified the following requirements and issues:

  • ability to transfer information between different tools and systems
  • transition
  • curriculum progression pathways
  • relationship between competences and evidence versus qualifications
  • repeatable pattern of description at the core
  • fairly simple structure
  • identifiers for defining authority
  • a definable core structure enables extension for extra semantics
  • able to express the relationship between a learning object and skills, competences and knowledge
  • collection of outcomes
  • architectural issues: data is created and needed in many locations instead of at a central point
  • competences are highly context dependent

The meeting concluded with asking delegates what they want CETIS to focus on in taking forward work on competences.  Suggestions included:

  • development of a data model
  • business case for interoperability
  • look beyond HE/FE to workplace standards, particularly in the HR domain
  • look for connections to the HIRA progress reports due out by November
  • look at what has failed so far in order to learn from past experiences
  • look at defining competences in such a way that a specification can be combined with XCRI
  • have loosely defined competences that can be moved between systems
  • need a high level map of the competency domain in comparison with curriculum description and learning objects.

CETIS will be looking at how best we can take this work forward and, as always, we very much welcome input and suggestions from our community – please feel free to leave comments here, follow up via the wiki or contact Simon or me!