We’ve come a long way but …

I consider myself extremely fortunate indeed to work within an organisation, JISC CETIS, that is as progressive as it is, one that fosters a spirit of enquiry and in a collegiate environment where open, honest and frank exchanges are encouraged. Our funders, JISC in the words of Chief Executive Dr Malcolm Reed “are there to take the risks (with technology) institutions could not independently”. I’m involved with and support JISC activities that are highly innovative in the application of technologies within educational settings, professional, informed and enthusiastic colleagues surround me and work associates at the “bleeding edge” of education technology.

Independent of (but related to) my work in CETIS I have a senior board role with a large educational institution within the sector; this role exposes me to the “pragmatic challenges” facing institutions at a policy level and the role technology plays is supporting the “business” of the institution. The duality of the roles provides me with insight both into the benefits of the work we undertake for the sector and equally serves to highlight where impact in the sector is limited.

Two recent examples have emerged of the limitation of impact.

JISC recently published the highly regarded Designing Spaces for Effective Learning; which can be downloaded from http://www.jisc.ac.uk/media/documents/publications/learningspaces.pdf the publication highlights the good work being undertaken within the sector. The institution I am involved with used the principals highlighted to design a new learning space and indeed provided a case study to the JISC, which has been used in other JISC publications. To my dismay after a little over twelve months of usage the builders were in constructing walls and converting a large part of the space into a conventional “Student support Centre”. My initial enquiry as to why was largely treated with derision but further enquiry (Estates usage survey) revealed this (primary) space was not being utilized for teaching and learning.

Ofstead recently published policy guidelines relating to student safety (particularly in respect to the 14-19 agenda) and how these guidelines would be reflected in future inspections, the response of the institution (No doubt prompted by the MIS department) to lock down student (and tutor) access to all social software sites; problem solved at least from the regulatory perspective. Only a number of students had been using social web solutions as integral elements of their e-portfolio and reflective practice, from publicizing events on facebook through to using Blogs (wordpress) as reflective practice covering the period of study. Tutors I spoke to left with the problem of no access to students work for assessment purposes (Yes they could of course access the work via their own personal technology).

We encourage our students to use a variety of tools to support their learning; the concept of the Personal Learning Environment (PLE), has been developed around the notion of students own tools indeed government policy has gone to great lengths espousing the value of personalization as part of a rich learning experience. New work is also emerging around the concept of the distributed Virtual-learning environment.

I shouldn’t be surprised by either example they relate directly to the age-old adage that without supporting professional development and cultural change strategies our interventions, however well researched and intentioned, may be doomed to failure.

Neither am I critical of those responsible for the decisions to take action in either case; in both cases the decisions and action taken can be substantiated with “empirical evidence”.

As I say we have come a long way but…

.

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.

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

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,