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Enterprise Web Services Projects

Vashti Zarach
Last modified 09 Jan, 2006
Published 21 Sep, 2005
In the UK the enterprise community has been one of the first to embrace the concept of web services and service oriented approaches. Enterprise is the area of e-learning focusing on interoperability between VLEs and Student Record Systems. Vashti Zarach, co-ordinator of the CETIS Enterprise Special Interest Group (SIG), gives an overview of current Enterprise projects in UK Education that are exploring the service oriented approach.

Introduction

This article is an overview of current and completed projects which have implemented the IMS Enterprise Services Specification. The article begins by explaining the purpose of the Enterprise specifications, and then outlines two simple scenarios to illustrate the uses of Enterprise web services projects, before giving a brief overview of each project.

Enterprise Specifications

There are two Enterprise Specifications:

  1. IMS Enterprise Specification, released in November 1999 [1].
  2. IMS Enterprise Services Specification, released in July 2004 [2].

The purpose of these specifications is to provide a standard format for transferring information about people (learners, staff, academics) between college systems (Student Records, VLE, Library Management System, etc). When a learner enrols at an institution, basic information about them (e.g. name, address, phone number) is stored in the Student Record System, along with information about their membership of certain groups (e.g. enrolled for a History BA, also enrolled on a French tutorial course). This information needs to be transferred to the college VLE/s to enable the student to access the relevant resources for their subjects.

The original IMS Enterprise Specification organized this learner data into three main categories: person, group and membership, allowing institutions to list the data in a standardised format. However, this specification did not set out a standardised way of exchanging the data between systems.

In July 2004, the IMS Enterprise Services Specification was released, using web services for transferring the learner data between systems. At the same time, the CETIS Enterprise SIG[3] funded the development of a toolkit, to help developers implementing the new specification. This article describes a number of projects which have used the Enterprise Services Specification and the toolkit to move learner data between college systems, and between colleges, enabling college members to access resources and move between institutions.


Which Specification? - Enterprise versus LIP (Learner Information Packaging)

The Enterprise Specifications focus on very basic learner information, enough to provide VLEs with information about which students are enrolled on which courses and can therefore access which resources, and enough to provide basic contact information for students. More extensive learner information is gathered together using the Learner Information Packaging Specification [4].

Scenarios

Although Enterprise deals with student information and not learning directly - it can have a real effect on the student experience, as these two scenarios illustrate.

Scenario 1: Jemima at Disintegration University

Jemima has enrolled for a Drama BA at Disintegration University. Disintegration University is not at the forefront of e-learning. They have bought a VLE, but hardly anyone uses it. They have not integrated their Student Records System with their VLE and Library System, and so no learner data is exchanged between systems.

Jemima has one enthusiastic lecturer who has put a drama module on Blackboard. Unfortunately, the student names from the SRS have not been exchanged with the VLE, so she cannot access the module. The lecturer is told to manually input his class names, but it takes three months for someone from Information Services to show him how to do this, by which time the module is over.

At the end of the first year, Jemima moves home. She sends the new address to college, where it is inputted into a small office database which no one else uses. No mail reaches Jemima at her new address, and when she arrives for her second year, she discovers that she was supposed to have worked through a long reading list which was sent to the wrong address.

Jemima has a special bursary for her drama course, and receives a grant, which is dependent on college proof of her attendance. Unfortunately, most of her tutors are too busy to keep proper registers, and so she does not receive all the money.

At the end of the course, she moves to another university to do an MA. Disintegration University has lost most of the data about her grades and achievements, so they have no information about her to pass to the new college. Even if they had, they haven’t implemented any IMS specs, so wouldn’t be able to easily exchange the information. Jemima sends her new address to Disintegration University, but it is lost in another database, and she is never knowingly invited to any alumni events.

Scenario 2: Toby at Enterprise FE College

Toby is much luckier. He has enrolled to do Music Technology at a small FE college which have an enthusiastic e-learning team, supported by the Head of College. They have developed a homegrown MLE (Managed Learning Environment) called ELM, and integrated Student Records and the Library Management System with ELM, using Enterprise Specifications. All learner and staff data is exchanged between systems. They have also added an Enterprise Web Services Toolkit which produces personalised timetables, using an open source toolkit developed by another FE college.

Enterprise FE College have been running a regional JISC project integrating learner data between several FE Colleges, universities and schools in the area, so when Toby arrives to start his course, his new college already has basic learner data and some grade details for him from his sixth form college. On his first day, he checks the contact data online, and updates it with his new mobile phone number and address. This new information is then automatically updated in the library system, VLE, Student Record System and so forth; using Enterprise Web Services messages which check for updated information, so Toby, unlike Jemima, receives all his mail.

At his first class, Toby selects his module options for the year. His tutor inputs them into ELM, the college MLE, and presents Toby with a personalised timetable print out. Every day, the tutor takes an electronic register, and at the end of the year Toby is given a record of his attendance. At the end of the course, Toby heads to a University in the area to do further study. Enterprise FE College is able to pass data about Toby and the modules he has studied to the new university.

The Projects

Enterprise Services Demo Kit

The first toolkit to use Enterprise Services was developed at the same time as the new IMS Enterprise Services Specification was being developed, for 2 main purposes: 1. to test the new specification as it was being developed, and 2. to provide a “starter kit” to help developers implement the new spec.

This toolkit was paid for by the Enterprise SIG, who tendered out the job to freelance developer Nick Sharples. Nick worked with Scott Wilson of CETIS, who was also on the IMS Working Team developing the specification.

At the end of the project, the product available was an open source toolkit; i.e. a collection of software code freely available to others to use and adapt for the purposes of exchanging learner data in their colleges [5].

Sweet.Net

As the Demo Kit was being completed, JISC were beginning the new three year e-Learning Programme. One of the strands of the new programme, the Framework and Tools strand, is looking at joining up e-learning systems, and developing new e-learning technologies and tools to enable institutions to do new things.

At the beginning of the programme Tish Roberts (programme manager for the Framework and Tools strand) visited the CETIS Enterprise SIG and encouraged people to bid for projects. One of the Enterprise SIG members, Jon Rowett, was given funding in the first round of toolkit projects. Jon, from Brockenhurst FE College, had previously assisted with developing a homegrown college MLE, using the original Enterprise Specification to move learner data around.

Jon’s toolkit had two main aims:

  1. It was an adaptation of Nick and Scott’s toolkit for the Microsoft.Net platform. Developers can use one of two distinct and separate platforms: Java, and Microsoft.Net. The Demo Kit created by Nick was for the Java platform, so it would be very useful to have a version that worked with .Net; and would also show that information could be transferred between the two platforms.
  2. Jon extended the toolkit to include timetabling, as described in scenario 2 above. Once the toolkit was finished, staff at Brockenhurst could type in class times, staff details and student class enrolment details, and be given personalised timetables for staff and students.

Sweet.Net is also open source, and available for others to use and adapt. At least two projects have used the toolkit since it was completed, and Brockenhurst are now using and improving the toolkit in a new project (see below) [6].

NIIMLE (Northern Ireland Integrated Managed Learning Environment)

Other early adopters of the Enterprise Services Specification were the NIIMLE project. NIIMLE were funded by the JISC to develop a regional Managed Learning Environment in Northern Ireland, which in practice meant linking all the region’s universities and FE colleges so that learner data and learners could move easily between institutions (like the situation described in scenario 2).

NIIMLE implemented the Enterprises Services Specification to set up a web services interface to the student record systems across 18 member institutions, enabling data about students, courses and enrolment to be requested by the central NIIMLE portal. The NIIMLE project has now finished, and the final report is due on the JISC website in August 2005. The work done by NIIMLE is due to be continued for the SUNIWE project (see below) [7].

ict4biz (Sweet .Net Demonstrator)

ict4biz is a project currently in progress, which extends the work of Brockenhurst College with Sweet.Net. The project is a collaboration between 3 colleges: Brockenhurst, Farnborough College and Totton College, which are developing a business training course. The Sweet.Net toolkit is being used to enable data about learners, academic staff, and business managers to be exchanged across the system, allowing everyone access to relevant resources.

Brockenhurst also intend to use the project to improve and further develop Sweet.Net [8].

BERT (Brockenhurst e-Registers Toolkit)

BERT is a JISC funded project, involving the ubiquitous Brockenhurst College. Jon is developing an e-Registers toolkit, which again extends on work he has previously done with their homegrown MLE, and the Sweet.net toolkit. Once again, BERT will be an open source toolkit, which other colleges can use and adapt for their own registration needs. Jon’s registers have useful features such as photos of the students, and space for adding or viewing messages beside student names, enabling tutors to notice any student absenteeism or problems much more quickly [9].

SUNIWE

SUNIWE is another ongoing project, which builds on the work done by NIIMLE using Enterprise web services to transfer student data across several regional colleges. SUNIWE is being managed by Mark Stiles at Staffordshire University, and is intending to link several HE and FE institutions in the Staffordshire region into a cross-regional portal, which allows single point access to learner and course data, eResources, VLEs and possibly ePortfolios [10].

BEWT

Sean Mehan and a team at UHI, who have recently completed a project, called Guanxi, implementing Shibboleth (for user access and authorization) in the open source VLE Bodington, are now beginning a project to enable the Enterprise Services Demo Kit created by Nick Sharples to work with Bodington. This will enable learner data to be transferred effectively in and out of Bodington [11].

ASK (Accessing and Storing Knowledge)

And finally, Oxford University are just beginning the ASK project, designing and implementing an open source repository which will support a number of standards such as QAI, SRW, z39.50 and RSS. They will be using IMS Enterprise Service to extract information out of SRS/ VLEs to use as metadata for the repository contents. The repository will be designed for use with Bodington and Moodle but could be attached to any system [12].

Conclusions

Through all these projects a core of expertise in developing and implementing web services is emerging within the Enterprise SIG which will continue to grow as current projects complete. These are only UK projects using Enterprise Web Services that I am currently aware of, if you know of any others, please contact me at: v.zarach@bangor.ac.uk. As new projects emerge they will be added to the web site for the Enterprise SIG [13].

References

[1] IMS Enterprise Specification v1.1: http://www.imsglobal.org/enterprise/index.html

[2] IMS Enterprise Services Specification v1.0: http://www.imsglobal.org/enterprise/index.html

[3] CETIS Enterprise SIG: http://www.cetis.ac.uk/members/enterprise/

[4] Learner Information Packaging Specification

[5] Enterprise Services Demo Kit: http://sourceforge.net/projects/cetis-es/

[6] Sweet.Net: http://www.brock.ac.uk/sweet/

[7] NIIMLE (Northern Ireland Integrated MLE): http://www.niimle.ac.uk/home.htm

[8] Ict4biz (Sweet .Net Demonstrator):http://www.brock.ac.uk/demonstrator/

[9] BERT: http://www.brock.ac.uk/toolkit2/

[10] SUNIWE: http://www.jisc.ac.uk/index.cfm?name=suniwe&src=alpha

[11] BEWT: http://www.jisc.ac.uk/index.cfm?name=elfdemo_uhi&src=alpha

[12] ASK: http://www.jisc.ac.uk/index.cfm?name=project_ask

[13] CETIS Enterprise Special Interest Group: http://www.cetis.ac.uk/members/enterprise/enterpriseprojects

 

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