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A non-technical guide to technical frameworks - Part Two

Sarah Holyfield
Last modified 05 Jul, 2005
Published 18 Mar, 2005
The second part of this guide looks at the relevance of technical frameworks for education, in particular the e-Learning Framework (ELF)

In Part One of this guide I explored the development of some new technologies and their significance in the business world; in Part Two I am going to look at their relevance for education, and how they underpin the Frameworks and Tools Strand of the e-Learning Programme.

A common problem faced by all sectors using large IT systems is the duplication of functionality. An obvious example is that all IT systems need to check that a person logging on is really who they say they are and has permission to use the system (ie. authentication and authorisation), but this means that if a person has to use several systems they will have to log on several times.

A second problem is that a large system will dictate how work takes place. From a business point of view, this means users in one business are forced to work in the same way as people in other businesses who purchase the same system, and this may affect how competitive they can be. From a teacher's point of view, a VLE may constrain how s/he is able to teach, and it may standardise how teaching takes place across an institution. This is a "one-size-fits-all" scenario.

As discussed in Part One of this article, new technologies in the form of Web Services and Service Oriented Approaches have been providing a way forward. However, from a business point of view serious levels of investment in new and more efficient approaches can be justified, as the aim is to make a profit. It is harder to make the case in education as the funding model is completely different

The Frameworks and Tools Strand is a response to both the work of the previous Managed Learning Environments (MLE) Programme and the development of these new technologies.

Technical frameworks

A number of key documents can be found on the JISC website that explain the thinking behind this strand but this article is an attempt to draw out the main principles and see what they mean for those who are involved in teaching and learning.

If we consider a VLE, perhaps the one we use, we can think in a general way of the kind of functionality it has – a facility for signing on, online discussion tools, tools for managing content (lecture notes, book lists etc), tools for managing lists of students and modules, online assessment tools, etc We might also think that whilst these things are fine as far as they go, it would also be nice to have some other functions as well such as perhaps a shared whiteboard, weblogging and wiki tools. If we look at other systems, for instance, a Student Record System (SRS), they will have their own set of functions such as signing on to the system and establishing the identity of the user, storing information and so on.

Some functions will be common to many systems, and some are specific to their own domain. The process of identifying these, along with considering all the things we might want to be able to do, means we should be able to draw up a list of all the functions we would want an ideal system to provide to meet our needs, both personal and organisational.

This exercise is a factoring of functions which can then be put together into a framework. Many of the functions we would have identified can be provided or obtained as web services (see Part One) and if they can be described carefully both in terms of what they should be able to do (at a technical level), and what technical standards they should comply with, then they can be joined up into a composite application. This means that we could make a selection of those functions we want and combine them into a specific system that will suit our particular needs and make our idealised system a reality. How this can actually happen is a technical question, but for the purposes of this article the point is that it is possible.

Importantly, this approach also means that some of those services we selected could, in principle, be combined with systems we may already have in place such as a VLE, so we could increase the flexibility and functionality of our existing systems.

This framework can then, in Scott Wilson's words, provide us with a "palette of possibilities".

Using a combination of (possibly open-source) components that communicate with each other by means of standardised interfaces (such as those provided by Web services) these developments could open up the field to a much wider range of pedagogical tools, which can be flexibly allocated to different contexts within an institution than is currently possible [1]

and

By providing a common set of service definitions, we enable communities to have a shared vocabulary for discussing MLE and e-learning activity [2]

This development of a shared vocabulary and way of thinking is a key aim of the Frameworks and Tools strand.

The e-Learning Framework - aka the "ELF"

The ELF is a factoring of all the functions that are required in the context of elearning as discussed above.

These functions are displayed in a set of boxes in three main layers, but they could equally be displayed in a list or in some other way. The bottom layer - Common Services - shows those functions which are common to many systems, the middle layer - Application Services - show those which are specific to a domain (in this case e-learning, but there are others such as research), and the top layer shows User Agents which provide the interface which allows the user to access these services.

Below is a diagram showing these services and the layers they belong to. This set of boxes comes from an earlier paper A Technical Framework to Support e-Learning [3] but if you look at the ELF site you will see this has grown to include many more!

EarlyELFDiagram

Whilst some of the terms used for these services may seem rather technical or arcane, a more careful look should make them clearer - I've picked out a sample below of the less technical descriptions of these services from the e-Learning Framework Summary [4]. It is likely that these services will match some of those you would have identified as functions performed by your VLE, and other tools you want to use, if you had conducted the exercise described earlier.


A sample of Application Service descriptions -

Activity Management Supports the management of learning activities.

Course Management Supports management of courses, modules and other units of learning

Resource List Supports the creation, access and management of reading lists and other lists of resources.

Assessment Supports the use of automated assessments.

Grading Supports submitting grades against courses, modules, and other units of learning.

ePortfolio Supports the management of artefacts created by learners, such as essays and projects.

Learning Flow Supports the management and use of complex learning scenarios.

Activity Author Supports the process of creating learning activities.

____________________________________________

A sample of Common Service descriptions (I've picked some of the less technical sounding ones!) -

Messaging Allows broadcast of messages to users and groups using appropriate communication technology.

Authentication Allows the identity of agents to be established.

Authorisation Supports the management of access to resources by agents.

the following appear in a later version of ELF -

E-mail management Support for email management (as provided by IMAP, POP and SMTP)

Scheduling Supports the management of allocation of resources against time, such as rooms, people and equipment.

Content Management Supports the publishing, retrieval, description, and organisation of information resources, including their lifecycle management.



The work of the Frameworks and Tools Strand

The idea of the strand is to think of all the services that could possibly be needed, to define these carefully so that people can create them, or make them available from existing sources, then to develop the materials that would enable these services to be joined up. It should be possible for these services to be combined in all sorts of ways which means that systems can be developed that will adapt to lots of different contexts.

or - using the appropriate technical terms to say the same thing –

A framework of services will be defined, then reference models will be produced along with libraries of software and toolkits, and guidelines, to enable their integration into a wide variety of composite applications.

It is very likely that some functions that are necessary may not be covered by the list and "gap analysis" is an important part of the process. This is where working closely with those involved in the e-Learning and Pedagogy Strand of the e-Learning Programme becomes so important. Technology developers need to be able to respond to what teachers and learners actually do, and want to be able to do; but equally importantly, practitioners need to engage with what is possible, and not possible, with technology.

The Frameworks and Tools strand is producing these materials through the Technical Development and Demonstrator Projects , which involve cycles of short projects, the timescale of which should enable these to be responsive to work taking place both within the strand and in the other strands of the e-Learning Programme.

Using the ELF

At the moment we are at the factoring stage, and whilst there are projects which will be looking at the assembly stage, there is nothing yet available in the way of fully functioning systems for anyone to see, but we can begin to have ideas about the kinds of systems that can be assembled.

It should be noted that the toolkits are not intended to be complete desktop applications and as such may not be immediately useful to teachers, rather they provide some of the foundations for a new generation of teaching and learning tools [5].

The outcomes of this work will include descriptions of a set of services, and the tools needed to join them up with each other and with other applications, and guidelines to support this process. But this is still a set of functions with no recipe for putting them together in any ideal way, the strand is not developing the interface which the user will see or interact with. It is a bit like the engine of a car being put together, but it still has no steering wheel or pedals.

The vision of a "pick n' mix VLE"[6]will be enabled by the work of this strand, but it doesn't mean the next stage of assembling systems will be easy. The work of the strand will mean that there will be few technical barriers in the way of putting things together the way you want to, but a number of questions will need to be addressed to take things into the next phase of assembly and sustainability. Questions such as what is the model for sustainability? Who will provide the tools that educators use? The Distributed e-Learning Strand has some projects doing this, but what will the role of vendors be? What relevant developments are taking place internationally?

A sobering reality check is provided by Derek Morrison[7] who reflects on the fact that many institutions have already bought into large VLE systems -

Some institutions have been doing more than gathering experience and have made a full-blown strategic commitment to products which represent only one way of offering e-learning. How many will now be willing to allow different e-learning tools that don't fit into the licensed, and therefore supported, vendor's product? Is it possible to think beyond the monolithic VLE model?

The ELF is part of an international process, and there is an increasingly solid agreement about the services that belong in the domain of e-learning. [8] The focus is now beginning to move in the direction of solving the question of the user layer, or what the user will actually interact with, and systems such as Learning Activity Management System (LAMS) are making great strides in this area.

The much more difficult challenge…

As discussed in Part One , in many ways it is easier to purchase an application that does everything in an integrated way so you just have to learn how it does things then comply with that, or find "work arounds" if you wish. However this can also be frustrating if it just isn’t possible to do things the way you really want to, which can be very important when practitioners wish to take a pedagogical approach which is not supported, and may even be hindered, by a system.

If you wish to construct a system to suit your needs, you will have to think very carefully about all the different possible things you might want to do; and if the system is for a college or university, there will be a wide range of ways in which people may wish to work.

This therefore requires careful thought and analysis, not necessarily of the technical underpinnings to this approach, but of the functions you might wish to have available to you - a pedagogical problem! The e-Learning and Pedagogy Strand is exploring this area and it is intended that there will be some projects which will begin to overlap between the strands of the Programme. The question of whether a service oriented approach could lead to pedagogic diversity has been explored by Scott Wilson [9]

The gap between developers and users is a familiar one in the worlds of IT and Business and there is much to learn from those who have engaged in developing a more participative approach to the adoption of technology[10]. There are also many resources and agencies who can offer help.

One of the important aims of the ELF is that it can provide tools to help people in the difficult task of analysis and planning, at both a strategic and practitioner level, and perhaps provide a bridge between the two very different communities of developers and practitioners. It will also enable us to move into a more mature and thoughtful approach to developing technical infrastructures for e-learning.

References

[1] Britain, S, Liber, O, (2004) A Framework for the Pedagogical Evaluation of Virtual Learning Environments

[2] Wilson, S, Olivier, B, Jeyes, S, Powell, A, Franklin, T, A Technical Framework to Support e-Learning

[3] ibid

[4] e-Learning Framework Summary

[5] Easterby-Smith, S, Report to CETIS Steering Group, January 2005

[6] Kraan, W. JISC programme to foster the pick 'n mix MLE March 05, 2004

[7] Morrison D, - E-Learning Frameworks and Tools: Is it too late? - The Director's Cut September 2004

[8] Kraan, W. Interoperability state of play at IMS Melbourne meeting February 13, 2005

[9] Wilson, S. Can web service technology really help enable coherent diversity in e-learning?

[10] Mumford, E. (1995) Effective Systems Design & Requirements Analysis - The ETHICS Method. Macmillan. The ETHICS method is a detailed systematic design and development process which targets the identification of stakeholder needs and, by satisfying those needs, creates a level of job satisfaction that is likely to contribute to successful system implementation. The text of this book is now available online

 

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