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Building the ELF (e-Learning Framework) Community

Christina Smart, Sarah Holyfield
14 Dec, 2004
A report on the JISC/CETIS Conference on e-Learning Tools, Standards and Systems held in Oxford on the 4th/5th November.

Christina Smart & Sarah Holyfield, CETIS

Software developers, domain experts, and policy makers from the UK, US, Australia and Canada gathered recently at the JISC/CETIS conference at Oxford United’s Kassam Stadium to discuss the implications and development of the new e-Learning Framework (ELF).

The framework is based on a service oriented approach (soa) and has been developed with international partners from Canada, the USA and Australia. It is intended to provide a road map for future e-learning developments.

This was the first meeting of JISC development projects relevant to the ELF, domain experts from CETIS Special Interest Groups (SIGs) and international partners and aimed to initiate discussions on how to achieve synergy and eventually interoperability.

The consensus was that the event was a great success, bringing together developers from diverse communities. The significance of the conference is summed up by this comment from Jim Farmer of the Sakai project Board and the JA-SIG⁄uPortal Project:

"Actually the conference was much more successful and important than most realize...The conference improved communications among projects and developed the personal relationships that make subsequent communications - often done electronically - more productive."

This report gives brief outlines of the talks and discussions and links to the slides for a more full picture. The programme for the event can be found here.

Domain Experts and JISC project teams were invited to the first day which was a combination of plenary talks and parallel sessions focussed around domains. For clarity all the talks have been grouped together followed by reports from the parallel sessions.

More information on the e-learning framework is available here.


A number of plenary talks on day one introduced the e-learning framework focussing on how and why it is being developed. The chair for these sessions was Tish Roberts (, JISC ELF strand programme manager.

E-learning tools, standards and systems

Sarah Porter, Head of Development, JISC

Sarah Porter, opened the event by explaining what JISC is and why it is running the e-learning programme. As well as providing the network infrastructure JISC has a role in "promoting innovation through development programmes".

The e-learning programme provides a link between learning and teaching practice and technology development. There are four strands of the programme funding developments in e-learning and pedagogy, innovations, distributed e-learning as well as the ELF.

The programme is adopting a standards based approach, building on the work of CETIS. One of the advantages of using standards is that it allows JISC to achieve consensus with the vendor community. This is important because many FE and HE institutions have invested in commercial VLE systems and they will want to build on these systems rather than abandoning them.

Sarah emphasized that ELF is not a VLE and that its real value is in providing a roadmap for co-ordinating development activities and working with international partners. The framework should help the community to collaborate where the overlaps in current development exist and discover where there are gaps.

Ultimately, JISC aims to give added value for users, and Sarah illustrated and example of this by showing a video about how teachers could use tools from the RELOAD X4L project and the JORUM repository to find and download packaged course content into a number of different VLEs while maintaining the structure of the learning material.

Service-oriented approaches and the e-Learning Framework

Scott Wilson, Assistant Director, CETIS

In his presentation Scott Wilson sought to dispel some myths and find the Holy Grail!

Interoperability is of course the Holy Grail and Scott said the e-learning framework is the next step towards it. The rewards of using the service oriented approach will be new synergies, efficiency and flexibility. Reviewing past JISC MLE projects he noted that previously, while content based projects had been quite successful, the integration projects revealed that there's more work to be done.

Scott explained that although there were a number of different technical options, the service oriented approach (soa) has been adopted because it is popular and it separates out the contract between the providers and consumers from the application itself. This approach is also neutral in terms of platform and language. The upshot of both of these things is that ELF can fit with commercial systems such as Blackboard and Web CT, and open source systems such as Moodle, regardless of the technology they're built on.

One myth about ELF is that it will be a Learning Management System application, it won't. Instead the framework is a road map of functions that could be used in planning institutional e-learning systems.

Scott said the challenges ahead, were in the "fabric" services of workflow, security, and management. He outlined two scenarios for application builds based on the ELF; one in which the fabric layers were very "fat" and complex, and one in which they were "thin" and simple. The key is to get the basic technology right, to be "simple but not simplistic".

He summarised by saying the ELF projects had made a good start, the next stage is to demonstrate web service applications working in institutions. ITTs for these demonstrator projects will soon be announced on the programme site.

International perspectives on the e-Learning Framework

Dan Rehak, Carnegie Mellon University, USA;

Kerry Blinco, Dept. Education Science and Training, Australia;

Yuri Daschko, Industry Canada.

An international perspective on the ELF was given by the partners from the US, Australia and Canada. They talked about the "what, why, who, where, and when" of development of an ELF. Dan opened by focussing on the "what" question. He said that there were many success stories in the e-learning landscape such as, Jorum, Ariadne, and Sakai etc. Despite this, we still do not have a common language to talk about developing e-learning system models. He showed a large number of very complex diagrams that have been used to describe e-learning system models and said that they had led to a great deal of confusion. We also use a large number of words to describe these models, e.g. architecture, design, infrastructure. He concluded that the ultimate aim is interoperability, but in order to get it we need to develop a common language to talk about tools and systems.

Kerry Blinco discussed why the ELF was important. The framework helps to support diversity in pedagogy, strategy and technology and also allows flexibility. From a strategic perspective it provides a means for discussing and developing strategy, allowing policy makers to see where there are gaps and overlaps in development projects. There are many advantages to working in partnership with other countries on the development of the ELF, including sharing out development costs, leverage of political will and of technical expertise. In the end working internationally is the best chance the community has to achieve interoperable systems.

Yuri Daschko finished by summarising the current situation, the "who, where and when" of ELF development. The "where" and "who" is DEST, JISC, Industry Canada and LSAL. The "when" is now! Yuri emphasized that it is important that the ELF framework continues to develop, and that the JISC/CETIS conference is one of the ways in which that development will happen.

Parallel sessions

In the parallel sessions JISC funded projects came together to discuss their work and explore how it mapped onto the e-Learning Framework. The aim of these sessions was to begin the process of finding out where there were overlaps between projects which could lead to collaborations, and where there were gaps, which could be the focus for future funding.

There were three phases to the parallel sessions. In the first each JISC funded project was asked to attend their relevant parallel session and present their completed or planned work to others in their strand. They were asked to look at the human "domain" level, the ELF level and the physical systems interoperability level. In the second phase they were asked to discuss the implications of soa and ELF, develop a "big picture" map of the territory/domain for the group, map their position in the overall territory, identify points of connection/interoperability and establish priority areas, and finally, to create a presentation for the following day. The third phase brought everyone back together for day two to present their strand to the wider stakeholder audience and draw out "The Big Picture". A fourth session, parallel to the report back session was held for technical and programming staff to continue to discuss developing interoperability links.

The strands were:

  • Repositories
  • Assessment
  • e-Portfolio & PDP
  • Institution level system integration
  • Learning Design
  • Teaching and Learning tools
  • Personal Learning/Research environments

The presentation slides from the final session which provided "The Big Picture" to everyone were of an impressively high quality and contain much information of interest (and some good metaphors!) so it is recommended that readers look at these, a few short comments are also made below. Reports and summaries were also written after the parallel sessions had completed their work and these are also attached below. This session was chaired by Oleg Liber


Presented by Martin Morrey

This area was felt to be the most mature part of the framework as a lot of work has already taken place in the digital libraries sector, and it was felt that the technology was relatively robust. Key technical issues were the question of identifiers, and rights management where the problem was to do with the interface between the technology, legal and social dimensions. Other issues raised were the need for institutions to become more open, the need for a common vocabulary, the question of sustainability and the need to find out what the community wanted.

In the ELF mapping slides, the boxes that are darkly shaded were services referenced by at least one repository project, and the boxes with the darker border were referenced by at least four projects.

session chairs: Phil Barker and Lorna Campbell


Presented by Niall Sclater

The presentation provided a very clear description of the assessment domain and where projects were active. Gaps identified were in the area of plagiarism and the need for a QTI version 2 authoring tool. Discussion took place on the connection between e-portfolio work and assessment, which is strongly linked but there is a need to find a way of taking this forward.

In the ELF mapping in the slides, the bold text means areas where projects are currently working in ELF;the bold and italicised text is for areas that need work on in the assessment domain.

session chairs: Rowin Young, Sam Easterby-Smith, Clive Church

Learning Design

Presented by Patrick McAndrew

Learning Design could be seen as "not just another brick in the wall" but as the "glue or mortar" - it has the potential to transform the framework and help in the process of finding out what the "building is in the end". The presentation looked at work that was taking place in this area, and how it mapped into specific parts of the ELF, although it was also felt that it could be seen as fundamental to all bricks. Big issues were to do with the development of tools and interfaces, delivering on its promise, and how it could have a big impact on how things work together. It may provide a solution to the workflow problem. Discussion raised a view of ELF as a collection of components with the question of what the workflow that lies on top of it might be? There will need to be some hard work in implementing it.

Notes on the ELF mapping slides: Green is a needed independent service. Red is a needed dependent service. i.e. those developing a red service may need to pay attention to the requirement that the service could be used in the context of learning design, while provided a green service follows appropriate standards learning design will probably not impose extra requirements. The mapping is only meant to be approximate.

session chairs: Lisa Corley and Bill Olivier

Personal Learning/Research Environments

Presented by Chuck Severance

There are many virtual personal environments involving different "lenses", developed by different experts influenced heavily by where they came from, and there is tribalism in communities such as library, computing and teaching and learning. There is a need for all experts to get into the same room and "find something that makes sense to the user". The environment needs to "wrap around us as people". Whilst requirements may be different for different subject areas, as learning moves towards research and discovery they become more similar. It is likely that in the long run the browser will not be the answer, and that whilst portals may provide an answers in the short term, eventually VLEs, VREs and IEs will converge. We need to invest in the future.

session chairs: Oleg Liber and Wilbert Kraan

e-Portfolio & PDP

Presented by Simon Grant

Rather than ask "what is an e-portfolio?" we need to think about the different functions e-portfolios can be used for. They are concerned with learning and the learner - a structured and supported process. The technical issue is the transfer of information from system to system, and the question of the "stewardship" or "ownership" of information is a troublesome one. Whilst projects in this area map onto specific ELF "bricks", they also overlap with others. Personal information management is already distributed and likely to become more so, learners must be able to control and manage it. Discussion took place about different stakeholder rights eg over exam marks, also on question of the identity of people as data objects but the necessity to address issues such as privacy etc.

Colour code for the slides: In slide 6, common services, bright green represents the core services which may be expected to be used by PDP and e-portfolio applications, and the orangy colour indicates other ones that might be used. In slide 7, learning domain services, the colours are reversed so that standing out represents the same idea. Orange represents the core services related to PDP and e-p, while the deeper green colour stands for other services that also relate, but perhaps not so closely.

session chairs: Peter Rees Jones and Simon Grant

Institution level system integration

Presented by Mark Stubbs

The technical side is not as big a deal as cultural issues. Some projects are now demonstrating web services working. It's clear that e-learning is only a small part of the challenge - have we been too narrow in our focus on this? What does the "cradle to the grave" mean for system integration? There are big benefits and the need for carrots and sticks. New support areas are emerging. "ELF - Every Little Function to make your system all you'd ever need". Common problems and challenges are faced internationally and funding determines what happens.

session chairs: Vashti Zarach and Scott Wilson

  • Institution level systems integration domain map
  • session notes
  • Jim Farmer notes: "The presentations in this session were a strong endorsement of the technologies that CETIS recommended and JISC accepted several years before there was substantial experience with the technologies. The e-learning framework does accomplish enterprise integration meeting every test of success... Here were two developers who mastered the technology in a relatively short period of time without outside assistance."

Teaching and Learning tools

This group included a number of projects from the Distributed e-Learning strand. They discussed the need to educate practitioners, the question of taking things forward when there was a lack of consistency in the use of terms within the e-learning community, and whether the ELF was the best starting point. The development of user interfaces was crucial. Time and workloads were a problem for teachers, and there was a need for a "how to" guide to show those in universities creating e-learning strategies, and for an ELF forum which would eventually become a community of practice. See the session notes (below) for more detail.

session chairs: Sheila MacNeill and Steve Jeyes

JISC ELF developer forum

chair: Sam Easterby-Smith,

This was the first meeting of the ELF developer forum. The agenda included discussion of Web Services, IMS Web Services & UML, Generating from WSDL, Java.& NET, Format for JISC Toolkits.

  • Agenda
  • Introduction to the Forum (Sam Easterby-Smith)- slides
  • Developments in Web Services (Scott Wilson & Sam Easterby-Smith) - slides
  • CETIS Java Enterprise Toolkit (Nick Sharples)
  • Brockenhurst .NET Enterprise Toolkit (Jon Rowett)- slides
  • NIIMLE’s Experience with Java Enterprise Toolkit (Greg McClure) - slides

Cluster Meetings

On the afternoon of the second day a number of "cluster meetings" were held as well as the first meeting of the ELF developers Forum. The meetings are listed below.


Feedback from the conference was very positive which is illustrated by the following comments:

Jim Farmer - "Actually it was much more successful and important than most realize."

Further reflections by Justin Tilton and Jim Farmer on the conference

Kerry Blinco - "We thought the conference was a great success and thought particularly that the feedback sessions went particularly well."

Below are some comments from the event evaluation forms.

  • What did you like most about the whole event?
  • "Getting a lot of like minded people together"
  • "Unashamed technical focus"
  • "Ability to discuss the human face of technology"
  • What did you like least?
  • "Frustration of talking shop that raises more questions than it answers".
  • "Failure to agree definitions"

95% of respondents would like to see this event run on an annual basis.

If you have any thoughts about the event you would like to share, please feel free to email us at

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