This is a diary of my involvement in a project on collaborative learning in the psychology department at the University of South Africa. Most recent posts below and links to previous posts on the left.
Standards aren't exactly a turn-on for me, but I've gradually been waking up to how they really are what makes it possible for people to cooperate in the first place. In Vasi van Deventer and my book-in-progress we call standards "packaging" and talk about packaging for humans (things such as how to present different kinds of documents, user interface design, and ergonomics) and packaging for machines (technical standards such as HTML, XML and other protocols that make it easier for information to be processed by automated systems). Under packaging for humans we also plan on talking about the uses of deliberate mis-packaging such as satire and "culture jamming" (e.g. the fake commemorative plaques put up in Paris - including one that proudly proclaims: "This plaque was affixed on December 19, 1953"). I'm not sure if there is any point in deliberate mis-packaging for machines - but there might be!
In the e-learning field more and more work seems to be focused on developing standards, but not yet with much success. These are, I think, some of the problems:
Too much focus on packaging-for-machines and not enough on packaging-for-humans. Look at just about any of the publicly-accessible learning object repositories (there is a list here) and see the diversity of materials that are counted as "learning objects" - anything from a just a plain old general-purpose website to a set of powerpoint slides to an hour-long simulation. There is nothing wrong with this in principle - of course these could all function as learning objects - but it would help if the "learning object community" could develop a much clearer sense of what the different categories of learning object are and what the "human packaging standards" are that go with each.
Over-elaboration. Standards efforts such as SCORM (Sharable Content Object Reference Model) have become so complex that they become a hindrance rather than an enabling mechanism. The sorts of "machine packaging" standards that work on the web (that are actually adopted by a significant number of people) tend to be simple - http, HTML, simple XML standards such as RSS - and the same is likely to be true for e-learning.
An overly technocratic vision of collaboration. Most standards-generation processes in e-learning are meticulously consultative and participatory, but the participants tend to be a small group of academics and technocrats - there is little sense of a larger, vibrant "community of practice" involved in the process. Compare this to blogs where there has been no formal collaborative standards-setting process, but where the size and enthusiasm of the community of practice has ensured that a host of tiny, simple "machine packaging" standards have been developed that are used by many. Similarly, "human packaging" standards have also evolved much more quickly than in e-learning. Blogs are unruly things, but a set of expectations has developed of what various sorts of blogs and postings to blogs are like.
So, anyway, for what it's worth here is another standards initiative I wasn't aware of: The Open Knowledge Initiative (OKI) sounds far-reaching and important, but is in fact just another one of those (possibly over-elaborate, possibly overly-technocratic) efforts to make disparate systems talk to each other. The OKI aims to establish "an open and extensible architecture that specifies how the components of an educational software environment communicate with each other and with other enterprise systems". This means that they are framing a series of "Open Service Interface Definitions" (such as authorization of users and file sharing) so that programmers of e-learning systems can more easily exchange data with other campus systems (such as student management systems) and (maybe) with e-learning systems on other campusses. Very useful for IT managers battling with questions on how to integrate all those large, expensive campus systems (student management, content management, course management), but I'm glad it's not really my problem.
posted by Martin on Friday, May 16, 2003