Scott Wilson has a terrific response to my recent post calling for “more standards.” To begin with, he articulates one of the underlying issues that I think was bugging Scott Leslie as well. In the abstract, it’s hard to argue against standards. In practice, however, the particular Standards that are Issued from the Official Bodies that Bless Them sometimes seem like they add a whole lot of complexity to relatively little benefit.
So how do you solve this problem? How do you increase the probability that a given standard is going to have significant practical value? Scott W. offers solid formula which I will paraphrase and expand just a bit as follows:
- Identify a user problem that you need to solve.
- Check to be sure that you can’t solve it using an existing standard.
- If possible, find a few other organizations that have the same problem and talk it through.
- Build a pilot solution implementation with standardization in mind.
- Test the solution and encourage your peer organizations to test it as well.
- Refine based on testing.
- When you believe you have a stable, workable solution, then select an appropriate Standards Body to have it live with. In general, avoid having education-specific standards bodies (e.g., the IMS) Bless the Standard unless you are solving an education-specific problem.
- Have the appropriate Standards Body examine the proposal, suggest changes when appropriate, and Issue a Blessing.
In this scenario, the Standards Bodies really act as a quality assurance and dissemination mechanism. While they certainly could assist member organizations in the early stages of preparing a standards proposal, it would be healthiest to cast a broad net and encourage grassroots solution development as broadly as possible. Scott W. holds up JISC’s eLearning Framework (eLF) as good example of that approach, and while the jury is still out on how productive eLF will ultimately be, I agree that it’s a good example of the right approach.
Here’s an example of how this sort of approach could work, drawing on a discussion that’s happening right now in the Moodle community:Moodle 1.6 has a blogging tool. Importantly, the blog lives outside the course instance and is owned by individual students. The blog lives on for the entire period that the student is at the school. This is great, but it creates a problem too. Suppose you want to have students blog about a topic and you also what them to read and comment on their classmates’ posts on the same topic. Do ask them to go out to each student’s blog and drill down to find the appropriate post? That seems like a lot of work–enough work, in fact, that students probably wouldn’t do it. So, really, you want to bring the appropriate blog posts into the course environment. You want to aggregate them.
Now, if you happen to own the blog software as well as the course environment (which Moodle does), there are lots and lots of ways that you can accomplish this goal technically. But what if you don’t? Interestingly, several good reasons came up for supporting external blogging software. First, some may want richer functionality than the Moodle blogging tool is likely to provide. (A specialized package like WordPress will usually be more feature-rich than an add-on module to an LMS). Also, what if the student wants to keep the blog after leaving the school that hosts the learning environment? Shouldn’t s/he be able to host an external permanent blog and still participate?
So we need a standard way of aggregating the appropriate posts. Your learning environment should parse the student blog posts (presumably via RSS or Atom), look for a marker saying “this post is part of Assignment X for Course Y”, and publish appropriately marked posts to one place within the course environment. You could do this by using the category tag in RSS or by using a folksonomic tagging system like Technorati’s. Given the existence of several standards that meet the general goal, somebody with the immediate need (possibly the Moodle community) should look more deeply at the alternatives, pick one, and pilot it. Importantly, whatever method they choose can be used by the internal blogging tool as well as external tools. In other words, designing to interoperability standards does not have to degrade the ability to run one easy-to-maintain monolithic LMS.
Now, if you’re doing this a lot, you may want to reduce tagging errors. After all, the tag indicating a particular class and assignment may not be very intuitive; it could be easy for a student miskey the tag and not get credit. So what we really want to do is give faculty the ability to push a tag out to the blog. And again, we don’t assume that the blog is internally developed. How do we do that? Somebody would need to develop a tool that lets the user of a blog tool pull out the teacher’s published list of assignment tags so that they could be selected via check boxes or a drop-down list. You might or might not need some sort of authentication mechanism as part of this (to make sure the student gets all and only the assignment tags s/he is supposed to get for her courses). It would need to be a fairly lightweight bit of code, too, if you expect it to be integrated into a blogging tool (unless it’s a stand-alone tool that relies upon the students to copy and paste). Does this functionality require a new standard? I don’t know. The best way to find out is to plan and execute a pilot implementation and see what interfaces you need that don’t exist as standards.
But we’re still not done. The assignment to the students was to read and comment on their classmates’ blog posts. Where do those comments go? Are they private to the course instance? Do they travel with the student’s blog? I can imagine pedagogical circumstances in which I’d want to do either one. The former case is easier to deal with; you publish each tagged post as a thread starter on a course-internal forum. The latter case, which I personally would tend to prefer in most circumstances, is harder. If the students’ individual blogs own the comments on the posts, then you have the fragmentation problem again. You’ll have to send students out to various blogs to post their comments. Now, you can mitigate this somewhat by aggregating comments via RSS or Atom, (if the blogging package supports that), but I still believe there would be an excessive amount of clicking and a fair bit of fragmentation. In an ideal world, I would want to mirror the blog’s comment thread in a course-internal discussion thread. Posting to one would update both.
Is there a standard mechanism for providing this sort of thread mirroring? I’m not aware of any. The closest I’ve seen is an RSS extention proposal by Ray Ozzie called Simple Sharing Extensions. Would it work for this case? I have no idea. But I’d love to see a couple of LMS platform development teams get together to discuss solving this particular problem (i.e., integrating a course-external blog into a course environment), come up with some use cases, and pilot some implementations. The end result could be a proposal to a Standards Body for Blessing or just some more informal agreements about standard ways to integrate blogs. Either way, the VLE space moves forward.
I’m absolutely in favor of pushing more standards as aggressively as possible. In contrast, I’m agnostic on the issue of Standards.