Friday, March 16, 2007

Local Authorities who use Becta framework may breach European Procurement Regulations

Ah, I thought that that post title would get your attention...
Well, the Becta Learning Platform procurement thing rumbles on. Brought to my attention this morning were a series of documents on the Alpha Learning web site. You may know that Alpha Learning are asking the European Commission to investigate Becta's Learning Platform Procurement for a breach of European regulations. The documents on the site expand on that a bit - including a press release which looks like it's trying to sow plenty of fear, uncertainty and doubt among local authorities.
First of all, let's get some obvious but important things out of the way. You won't be surprised to learn that Alpha Learning's learning platform offering didn't make it to the final list of Becta approved providers. There's no way to be sure, but I don't think it's a completely unreasonable assumption to say that had they been on the final list, they wouldn't be going after Becta's rules like this. (I've also heard that when the original Becta list came out there were only 9 suppliers on the list, with a significant omission which couldn't really be left out, so when the final list came out, there were 10... now bear in mind that this May Or May Not Be True.) Secondly, the documents are written from a particular point of view and can hardly be described as "neutral" - understandable, if as a company you believe in your product you will defend it to the hilt.
OK, so here's Alpha Learning's Critique of Becta's Policy on Learning Platforms. Ignoring the usual collection of typos, there are a number of interesting points and a fair few which don't seem consistent. In particular some of the points are so subjective to make the reader question the validity of the rest of the document. When understandable phrases such as 'a collaborative approach to personalised learning activities', 'curriculum entitlement' and 'transforming teaching, learning and child development' are dismissed out of hand as "pure gobbledegook" (p4) I can't help but be tempted to read the rest of the document with one eyebrow desperate to raise itself. There are good points about interoperability - though I'd refer the reader to a presentation by Steve Jeyes of CETIS if you want a clearer view of what interoperability might and might not mean...

The more I read this document the clearer it becomes that it is a very personal work - even down to the style. There are some odd assertions about certain things - "BBC Jam is not compatible with leading VLEs" - that's a very loaded statement, since Jam comes (or came) in SCORM packages which by all accounts worked well. Also, the Alpha Learning web site proudly trumpets "Unlimited access to free content on the Engage repository. This includes content such as BBC Jam materials..." Eh? Personally I think that the Becta framework does need refining, that it might benefit from being challenged, but I'm not sure this is the document to do it. The footnotes in particular are littered with statements which would allow the critique to be dismissed out of hand - phrases like "rigged market" don't breed confidence in the objectivity of this assessment of the state of the learning platform world.
The Local Authority press release is a very odd read. In Buckinghamshire we're not going down the Becta route, but I can imagine a number of other LAs getting jumpy and re-thinking their procurement processes. I'm not sure why this document has been released - is it intended to try and call Becta's bluff by scaring local authorities into not going down the "rest assured - it's Becta procured" rhyming couplet route? If so (a) what's the irony in that giving the recent activity around BBC Jam and legal challenges from Europe and (b) what is Alpha Learning's desired outcome from taking this position? Are they hoping that those they scare out of the Becta boat will jump willingly into their interoperative arms? I don't think that would happen - any more than those people who have been using Jam would start to eagerly consume educational software from the commercial educational suppliers who brought the Jam service to a premature end. Bear in mind it was the threat of legal action which was the reason given for the withdrawal of Jam - will the threat of similar action cause Becta to change tack? Let's see...

6 comments:

  1. Hello Ian,

    Having received many positive reactions to the Critique, it is interesting to read the first negative review! Perhaps I can respond to some of your points:

    1. Alpha Learning, being a small company, did not enter the procurement competition. As an active participant in Learning Services Technical Sub-group, I was very critical of many aspects of the specifications document as soon as it was released - records of these discussions are available on the Becta website but if you can't find them, I will post them on the Alpha site. You will notice that the Critique is dated 12th June 2006 (before the issue of the ITT) and I have been criticising Becta's failure to implement interoperability since at least 1998. The charge of sour grapes, while understandable, is not borne out by the facts.

    2. BBC Content did conform, after some early gremlins had been ironed out, to Content Packaging. The problems were with the SCORM runtime, which allows platform and content to exchange information as the content is used. Early versions did not run at all in a runtime environment. Later versions of the content ran but passed no data to or from the platform, not because there was no data to pass, but because all the data was sent back to the BBC management system (which the DCMS conditions had forbidden them to develop). This raised serious problems for platforms which were designed not just passively to host content, but actively to manage it. It is like having a puppet with someone else pulling all the strings. We advertised the fact that Engage ran the BBC content as well as any other 3rd party platform - which is not to say that the content ran as well as it did on the BBC platform, with which it had proprietary links. Like you, I regret the loss of BBC Jam but believe that if it were to survive, it had to be fully interoperable.

    3. You accuse us of trying to scare the LAs. Like anyone putting out a press release, we are trying to get a message across. The title accurately reflects the legal advice we have received and I make no apologies if it is eye-catching. The press release is necessarily brief and if any local authority wants more information about our objections to the framework, they should contact me at crispin.weston@alphalearning.co.uk.

    4. I admit the Critique is a personal view and the point about gobbledegook may be subjective, but the second extract you misquote: it is "transforming teaching, learning and child development [through an] integrated online information service". Does anyone seriously think we are going to transform child development with an online information service? If only it were that easy!

    Crispin.

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  2. Hi Crispin, thanks for your post and for clarifying some issues. I'm aware that Alpha Learning (along with lots of other "smaller than Becta would have liked" companies) didn't apply for the Becta Framework, but I don't think your critique document is entirely the issue - it's the nature of the press release.
    I don't think it's irrational to assume that the nature and wording of the press release would do anything but scare Local Authorities who are following the Becta framework. The fact that I was made aware of it through a message from another local authority saying words to the effect of "we're not sure about what to do now as regards procurement as we don't want to break European regulations" demonstrates that is a potential (and actual) outcome of the press release. Is this a surprising outcome to you?
    There are (or at least, were...) plenty of areas which the framework could have been reviewed and revised, however, is it too late now? I think that something more rounded, with comments and constructive criticism from companies, schools, LAs, RBCs, learners (maybe, I think LPs might be a bit abstract for many of them at the moment) would have more clout. I think the AL critique is one element of that, but I think that combined with those other elements it would form a much stronger platform to influence both policy and practice - but maybe that ship has sailed... read the letter in today's Guardian E-Learning supplement for more in that area.
    To answer your final point - no, an online information service won't transform Children's Services on its own - but one that's used effectively, by informed officers, teachers and learners with the capacity to think in ways which an increasingly information-based society will empower, can.... I have to say, if you didn't believe that, both as an individual and as a company, then I don't think you'd be in this business... after all, that's s'posed to be some of what this whole LP thing is about, isn't it?

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  3. Hi Ian,

    Re. scaring the Local Authorities - 'scaring' is a bit emotive but yes, essentially you are right, I want to stop them 'calling off' under a deeply flawed and damaging framework, nor do I want them to be misled by Becta's very inaccurate statements about the platforms on that framework. You suggest that is unfair on the Local Authorities, who are caught between a rock and a hard place. A couple of points:

    1. We have offered to Becta to sit down and put all our evidence on the table if they will disclose all their evidence relevant to our allegations. They have refused.

    2. I am offering to write to Local Authorities to describe key points from our case, so that they can make an informed decision as to whether our case has merit. If they judge that it does, and Becta fails to provide a substantive rebuttal, surely it is right to wait for the Commission to make a judgement based on the full evidence? I do not wish to scare anyone but sometimes it is necessary to say "Boo!" in order to get people's attention.

    "Too late now?" - I don't think so. If the Commission initiates infraction proceedings against the UK government in the European Court, then the LP framework (in its current form) is dead. BBC Jam is already dead (for which Becta, responsible for monitoring the initiative through the Content Advisory Board, bears significant blame). A succession of reports into learning gains from ICT (ImpaCT2, Whiteboards) show virtually none. Almost wherever you look, Becta-managed policy is a fiasco. As awareness of this bubbles up to ministerial level, I think you will see things start to change. John Pugh has done very good work in bringing these issues to the fore in Parliament.

    Am I some kind of destructive loose canon? Very many companies support my position strongly but are reluctant to say so because they depend on government contracts for their revenue. Speak to Becta's independent technical advisers and you will find that I have played a constructive role on government and BESA working groups for more than 10 years. I am currently involved in industry group attempts to put together proposals for as way forward on interoperability once the way is clear. But sometimes you have to tear down before you can build. I am not anti-Becta in principle – but the current situation (a Becta with no credibility) is bad for everyone.

    Re. the information service: again, perhaps a personal view, but I think far too much emphasis has been put on the dissemination of information. I believe you learn by engaging in activity (and the computer is an interactive medium). I see learning platforms as providing activity management, not dissemination of information. I agree that the latter has use for teachers & other professionals and many schools and colleges use their 1st generation learning platforms only for this purpose. Isn’t this a tacit admission that there is something wrong with the model?

    Regards,
    Crispin.

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  4. Hi Crispin...
    Well, as you can probably imagine, as we're not using the Becta framework I'm far less bothered than I might be if the LP framework goes belly-up due to a legal challenge - however I think my interest is in formulating a more balanced argument - one which comes from LAs and doesn't simply make the hard place (you describe them as being near) harder.
    So what's your suggested route for LAs who are considering the framework now? Bear in mind that (a) schools are requesting LP-esque functionality and it makes more sense for LAs to procure on at least an authority-wide basis. Assuming that, despite having read your letter, they (a) won't have the time or experience to decide on the merits of an EU legal case and (b) won't necessarily want to purchase a particular product (not even yours) without some sort of procurement process - what should they do?

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  5. Hi Ian,

    Sorry to be slow in responding - I have just come back from a week's holiday. Thanks for the blank sheet of paper. I have never worked for a Local Authority so I can't say I have insight into all the pressures under which you operate, so the following advice cannot be more than tentative.

    I think LAs have two sets of problems: doing the right thing by the regulations and doing the right thing by their schools. My basic approach would be to do the minimum required to tick the box as far as the regulations are concerned and get on with doing what you see as being best for schools.

    1. Regulations.

    LAs are not required to provide a system that meets Becta’s technical specifications or even comes close to it. The only requirement laid on them by the DfES is:

    ‘By spring 2008 every pupil should have access to a personalised online learning space with the potential to support an e-portfolio’, and ‘by 2010 every school should have integrated learning and management systems (a comprehensive suite of learning platform technologies)’.

    The ‘personalised online learning space’, I understand to mean some server space where you can store your files – an online equivalent of a USB pen. This does not strike me as being very useful but, on the plus side, is not difficult and should not be expensive to provide. How anyone is going to assess whether it has the potential to support an e-portfolio and what is meant by ‘a comprehensive suite of learning platform technologies’ beats me entirely, considering that the DfES’ unhelpful definition of a ‘learning platform’ is a ‘a broad range of ICT systems used to deliver and support learning’. I would suggest that you completely ignore everything other than the ‘personalised online learning space’ and then proceed to explore the ‘learning platform space’ according to your own lights (and those of your teachers). In providing the personalised workspace, I should be very careful not to get tied into a product calling itself a ‘Learning Platform’ but offering only very simple functionality.

    2. Education

    The problem seems to me to be that no-one really knows what the requirement is yet and I do not think that anyone should be spending large sums of money until more evidence emerges of what really works. If I were you, I would want to be working with some of my lead schools on a series of smaller pilots – observing closely what really works in the classroom and listening very hard to the reactions of schools.

    At the risk of over-simplification, here are what I see as possible answers to the question of what is required in the ‘learning platform’ space:

    1. The Moodle answer – discussion forums for students to develop their own theses and to share work.

    2. The Facebook answer – showcasing of work to improve motivation.

    3. The Diane Laurillard answer: e-Portfolios (are these showcasing tools, assessment tools, tools to encourage reflective learning, or digital dustbins? No-one has said or bothered to pilot any of these models in schools)

    4. The Curriculum Online answer: content search and discovery through better metadata tagging and associated search engines.

    5. The Learnwise answer: personal information management for students and student-teacher email communication.

    6. The CPD answer: collaborative spaces for teachers to share best practice and communicate with the LA and its agencies.

    7. The home support answer: better flow of information to parents.

    8. The RBC answer: one-stop-shop content repositories.

    9. The Alpha Engage (my) answer: deployment infrastructure for learning content.

    All of these answers have, no doubt, some part to play – but what is the ‘big idea’ in all of this? If ‘my answer’ seems rather Delphic, then it is explained at length in the Critique document and in brief (to avoid cross posting – I’m doing rather a lot of it at the moment) on the EduGeek forum (top post at http://www.edugeek.net/index.php?name=Forums&file=viewtopic&t=5764&start=30).

    3. Procurement

    If you stick to small pilots supporting ‘pathfinder’ schools, then you should be able to keep your procurements small and relatively informal. Even the LA-wide ‘personalised online working space’ should come in very comfortably under the £140,000 threshold which would require you to hold a full OJEU procurement.

    4. Local Authority role

    You say ‘it makes more sense for LAs to procure on at least an authority-wide basis’. Although that is current orthodoxy, I am not sure that is true so long as no-one is quite sure what it is you want/need. There is a lot of scope for expensive procurement which turns out to be completely useless; and even the right procurement must keep in step with practice. Everyone’s rhetoric is way ahead of reality.

    Don’t let schools get away with asking for LP-esque functionality: ask them what they mean. If they want discussion forums, get them (i.e. those who ask for it and show some commitment to it) Moodle; if they want control over assignment and tracking of student performance, we will shortly be sending out free trials of Engage, running to August 2008 (there's the pitch) etc. But encourage the discussion, encourage a certain amount of diversity in the implementation, implement incrementally, piggy-back on the enthusiasm of teachers, and keep evaluating.

    When you have an interesting project, I would try and transplant it from what might be an expert and enthusiastic initiator to slightly less committed, skilled or well-resourced schools. I should not place too much emphasis on staff training – any pedagogy which requires teachers to learn too many new skills or commit any significant extra time will fail outside the laboratory. And I should not spend money or time implementing/creating your own vle/platform, other than something you recognise to be a stop-gap – all these home-made systems will be in the bin in a couple of years time.

    As far as instructions and advice from the centre is concerned, I would in almost every case that I have seen, ask ‘what do you mean by that?’, and in the absence of a coherent answer, ignore it. Instead, I would rely on sharing experience with other people in schools and LAs whom I trusted. I tend to ruffle some feathers with some fairly plain speaking and am happy to challenge many of the current orthodoxies. I wish more people would do the same. At the moment, there is a lot of lemming like behaviour, and a lot of people listening deferentially to supposed authorities who are advocating untried and poorly defined pedagogies, while government targets and frameworks are positively encouraging people to spend lots of money on poorly evaluated systems.

    All the best

    Crispin.

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  6. Well this is an interesting discussion. I would take issue with this paragraph from Crispin.

    "If you stick to small pilots supporting ‘pathfinder’ schools, then you should be able to keep your procurements small and relatively informal. Even the LA-wide ‘personalised online working space’ should come in very comfortably under the £140,000 threshold which would require you to hold a full OJEU procurement."

    If an LA procures something then they have to go through a procurement process according to their own rules. The process is an emminently auditable and transparent process. The argument here stems from a (allegedly) badly run OJEU process.

    LAs who routinely use the ojeu processes (and run them properly) are likely to be doing their procurements properly.

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