Tuesday, December 11, 2007

SALTIS vs. SIFA vs. the learner?

Today I'm at Atomwide in Orpington for the Local Authority Services Meeting. One of the issues this afternoon is around SIF and what might become of things. Phil C from Atomwide is describing how it's Atomwide's intention to host a ZIS and write a SIF Agent for the Atomwide USO system. Rupert Hay-Campbell from Barking & Dagenham LA shared information about meetings of SIFA and how this relates to further developments in this area.
In the meantime, SALTIS is a group of software vendors (deep breath - Suppliers Association for Learning Technology and Interoperability in Schools) who have decided to club together and set a series of standards so that their applications and services talk to one another. There is also a list of partners, which includes Becta. This appears to be in response to the move towards SIF, but bizarrely the list of Saltis members includes a wide range of companies and organisations who are members of SIFA - including Capita, RM and Becta...
So, what's going on? Are a band of brothers of suppliers breaking away in a valiant attempt to bring freedom to schools who are under the cosh of the not-very-accountable SIFA - or is it to ensure that "if you're in the club, then you get to play ball with other members of the club"? Presumably it will only take one or two key players (RM, Capita, a few others) to come down squarely on either side and that will be a signal to schools that whichever side that it is is the "correct" side - and the other is a road to nowhere.
Hang on though, Capita is a member of both, so is it just hedging its bets? Its Parternship XChange product is a tool to share data across institutions delivering the 14-19 diplomas (anyone care to bet that it only shares data between Capita tools, or is it truly open?) and the Capita press release for BETT says that this product is based on SIF ("which is backed by Becta"), so what's Capita's point with SALTIS? Interestingly, the SALTIS site states that anyone can apply, but their application has to be considered by existing members.
Crispin Weston (of Alpha Learning, mentioned in previous posts here) mailed the Naacetalk list with information about SALTIS, which he said is a working group of BESA. The only mention of SIF on the SALTIS site is on the Transfer of Student Records project page:

...SALTIS does not believe that a solution for this urgent requirement can wait, possibly many years, for these complex issues to be resolved. We are therefore bringing forwards a proposal based on bilateral interoperability using the IMS Enterprise protocol. However, we recognise the long-term merits of the case for SIF and shall work with SIFA to ensure that reliable and open solutions are available in all circumstances...
This sounds laudable, but wait a moment. The area of ePortfolios is currently notoriously vague - the specifications (such as they are) given out by Becta are perhaps deliberately so, and what this does is effectively to allow any vendor of anything to come along and say (to schools, local authorities, whoever) "Look at our product! This is an ePortfolio! It's what you need!" and schools have no external and independent definition to compare it with and question its functionality and form intelligently. SALTIS's approach to integrating the data from ePortfolios is:
SALTIS will draw on the practical experience of its members to develop an incremental programme, prioritising those types of e-portfolio for which a clear demand exists, from teachers, exam boards, consumers of assessment data, or central government agencies; and for which clear support exists in the industry.
There's a glaring omission there, and it's the learner. The final part also makes interesting reading - if "the industry" (education's an industry now) deems that a sort of portfolio isn't worth supporting, then it won't be, at least not in the first instance. Let's face it, once schools have been offered a few portfolio tools, all of which are based around the same assumption of what an ePortfolio is, they won't have the time or inclination to research or desire any other types. Well, at least the industry gets what it wants, even if the learners don't. SALTIS asserts that "the efficacy of [various types of ePortfolios] is in many cases still unproven" and hence it will turn to its members to decide which types are valid. Remember that these members have interests in promoting a particular view of what an ePortfolio is, and unsurprisingly this normally aligns closely with whatever they're currently marketing.
In some ways SALTIS reminds me of something I've previously mentioned, when a suppliers' body and software vendors decided that the BBC Digital Curriculum wasn't something they approved of and, at that year's Naace conference, launched a campaign to offer "choice for schools". I guess the fact that SALTIS doesn't rule out SIF completely means there's hope, but some people would surmise that the whole BBC Jam issue had its roots in this move, and I wonder what the outcomes of SALTIS might be.
Personally, I'd say that the efficacy of most ePortfolios currently being pushed to schools and LAs is still unproven - most case studies are based in the "unreal world" - a school gets chosen to be a pilot ("you lucky school!"), has an inordinate amount of support, training and resources and then this is sold to other schools as "You can have this in your school too!". Anyone who stops to think probably knows that the schools featured as "case studies" in the glossy brochures and DVDs littering BETT have had atypical support and resources, but most of us are still blinded by the gloss as we shuffle round Olympia looking for somewhere to sit. This is one of the reasons that, when we're training schools on Moodle, we don't show the resources to which we've given direct support to - a school which has developed something itself, operating within its own capacity and in The Real World, is something that I can share with a clean conscience, rather than illustrating the results of an unsustainable model which pretends that schools were doing this anyway. At least by sharing that I know that what we're sharing there is replicable.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Ian,

    Thanks for your detailed comments on SALTIS which, as ever, gives me a very useful opportunity to respond to some of the points that you raise.

    "The SALTIS site states that anyone can apply, but their application has to be considered by existing members"

    This is not an attempt to rig the membership but simply a part of the terms of reference which we have inherited from BESA. If any application is refused, an appeal can be made to BESA. There clearly has to be some kind of admissions procedure, but it is not the intention of the rules that anyone who qualifies for membership (suppliers of learning technology to compulsory education) should be turned down. There is more discretion in the admission of partners as there is then a question of the partner's relevance to the aims of SALTIS.

    SALTIS was formed on my personal initiative when I called an industry meeting in July and as a result of my personal and passionate belief that ICT can do very much more to support learning than it is allowed to do at the moment. You may or may not agree with my views but to suggest that SALTIS is the result of some sort of plot by RM or Capita or anyone else is simply wrong. The initiative, though, has gathered strong support from a wide range of people within and without the industry, indicating a very general consensus that more needs to be done about interoperability.

    Nor is it strange that companies should belong to more than one standards group: it is partly a question of different groups doing different things and partly a question, as you say, of hedging your bets – that is surely only prudent, as much for education as a whole as for individual commercial companies. And standards groups are not mafia gangs which knee-cap their members for being seen in the wrong company!

    SALTIS is committed to free and open standards. If we develop new standards or application profiles, we will transfer the copyright to BSI – so there is no question of SALTIS establishing territory or going head-to-head with any other standards body. Our initial work on content packaging has been warmly welcomed by IMS in America, which has proposed that we should be represented on their working groups. I have invited SIFA to become a partner of SALTIS and I would welcome co-operation with them.

    You do not quote the paragraph from the SALTIS website which deals with some of our reservations about SIF:

    "In the more immediate term there are difficulties. SIF cannot be used unless the Local Authority has installed a ZIS and, apart from a pilot project in Birmingham, none of them have, nor is there is any commitment from central government to fund universal coverage. Schools been not been consulted on the implications on their internal data being managed by their local authority; and there are concerns about the cost of SIF, not only for Local Authorities which have to pay an annual, per-student, license fee to run the ZIS, but also for applications developers, who have to pay a license fee to connect to the ZIS."

    But if these reservations can be overcome and/or satisfactory clarification provided (i.e. if SIF can be shown to work and to be fair to everyone) then SALTIS will be right behind it. But so long as SIF does not offer a solution which works everywhere or for everyone, we will continue to explore alternatives, and in particular IMS Enterprise, on the grounds that, at least in the short to medium term, we believe it will work better. If you disagree with this conclusion, then engage with the technical argument – but please keep away from the conspiracy theories or from suggesting that we are betraying some sort of grand cause.

    On e-portfolios, I very much agree with your comments that they are currently poorly defined and I find it strange that, with a major target coming up in March, there has been so little official clarification. I hope that SALTIS will be able to help remedy this, starting from the 4-way classification of e-portfolios (for presentation, for learning, for assessment and for transition) which was proposed in Becta’s bizarrely unpublished 2006 scoping study.

    When I say that we will prioritise our work on e-portfolios according to demand in the industry and the profession, you object that I have left out the learner “a glaring omission”! But were learners consulted before the introduction of GCSEs, or diplomas, or interactive whiteboards, or phonetics? Of course not. Claiming a mandate from “the learner” is a bit like Stalin claiming a mandate from “the people” – not much more than cheap propaganda.

    SALTIS will not supply e-portfolio systems, it will in some sense supply interoperability standards and the consumers of interoperability standards are not learners but the suppliers of applications. And it is these suppliers that want to supply to the market e-portfolio systems that will sell to teachers and ultimately to learners.

    The nub of your dislike for SALTIS seems to be that it is commercial – you are dismayed that “if "the industry" (education's an industry now) deems that a sort of portfolio isn't worth supporting, then it won't be, at least not in the first instance”

    1. When I use the term “the industry”, I am referring not to education but to the commercial companies which supply education. It is a term which deliberately sets commercial companies apart from the education system itself.

    2. If industry deems that a sort of portfolio isn’t worth supporting, then it won’t be supported by industry. That’s self-evident, isn’t it?

    3. But the main point is that, if customers want something, industry will fall over itself to give it to them. Industry makes its money by giving customers what they want. In this it is, as a system, astonishingly successful. It is no accident that the PC, the iPod, the mobile and all the almost magical technology on which we now rely, came out of free market America, not out of command-and-control Russia.

    So why is our education system stuck in command-and-control mode, when it is clearly not working and when there is an alternative that clearly does work astonishingly well? The only answer I can see is that the people doing the commanding and controlling like it that way.

    It is not industry but government that decides who the customer is (i.e. who gets to spend the money). I believe that the customers should be the people who are in the best position to assess real need. In my book that is not the learner, who, left to their own devices, is not well equipped to distinguish between wants and needs. But I do think the customer should be as close as possible to the learner, which is why I would give the money to teachers, properly supported in an informed and regulated market.

    “But some people would surmise that the whole BBC Jam issue had its roots in this move”

    Personally, I very much regret the loss of the BBC Jam materials – which could have acted as a very useful pump-priming exercise to the whole industry. But it was essential that the BBC materials were fully interoperable and did not act as a Trojan horse for a state monopoly. Unfortunately, the BBC was allowed to develop its own management system (against the conditions supposedly applied to the project) and to create proprietary links between the content and their own management system, which would have been highly anti-competitive.

    So, while I don’t entirely understand what you mean by your surmise (which again sounds rather conspiratorial to me) I would say that in my own mind SALTIS and the failure of Jam are linked in the sense that the failure of Jam was a consequence of the long-term failure to create clear interoperability standards, and SALTIS is about creating those standards. If the work which SALTIS is setting out to do now was done ten years ago, I do not think that Jam would have failed.

    Re. pilots and glossy brochures (which government is just as good at producing as business), I agree with you again. I am all in favour of user reviews, as you find on Amazon, where teachers with real-world experience could swap opinions. I find it extraordinary that the government has only ever, to my knowledge, supported reviews which were paid for by the reviewee, and in which nothing rude is ever said. An efficient market is an informed market. In SALTIS’ content packaging proposal, I have suggested that any kite-marked content should not only conform to technical specifications, but also legally accept the right of review sites to post what may be potentially critical reviews.

    So although I suspect that I am more enamoured of the market than you are, I think we are both aiming for very much the same thing. Which is just as well, as I believe that SALTIS will very shortly be welcoming Buckinghamshire as one of our latest partners!