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.