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June 13, 2007

Bashing in Bolton

At the end of last week I spent a couple of days at the 4th JISC CETIS CodeBash at the University of Bolton.

I think the CodeBash events are, or at least have been in the past, aimed primarily at those individuals developing and/or working with software tools which implement various specifications and standards used in the e-learning sphere. They provide an opportunity for some very concrete explorations of technical interoperability ("If my tool exports/exposes an instance of format XYZ, what happens when your tool  imports/consumes it?", "How does a title search on my system A compare with a title search on  your system B?", and so on.) Also, since several JISC CETIS staff are closely involved in the processes of developing specifications, they allow participants to provide quite detailed feedback on specifications - especially on versions that are under development.

There were about 20 people at the meeting in Bolton, and probably a slightly smaller number joined the event remotely at some point, using the Adobe Acrobat Connect/Macromedia Breeze facilities provided by SURF (JISC's counterparts in the Netherlands (roughly)).

As I readily admitted when I introduced myself to the other participants, I felt I was perhaps there "under false pretences" as it's probably twenty years since I've considered myself a "coder" (well, in my work time anyway - I occasionally dabble at weekends, mainly with PHP, but of late that has been in a fairly desultory fashion!). In part I was curious to see how the events worked, but I was also interested in finding out what were the areas of concern/interest for the e-learning developers working "at the coalface".

I suppose my broader interest is in trying to see when what may appear to be problems and challenges specific to a domain or community have similarities to more general problems and challenges, or those encountered in other domains. As Andy discussed in a couple of posts some time back, for example, an "item bank" is pretty much a specialised form of repository, and many of the approaches taken to providing functions in systems which call themselves repositories are probably equally applicable to systems which call themselves item banks. (In particular, I'd hope that specifications such as the Atom Publishing Protocol would find a wide adoption, as it seems to me it addresses some core functions that are common to many different types of systems which essentially manage "a collection of member resources".)

The event opened with some short presentations giving updates from groups working on specification development:

  • Wilbert Kraan from JISC CETIS reported on developments in the forthcoming version 1.2 of IMS Content Packaging and on progress in the IEEE RAMLET project. One item which prompted a fair amount of discussion was the indication of a plan to develop what I think Wilbert referred to as a "safe" profile of IMS CP - a very minimal feature set which a system should support.
  • Steve Lay from CARET, University of Cambridge reported on work on version 2.1 of IMS Question & Test Interoperability (QTI)
  • Angelo Panar from ADL briefly discussed recent work around SCORM, including some of the suggested organisational changes intended to reflect the fact that the SCORM user community is considerably broader than the military community within which SCORM was initially developed. (As Wilbert notes in an earlier post, this is not an uncontroversial topic!)

I gathered from the conversations around me that in previous events in the CodeBash series, the emphasis had been mainly on exploring the various flavours of learning object metadata specifications and the IMS Content Packaging specification, whereas this time the topics of discussion were rather more wide-ranging - and indeed weren't at all limited to testing low-level interactions between applications. If there was an emphasis on some particular specification (or set of specifications), it was probably on IMS QTI, with representatives from a number of projects developing tools (authoring tools, item banks, delivery tools/"players") in that area.

I think a lot of the work at the event took place in exchanges between small groups of participants - or even just a couple of participants. And unless you were a party to the individual conversation, it wasn't easy to get a sense of what was going on - I entered one of the Breeze rooms on the Friday morning and discovered quite a long chat dialogue between a local participant and a remote participant that I hadn't been aware of. That's not meant to be a complaint - not at all! - just an observation on the nature of the meeting. And indeed I did do a certain amount of lurking and looking over people's shoulders to listen in on some of those conversations (in at least one of which the participants seemed to be on their way to developing a proposal for a short JISC project!)

In terms of practical/technical input, I'm not sure how much I actually contributed to the event, to be honest ;-) But from my viewpoint it was an interesting experience none the less, both in terms of seeing what sort of issues the learning technologists are grappling with and in terms of trying to fit that into a broader landscape.

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