Portfolios condemmed to die in the educational web?

I hope this to be a first post in a series of case studies regarding a trend I have noticed in education; what I will be calling the dilemma of “to be an Open application or not to be, that is the question”. In these case studies, I will attempt to address an ongoing problem within Education that was typical of companies prior to the dot-com bubble bursting; the problem of deciding to be a sector that adopts open standards or attempts to use their own industry specific standards (please notice I am not talking about open source standards, but rather open application interface standards).

Of course, business has learned its lesson on creating proprietary standards for itself and now actively pursues open standards. Have a look at the meeting around the ATOM API meeting at Google Headquarters in Mountain View upcoming. So the question remains, will education realise the importance of open standards for their own sector, or will they have to learn from their own dot-ac-edu bubble bursting?

Case Study no.1: Portfolios

The primary implication for portfolios is in regards to their long term accessibility, specifically in regards to enabling the student to grow and develop their portfolio as they move from University into work life and then on to other work/learning experiences (lifelong learning!). Therefore, it is essential that the portfolio be agnostic to institution (i.e. the portfolio must be owned and managed by the individual alone -> I would equate this agnosticism to a paper diary: a traditional one with a clasp-lock on it, where the person can take and move this diary wherever they go, with the power to allow access to whomever they desire to give access, without having the slightest worry that someone else might posses a key to their personal and private resource).  Accordingly, I would argue that any attempt to bring the portfolio into the formal space of the institution defeats its very purpose (the portfolio space must belong to the student so as to remove it from the controlled space of the institution).

Besides the theoretical implications there are the technical implications of bringing a portfolio into the walls of a VLE. Currently there is a growing schism between the web as we know it (the web of Google, Microsoft, Sun, IBM, Yahoo!, Oracle, AOL, O’Reilly and W3C) and the web of educational institutions (WebCT, Blackboard, SITS, etc). The latter is a world based on the VLE, which does have its value and purposes (i.e. formative assessment), but is not truly interoperable with the wider web. For example, if a teacher wants to provide a resource to a student in the VLE, they can easily enough load it up into their course structure and class resources. However for that student to get to that resource, they then must log-on, navigate the course structure and then select the document from a list of resources (easily getting lost/distracted along the way). This in contrast to the general web where the teacher sends a link to the student, the student clicks on the link and the resource appears in the their browser. <- while this is a simplified example that the VLE experts will claim can be duplicated, it is not -nor ever was- the way VLEs were designed to handle delivery of resources. And in fact the VLEs technical architecture tells all through its use of standards!

The primary problem with VLEs is that they use a different set of standards to the rest of the web. The primary standards used by VLEs are by the IMS organisation: which is a purpose specific organisation that creates standards for the educational community only. Their standard for web portfolios are well designed and very suitable if the resource is only intended to travel within the educational web (i.e. IMS has excellent standards for text books (IMS-CP), tests and quizzes (IMS-QTI) and other educational specific learning resources), however if the resource is intended to be used outside of the educational sphere -like a portfolio- it should use a world wide web standard (W3C), like HTML, CSS, XML or the like. Accordingly there is a technical decision that every portfolio manager must make: A.) are they going to use one of the IMS standards, or B.) are they going to use a open web standard?

If the answer is “B” then you need to use a portfolio system that is using ATOM or the like (or is actively participating in W3C standards). Blogger and WordPress being the most obvious examples. Though there is still room for educational proprietary technologists to still see the light and realize it is not too late to implement ATOM: good luck with that.

So a simple rule for the educational sector: don’t recreate the web if it has already been created and is actively being used by people; merely integrate into the technology for your own purposes (all you need is an OPEN API)!

Some other ideas for case-studies that I would like to write for the “to be Open or not to be open, that is the question” post series:

  • “Why would we recreate Skype? -> Horizon Wimba a really bad idea!”
  • “Gmail is free, why are Unis still paying for email?”
  • “Google Docs and Spreadsheets, one step away from replacing MS Office in Unis”
  • “Flickr is a better storage and search system than you could ever create in Education!”
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~ by dfflanders on May 14, 2007.

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