Learning platform update

Aug 22, 2006

Miles Berry

Much has been written about the Blackboard VLE patent, and there’s not much I can add to this, although I’m following Stephen Downes’ daily updates with interest. Perhaps most interesting from the UK perspective was the Becta email to those who’re tendering for the learning platform framework agreements, the full text of which Leon Cych has posted – essentially, Becta are looking into this, there isn’t a problem at the moment, evidence suggests that there is prior art (gosh!), and even if they got a European patent, it would be up to the UK courts to decide. Thus Becta think the framework agreements should carry on as is. There was an interesting case a few years ago of Bromcom holding a patent to wireless(attendance) registration, which the the DfES challenged and were then assigned the UK patent rigths in an out of court settlement, and I could imagine a similar legal challenge from the DfES if push came to shove in this case. Another curious thing is how, as far as I know, Blackboard have thus far steared fairly clear of the UK schools market: I, for one, would be jolly surprised to see a BB edition adapted to fit in with the Learning Platform functional requirements and technical specifications.

Iain Roberts of the Open Source Consortium has been in touch with Becta about the difficulties facing SMEs in participating in the framework agreements, and has posted Becta’s response on the Schoolforge-UK list. The whole notion of the framework agreements is predicated on the idea that aggregated commercial provision is the only appropriate model, and whilst this might encouragage collaborative work between schools in an LA or RBC, it does little to encourage schools to choose the learning platform that’s right for them, and one size certainly does not suit all:

“Networked learning can be seen as a progressive site of radical pedagogical experiments, emphasizing the anti-hierarchical structure of the web and the way in which social status differences become invisible in cyberspace, ot it can be seen as an instrumentally superior form of knowledge transmission”1

There are a couple of particularly interesting points though in the Becta response. The 2008 roll-out is, it appears, looking a little optimistic as a time for having all the pieces in place, and Becta seem to be set for the long haul here:

“For some deployments it is known that the sophistication in the schools’ Statement of Requirements means that probably many years of development will have to be undertaken by the service provider before security, protection of the content providers’ IPR, portability of the learners’ archives to other schools, achieving educational outcomes, interoperability with MIS etc. become as routine and reliable in reality as electricity for example.”

Or as Apache, Sendmail and Bind for other examples. You don’t suppose this list is in order of importance, do you? This is really not that surprising, and it does make sense to at least make a start. With this sort of agenda in mind though, it would perhaps make more sense to look at the development work needed for stable, mature code rather than encouraging a new set of developers to start re-inventing wheels.

More interesting though is their claim that they’ve ensured that

“the needs of children and the schools they attend, as well as other educational stakeholders, like teachers … are consulted before running a framework agreement”

I am, I must say, somewhat surprised by this, and indeed had repeatedly urged Becta to open up the functional requirements to a far broader discussion than the industry consultation which took place on their closed access ‘quickplace’. According to their practitioner engagement review (also closed access via the quickplace 😉 ),

“An extensive research programme was commissioned in order to ascertain the current state of play regarding learning platform maturity in the primary and secondary sectors… all the research evidence is being assembled and elements will be reflected in the annual Becta Review 2006. There is no intention to publish the research in the public domain as a separate piece of evidence gathering although this may be revised if budgets allow.”

I think they’re referring to an OU study here 2, and to be fair, I do rememember there being invitations to participate last November, and David Morris did get in touch about the St Ives work, although I’ve not seen the report itself. Doesn’t it strike you as odd that the budget allows for commisioning extensive research, but won’t run to popping a pdf on the website?

The research perhaps didn’t help much, as Becta’s annual review states that “the way in which [learning platforms] are being used to deliver content and courses is unclear”, however their use is on the increase with 12% of secondaries and 3% of primaries having proper VLEs, and larger numbers with some other form of Learning Platform. That said, the emphasis on Leanring Platforms in the Becta Review is very much in terms of content delivery (surprise, surprise), with almost no mention being made of their use for communication and collaboration. Indeed in the TestBed schools, the platforms they were provided with proved so cumbersome that some schools went on to develop their own ways of storing and retrieving resources. Becta do acknowledge an increase in the popularity of open-source VLEs in schools, principally it seems because this appears to present better value for money (although I see Becta once again are arguing that schools haven’t considered the TCO here, even though they’d previouslyreported TCO savings from open source desktop software).

“There are clear signs of the development of effective use of earning platforms to support learning, teaching and management in a coherent, effective and efficient way. This is a key point at which ‘best practice’ to support educational processes in these areas can be established. Learning from early adopters is critical at this stage, and should be prioritised at all levels in the system.”

I bet, given their remarks about increased use of open source, that most of these early adopters are using Moodle, and yet, as the DfES’s Colin Hurd puts it,

“Since OSS products do not originate from an industry supplier’s product they are unlikely to be included on the framework.”

The school consultation process however now does seem to be being opened up (horses, stable doors…), and Becta have set up a new, open consultation area on their website for learning platforms and, significantly, management information systems – not much activitiy there at present, but it may provide a useful chanel to communicate some of the unease with aggregated, commercial solutions that I know many of us feel, as well as perhaps providing the opportunity to share some of the good practice that’s happening around this technology in schools.

1 Fox, S (2002) Studying networked learning: some implications from socially situated learning theory and actor network theory, in Steeples & Jones (eds), Networked learning: perspectives and issues, London, Springer-Verlag

2 Twining, P, Broadie, R, Cook, D, Fidler, L, Ford, K, Lewis, N, Morris, D, Orchard, A, Twiner, A, and Underwood, J, (2006) Educational Change and ICT: an exploration of Priorities 2 and 3 of the DfES e-Strategy in Schools and Colleges. A report by the Open University for Becta. (Unpublished draft report)