From #ePortfolios to  #OpenLedgers — via #OpenBadges and #BlockChains

When I started exploring Open Badges a few years ago, I rapidly realised that not only were they a solution to several of the problems we had with ePortfolios, but they also had the potential to help us reinvent them — the Open Badge Passport initiative is our contribution to this. And now that I have started exploring the possible application of blockchains to Open Badges, I realise that not only were blockchains the perfect solution to a number of Open Badge problems, but they could also be a means to review our ideas on Open Badges altogether.

What is a blockchain?

A blockchain is the historical record of all the transactions between the participants (nodes) of a network. This record is referred to as a ledger, the artefact accountants use for book keeping. Adding new entries to the ledger, or modifying existing ones, is done by adding a new block to the chain — previous blocks are the faithful representation of the ledger’s previous states.

Moreover, the blockchain technology makes ledgers unfalsifiable. How is this possible? By providing a copy of the full ledger to all members of the network and defining an ingenious protocol for adding new blocks to the chain so that even if someone tried to add an invalid block, the network would detect the fraud and reject the chain containing the invalid block.

One vital point about blockchain technology is privacy: while transactions are public, they can be verified without having to know the real identities of the participants. Identities remain masked.

What could the representation of an Open Badge in a blockchain be?

The first time a badge is issued, a block is created to record a set of metadata. In a sense, one could describe the first block as a badge: instead of being “baked” into a picture, the metadata is “baked” into a ledger. If the same badge was issued to 300 people, the first block of the ledger would record that piece of information — a block usually records several transactions. Continue reading

#Openbadges + #Blockchains = #BitofTrust ?

One aspect of the question regarding a possible relationship between blockchains and Open Badges is to wonder whether the blockchain should be treated as some kind of add-on to the existing Open Badge structure/standard, or should Open Badges be integrated within a blockchain?

A starting point for an informed answer to this question is to do a simple test: take an Open Badge generated by one issuing platform and try to import it into another issuing/hosting platform. I have done this experiment recently, taking only a very small sample, and the results were rather… (un)conclusive — BTW, one suggestion for the Standards Working group would be to run a real life interoperability test (not just through a formal proof) across all platforms and publish the results.

Interoperability is a classical problem to which the ePortfolio community was confronted some years ago and to which no convincing answer was ever provided — the IMS-Global ePortfolio and Leap2A specifications (2 specifications for interoperability is already one too many!!!) are only used by a handful of ePortfolio platforms — notwithstanding that there are many ePortfolios that do not use any ePortfolio platform at all! Moreover, when we organised plugfests during previous ePIC conferences, we had to admit that 3 platforms using the same technical specification (IMS ePortfolio at the time) had problems understanding each other: exporting one ePortfolio from one platform then importing it to another did not always work properly…

One could have imagined that with a structure much simpler than ePortfolios, the problem of interoperability would have disappeared. It has not. And now that we have allowed extensions to the specification, the order of magnitude for potential interoperability problems has increased geometrically, not just arithmetically. Yet, the possibility to extend the specification, even by one single issuing platform, willing to gain a competitive advantage, with a better or innovative service, should probably be allowed. We certainly do not want a “one-size-fits-all” issuing platform. Innovation must go on!

Are blockchains the solution to Open Badges interoperability?

Continue reading

What have I learned from Moodle and Mahara?

I am currently working on a project (http://www.transit-project.eu/) the objective of which is to help secondary education teachers in developing the competencies they need to support the acquisition of key competencies of their pupils as defined by the Key Competences for Lifelong Learning Framework published by the European Commission. The course we are developing will be adapted to the different national contexts of the project partners.

The Key Competences framework comprises 8 key competencies:

  • Communication in the mother tongue
  • Communication in foreign languages
  • Mathematical, science and technology competencies
  • Digital competency
  • Learning to learn
  • Social and civic competencies
  • Sense of initiative and entrepreneurship
  • Cultural awareness and expression

I will detail in another post my criticism of this framework (which is like the wedding of the carp and the rabbit) but for now I will simply indicate that there is a much better and more properly structured framework developed by the Scottish government. It is called Curriculum for Excellence.

The Four Capacities —  the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence

The most obvious difference between the European and Scottish frameworks is the implicit vision of the individual: one is fragmented, the other holistic. The European Framework lists a set of skills, a kind of micro-curriculum organised in a series of subjects/disciplines — most of them are already taught in the current curricula. It is also extremely tame: one of the goal is not to create entrepreneurs, but simply to have a “sense of initiative and entrepreneurship!” While the European framework seems to be oblivious to the identity construction process, the Scottish framework clearly states that its goal is to produce successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors. The skills are a means to achieving that high level goal, which means that teachers and communities are encouraged to develop their own curriculum (examples). The European Framework lists a minimal set of skills for the learners, the Curriculum for Excellence sets a global context for the reinvention and the co-creation of many curricula with all the members of learning community.

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10 ePortfolio challenges

For the 7th ePortfolio conference, and in order to give directions to our work towards our 2010 goal (ePortfolio for all), EIfEL decided to address a number of challenges to the ePortfolio community and beyond —many of the problems the ePortfolio community faces today will not be resolved if they are not addressed beyond the ePortfolio silo. The goal of these challenges is to move beyond the current state of ePortfolio development, in particular in the field of interoperability as interoperability is not just a technical issue, but a means to enable new practices and the emergence of truly lifelong and life wide ePortfolios.

The ten challenges are:
  1. Universal ePortfolio Repository —a unified view of all my assets
  2. Universal Competency Identifiers —share competency definitions across systems
  3. ePortfolio social —share assets, knowledge and processes across communities
  4. ePortfolio semantic editors —make sense of what I write, connect, etc.
  5. ePortfolio Readers —read any ePortfolio through consistent and multiple views
  6. Open & Trusted Service Architecture
  7. ePortfolio based performance support system —make the ePortfolio part of my work
  8. ePortfolio discovery mechanism —find people, competencies, resources
  9. URIs as tags —make tags meaningful
  10. Universal Metadata —create a world brain

Our main objective is to create the conditions for the emergence of MultiPortfolio organisations (one organisation can interact with many different ePortfolio platforms) and MultiOrganisation ePortfolios (have one ePortfolio to interact with many different institutions with their own platform).

Challenges’ link

Other documents related to the challenges are:

EIfEL becomes a MultiplePortfolio (MeP) organisation

Until now, the issue of ePortfolio interoperability was mainly considered within the framework of documents export/import, hence the focus on data structures and the lack of appetite, except for EIfEL and very few others, to fully embrace identity and access management (IAM) as the central locus for ePortfolio interoperability.

In order to contribute actively to the design of state of the art interoperability solutions, EIfEL has decided to become a MultiplePortfolio (MeP) organisation, i.e. an organisation where each of our member will be able to choose their own ePortfolio platform while still being able to fully interact with the organisation and their peers to support their continuing professional development and recognition as professional members of the learning community. In doing so, EIfEL aims at being a life testbed, a benchmark for interoperability.

As an organisation wishing to represent all the actors of the ePortfolio community, unlike other organisations, it was not possible for EIfEL, even if we have our personal likes and dislikes, to select a particular platform to support the continuing professional development of our members. Moreover, many of our members already have their own ePortfolio system that they use within their organisation or institution and several already have to deal with multiple ePortfolio systems — e.g. a member of the Institute for Learning (IfL) who uses REFLECT, based on PebblePad, for his/her CPD might work at a college using eXact Portfolio to support teaching and Multi-Port to support the delivery of NVQs (just to name the 3 Gold sponsors of the 2009 Learning Forum London conference!).

Committed to become a fully functional MultiplePortfolio organisation, EIfEL will work with all the ePortfolio and learning technology publishers and providers to demonstrate the feasibility and benefits of an interoperability framework where individuals are free to choose the components of their own ePortfolio system while being capable of interacting with a number of different institutions across time (diachronic interoperability) and space (synchronic interoperability). A MultiplePortfolio approach is a necessity to territorial approaches, i.e. to the implementation of systems working across multiple institutions within a city, a district, a region or a state.

EIfEL’s MultiplePortfolio environment will be dedicated to supporting the continuing professional development (CPD) of our members validated through peer review of their CPD ePortfolio. Reviewing other members CPD portfolio is part of members’ own professional development to demonstrate assessment skills and gain an opportunity to explore a range of different professional practices.

EIfEL will provide its members with an environment to publish their ePortfolio(s), select the reviewers for their CPD portfolio and publish the outcomes of the review process —a choice of ePortfolio platforms will be offered to those needing one. EIfEL staff will mainly support the quality improvement of the review process, and interoperability.

As MultiplePortfolio organisation EIfEL will go through the following stages:

  1. At the initial stage, each ePortfolio platform will be independent from each other, so the reviewers of peers’ ePortfolios will have to register on different systems. The focus on interoperability will be on the ability to publish ePortfolios using RSS/Atom/RDF feeds, based on multiple formats (LEAP2A, HR-XML, Europass, microformats, FOAF, etc.) and packaging ePortfolios (ZIP, IMeP, etc.) for archive and verification —quality assurance. We will also be working on the systematic exploitation of unique resource identifiers (URI) to competency definitions hosted in shared repositories of occupational standards, so definitions will be independent from ePortfolio platforms and could be used for many other purposes, e.g. to post a job, set a 360° assessment, etc.
  2. The second stage will be the implementation of single sign on mechanisms (SSO), so a member already identified by EIfEL platform will be able to use the same identifier to review a colleague’s CPD ePortfolio. This will require ePortfolio providers to support IAM standard frameworks.
  3. The third stage will be the implementation of circle of trusts and attribute sharing. At stage 2, the granularity of access is the whole ePortfolio, while at stage 3, elements of ePortfolios can be shared with other members of the EIfEL community —and others. This is very convenient when members work together on a project and want to share evidence from their respective ePortfolios. Sharing evidence is one of the means to increase the trustworthiness of individual ePortfolios.
  4. The fourth stage of interoperability will be the provision of ePortfolio readers independent from the idiosyncrasies of the different platforms, so a reviewer will be able to browse multiple ePortfolios created on multiple systems, while having the same navigational and informational interface. This will be particularly relevant in specific processes such as the accreditation of prior learning (APL) when an assessor needs to review evidence against a number of occupational standards of competence.
  5. The fifth stage of interoperability will be the ability to create a seamless space between the different components of one’s digital identity in an Internet where individuals exist as autonomous and empowered entities, lifelong and lifewide.

Of course, EIfEL will be working on these different stages in parallel, in cooperation with ePortfolio publishers, clients and users, exploiting the outcomes of existing and future projects (like TAS3). We will be looking at establishing a quality mark for the ePortfolio and ePortfolio-related solutions that have demonstrated their interoperability within EIfEL’s MultiplePortfolio environment.

The MultiplePortfolio initiative will be launched during Learning Forum London, the international ePortfolio conference, 22-24 June 2009. Demonstrations will be made during ePortfolio plugfest and participants will be invited to contribute their reflections to this ambitious and challenging project.

About ePortfolio standards (2) – Reflexion

I indicated in a previous post that although a number of actors are involved in the design of open standards, the mere implementation of open standards is not enough to ensure interoperability. Two systems can be based on the same ‘base specification’, yet be unable to exchange information. In order to solve the issue of information portability across systems using different specifications we designed for our members the CVT, a Web-service which makes it possible to translate one CV format into another format. Of course, in the translation, part of the information might be lost or demoted, in particular if the target format is semantically poorer than the source. The ability to translate data from one format into another leaves a lot of space for innovation in future standards.

How will specification and standards evolve?

I do not know in details where IMS intends to go with its current review of IMS ePortfolio specifications, but at this stage I believe that, at least for an employability ePortfolio, HR-XML specifications seem more mature as they profit from a much larger number of real-life implementations and existing certified HR solutions. On the other hand, HR-XML standards are just one element of a global interoperability framework. And such framework should take into account other standards, beyond those used in the education and academic worlds.

With emerging specifications like OpenSocial or Atom, I believe that it should be possible to design relevant interactions across heterogeneous systems. For such a framework there is a number of specifications that should be to studied:

  • Social networks and social computing — FOAF (Friend Of A Friend, XFN (the micro-format version of FOAF), OpenSocial and Liberty Alliance People Service. ePortfolios are a the result of a social construction.

 

  • Data representation — such as social graphs, mindmapping, heuristic chart and concept mapping can be extremely useful to provide meaningful eportfolio user interfaces. We need to better exploit the potential of RDF, OWL, TopicMaps, DotML, etc. as well as meta-data ( DublinCore) data aggregation (RSS and Atom) and people representation (HR-XML, IMS and hResume).

 

We should also take into account the issue of trust and privacy, i.e. secured access to personal data. For example, while the IMS ePortfolio framework allows the exchange of zipped packages of personal data, mainly for backup and import of whole ePortfolios into ePortfolio Management Systems, there is no real provision for sharing dynamically ePortfolio parts nor for protecting data privacy. This should be changed if we want ePortfolio take-up.

This is precisely what we are trying to address with the CV Universel (Universal CV) where the framework to exchange of ePortfolio parts is based on a HR-XML description of personal data transported on a Liberty Alliance Layer. In a next future, should also explore the opportunity to use OpenID 2 specifications.

About ePortfolio standards (1) – a rapid state of art

I would like to take the opportunity of a colleague’s request about ePortfolio standards and interoperability, to present EIfEL views on this issue.

Today, even if few ePortfolio suppliers are engaged in the implementation of existing specifications, those doing it generally do so within the context of a specific community, using what is called application profiles, i.e. an adaptation of a base specification to the particular requirements of this community. This adaptation adds a level of complexity to the issue of interoperability, as different application profiles of the same base specification do not necessarily interoperate…

The following list presents a series of application profiles that have been tested during previous ePortfolio plugfests organised by EIfEL:

  1. Employability ePortfolio (NL) is based on IMS ePortfolio (which includes IMS Learner Information Profile — IMS LIP). There is a discussion whether in the future the profile should rather be based on the next HR-XML V3 specifications which should cover ePortfolios.
    Compliant Solutions: eXact Folio (Giunti), Winvision.
  • UK Leap (UK) is based on IMS LIP (which is more restrictive than IMS ePortfolio). Even if this profile has been formerly standardised by the British Standards Institute (BSI) it does not benefit, yet, from an extensive implementation. A reflexion is engaged for a UK Leap Version 2 but it is not clear whether it will still be based on IMS LIP.
    Compliant Solutions: PebblePad, ePet (University of Newcastle).
  • HR-XML application profiles — there are a number of HR-XML application profiles dedicated to specific communities:
    • iProfile (HR-XML CV profile), is implemented by SkillsMarket in UK, which hosts more than 2 millions CVs for recruiting agencies.
    • GermanCV (HR-XML CV profile) is used by job boards in Germany.

     

  • HR-XML Europass CV (EU) is a binding of Europass (a European CV format) using HR-XML specifications as well as external competencies definition based on IEEE RDC. Support of the European Language Portfolio is also under discussion. The work done by EIfEL in this area has contributed to address the needs specific to ePortfolio not yet covered by existing HR-XML specifications to elicit new requirements for the next HR-XML V3 specifications.
    Compliant Solutions : ePet (University of Newcastle), Eurocv.eu, Kite, CVUniversel / Universal CV (the implementation has just started, and a presentation will be made during the next ePortfolio & Digital Identity conference in Montréal)
  • hresume microformat — It is used for LinkedIn public profiles (several million users). Microformats are a bottom-up alternative to XML standards (microformats can be defined and implemented by end users without the burden of standardisation bodies.

So far, I’ve just described data formats, but if you believe, like EIfEL, that ePortfolios are more than data and that they contribute to one’s digital identity, then it should be necessary to take into account what is happening in the field of social networks and social computing, Web 2.0, the emergence of new types of job boards, etc. Moreover, if you take into account the difference between individual ePortfolios (that could be developed with any kind of tools) and ePortfolio Management Systems (ePMS) that institutions need to manage a number of ePortfolios for specific processes, then a number of additional emerging standards should be taken into account.

  1. Identity Management such as Liberty Alliance federation of identities and services, OpenID or CardSpace will play a central role in the seamless exchange of information across services used by ePortfolios.
  • Interoperability frameworks such OpenSocial (used by Google, Plaxo, etc.) and Dataportability.org are emerging and open a new kind of door to the exploitation and sharing of personal in a professional perspective.

This is just a rapid overview of ePortfolio-related standards. In the next posts, we will go into more details to open the discussion on the future requirements for ePortfolio standards and interoperability. The conversation will also take place during the next Montréal conference.

NB: for all those who would like to know more about the subject of interoperability while being refrained by its technical nature, I would like to encourage you to go beyond your inital reticence. The lack of interoperability is generally more the result of misunderstanding or lack of human will rather than the lack of understanding of technical details or technical issues. We need You!