The e-framework and monolithic VLEs/LMSs

Posted on Posted in Architecture, eAssessment

The prevailing wisdom from techie types you meet at elearning conferences and in the blogosphere seems to be that VLEs as large applications are unsustainable and that the future is a range of components built by different companies or projects which interact with each other over the Internet (or intranet) via web services as a distributed learning environment. Martin Weller’s posts The VLE/LMS is dead and Some more VLE demise thoughts sum up some of the issues in relation to emerging social software and VLEs. But where does the e-framework, the focus of a large amount of investment from JISC and its equivalents in Australia, New Zealand and the Netherlands fit into this discussion?

The e-framework is an attempt to tackle the interoperability issues and to build the underlying architecture of a distributed virtual learning environment. JISC and others are also funding the development of different applications within the framework. The idea is that if an institution wants for example to change the forum system it’s using, it can just plug in a different one – and the distributed VLE will continue to appear as a single system to the user. A great idea but there are huge logistical issues to overcome if it’s ultimately going to work. The e-framework is also beginning to look like a monolithic model itself where the implication is that institutions will still control the student experience. It’s arguably therefore in conflict with the “use whatever software you can find on the Internet” model.

Despite my ongoing healthy scepticism regarding the viability of this approach I was invited onto the AQuRate, Minibix and AsDel Advisory Group (a mouthful of a name if ever there was one) which met earlier this week in London. This group oversees three projects which are attempting to develop components of an embryonic distributed assessment system using web services within the e-framework. In a nutshell, one system allows you to create questions, one is the storage system for the questions and one presents questions to the student.

This is a radically different model from monolithic eassessment systems such as TOIA and QuestionMark Perception – and from the VLE/LMS where the assessment bit sits alongside forums and everything else in a single application. The three JISC projects are already succeeding at a proof of concept level. They appear to be producing effective technical solutions which work with the QTIv2.1 specification and have a good chance of interoperating effectively with each other through web services by the end of the projects in April 2008.

Having been involved in a range of projects developing eassessment systems with varying levels of success over the years I am keen to see sustainable products – not merely neat technical solutions. The e-framework is an interesting concept and many of its building blocks are now in place but it lacks certain key features of a successful open source community. These tend to be led by charismatic individuals such as Linus Torvalds or Martin Dougiamas who have the skills and personality to harness the efforts of others to enhance the product. Such leaders tend to understand the entire application, insist on optimising the performance of the product at every opportunity, can spot new requirements and ensure they are fulfilled, and are natural leaders (Woods and Guliani, 2005).

Martin Dougiamas at the 2007 UK Moodlemoot
Dougiamas: guru

There’s no such guru to follow for the e-framework but even more fundamentally, the framework is composed of many unmaintained pieces of code written by different individuals using a range of languages and technologies during projects with temporary funding. There is no common purpose which motivates developers and users continually to enhance a system of key importance to themselves or their institutions – as there is for example with Apache or Linux.

I very much hope that what seem to be excellent tools coming out of the AQuRate, Minibix and AsDel projects will have life beyond their project funding. The only example I know of a ubiquitous and apparently sustainable open source educational application so far is Moodle (I’d be delighted to hear of others, though!) SAKAI may prove equally successful and that would be good for Moodle – competition is an antidote to complacency. If these three JISC projects are to be sustainable they could do worse than look at longer-term integration with SAKAI and Moodle.