An ugly word with attractive prospects for schools ICT – ‘interoperability’
A quiet, unaudited scandal that has plagued schools, local authorities and government interventions since computers made their way into education – the lack of common standards and compatibility between hardware, operating systems, software and data – could soon become a thing of the past. A solution finally seems to be settling into place through the contractual powers wielded on schools' behalf by Regional Broadband Consortia, with the South West Grid for Learning at the forefront.
Until relatively recently, the national UK picture has been one of wasted resources, and intractable commercial rivalries that have unnecessarily tied schools into services they might not otherwise have subscribed to. Choice has often been denied because certain products and services schools want have not been "compatible" with others they already subscribe to.
Just look back to the early days of ICT in UK education and it's now easy to see how now-powerful players like Apple were deliberately marginalised under a phoney flag of "industry standards". However, as schools have moved on to broadband internet networks, and been encouraged to buy into learning platforms, hardware is no longer the issue. The drive to bring about compatibility, freedom of choice and value for money is starting to bring in the daylight for schools' choice of digital services, software and content. Unfortunately the fruits of the emerging standards come under one ugly, almost unpronounceable word that turns off most people except bureaucrats and those with a burning need to know - it's "interoperability".
The lynchpins of interoperability – SIF and Shibboleth
Interoperability is championed at a national level by government ICT agency Becta, which has been developing the Systems Interoperability Framework (SIF; the other important lynchpin being single sign-on, also known as Shibboleth). But where Becta has few real enforcement powers, the regional broadband consortia have been exercising leverage over commercial suppliers to get them to conform to open standards if they want to get into schools over the broadband networks they have provided at the behest of government. The enforcement is coming in at the contractual levels and, for the most part, it is coming with sighs of relief from schools, LAs and many of the small companies supplying schools with digital materials and services tailored for the classroom and for administration.
Given the costly and difficult experiences so far, is there really such a thing as "interoperability"? To find out, the first port of call has to be the South West Grid for Learning (SWGfL), which is now completing its first three-year plan and seeing its own offering, Merlin, enjoying a successful implementation. SWGfL Merlin went live in October 2008 and with over 100,000 users provisioned, a year later the first wave of 55 schools started provisioning users from their schools MIS using “SIF”.
SWGfL chief executive Hilary Guckian is someone who views "interoperability" from a school perspective and that is what drives the SWGfL Trust. "A key priority is communication, and keeping it simple so that headteachers, governors, children and teachers don't need to see all the technical stuff that goes on behind the scenes. Basically, they want something that works, that works effectively 24/7 and allows them to make more use of the tools and facilities within an application without actually worrying about the application itself. That's what we hope they get from Merlin."
Merlin integrates the parts of a learning platform
What is Merlin? The SWGfL describes it as a service that "integrates management information systems, virtual learning environments and additional tools and content chosen by schools, with an emphasis on e-safety". Briefly, subscribing schools across the Grid's area of 15 local authorities get broadband services which can cater for the services and learning content that they want. So if they want a popular virtual learning environment (VLE) like Frog, Studywiz or UniServity, they can be sure it will work properly on the Grid. And if they use a management information service (MIS), SIMS for example, not only will it work properly, but the pupil data it contains will be in a form compatible for use with the VLE, the combination which is broadly described as a learning platform.
Merlin has an added bonus. It also has its own integrated tools for communication and collaborative work. These make up what most schools would already expect from a VLE, so subscribing schools, in a climate of cost-cutting, can use Merlin as their VLE and not take out further subscriptions. However, that is not the primary purpose of the service. The aim is to give schools and local authorities complete freedom of choice for their VLE and MIS, safe in the knowledge that offerings from reputable suppliers can be fully integrated. And that applies to content too. Services from popular suppliers like Espresso and 2Simple will be compatible.
So that's the theory. A visit to a school shows the practice. Court de Wyck Church of England Primary School serves the rural communities of Claverham and Cleeve. Despite the picturesque setting, the school's locality shares many features of inner-city life, including single-parent families and children staying with both parents, so the handling of pupil data has to be flexible and responsive, whatever system is in place. Headteacher Nick Riddiough is happy that the set-up of the administration side of Merlin has been "fairly painless". And that the process of entering new pupil data every year has been smoothed by automation by the local authority. Entry of new data when needed is easy enough.
"What we are looking for is reliability and simplicity because we need things to work easily," he explains. "In primary schools, the idea of streamlined provision for children makes it much easier for us as professionals to concentrate on the business side of things for learning." He described the old manual way of entering pupil data as "an admin nightmare" that stymied school momentum for up to two months: "Now that it is an automatic provision it means that you don't get stuck."
"We've got quite a high level of transition and pupil turnover and information on any pupils that join our school is immediately uploaded to Merlin so they've got an account straight away. If they've been at another Merlin-user school their account moves over to us from that school so they don't lose everything they've worked on previously.”
Avatars prove popular with children and teachers too
Court De Wyck children are already using the VLE-type tools in Merlin for learning, both in class and at home wherever they have internet access. And there is no shortage of enthusiastic volunteers to demonstrate the simplicity of the single sign-on and the creative, collaborative software. Also popular are the online avatars they create for themselves which, as Nick Riddiough explains, were also effective in staff training: "a godsend for us because in a room of 30-40 staff the hilarity was brilliant."
The pleasure also goes down to early years level, says SWGfL e-learning consultant Julia Adamson. "A school in Gloucestershire showed me a discussion board they had used with their nursery children," she says. "They asked the children to say what they wanted to be when they grew up and they used the multimedia tools for discussion – text, audio, video and sketch. The children had drawn pictures of themselves as fairies and train drivers - all the typical things. It was so simple but it really made a massive impact, all the children were able to contribute using whichever method of communication they preferred and they got to publish their ideas to their class mates. With Merlin children can access the tools from home too, enabling them to continue their learning outside the classroom and share what they have done at school during the day”
“One of the key things is the learning that is taking place at home,” adds Nick Riddiough. “They are able to upload and access it in school straight away so the continuation of the learning journey doesn't finish for them at 3.15pm. They can go home and share their learning with their parents. They can continue their work at home. A few times our kids have loaded a piece of work on to discussion boards and asked others to have a look at it and peer assess and feed back to them how they can improve it. So in terms of developing assessment for learning it has been a really powerful tool. Children are social beings and learning is a social activity so to be able to harness it in this way is really effective for them.”
There's also satisfaction from the local authority point of view. Chris McFall, who works with North Somerset Council, has already seen many secondary schools start out with VLEs. "The key to joining up the whole approach for us really does come down to interoperability," he stresses. "Because unless we can build the bridges – in our case Merlin – into where the secondary schools are and into the colleges for the 14-19 diplomas we face quite a big challenge. Winning hearts and minds is one of the key things for us, and coming to the table with a set of tools for which we can provide evidence to say 'This is really making an impact on teaching and learning and you need to be aware of it.' That is what is happening now and it is working its way into the secondaries and they are seeing the positive benefits we are seeing down here at primary."
Ultimately, the national importance of interoperability is coming through the close work between the Regional Broadband Consortia, Becta, Learning and Teaching Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, says Ian White, technical lead consultant with SWGfL who chairs the NEN (National Education Network) Technical Strategy group. “There are a number of projects doing similar things,” he adds, “and I think we are the leading one at the moment, so it’s our turn to put our heads above the parapet.”
The driver for the SWGfL will continue to be open standards and a commitment to give schools an infrastructure that ensures a free choice, concludes Hilary Guckian.”We were acutely aware of the other VLEs that are on the market and at no stage is there an intention to compete with them. We recognise that an awful lot of schools in the region had jumped into the VLE market very, very quickly. Some have already chopped and changed.
“What Merlin does is acknowledges the other VLEs and it has the capacity for integration with them and that is really our key. Our message to the school that is not really sure is ‘Fine. We respect where you are going. What Merlin gives you is the interoperability - that funny little word - that allows people to talk to each other all over the region. It doesn't really conflict with what you are doing anyway.’ So it allows schools to choose.”
Published: 15/04/2010 15:49:19