Saturday, 8 July 2017

Interoperability and the Attenuation of Technological Possibility: Towards Socially Responsible Hacking?

I owe at least 10 years of my career directly or indirectly to generous funding from JISC in the UK and the EU commission. The underpinning rationale which attracted this research money was interoperability in educational technology. It was presence of the Centre for Educational Technology and Interoperability Standards (CETIS) at the University of Bolton which created the conditions for engagement in a wide range of projects. The University of Bolton, of all places, had the greatest concentration of technical experts on e-learning in the world (something continually reinforced to me as I meet colleagues from overseas: Bolton? You were a world-leader!).

Now that most of the project funding opportunities have gone (JISC survives in very different form, but on a mission to keep itself going on a commercial footing which has become problematic), the EU closed its Technology Enhanced Learning strand a couple of years ago (hardly surprising since there were rather too many very expensive projects which delivered little - even for the EU!), and CETIS survives as an independent Limited Liability Partnership (LLP), albeit in a role of more general IT consultancy for education, rather than a focused mission to foster interoperability. The international agency for interoperability in education, IMS, seems to have largely ceded the debate to the big commercial players like Blackboard, who talk the language of interoperability as a salespitch, but have little interest in making it happen.

Now that I am settled elsewhere, and I'm pleased to say, soon to be joined by a former CETIS colleague, it seems like a good time to think about interoperability again. In my current role, interoperability is a huge issue. It is because of interoperability problems that my faculty (just the faculty!) runs four different e-portfolio systems. It is because of a lack of interoperability that the aggregation and analysis of data from all our e-learning platforms is practically impossible (unless you do something clever with web automation and scraping, which is my current obsession), it is because of interoperability problems that individual parts of the faculty will seek new software solutions to problems which ought to merely require front-end adjustments to existing systems, and interoperability problems coupled with pathological data security worries create barriers to systems innovation and integration. Eventually, this becomes unsustainable.

So given all the effort that went into interoperability (my first JISC project was an investigation of interoperable web services in E-portfolio in 2004 - the project concluded that the available interoperability models didn't work and that something should be done about it), how have we got here?

Any new technology creates new possibilities for action. The ways of acting with a new tool may be very different from the ways of acting with existing tools. This means that if there is overlap in the functionality of one tool with another, users can be left with a bewildering choice: do I use X to do a,b and c, or do I use Y to do a, c and z? The effect of new technologies is always to increase the amount of uncertainty. The question is how institutions should manage this uncertainty.

CETIS was a government-funded institutional attempt to manage the uncertainty caused by technology. It served as an expert service for JISC, identifying areas for innovation and recommending where calls for funding should be focused. CETIS is no longer funded by government because government believes the uncertainties created by technology in education can be managed within institutions.. so my university ends up with 4 e-portfolio systems in one faculty (we are not alone). This is clearly bad for institutions, but not bad in terms of a libertarian philosophy to support competition between multiple providers of systems. Having said this, the interoperability battle was lost even when CETIS was flourishing. The dream of creating an educational equivalent of MIDI (which remains the golden child of systems interoperability) quickly disappeared as committees set about developing complex specifications for e-portfolio (LEAP, LEAP2, LEAP2a - see, the packaging of e-learning content (SCORM, IMS-Content Packaging), the sequencing of learning activities (IMS Learning Design, IMS Simple Sequencing), and more recently, Learning Analytics (xAPI).

All of this activity is bureaucratic. Like all bureaucratic processes, the ultimate result is a slowing down of innovation (importantly, this is NOT what happened with MIDI). Whilst technology creates new possibilities, this also creates new uncertainties, and bureaucratic processes act as a kind of weir to stem the flow of uncertainties. Institutions hate uncertainty. In the standards world, this is achieved by agreeing different shaped boxes into which different things can be placed. Sometimes the boxes are useful: we can say to a vendor of e-portfolio, does it support LEAP2a (for example). They might say "yes", meaning that there is an import routine which will suck in data from another system. However, much more important is the question "Does it have an API?" - i.e. can we interact with the data without going through the interface and do new things which you haven't thought about yet? The answer to this is almost always, No! The API problem has also become apparent with social media services too: APIs have become increasingly difficult to engage with, and less forthcoming in the data they provide. This is for a simple reason - for each of the clever things you might want to do with the data, each company wants to provide as a new "premium service".

An alternative to the institutional bureaucratic approach to the interoperability problem would seek to manage the uncertainties created by technology in a different way. This would be to embrace new uncertainties, rather than attenuate them,  and create situations within institutions where processes of technical exploration and play are supported by a wide range of stakeholders. One of the problems with current institutionally attenuative approaches to technology is that the potential of technology is underexplored. This is partly because we are bad at quantifying the new possibilities of any new tool. However, in working with most institutional tools, we quickly hit barriers which dictate "We can't do that", and that's the end of the story. But there are usually ways of overcoming most technical problems. This is what might be called the "Socially responsible hacking" approach to interoperability. With the failure of bureaucratic interoperability approaches, this may be the most productive way forwards.

Socially Responsible Hacking addresses the uncertainty of new technology in dialogue among the various stakeholders in education: programmers who see new ways of dealing with new and existing tools, teachers who seek new ways of organising learning, managers who seek new opportunities for institutional development, learners who seek new ways of overcoming the traditional constraints of institutions, and society within which educational institutions increasingly operate as something apart, rather than as an integral component. 


Simon Grant said...

Hi Mark! I had forgotten that you were in on e-portfolio interoperability way back in 2004. I'm personally still up for it, and happy to be invited in to more work in that area.


Paul Hollins said...

As ever Mark a thoughtful reflection on interoperability and education. As a fellow "conspirator" in TEL interoperability (it certainly felt like that in the early days) I am constantly reminded during every TEL presentation I witness "interoperability" is critical . Your analysis of CETIS , Jisc and IMS is largely accurate (of course IMS would argue that standards (though they deal in specifications) are the bedrock underpinning innovation )there are instances of some success in TEL (for example the IMS enterprise spec which is but in to just about all VLE) the holy grail of interoperability is still yet to be achieved. I'm still convinced that Jisc could have a role (though unlikely in its new form as you describe) could have a role perhaps they could fund an innovation support service and call it CETIS ? In truth if the "competition" were taken out of the standards debate and activities (It is still there) we just might make some progress (after all the web itself is belt on a set of standards and protocols) but as you indicate there are so many commercial vested interests in the TEL space to collaboration is unlikely. I now understand the frustrations Oleg felt during the later part of his career we seem to be on an endless cycle of repetition.

Mark Johnson said...

Enterprise might be the exception because it is the only one which didn't threaten the business model of the e-learning providers!

We still need interoperability - and more so now than ever. But I now think creating an 'interoperability service' like CETIS, however well-intentioned, was actually a way of containing (and constraining) obvious technical issues which none of the commercial suppliers wanted addressing. The tactic was to mire progress in useless (and ultimately toothless) bureaucracy. The PLE was the best attempt to escape this within CETIS - but it failed.

The question is, If we were to do it properly, what would we actually do? I think the answer is hacking and the subversion of corporate IT systems. There are reasons why it would be in the institution's interests to support this. The principle one is that institutions are increasingly isolated from their real environment. Hacking powers-up the environment and makes it clearer to institutions the directions in which they must change (as opposed to the directions in which they think they need to change!). That's important both to the future of institutions and the future of the civil society in which institutions exist.

So, new CETIS? No. We need something else.

Simon Grant said...

What, then? Just saying that you don't want a "new CETIS" can feel rather a downer for people who are trying to evolve Cetis LLP into the something else that people *do* need.

Simon Grant said...

After saying "ouch!" above, let me engage a little more. Hacking, OK, ... but what about the "Socially Responsible" bit? Surely, hacking without the social responsibility is subject to possibly even worse problems than the bureaucracy that you understandably decry. But where, Mark, does that social responsibility come from? How is it seeded and nurtured? Who says what is socially responsible? Responsible to who?

I think you can do a more thorough job than you have on this...

Mark Johnson said...

Hi Simon,
I don't think it's an ethic. It's a space which is organised to support dialogue and experimentation. Sounds a bit like a university, doesn't it!? But we all know that Universities are not universities any more... But we shouldn't give up in trying to make it. But it isn't a bureaucracy, an IT consultancy or anything which offers a 'service' - it can (and should) be entrepreneurial though

Simon Grant said...

An entrepreneurial space organised to support dialogue and experimentation sounds good. I recognise that Cetis is not that space, but it has an excellent background and talent for helping to construct at least some of the technical adjuncts that could support the formation, the operation and the governance of such a space.

In fact, why not let's start thinking of such questions?

How could such a space be formed; be operated; be governed?

What technical tools (kept firmly in their appropriate places) could support the formation, the operation, and the governance of such a space?