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If we are concerned with what we standardise we should be able to describe it for people to understand

January 6th, 2010 · No Comments

This post is my position paper for a CETIS meeting on the future of interoperability specifications in education.

Introduction

How do we represent our ideas, positions, and, for that matter –, our domain models or enterprise architectures? While the cool guys were still mostly talking to themselves, keeping the hang arounds at a certain distance, nobody questioned which representation framework to use. UML was the state of art and few asked whether these diagrams communicated well, or whether we needed a broader view of the domain before we embarked upon the information model. A standard consists of an information model and a binding. It should have a scope, and there should be some good use cases justifying the new work item. That’s it!

Then two things happened. First, the interoperability standards in the LET domain failed miserably. Second, the ICT developed more to the benefit of Learning, Education and Training than anybody could dream of. All of sudden, anybody (well, so we claim) can do almost anything with technology to support what they want in learning, e.g., finding information, expressing views from different perspectives, building communities, etc. Who asks any more for standards? Well, the enduser shouldn’t anyway, but then the ones that should ask for LET standards are not very enthusiastic either!

The technology has changed. However, the need to communicate about our understanding of the domain has not changed. Consequently, modelling and enterprise architecture are put on the agenda. An emerging understanding of the need for good tools for modelling and modelling frameworks resulted in a number of actions within the standards community. The modelling workshops at the last JISC-CETIS conferences was only one sign of a new interest in different more or less formal ways to keep the conversation going about how we understand and support our domain with ICT services. Even some standards bodies have been looking for new tools and representation techniques. ISO/IEC JTC1 SC36 decided last year to use Cmap Tools for conceptual modelling (and the committee secretariat announced they were going to host a Cmap server). We see now that concepts maps start to be published in work group drafts for new standards. Also in CEN WS-LT there is an active use of conceptual modelling, many of the maps hosted at the Cmap server of the European ICOPER project (www.icoper.org:8080).

Not surprisingly, the move towards new languages shakes up the old power structure and is met with counter measures. We will look at some instances when this new interest for alternative representation frameworks and techniques, to see if we could better understand the actions taken, and also to better be able to recommend appropriate steps concerning the governance and support of the process.

The DC-ED case

During one week in December 2009 the Dublin Core Educational process building an “Application Profile Domain Model” was kick-started with a flurry of mails to the list server and a Flashmeeting to discuss the draft model. The draft was made in Microsoft Visio, an all purpose drawing tool that does not restrict what models you can draw.

DC-ED_AP_2009-12-09_small.jpg

(The author of the map was nearly talked into using Cmap Tools and store the map versions at the European ICOPER project Cmap server together with maps from a number of other related projects. However, a tweet informed “given up on Cmap to do new version of DC-Ed AP Domain Model. Back to Visio. Sorry @tore just couldn’t get it to do what I wanted!”.)

In the Flashmeeting several of the participants said they were pleased with the opportunity to have a “walk through” of the model. At the end of the meeting one of the co-editors of the map wanted to have a clarification of what was being represented by the cloud and the purple boxes.

“So I think what I am asking one of the things we need to clarify with this is what is being represented where i terms of what is a class of entities and what is a property of the entity in that class.”

The main author of the map gave an excuse for not being better to use the Microsoft tool, being “useless at graphic modelling”, with a promise to do better:

“So, yes, you’re quite right, we need to clarify what are classes of things, and what are properties of things that are in that class. And we need to do it visually so things are very clear in different visual appearance, and have a key somewhere so it is clear.“

This reply is followed up by a supportive remark from the co-moderator of the DC-Ed Community. Drawing on ethnomethodology and research on “talk at work” we see there is more actions going on in this 5:30 minutes long conversation at the end of a virtual meeting than “what meets the eye”. Skipping the tedious analysis of the turns, we may observe the following:

  • There is a conspicuous uneasiness about the use of software tools and how master their use
  • This false (?) modesty may be covering up what is really difficult: to draw diagrams with more formal representation techniques, e.g., UML
  • The talk reflects strongly power or authority relations: The ones that master UML (and are not pray to vagueness) should be in control, and the ones that find the clouds and pink boxes OK should learn to draw with proper tools
  • The “true representation” in this talk is from a top down perspective (truth as in God knows what is correct). The down up perspective (the model might communicate well with the stakeholders) were not represented in the talk, even if both the modeller and the participant raising the questions had been drawing the “vague model”.

Other cases

We have other case stories demonstrating that the choice of representational framework has the potential to shudder the peaceful struggle for new standards. In ISO/IEC JTC1 SC36 we have seen that moving away from spreadsheet tables to more figurative representation techniques may alter the discourse order dramatically. All of a sudden new experts have the floor, and the theme of the discussion is on a different level than presence types and linguistic indicators.

In the European work on competency modelling (in the ICOPER project and the European Learner Mobility project of CEN WS-LT) we have seen that the use of concept modelling has been instrumental in the process of negotiating a common understanding of the domain. However, we observe that this community is struggling to find ways to use the conceptual models to build consensus. Simon Grant writes

So I proposed in the meeting what I have not actually proposed in a meeting before, that we schedule as many one-to-one conceptual encounters as are needed to facilitate that mutual growth of models at least towards the mutual understanding that could allow a meaningful composite to be assembled, if not a fully constituted isomorphism. I don’t know if people will be bold enough to do this, but I’ll keep on suggesting it in different forums until someone does, because I want to know if it is really an effective strategy .

We have also seen in the WG3 of ISO/IEC JTC1 SC36 (the working group that deals with competency) that there are challenges in understanding what a more conceptual model is, compared to the information models that the standardisation community has been used to.

Conclusions

  • We need a better understanding of the different phases of standardisation work and the different stakeholders and types of expertise involved. There is a time for fuzzy models with weak formalism. And there is a time for UML diagrams. When we move from one phase to the other should be subject to open negotiations, bearing in mind that we need to communicate with different groups of stakeholders and experts in today’s standardisation of LET.
  • We should recognise that communication, community engagement and openness are key factors in development of LET standards. Therefore sharing of models is of great importance. Open maps stores like the one hosted by the ICOPER project might serve as hubs for co-ordinating the efforts of the different communities and organisations.
  • We should acknowledge the affordances and trade-offs of the different modelling tools. A simple concept mapping tool like Cmaps Tools invites the user to come up with concepts and to type relations between concepts. The standards community should engage in a discussion on what set of types we should use to create the best models for our purpose. (Simon Grant has proposed to use “process”, “material or social thing” and “information” as key for high level concept maps.)
  • We should explore “best practices” on how to use models in consensus building activities.
  • We should develop training opportunities for new experts who want to take part in LET standardisation, giving modelling techniques a prominent place in this activity. There are other ways to do standardisation than sitting in formal meetings in standards bodies.

Tags: Standardisering

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