The PESC Data Summit Fall 2011 took place in San Francisco from October 12-14, 2011. It is a regular meeting of organizations that come together to discuss and further interoperability between educational systems. PESC, the Postsecondary Electronic Standards Council, “enables cost-effective connectivity between data systems to accelerate performance and service, to simplify data access and research, and to improve data quality along the higher education lifecycle” (PESC info sheet).

In order to achieve that PESC develops XML standards that are community driven and open for anyone to use. Because of the involvement of institutions of higher education as well as vendors / producers of software for that sector, it is hoped that the standards that are being developed have high relevance and are a result of actual demand and thus are more likely to be implemented by vendors in their products.

PESC has a number of workgroups and taskforces. I participated in the ePortfolio workgroup and learned a great deal about how PESC views ePortfolios and what academic institutions in the U.S.A. and Canada expect of an ePortfolio. PESC looks at an academic ePortfolio for which tracking of competencies and assessments are important components. Furthermore, the academic ePortfolio will be used in academic advising, e.g. for future career paths or further studies. Therefore, it must be machine- and human-readable. Transcripts that are moved from one institution to another and can be stored (or a link to them) in the ePortfolio are a necessity. Thus, the ePortfolio is not entirely learner-driven, but it has a number of prescribed content that it must contain in order for an in-taking institution to get a more complete picture of a student.

Besides discussing the ownership of the portfolio, we particularly looked at standards for portfolio data exchange. PESC does not have to come up with its own standard if there is already one that is in use and that is usable for PESC purposes.

There are not too many ePortfolio schema around. Leap2A and Desire2Learn’s XML export structure were put forward. The IMS ePortfolio standard was put aside as not being suitable because PESC does not only require the moving of content artifacts but also of assessment information.

As PESC tries to implement XML standards, Leap2A would not work exactly because it is based on ATOM feeds. However, it was discovered that CETIS is working on a Leap2R standard that converts Leap2A into an XML structure.

There is more analysis needed to look into how Leap2A/R could be implemented and what kind of data can be pulled from other systems. Even though it would be quite handy to get everything automatically in an easy-to-read and easy-to-process format, I think that not everything can and should be done (in the beginning). Implementing web services that assist in the transfer of information is not to be taken lightly. If every software involved in the process is expected to support these web services, uptake may be slow as high costs may be involved in developing the necessary interfaces.

I think it is important to define a priority list for connectivity, exchange of data, and export of ePortfolios. Being able to pull in transcript information into a university’s portfolio for advising purposes is all well and good. However, if the purpose of the advising is to find a graduate school for the student that will take him away from his current institution, then being able to export his portfolio and import it into the other institution may be more important to the student and he’d be happy to include his transcripts as secure PDF documents only instead of having them transferred automatically.

A pragmatic approach may be useful in order to get an initiative started and to see how it is being received instead of trying to accomplish everything.

In New Zealand, the Ministry of Education is funding the LMS-MyPortfolio Interoperability Project which aims to connect the major LMSs used in NZ schools to MyPortfolio, which is a Mahara installation. The main areas of work are:

  1. account provisioning
  2. notifications
  3. moving content

In order to achieve this, a web services stack has been implemented in Mahara which allows other LMSs (and also Student Management / Information Systems) to consume these web services and thus connect to Mahara.

The account provisioning project part is the most advanced. Sometime during the discussion of what to enable besides account provisioning, group creation came up. However, the actual implementation of total group management via the LMS was not activated for MyPortfolio because group admins should still have the possibility to add users from outside of their institution who have accounts on MyPortfolio to their group or remove users without having to check back with the LMS. The attempt to manage everything via the LMS would have been far too complicated and would have had to take a number of exception as well as special rules into account. The “low-hanging fruit” was the implementation of account and group creation via the LMS as well as initial group membership provisioning. However, the updating and deleting of groups was abandonded for MyPortfolio because it is a Mahara instance that is used by many schools (over 810 at the beginning of October). Had it been a Mahara with just one institution, the group management via the LMS would have worked better.

Besides the administrative concerns, other thoughts need to be heard. MyPortfolio (and Mahara) is a learner-centered portfolio application and thus the users should have as much freedom as possible. Therefore, governing all groups via LMSs would be in direct conflict with this ideal. Of course, the students who use MyPortfolio are connected to a school and thus have to follow certain rules, but MyPortfolio should still be different from a LMS.

That does not mean that no formal assessment documents can and should be included. However, the amount of information or group membership making it into a learner’s account is the question.

Coming back to PESC: Being aware of the work that is going on in the U.S.A. and Canada as well as thinking about possible connecting points for future development work in Mahara is beneficial in order to advance possible integration work with other systems.

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