On Tuesday I attended a “Future of Interoperability Standards” meeting which was organised by JISC CETIS. The interest in the subject area can be gauged by the popularity of the meeting with about 40 people managing to arrive at Bolton despite the problems with the snow, with attendees travelling from as far as Belgium, Norway, Spain, Greece and the US. And the participants were willing to contribute actively in helping to identify limitations with the processes for the development of interoperability standards and approaches for addressing such limitations. The active participation took place not only on the day but also in advance of the meeting, with 20 participants having submitted a position paper prior to the meeting.
In my position paper I described “An Opportunities and Risks Framework For Standards“. In the position paper, which was published on this blog, I described some of the failings of open standards to live up to their expectations – ideas which I have previously described in several peer-reviewed papers dating back to 2003:
- Ideology Or Pragmatism? Open Standards And Cultural Heritage Web Sites, B. Kelly, A. Dunning, M. Guy and L. Phipps, ichim03
- A Standards Framework For Digital Library Programmes, B. Kelly, R. Russell, P. Johnston, A. Dunning, P. Hollins and L. Phipps, ichim05
- A Contextual Framework For Standards, B. Kelly, A. Dunning, S. Rahtz, P. Hollins and L. Phipps, WWW 2006
- Addressing The Limitations Of Open Standards, B. Kelly, MW 2007
- Openness in Higher Education: Open Source, Open Standards, Open Access, B. Kelly, S. Wilson and R. Metcalfe, elPub 2008
- What Does Openness Mean To The Museum Community?, B. Kelly, M. Ellis and R. Gardler, MW 2008.
These papers were co-authored with colleagues from other JISC-funded services including AHDS, JISC TechDis, JISC CETIS and JISC OSS Watch together with Eduserv, as well as with colleagues from UKOLN.
But despite the limitations of open standards and the dangers of an uncritical belief in their benefits which experts from a number of JISC-funded and related organisations have identified there is a danger, I feel, that policy-makers are unaware of such limitations and seek to apply pressure to encourage (or perhaps even mandate) adoption of open standards far too early in their life cycle.
I was really pleased to discover that we were not alone in such views. The focus of the CETIS meeting was exploring ways in which more informal approaches to standardisation processes can address the limitations of the more formal approaches. The limitations of the traditional approaches to the development of standards in an e-learning context did not need to be addressed as many of the participants, most of whom had been involved in standardisation activities (in some case for several decades) , were well aware of the failings. Tore Hoel summarised the concerns succinctly in his position paper:
… 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!
That’s right – ‘interoperability standards in the Learning, Education and Training domain have failed miserably’ (and in other domains, as I pointed out recently in the context of W3C standards). And we have seen a huge range of technological innovations which are being adopted enthusiastically by many in the user community where there hasn’t been a significant focus placed in the development of new standards. And many developers are now also engaging enthusiastically in exploiting the opportunities which are now available which don’t require support for slow-moving and possibly complex standards.
So there was broad agreement on the need for an alternative approach to the development of interoperability standards. The afternoon session explored ways in which informal approaches to the development of standards might help – and I should mention the position paper on “An agile approach to the development of Dublin Core Application Profiles” by my colleague Paul Walk which illustrates an example of an agile approach to the development of Application profiles (with an embedded video clip which illustrates the approaches which have been taken).
The discussions also addressed possible limitations of such approaches and ways in which such limitations could be addressed. The concerns I highlighted focussed on the policy-makers, including the need to ensure that policy-makers were aware of the limitations of standards-making processes, the dangers of mandating standards prematurely, the dangers that mandating procurement of IT systems based on open standards would inhibit the take-up of emerging new standards and the dangers that a view that there was a preferred hierarchy for standards making organisations would be a barrier to the take-up of standards which have been developed through more agile processes.
I’m looking forward to reading the synthesis of the discussions which staff at JISC CETIS will be publishing shortly.