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JISC-funded "Core Middleware" Projects. Always dangerous to lead with a jargon-laden title! Online resources and systems sometimes need to be organised so that only users with appropriate rights can access them. The term core middleware is used to describe the applications which control access, through services such as authentication and authorisation. Currently the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) funds the Athens national service to provide a single username/single password access management system for the UK academic community.
Athens is now being used by substantial numbers of students, staff and researchers in the education and health sectors of the UK and Ireland. For example I can use my Oxford Brookes University Athens user name and password from home to access British Standards from the BSI web site. According to JISC, the Athens service is not designed to support e-learning environments shared between multiple institutions, nor does it answer the requirements of collaborating groups of researchers distributed across different organisations. Earlier this year JISC made UKP 1 million/year over 3 years available to fund projects concerning the development of robust systems ensuring that when resources owned and managed by one institution are accessed by members of another, only those properly authorised to do so are able to see the desired resource.
The 15 successful projects have just been announced. The projects - to my mind possibly overly skewed away from FE - involve 19 Universities, 4 commercial organisations, 1 FE college, 1 multi-college FE consortim, 3 F/HE sector bodies, 1 Hospital Trust, and the Middleware Architecture Committee for Education (MACE). The latter is the US/European consortium behind Shibboleth, a project to develop architectures, policy structures, practical technologies, and an open source implementation to support inter-institutional sharing of web resources subject to access controls. Around half of the 15 funded projects refer directly to Shibboleth in their titles or summaries, and if you want to seem well informed when people around you start talking about Shibboleth, which they undoubtedly will, this 2 page overview of Shibboleth [33 kB PDF] will help.
ICT in schools: The impact of government initiatives five years on. The Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED) has just published a 75 page report [460 kB PDF] based on the findings of OFSTED Inspections of schools between April 2002 and December 2003, involving 323 departments in secondary schools, 106 primary schools, 45 special schools, 6 Local Education Authorities (LEAs), and 4 out of 11 English Regional Broadband Consortia. The main findings include the following.
The gap between the best and worst ICT provision is unacceptably wide and increasing. In the most outstanding examples, ICT is starting to have a pervasive impact on the way teachers teach and children learn. But the quality, diversity and extent of pupils' ICT experiences vary widely between schools.
Where schools provided their own training for staff, sometimes with the help of external agents, this was generally much more effective than the National Lottery funded training (which continued to disappoint in relation to its stated intentions). The key factors of ownership, building on existing expertise and a shared approach by staff provide strong pointers for any future programmes of staff development.
There has been continuing improvement in the quality and extent of support for ICT by LEAs. Some 20% are now judged as providing good support, with very few rated as unsatisfactory. Good support is characterised by a coherent approach that draws together the different strands of provision. Other significant factors include: professional, experienced ICT teams which maintain good working relationships with school staff; guidance and support materials that complement national strategies and other developments; and well-established, effective and varied systems for disseminating good practice.
The report contains numerous examples of good practice in the use of ICT to support teaching and learning, as well as several LEA and school case studies. Some of the latter provide evidence for the gap between the excellence of ICT provision in some schools and that in many FE colleges. For example some of the case study schools have pupil/PC ratios of better than 4:1, something which is rare in FE; and few FE colleges have yet got 10 MB/s JANET connections, whereas an increasing number of secondary schools now have 10 MB/s connections through their Regional Broadband Consortium.
Version 6.0 of the UK e-Government Interoperability Framework (eGIF). eGIF is a set of mandatory policies and specifications concerning "e-systems" in the public sector. The latest version of eGIF was issued at the end of April 2004, and can be accessed from the UKGovTalk site. The Framework itself is a top level overview, with the guts of eGIF itself contained in a Technical Standards Catalogue containing detailed technical policies. One of these concerns e-learning, and lists a whole raft of standards and specifications - mainly from the IMS Global Consortium and from the British Standards Institution. These are now gradually making their way towards the "Adopted" status which would make their use mandatory in the public sector under eGIF.
U.K. academics and librarians disagree over open access publishing. Interesting report by Richard Poynder in Information Today on the U.K. Parliament's Science and Technology Select Committee enquiry into the pricing and availability of scientific publications. Frederick Friend, consultant to the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) urged the Select Committee to make the recommendation to government that any articles based on publicly-funded research should be freely accessible over the Internet. He and the other librarians gave evidence supportive of Open Access publishing, in which authors pay to be published in a journal, rather than subscribers paying for the journal. The academic witnesses took roughly the opposite view. Read a full uncorrected transcript of the evidence taken on 21 April.
Economist special report on E-commerce. The 15/5/2004 issue of The Economist has an upbeat survey of e-commerce, which gives a good overview of how things have developed since the dot.com bust, including an interesting section on the web search business. There is also a recording of an interview with Paul Markillie, the survey's author, which I found was worth its 8 minutes.
New World Wide Web Consortium Validator. W3C has released an updated version of Validator, a web-based tool to check documents like HTML and XHTML for conformance to W3C Recommendations and other standards. You can either get Validator to look at page on a web site, or at a file on your own PC. You can try Validator below in either mode.
Epic Group White Paper: Higher education and e-learning. Another provocative but well written White Paper by Donald Clark, CEO at Epic Group plc, drawing quite heavily on the "Pew Studies" I reviewed in Fortnightly Mailing Number 34.
In this new white paper, Donald Clark discusses how e-learning can help HE meet these challenges, reviews some research into initiatives that have already taken place and looks towards the future.
Clark's basic argument is that the anticipated massive growth in HE provision worldwide is so large that the cost per learner will have to be reduced for the growth to be possible. e-learning, Clark argues, provides one means of bringing about the necessary cost-reductions.
You have to ask Epic to email you a copy, rather than being able to download it directly from the Epic web site.
Bitching like Elvis.The blaming, critical and self-righteous tones that characterize Nielsen's articles and interviews are not to be confused with how a professional usability consultant ought to communicate. So says Frank Spillers in How usable is Jakob Nielsen? a cutting, if itself a little bitchy, critique of Jakob Nielsen's work on web site usability. Definitely worth reading if web site design is something that concerns you.