Within the United Kingdom, content of educational value is produced and described by a large number of organisations, including departments of Government, non-departmental agencies, and representatives of the private sector. For learners and teachers who often seek to discover resources from more than one provider, the variety of sources and methods of description available places obstacles between them and the effective discovery and use of the resources they desire.
The Metadata for Education Group (MEG) was established under the auspices of UKOLN's Interoperability Focus as an open forum for debating the description and provision of educational resources at all educational levels across the United Kingdom. It set out to try to address the needs of the learner by:
The principles of MEG were formulated in the MEG Concord. The Concord itself has attracted considerable interest, with some 70 organisations “signing” and publicly expressing agreement with its aims.
The inaugural face-to-face meeting of MEG took place in June 2000, and there have been four subsequent meetings at locations around the UK, typically attracting around 25-30 attendees. Attendees include:
The meetings have focused primarily on the sharing of information between participants.
It was not the intention that the activity of MEG should be limited to these face-to-face meetings. The
uk-meg Jiscmail discussion list has provided a forum for debate, particularly in the areas of exploring community understandings for some of the terms used in conjunction with educational resources ("learning objects", "packages" etc) and how different groups of metadata creators describe the "educational level" of their resources.
Following on from this discussion, MEG members have gathered together the terms from the principal vocabularies in use in the UK to describe "educational level", and presented this data in a tabular form that illustrated approximate relationships between terms. Lack of available effort has meant that completion of this work has been stalled. At least two funding bodies have, however, expressed interest in paying to have this work finished, and we will need to identify individuals or organisations with the time and expertise to satisfactorily complete the job.
MEG has also facilitated meetings between those working on educational metadata and other interested parties, for example the meeting with representatives of the publishing industry in April 2001.
MEG has canvassed opinions of its members on various circulars and consultation documents, and responses have been to their creators on behalf of MEG.
MEG has benefited from collaboration with research activity within UKOLN to make available a registry of metadata schemas for use by its members. The registry offers a context in which implementers can share information about the schemas they are using and provides interfaces that allow users to explore the relationships between components of those schemas. Some funding has recently been obtained to develop new tools to enhance this functionality and to devolve the administration of entries within the registry to the maintainers of the schemas.
MEG has been driven by its members and their interests: given the informal nature of the group and the lack of specific funding for MEG work, "MEG activity" has simply been whatever activity members have undertaken within the MEG context. Members schedule such effort within the demands of their existing work. Although MEG is an important initiative within the broader work of UKOLN's Interoperability Focus, it is only one part of that programme of activity.
MEG has been successful in the first of its aims (providing a forum for information exchange) and has made some progress in the second (developing consensus on addressing some common problems). However, it has perhaps made less progress than hoped in building on this and moving forward to meet its third and fourth goals of formalising that consensus, disseminating the results and establishing itself as an authority and a first point of call on policy questions.
If it is felt that MEG continues to have a valuable role, it is perhaps necessary to clarify what MEG should seek to achieve, and what is required in terms of resources and organisation for it to meet those goals. The remainder of this document sketches some of the functions that MEG is currently performing or might perform in the future, and attempts to highlight some of the requirements for those different functions and roles. The functions are not mutually exclusive and indeed some are overlapping. It is intended as a basis for debate, not as a description of a programme of work.
Organising occasional face-to-face meetings and facilitating the email discussion list might be seen as a "base level" of activity for MEG. Nevertheless, such a role has a value in that it provides a forum in which parties who might not otherwise meet can come together to share information on issues of common interest, and learn how others are tackling similar problems.
The main work required is in organising meetings, recording the proceedings of those meetings, and making those records available (to participants and potentially to others, but without any major dissemination effort).
This level of activity could be supported with no change from the present arrangements of co-ordination from UKOLN staff, as long as one or more MEG member organisations were able to host a meeting every six months or so.
Here, the explicit aim of sharing information is to seek to develop common approaches to problems.
This level of activity requires the work outlined above, with additional effort in identifying shared problems, drawing out commonalities (and differences) in approaches to addressing those problems, and actively working to build consensus. It assumes a greater engagement in dialogue between participants and a commitment to finding common ground.
It requires more activity from at least some individuals outside meetings, conducting background research, distilling information provided, drafting and revising proposals etc.
The value of building such consensus on approaches to problems is fully realised only if those results are transmitted to a larger community.
Such a level of activity requires effort to formalise agreements as public documents and to make those documents available, to promote the existence of those documents and to encourage the adoption of the practice described by their content. The effort required might vary considerably from simply making material available via a Web site and announcing its existence on selected mailing lists, to a more pro-active approach of publishing supporting papers, attending meetings/conferences of other groups etc.
It is more time-consuming than the previous option and requires more ongoing effort from specific individuals (and a greater commitment by their organisations). There may also be additional costs associated with publication and travel, which raises the question of whether/how those costs should be shared amongst MEG members.
Such an approach represents a move towards a position where MEG adopts a much more outward-looking and active position in the larger community. In this scenario, MEG might engage with a range of organisations and individuals to take its message to policy-makers and funding bodies in order to seek to influence the agendas of those parties. (An example might be in those areas where the interests of e-Government overlap with those of the education sector.)
This level of activity implies a greater degree of planning and organisation. It requires a continuing commitment of staff time, and perhaps a more formal commitment by member organisations to make staff available. As above, there may be other costs associated with the activity and a greater expectation for members to contribute to those costs or for MEG to seek funding to meet them.
The activities described above entail some component of research, but it is possible to imagine cases where more active/extended research into topics of common interest is required.
Such activity requires a commitment of staff time, perhaps even dedicated exclusively to this activity, though perhaps only for the duration of the task at hand. Those individuals may require particular experience and expertise to perform the task. Depending on the nature of the work, there may be other associated costs for travel, consumables, equipment etc.
It was not the intention that MEG should create new standards for resource description. The focus has been rather on refining the best approaches to a range of problems within the framework of existing standards and specifications, and to feed new requirements to the relevant committees and working groups that operate to support the implementation and evolution of those standards and specifications. However, it appears that there are cases - particularly in the area of controlled vocabularies/terminologies - where there is a requirement for “standardisation” to support the local implementation of those standards and specifications and to enhance the interoperability of systems and services that deploy them. Typically, such effort is based on drawing together existing practice rather than creating something completely new. In the sense that the output of that process is "branded" as a MEG "product", then MEG might be seen as developing these "standards".
This role overlaps considerably with some of the functions already described above, though in this case there is a further implication that the outputs of the activity will be "persistent" and will be maintained into the future.
An alternative approach (closer to that initially envisaged?) would be to see MEG as providing proposals to other established standards-making bodies, in which case any ongoing maintenance work rests with those parties rather than with MEG.
The metadata schemas registry is an example of where MEG provides a "service" for use by its members. Strictly speaking, in this case the "service provider" is UKOLN rather than MEG. The registry has been provided on a fairly informal basis, in the sense that there are no "service-level agreements" regarding its availability or the maintenance of its contents. It has been provided with the expectation that it should make use of existing tools with no requirement for software development or extensive customisation. The content of the registry has been updated when effort at UKOLN has been available.
This fairly informal level of service requires specialist input from UKOLN staff, but only on an occasional basis. It does require a commitment from UKOLN to sustain that effort, but that can probably be done within current planned workloads.
The planned development of the schemas registry will shift some of this work away from the providers of the registry service to the developers and maintainers of the metadata schemas themselves. There will, however, be an ongoing requirement to provide initial training in the approaches and tools required, and to provide some level of support for organisations and projects supplying their schemas to the registry. It will also require some familiarisation with these approaches and tools on the part of schema developers.
At present, MEG is completely open in the sense that anyone interested can participate in meetings and in the discussion list. Meetings have been held at various venues provided by MEG members, co-ordinated by Paul Miller with assistance from Pete Johnston (both UKOLN), and chaired by Bruce Royan of SCRAN.
Where specific tasks have been undertaken, they have involved fairly ad hoc groups of interested individuals contributing (relatively) small amounts of time as their other commitments permit.
UKOLN funds Paul Miller and Pete Johnston to spend some time on work for MEG, as part of UKOLN's broader programme of interoperability activity. Since the initial start-up activity, the creation of the Web site and the drafting of the MEG Concord, this work has been focused on the co-ordination of meetings, the creation of entries in the schemas registry, and the (partially completed) work on the "educational levels" document.
If MEG is to take on more activity - either more dissemination and representation/advocacy or more research/development - then it raises the question of how best to ensure that funding is obtained in order to "buy out" time of the individuals with the appropriate experience and skills to undertake that work.
There are several organisations already active in this area. Many of those organisations are members of MEG, and representatives regularly attend MEG meetings. It is important to ensure that activity undertaken by MEG does not duplicate effort undertaken elsewhere or encroach on the established interests of these other organisations.