My field is learning technology standardisation. And I would not be a standards man if I did not have an acronym for it. We call it LET standardisation (LET for Learning, Education and Training). For years I have been vice chair of CEN Workshop on Learning Technologies, also acting as a national expert in the ISO committee working on LET standards (SC36). For more than a year now I have been working on a European project looking into standards used for competency-based learning, in order to come up with a Reference Model, picking and choosing form the best of LET standards and specifications.
LET is an emerging domain. Everything technological is in flux. And then we have standards that are supposed to be stable. It sounds strange, and as a matter of fact, it does not make sense. In the European project I am meeting a strong respect for what is classified as a standard (related to formal standard setting bodies). And I observe a less strong respect for what is classified as specifications (often related to user communities). Having been part of the process of producing standards I know too well that you cannot analyse standards by reputation of the organisation behind it.
European eGovernment initiatives give standards boards a prominent role in the governance of standards, also LET standards. One of the instruments of governance is a standards catalogue, which is intended to guide users towards appropriate standards to implement. Again, it goes without saying. Formal standards are more likely to end up in standards catalogues than community based standards.
Together with Paul Hollins of the UK Centre for Educational Technology and Interoperability Standards I have analysed the standards catalogue approach against a horizon scan report of current standardisation projects in the sector. First, given the emergent nature of the LET domain, we are not sure that the right candidates for recommendation are put forward. Second, we also question if bad decisions or obsolete recommendations would be withdrawn from the catalogue. The process models behind these initiatives have weak feedback mechanisms, and point more or less in one direction: towards the registry. There is a growing awareness in the LET standards community that we are not good at dispensing some of our earlier, less strong ideas, i.e., putting some of our standards into the bin.
However, what is more important is the effect the standards catalogues will have on what we would call the standards discourse. There is a growing awareness in standards bodies, e.g., demonstrated recently through a number of work method seminars organised prior to standardisation meetings in CENWS-LT, of the need for a meta level discussion on “the way we do standards”. The standards catalogue approach may steer discussions in the direction of the standards that are on the list, and what level of mandation these standards are assigned.
Therefore, we suggest that eGovernment standards boards should focus on semantic, organisational, cultural, political and legal interoperability, in preference to attempting to stabilise practice around a limited number of technical interoperability standards.
In conclusion, “unstable standards” might be more in line what the LET stakeholders need than stifled standards that are not serving innovation in the domain. Then we have just to talk about standards – and give up the hidden quality denotation in keeping up the categorisation of standards vs. specifications.