Category Archives: Jisc projects

PHP API for FE Skills Window released

Why an API – The problem

In developing the FE Skills Window, an application that will offer access to a range of Jisc resources for Further Education, we were faced with some interesting problems. We needed to come up with a unified way of accessing disparate resources, or the application would have to “talk” a series of dialects, one for each service.

We decided that the aggregation of the various resources would be achieved by utilising Elastic Search. This meant that talking one “dialect” for all content services was essential.

In addition to technical uniformity, an extra challenge had to be met; the curriculum and subject area mappings of different kinds of services. Again the ideal would be for all resources to expose the same kind of curriculum and subject area related properties in consistent way.

The approach

At the time only Jorum provided a REST API, whereas Hairdressing Training didn’t, and so we decided that an API to cover these two services would be a good starting point. We felt that a uniform PHP API would allow us to quickly develop the FE Skills Window application, as it will consume it whilst at the same time allow the Elastic Search indexing to take place, without it “knowing” the difference between the two services.

An extra benefit of this approach is that, being open source and available on open source code repositories, it could potentially encourage 3rd party developers to explore and use the various Jisc resources. We are hoping that the features of the implementation and its detailed documentation will increase its chances of adoption by other developers.

Implementation

Warning: this is where we get into further technical detail, so read on if you need to understand how we are going to implement the PHP API!

The PHP API for Jorum and Hairdressers Training was created with the following goals.

  • To provide a modern, Object Oriented PHP API for accessing the two resources.
  • To be easy to install and use.
  • To abstract and unify access to the two different resources (more to come).
  • To become a building block for the release of additional APIs such as Mediahub and eBooks.
  • To allow Elastic Search indexing of our resources through a unified interface.

In order to achieve those goals the two APIs were developed following the latest PHP proposed or accepted standards, specifically PSR-0 (autoloading) and PSR-1 (coding standards).  Additionally, the API is implemented as a Composer downloadable package. That means that it can be dropped in any project that follows namespaces and uses Composer.

The coding standards compliance and extensive use of “docblocks” mean that when using an IDE that “talks” PHP you get auto-completion for the various classes and methods, as well as code hints. The idea is that one shouldn’t have to know the whole API by heart and in advance in order to use it. The API documentation is available on Github and can be also viewed online.

Image1a

To make it easy to install and use the code is organised as a Composer package and hosted on Github. It means that installing it simply involves adding a few lines in a configuration file and running composer install or update.

Composer

The composer.json file for this install was as follows:

{
"repositories": [
  {
    "url": "https://github.com/pdiveris/mimas.git",
    "type": "git"
  }
],
"require": {
  "pdiveris/mimas": "0.9.*"
 },
"psr-0": {
    "MIMAS": "app/lib"
    }
  }
}

Currently the API uses some facilities provided by Symfony2 and Laravel, however we are working fast to remove these two dependencies, as they are superficial. This is planned for release 1.0 which is coming soon.

By implementing the Jorum API in PHP, that is reading it, creating native PHP objects and then outputting in various formats, we are in a position to adjust the output or add properties without changes in the core API. We also have the added flexibility of been able to use caching systems like REDIS, should performance become an issue. With Hairdressers training, which is based on Drupal, the advantage is that it now “talks API” in a unified way. Extra fields for Curriculum Mapping and Subject Areas were added using the build in Drupal functionality and exposed by the API just as they appear in Jorum.  We feel that this approach will allow us to provide a single interface, through a uniform access point, for more resources in the future. Finally, the API is designed to support versioning.

Image3b

The image above show Hairdressers Training Collections – a concept that doesn’t exist in the actual Drupal application.

Resources

Competing Platforms and Common National Priorities –the why and why now for the FE Skills Window project?

Susanne BoyleA post by Susanne Boyle, Senior Manager for Learning, Teaching & Professional Skills at Mimas

Five months into this project and reaching the end of Phase I it is a time for professional reflection and from a personal level a reality check of what we are endeavouring to do, how we will achieve this and why the project timing is optimal.   The “what are we aiming to do” has been clearly articulated in previous team blogs but the “why” and “why now” for me has been more clearly defined in the last few weeks.

meerkatSo we are creating an FE Skills Window for the UK to provide readily discoverable routes to Jisc Digital content for FE and Skills.  Additionally having reflected on the success of the Jisc Hairdressing Training service we are tasked with curriculum mapping a significant proportion of the current Jisc content- “Simples”.

Original image URL – http://www.flickr.com/photos/47726742@N04/7638118600 Original image author – Mikhail Koninin, licence – CC BY 2.0

This project aims may appear deceptively simple but cognisant of the differing qualification systems within the four home countries and the need for the Window to integrate with existing FE technologies and Virtual Learning Environment platforms  the project team has cogitated and consulted with key stakeholders, Steering Group members and technical experts to determine the “how”.

The technical developer team members are presently focussing their collective expertise and energy towards the design of an aggregator functionality within the Window which will enable the FE Skills resources to be retrieved with national qualification levels as a key facet of the search strategy. Others in the team are completing an audit of the Jisc FE Skills content to enable us to decide which content to curriculum map. Whilst Laura (Skilton) and I have been toiling over the varies approaches to achieve the curriculum mapping (CM) and are now looking to draw upon the significant strengths of Jisc Regional Support Centre (RSC)  colleagues. Indeed this week we have formally agreed to conduct a pilot CM exercise using a methodology successfully developed and applied by colleagues at RSC Scotland, with backing from Peter Scott at Jisc.

Even whilst writing this I sense myself smiling, this project has been a bit of a baptism of fire for an analytical scientist  who has come from a Scottish HEI background but as I am given to noting to the team “I feel we may have broken the back” of the “what” and “how”.One scientist asking the other "whats the opposite or eurika?"

However having spent many long days in a science laboratory often pinning all my hopes that the latest “informed tweak” of the experimental design may produce the desired results only to find myself repeatedly back at the “experimental design drawing board” I am never complacent.

To that end we will continue to be agile, responsive and ideally proactive in the months ahead to achieve the project goals.

But what about the “Why” – I hear you shriek!  Is that not also “Simples”- a Digital Window for a company (Jisc) that provides innovative digital solutions to enhance the digital student experience? Yes, that in itself would be an achievement but why is now an ideal time for this?

Well looking to the consistently high UK youth unemployment figures and employer’s views that the barriers to recruiting young people are a lack of appropriate skills (63%) and experience (61%), UK Commission for Employment and Skills (2013) it is perhaps not surprising that devolved governments have commissioned expert working groups to find a solution to youth unemployment whilst addressing prevailing skills shortages within the labour market.

The findings of the most recent of these expert groups, “Education  Working for All!, The Commission for Developing Scotland’s Young Workforce led by Sir Ian Wood, was published in June 2014. It focuses on the situation in Scotland where there is a jobless rate of 18.8 %, more than double that of the average working age population (Labour Force Survey Jan- Mar 2014, ONS) and recommends a “culture shift” in the education system of Scotland leading to a parity between University and vocational training to enable more young Scots into work.

The numerous recommendations (n=39) in this weighty report include the:

  • Senior Phase Vocational Pathways.
  • Potential for young people to undertake National Certificates and HNCs whilst still at school.
  • Provision of study routes to enable completion of year one of a 3 or 4 year modern apprenticeship whilst at school.
  • Establishment of a modern standard for the acceptable content and quality of work experience, and guidelines which should be made available to employers.

The contributions of colleges and employers in these partnerships are clearly articulated with the expectation that colleges deliver courses and vocational experiences that develop employable students.

However cultural shifts in education require financial resources and professional commitment from stakeholders, policy makers and government and so I was heartened to hear the lively and constructive Holyrood debate regarding the “Wood Commission” with a commitment from Angela Constance (MSP) to release an initial £4.5 million (transcript available) with further focus on Modern Apprenticeships, vocational training and work experience.

College Development Network (Scotland) one of the key stakeholders tasked with delivering on these objectives have been quick to share their ideas on how they will help realise the recommendations of the Wood Commission report, see video below or read the full post: http://www.collegedevelopmentnetwork.ac.uk/latest-news/.

YouTube Preview Image

The idea of offering vocational courses to “school age” learners is not a new one. In England, as in other parts of the UK there is a more seamless approach to education within some FE colleges. Hull College is a prime example, offering 14 – 21 year olds seamless progression from Entry to Postgraduate level studies. The effectiveness of these vocational routes is evident through the student case studies, the economic impact for learners & government and the regional economy. Independent research has shown that Hull College contributes 5% of the regional income stream, the learners will earn on average £318,000 more over their working lifetime and the UK government receives a 15% return on its investment. These are impressive statistics, in times of national austerity when learners are facing increasingly difficult financial decisions when it comes to committing to further education and vocational training.

Similarly the Wolf Report (2011) identified a series of recommendations to help improve, create and maintain vocational education for 14- to 19-year-olds.

So looking to the bigger picture is the time not ripe for this UK Window development, with maximal usage including the sharing of quality open educational resources and training material via e.g. Jorum and Re:Source (see figure below)?

cdn

 

 

 

Would that not be a more cost effective solution to maximising the various pots of public money being targeted towards UK youth employability? With my Jisc- Mimas head on I am inclined towards an emphatic “yes” but I am mindful of previous professional roles where the onus was on me to achieve student recruitment figures and the preciousness I once held over sharing of teaching resources.

But I have seen the light, through the digital window project experience J, and I truly believe this is an opportune time for education and training communities to work collaboratively to develop policies which encourage sharing of quality vocational training resources. Thus whilst every college and University has to create its own unique selling point (USP) to meet recruitment targets and that USP may be strongly dependant on the quality of teaching and training materials, perhaps for priority areas such as youth employment there could be a sharing of best practice and quality training resources.

With the weekend looming my thoughts sometimes drift to more social matters and in this instance how we share our “treats” with visitors. In a large space it is unusual to adopt the one vessel approach and mindful of that I have to pinch myself occasionally and acknowledge there are other “OER vessels” in addition to Jorum. However being of a collaborative disposition I am minded to work proactively to integrate Jorum where possible with any national hubs, repositories or indeed other digital Windows as the need arises. In that way we may remove more of the barriers to access and ideally equalise access to ever increasing volumes of high quality open content to learners at a time and in a place of their convenience i.e. Right Content to Right People at Right Time with Right Access.feskillsWG-diagram-FINAL

 

Finally looking to the schematic of the Window, figure above, there is inference of the commitment of Jisc to new services and new solutions specifically for FE and Skills communities. Presently there are a number of projects including the “Interactive Learning Resources for Skills” which is being led by Ruth Hansford.