A Contextual Framework For Standards
ABSTRACT This paper describes a layered approach to selection and use of open standards which is being developed to support development work within the UK higher and further educational communities. This approach reflects the diversity of the technical environment, the service provider's environment, user requirements and maturity of standards by separating contextual aspects; technical and non-technical policies; the selection of appropriate solutions and the compliance layer. To place the layered approach in context, case studies are provided of the types of environments in which the standards framework can be implemented. The paper describes how this contextual approach can be extended to address other areas such as Web accessibility and use of open source software. Use of a common model can provide consistent approaches by funding bodies and shared understanding for developers. This contextual approach is being extended to support development work with other public sector organizations within the UK. We describe how the approach is well-suited to ensure common ways of working across disparate sets of organizations and how the approach can be applied within a wider context.
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ABSTRACT: The aim of the paper is to identify and discuss major challenges for OSS from an HCI perspective, so as to aid the adoption and development processes for end-users, developers and organizations. The paper focuses on four important HCI concerns: product usability, support for user and development communities, accessibility and software usability and proposes areas for further research on the basis of related work and own experiences.08/2007: pages 455-464;
Kelly, B., Dunning, A., Hollins, P., Phipps, L. and Rahtz, S., 2006.
A Contextual Framework For Standards. In: WWW 2006
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A Contextual Framework For Standards
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This paper describes a layered approach to selection and use of
open standards which is being developed to support development
work within the UK higher and further educational communities.
This approach reflects the diversity of the technical environment,
the service provider's environment, user requirements and
maturity of standards by separating contextual aspects; technical
and non-technical policies; the selection of appropriate solutions
and the compliance layer. To place the layered approach in
context, case studies are provided of the types of environments in
which the standards framework can be implemented.
The paper describes how this contextual approach can be
extended to address other areas such as Web accessibility and use
of open source software. Use of a common model can provide
consistent approaches by funding
understanding for developers.
bodies and shared
This contextual approach is being extended to support
development work with other public sector organizations within
the UK. We describe how the approach is well-suited to ensure
common ways of working across disparate sets of organizations
and how the approach can be applied within a wider context.
Categories and Subject Descriptors
K.4.1 [Computers and Society]: Public Policy Issues
open standards; policies; open source, e-learning, accessibility
The importance of open standards is order to provide application-
and device-independence, to help ensure the interoperability of
services and to maximize access to resources is widely
acknowledged. The Web, for example, is widely accepted as the
key platform for providing access to digital services and
resources. The Web promises universal access to resources and
provides flexibility (including platform- and application-
independence) though use of open standards. In practice,
however, it can be difficult to achieve this goal. Proprietary
formats can be appealing and, as we learnt during the “browser
wars”, software vendors can state their support for open standards
while deploying proprietary extensions which can result in
services which fail to be interoperable.
Many development programmes which seek to provide access to
digital resources will expect funded projects to comply with a
variety of open standards. However if, in practice, projects fail to
implement open standards this can undermine the premise that
open standards are essential and would appear to threaten the
return of application- and platform-specific access to resources.
Although a commitment to Web development based on open
standards certainly is appealing, in practice it is likely that there
will be occasions when use of proprietary solutions may be
needed (for example, there may be areas in which open standards
are not available or are not sufficiently mature for deployment in a
service environment). But the acceptance of a mixed economy in
which open standards and proprietary formats can be used as
appropriate can lead to dangers with organizations continuing to
deploy proprietary solutions they are familiar with.
So should we mandate strict compliance with open standards or
should we tolerate a mixed economy? This paper seeks to explore
these questions in more detail. The paper begins by reviewing
examples of national development programmes in the UK which
have an open standards philosophy and describes the limitations
of the approaches taken. An alternative approach is described
which is supportive of open standards but which provides a
broader framework for the development of networked services.
Examples of how this contextual approach is being used are
provided. The paper concludes by describing how this approach
can be extended across other areas and to other communities.
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INITIAL APPROACHES TO USE OF
OPEN STANDARDS IN THE UK
2.1 Standards In UK Higher And Further
Education Development Programmes
The higher and further education communities in the UK have a
culture which is supportive of open standards in its development
programmes in order to reflect the diversity to be found across the
sector. These principles underpin the development activities
funded by the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC), a
national body which funds national IT services and development
programmes for the UK’s higher and further education
communities. In 1999 JISC established the Learning and Teaching
Programme with the aim of increasing use of online electronic
resources. To ensure that the project deliverables could be easily
deployed into a service environment the JISC expected projects to
make use of standards documented in the Standards and
Guidelines To Build A National Resource document , which
was an updated version of the eLib Standard Guidelines
document  which supported an early digital library programme,
known as eLib, which ran from 1995 until 2001.
2.2 Standards In UK Cultural Heritage
The NOF-digitise programme formed part of a larger initiative
(the New Opportunities Fund or NOF) that distributed funding to
education, health and environment projects throughout the UK.
The NOF-digitise element was, as the title suggests, was dedicated
to funding and supporting universities, local government,
museums and other public sector organizations in digitizing
material from their collections and archives and making this
cultural heritage available on the Web.
Emphasis on the need for standards and good practice began early
in the lifespan of the programme. This was for two reasons.
Firstly, few of the funded projects had much experience of
digitization so education and training was required to inculcate
the importance of standards. Secondly, it was realized that the
public funding of a large-scale digitization programme entailed
the creation of material that needed to be preserved and made
accessible not just in the present, but for future generations.
Therefore the programme elected to formulate a set of standards
based on open standards. In addition a Technical Advisory
Service was established which would be able to offer technical
assistance to the projects as they applied these standards.
The standards developed for NOF-digitise projects  addressed
five areas: creation, management, collection development, access
and re-use. In many cases defining the open standards in these
areas was a relatively straightforward matter. Thus those projects
that were digitizing textual material needed to do so in XML or
HTML; those creating digital images had to use formats such as
TIFF, GIF, JPEG (JFIF) or PNG.
2.3 Standards In UK E-Government
The UK Government also seeks to make use of open standards to
support interoperability. An e-GIF Technical Standards Catalogue
has been published . This document provides a catalogue of
standards for use across government organisations. The catalogue
assigns a status for each of the standards of Adopted;
Recommended; Under review or For Future consideration.
3.1 Experiences In The UK Higher And
Further Education Community
Although projects funded by the eLib programme were expected
to comply with the eLib standards document, in practice
compliance was never formally checked. This may have been
appropriate at that time, before the Web was acknowledged as the
prime delivery platform. However, there is now a realization that
compliance with open standards such as XML is necessary in
order for digital resources to be widely interoperable. JISC funded
the QA Focus project to develop a quality assurance framework
which would help ensure that future projects would comply with
standards and recommendations and make use of best practices.
Focus groups provided feedback on the standards framework. The
feedback indicated: (a) a lack of awareness of the standards
document; (b) difficulties in seeing how the standards could be
applied to projects’ particular needs; (c) concerns that the
standards would change during the project lifetime; (d) lack of
technical expertise and time to implement appropriate standards;
(e) concerns that standards may not be sufficiently mature to be
used; (f) concerns that the mainstream browsers may not support
appropriate standards and (g) concerns that projects were not
always starting from scratch but may be building on existing work
and in such cases it would be difficult to deploy appropriate
standards. Many of these were legitimate concerns which needed
to be addressed in future programmes.
3.2 Experiences With NOF-digitise
Unlike the approaches taken by JISC, the NOF-digitise
programme involved the use of an external standards compliance
service. This approach taken required projects to report on any
deviance from required standards. In addition a limited amount of
checking of project Web sites was also carried out. Initial reports
from some of the projects and discussion on mailing lists showed
that there were occasions when full compliance with mandated
standards was not felt to be possible or compliance would be
likely to reduce the effectiveness or usability of the Web site. In
order to address this the project reporting form was changed in
order to allow projects to give reasons for non-compliance. In
addition a FAQ was produced  which provided examples of
The flexibility which was introduced helped the programme to
produce valuable cultural heritage online services. However, on
reflection, the approach taken to the support of the NOPF-digitise
programme had its limitations:
Lack of embedding: There is a danger that, since the
standards document are provided by an external body, use of
open standards will fail to be embedded in other development
work within the organisations hosting project work.
Lack of a QA framework: Use of an external compliance
checking service can result failure to develop a quality
Difficulties in reuse of support materials: The support
materials which were developed (FAQs, briefing papers, etc.)
were integrated with NOF-digitise procedural issues. This
meant that it was difficult to reuse the materials to support
3.3 Comments On E-GIF Standards
Although the e-GIF technical standards are mandatory for
information exchange across many government organisations,
there are a number of concerns over the approach taken.
Limitations of the approach to the status of standards: The
catalogue assigns a status for each of the standards of
Adopted; Recommended; Under review or For Future
consideration. However this one-dimensional approach makes
it difficult to reflect the diversity to be found.
Lack of guiding principles: The standards catalogue fails to
describe the underling principles on which the document is
based. Parts of the document appear to be based on use of
open W3C standards, but in other areas proprietary formats
have been adopted.
Limited discussion: Although an online discussion forum
has been provided it has been little used.
A LAYERED APPROACH TO USE OF
We have described approaches which have been for use of open
standards. We have described some of the limitations with these
approaches and the confusions which can be caused through an
over-simplistic mandation of open standards.
Where does this leave us? There is a danger that developers of
networked services which seek to make use of open standards will
be left in an uncertain position as to how best to proceed. Should
the commitment to open standards be abandoned due to the
inherent difficulties? Should such difficulties be ignored and use
of open standards be formally required? In  the authors argue
for an open standards culture which is supportive of the use of
open standards, but acknowledges the difficulties. In this paper
the authors describe an approach which builds on this.
We argue that there is a need to recognize the contextual nature to
this problem; i.e. there is not a universal solution, but rather the
need to recognize local, regional and cultural factors which will
inform the selection and use of open standards. We have
developed a layered approach intended for used in development
work. This approach is illustrated in Figure 1.
Figure 1: A layered approach to use of standards
This approach uses the following layers:
Contextual Layer: Policies: This reflects the context in
which the standards are being used. Large, well-funded
organizations may choose to mandate strict use of open
standards in order to build large, well-integrated systems
which are intended for long term use. For a smaller
organization, perhaps reliant on volunteer effort with
uncertain long-term viability, a simpler approach may be more
appropriate, perhaps making use of proprietary solutions.
Annotated Standards Catalogue: This provides an
annotated description (or catalogue) of relevant policies in a
range of areas. The areas will include descriptions of
standards, the ownership, maturity, risk assessment, etc.
Contextual Layer: Compliance: This describes the
mechanisms which will be used in order to ensure that
development work complies with the requirements defined
within the particular context. For large, public funded
programmes there could be a formal monitoring process
carried out by external auditors. In other contexts, projects
may be expected to carry out their own self-assessment. In
such cases, the findings could be simply used internally within
the project, or, alternatively, significant deviations from best
practices could be required to be reported to the funding body.
It should be noted that, although it will be possible to deploy this
three-layered approach within a funding programme or
community, there will be a need to recognize external factors,
over which there may be no direct control. This may include legal
factors, wider organizational factors, cultural factors, etc.
5.1 Application To Digitization
As an archive with over ten years experience of handling digital
objects, the work of the Arts and Humanities Data Service
(AHDS) illustrates the importance of open standards but the
difficulties (and the resulting need for pragmatism) in trying to
apply them. The task of the AHDS is to collect, disseminate and
preserve digital resources in the arts and humanities. Typically
these resources consist of digital texts, still images, audio or video
files, etc, which are created by academics in UK universities, who
then deposit these materials with the AHDS. The AHDS has
sought to identify suitable formats for the long-term preservation
of digital data. This manifests itself in an AHDS Deposit Format
list . This list and related resources - notably Guides to Good
Practice  and Information Papers  - stipulate the formats
which should be utilized by resource creators for digitization.
To facilitate preservation, the AHDS recommends the use of open
standards - non-proprietary formats that will help maintain free
and reasonably straightforward access to digital data, hopefully
unaffected by changes in the global computing environment. For
the most straightforward data types, such as text and still images,
this is a reasonably easy task to accomplish. For text use of XML
is recommended; for still images, uncompressed TIFFs. Yet there
is a realization that not all resource creators work according to
pre-set standards. Often, this is due to a lack of understanding
about the importance of standards, meaning that resource creation
projects begin working immediately in the format that is most
convenient in the short term, unaware of the long-term issues. In
other cases, resource creators will be familiar with particular
software and will want to continue to work with it, even if it does
not cope well with open formats.
Thus the AHDS Deposit Format list, besides containing a set of
Preferable Formats for depositing resources, comprises a list of
Acceptable Formats as well. One example where this is relevant is
word-processed documents. The preferred format for such
USING THIS APPROACH
documents is RTF (Rich Text Format). This has long-term
preservation value whereas a document that has been created in
the native proprietary format (e.g. MS Word) does not. However,
AHDS realizes that such applications are widely used and that it is
easy to export data from MS Word into an RTF file. The AHDS
therefore accepts MS Word files from resource creators and then
migrates them into RTF on arrival at the AHDS archive.
This need for flexibility is particularly true when it comes to data
types where there are no established open standards. Virtual
reality, GIS, audio and video are areas where a pragmatic
approach is required. For some of these data types open standards
do exist. However, for a variety of reasons, it is not possible for
the AHDS to stipulate only these as the preferred deposit format -
indeed in some cases the open standard is not even considered the
preferred standard within the communities who deal with the data
Formats for moving images provide a good example of this.
Currently there is no ideal format for preservation, but there are
numerous acceptable formats. Among these are Microsoft’s AVI
(Audio Video Interleaved) format and members of the family of
MPEG (Moving Picture Experts Group) formats, particularly
MJPEG, and MPEG-2, which is used as the standard for the
delivery of moving images on DVDs. While these formats allow
for high-quality digital moving images to be created, they are all
proprietary formats; patents to the algorithms underlying the
formats are owned by the formats’ creators and must be licensed
by commercial software developers in order to manipulate them.
With such proprietary formats, there is an obvious preservation
risk. The patent-holders' business plans may change, affecting
how such video files can be edited and played. It may be that
users would have to pay in order to access files in that format, or,
should some kind of corporate disaster (liquidation, being taken
over by another company, etc.) strike, it could gradually become
impossible to access moving image files in that format at all.
There are however advantages to these formats. Issues relating to
the formats are well-documented and they have good acceptance
in various communities around the world. Apple’s QuickTime is
another format that, because of its popularity and its ease of
handling, is regarded as an acceptable format for depositing
material with the AHDS; to reject QuickTime files would be to
reject much of the digital moving image data currently being
created. While the AHDS would like to mandate only open
standards for data creation, the actual practices of the wider
communities that the AHDS works with mitigates against this.
Because such formats are continually in flux, the situation
requires proactive preservation management from the AHDS. The
AHDS needs to ensure it keeps up-to-date with changes in format
technology and their uptake. Should a new version of the MPEG
format be released, the AHDS has to ensure that it obtains
appropriate software to play the files and also migrate the files
from the older version of the format to the newer. Developments
in other formats also need to be tracked, such as MJPEG-2000.
The process of setting standards for digitization is one that always
needs to be reassessed and updated - it is not possible to mandate
a particular set of open standards and expect them to become set
5.2 Application To E-Learning
The Centre for Technological Interoperability Standards (CETIS)
represents the UK higher and further education institutions on
international learning technology standards initiatives. CETIS has
been instrumental in the development of the JISC e-framework
which is being deployed across JISC activities. The e-framework
makes use of Web Services and a Service Oriented Architecture
(SOA), together with the application of open learning technology
specifications and standards such as those developed by the
specification bodies such as the IMS Global Learning consortium
and ADL and formal standards bodies including The British
Standards Institute (BSI) and the International Standards
Organization (ISO) the Institute of Electrical Engineers (IEEE).
As we will see, the three-layered contextual approach described
above could equally be applied to the use of open learning
technology standards. Historically, the lack of recognition of these
factors have in some cases resulted in the mandation of
specifications; prematurely, where the specification is an early
iteration, inappropriately, where the specification is applied out of
context and without due consideration of institutional, legal
(particularly Intellectual Property Rights issues) and cultural
The adoption of a specification, either formal or de facto, is
subject to an often lengthy life cycle which involves a lengthy
iteration process before they are of “useable” value. To mandate
an immature specification (one that is in the early stages of its
adoption life cycle) in this process can result in the specification
not accommodating community or project requirements for use.
A good example of inappropriate mandating has been the
widespread application of the ADL Shareable Content Object
Reference Model (SCORM) to content development. SCORM
was designed contextually as a specification where detailed
complex “tracking” of learner activities, responses and assessment
are required, as required when training aircraft engineers et al
where compliance is a key driver. It would be clearly
inappropriate to apply SCORM in a Higher Education setting with
an emphasis on a constructivist or collaborative approach to
learning, where in context “compliance” assumes little or no
Cultural barriers to the use of standards exist as is the case with
the current drive at a policy level towards e-Portfolio or the
European Diploma supplement (EDS) supported by open
specifications such IMS Learner Information Profile, UK LEAP,
etc. Cultural concerns surround issues such as ownership of and
access to the data contained in the portfolio, the validation and
security of data which in turn impact on both institutional, student
records and admissions, and legal, data protection and freedom of
The layered approach described above has been designed to
provide a framework for the use of standards with development
programmes which, whilst supportive of use of open standards,
acknowledges that this may not always be possible. How, though,
is this approach to be used by projects?
We have developed another layered approach for use by projects
which is illustrated in Figure 2.
THE DEVELOPER’S PERSPECTIVE
Figure 2: The Project’s Perspective
Projects will be aware of four distinct phases, two which take
place during the initial project development period, one during
development work and one which takes place towards the end of
the project’s life:
Selection: In many cases projects will have some flexibility
in choosing standards. The selection process should reflect
the open standards culture inherent in the programme, whilst
allowing some flexibility which reflects the content of the
development environment. A matrix for the selection of
standards has been developed to support this decision-
making process .
Ratification: A potential danger could be that projects seek
to use the methodology as an excuse to continue to use
existing formats, tools and working practices. In order to
avoid such inertia there should be a ratification stage, in
which the decisions made by the projects can be agreed or
rejected by the programme funders.
Quality Assurance: Projects will need to implement quality
assurance procedures to ensure that the policies which have
been made are being implemented correctly. A lightweight
QA framework  has been developed to support JISC’s
Review/Learning: The final stage is for a review of the
process which can provide an opportunity for learning.
Projects should provide feedback on both the approach used
across the digital library programme and on specific aspects,
such as comments on particular technologies and standards.
7.1 Application To Web Accessibility
The importance of broad accessibility to digital resources is
widely acknowledged. Within the World Wide Web Consortium
(W3C) the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) has taken the lead
in promoting the importance of accessibility and has developed a
set of guidelines (the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines or
WCAG) which, along with the guidelines for authoring tools and
user agents, aim to provide guidance on best practices for
ensuring that Web resources are widely accessible.
It would appear that a globally acknowledged standard for
accessibility has been developed and that the WAI guidelines
should be adopted by all. In reality, however, the approach
developed by WAI has flaws. The WAI model, which is based on
three components (guidelines for authoring tools and user agents,
EXTENDING THE APPROACH
in addition to guidelines for Web content), is a theoretical model
for Web authors, as they have no control over the provision of
browsers or authoring tools.
As well as the flaws in the WAI model, the WCAG guidelines
themselves are flawed. Kelly et al  have argued that the poor
level of compliance with WCAG guidelines which has been
observed in many sectors reflects, not necessarily a lack of
motivation to support users with disabilities but rather a failing in
the guidelines themselves.
In the light of these issues
the authors feel that a
slavish commitment to
WAI guidelines is
inappropriate and that an
alternative approach is
needed. A holistic
framework (shown in
Figure 3) for e-learning
accessibility has been
developed by  which
takes a user-focused
approach to Web
accessibility, rather than
the conventional checklist
7.2 Application To Open Source
Open source development and deployment in UK academia is
influenced by two policy documents and a set of peer-maintained
standards. The JISC issued a policy on open source in 2005 
which expands on the UK government policy . The peer
standards consist of the terms of the Open Source Definition .
The effect of the policy documents is, firstly, to mandate
consideration of open source software (OSS) solutions alongside
proprietary ones in IT procurements; and secondly, to mandate
that software developed with public funds should specify an
exploitation route. Both documents say that an open source
licence should be the default exploitation route if no other is
The policies lead some readers to suppose that both the JISC and
the UK Government demand the use of open source software in
all activities and force open source release on all projects.
However, the effect is in fact closer to the contextual model
discussed in this paper. For deployment, the insistence is that
open source software should be considered on its merits without
prejudice, and for development, that a proper assessment is made
of the best way to manage release of intellectual assets. In
deployment, this means that adherence to standards, fitness for
purpose and value for money are the prime considerations; but the
benefits of the open source system must be well understood in
order to apply the appropriate weighting. In development, again, it
is important to fully appreciate the benefits that the open source
development model brings. In context, this may well mean that
the public interest is served by the majority of software developed
with public money comes under an open source licence. The UK
e-Science and middleware programmes, for example, are areas of
rapid innovation where shared resource can benefit everyone.
The situation is slightly different with the OSI definition of open
source. The insistence here is that self-certification of
conformance is not acceptable, unless "open source" is simply to
become a fashion statement. However, there is no ranking of
licenses to say that, for instance, the GPL is preferable to BSD.
Figure 3: Holistic Framework
For E-Learning Accessibility
This again provides the contextual model: a license should be
chosen to suit the circumstances, but it should be chosen from
amongst those supported by the community.
The message of the open source policies and standards is that the
benefits of open source should be understood and taken account
of, not that OSS should be given preferential treatment.
7.3 An Enhanced Contextual Model
We have seen how the contextual approach which has been
develop to support the selection and use of open standards can be
applied in other areas including accessibility and open source
software. Figure 4 illustrates how the contextual model can be
extended to other areas.
Figure 4: Enhanced contextual model
This model encourages the development of catalogues which
provide summaries of appropriate best practices. Decisions of use
of such best practices can then be determined within the context
of the sector concerned, resources and funding available, etc.
It should be noted that this contextual approach is based on the
notion of subsidiarity  – the principles of best practices are
defined and document but decisions on implementing such best
practices are developed, allowing the use of solutions which are
applicable within their own particular context.
This approach is currently being used to extend the model
developed for use by the JISC to include strategic partners in the
Common Information Environment (CIE) . The vision of the
CIE is to allow users to seamless access to resources provided by
a range of educational, cultural heritage and related public sector
organisations within the UK. The contextual approach described
in this paper is felt to be well-suited for use by the CIE, in order
to reflect the diversity to be found across these organisations.
This paper has considered some of the difficulties associated with
the use of open standards and describes a model which provides a
contextual approach to selection and use of open standards within
digital library development programmes. This model aims to
provide a pragmatic solution and is designed to provide guidance
and support for projects and services in implementing standards-
based solutions, without being overly prescriptive. This model is
currently being adopted within JISC and its potential for use in
other contexts is being explored.
Acknowledgements are given to the JISC for their funding of the
QA Focus project which inspired the approach described in this
paper and for their funding and support for much of the work
carried out by the authors of this paper.
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