Thursday, August 2, 2012


Standardisation efforts are odd things. Most successful standards seem to have come out of one or a few brilliant individuals, and the standardisation committees only took over after the thing in question became widely adopted. Think of C, C++, Java, HTML, HTTP, JavaScript, SQL… Of course, it is only with hind-sight that we know those were successful things, that the people who created them were brilliant, and that it was worth investing effort in a standardisation committee to get different implementations to be interoperable. There are many fewer examples of successful standards that started with a committee. I am sure there are some, but I am failing to think of any right now.

Even when there are standards, that does not magically solve all your problems. Ask any developer about the problems of getting their web site to work on all browsers, particularly Internet Explorer, despite the existence of the HTML, CSS and JS standards; or look at the work Moodle has to do to work with the four databases we support, even though SQL is supposed to be a standardised language.

In theory a standard makes sense. If you have n different systems you want to move data between, then

  • If you go directly from system to system, you would have to write ½n*(n-1) different importers.
  • Given a common standard, you only need to write n different importers.

In practice, different systems have slightly different features, so you cannot perfectly copy data from one system to another. An importer from X to Y is not a perfect thing, it has to fudge some details. Now compare the two ways of handling import:

  • An importer for System Y that directly imports the files output by System X can know all about the details of System X, so it can do the best possible job of dealing with the incompatible features.
  • Using Standard S, System X has to save its data in format S dealing with any incompatibilities between what X supports and what S supports. Then System Y has to take file S and import it, dealing with any incompatibilities between what S supports and what Y supports, and it has to do that without the benefit of knowing that the data originally came from System X.

Therefore, going for direct import is likely to give better results, although at the cost of more work.

The particular case I am thinking about is, of course, moving questions between different eAssessment systems. The only standard that exists is IMS QTI, which has always struck me as the worst sort of product of a committee. It is not widely adopted and it is horribly complicated. Also, if we wanted to make Moodle support QTI, we would have to completely rewrite the Moodle to work the way QTI specifies. That is sort-of fair enough. If you want to display HTML like a web browser, you basically have to start from scratch and write you code from the ground up to work the way the HTML, CSS and JavaScript standards say. These standards are not designed to make content interoperate between different existing systems. You need only look at the horrible mess you get when you do Save as… -> HTML in MS Word, or even just copy-and-paste from Word to Moodle, to be convinced of that.

So, QTI is trying to solve the wrong problem. It is trying to be a full-featured standard that you can only support by basing your whole software around what the standard says. We don’t want to rewrite the whole Moodle question engine just to support some standard that hardly anyone else uses yet. We just want to be able to import 99%+ of questions from other systems, and from publishers, that Teachers can get access to. The kind of standard we want is more like CSV files. CSV is a nice simple standard to transfer data between spreadsheets and other applications.

In the past, it has always been easier to write separate importers for each other system Moodle wants to import from, rather than trying to deal with one very complex generic standard like QTI. See the screen-grab of Moodle's import UI to the right. To write a new importer, you just need some example files in the format you want to support, containing a few questions of each type. Then it is easy to write the code to parse that sort of file, and converting the data to the format Moodle expects.

Having said that, the current situation is not perfect. The problem is that most of these other file formats are output by commercial software. Therefore, many developers cannot easily get sample files in those formats to use for developing and testing code. As a result, some of the importers are buggy. We have to rely on people in the community who care enough, and who have access to the software, to create example files for us. There was a good example of that recently: Someone called Rick Jerz from Le Claire, Iowa produced a good example Examview file, and long-time quiz contributor Jean-Michel Vedrine from St Etienne, France used that to fix the bugs in the Examview importer.

On the standardisation front, there is a glimmer of hope. IMS Common Cartridge is a standard for moving learning content from one VLE to another. It uses a tiny, and hence manageable, subset of QTI that tries to solve the “transfer 99%+ of the questions teachers use” problem. It should be possible to get Moodle to read and write that QTI subset. We just need someone with the time and inclination to do the work. It is even possible that the OU's OpenLearn project will be that someone, but QTI import/export is just one of many things on their to-do list.

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