As Pete Johnston illustrates elsewhere in this issue , e-Learning is big business, and likely to get bigger. Figures quoted in the recent report to the US Congress from the Web Based Education Commission , for example, place the current value of US-based 'formal' education at all levels at $2.5 Billion, and estimates growth to nearly $14 Billion by 2003. In the corporate sector, the figures are even more impressive, estimated at $1.1 Billion currently, and $11.4 Billion by 2003. Globally, the report estimates e-Learning to be worth $365 Billion by 2003 .
In the UK, as elsewhere, numerous organisations are in the business of delivering some form of educational experience online, and new government initiatives and commercial startups continue to be announced with a vigour apparently undampened by the Dot Com collapses. For the hapless learner, however, the real potential offered by all of this on-tap education is diluted to some degree by the disjointed manner in which material is being place online.
In an effort to reduce duplication, share experiences, and place the needs of the learner firmly to the fore, public and private sector organisations responsible for creating, storing, using and delivering educational resources have come together in forming the Metadata for Education Group (MEG) . This paper introduces MEG, and outlines some of that which its members are hoping to accomplish.
Educational content is being created at an unprecedented rate. Public bodies involved in formal education and lifelong learning create resources directly geared to their curricula, and commercial publishers generate a wealth of material aimed at the same audience. Large initiatives such as the £50,000,000 nof-digi digitisation Programme  or the £10,000,000 being spent by JISC on focussing aspects of its DNER for learning and teaching  extend the picture yet further, catering as they do to educational exploration around and across the learning spectrum, rather than being geared explicitly towards identifiable parts of any formal curriculum. This content is offered up to users through a multitude of portals and other access mechanisms, such as (to name but a few) the Qualifications & Curriculum Authority's new site for the English National Curriculum in schools , the Scottish Cultural Resources Access Network's (SCRAN) catalogue , and the National Grid for Learning (NGfL) and University for Industry (UfI) sites for England, Northern Ireland and Wales [9, 10] and Scotland [11, 12].
Content is currently described using a wide range of standards and specifications, including a confusing mix of emerging international specifications such as the IMS Metadata Specification  and closely related LOM  from IEEE, the Dublin Core Metadata Element Set  and proposed educational extensions , and locally developed alternatives. Even where widely deployed 'standards' such as the Dublin Core are used, these tend to be refined and extended to reflect local requirements, as with European SchoolNet's interpretation of Dublin Core , and the further refinement of those interpretations by the NGfL Scotland team . The notion of Application Profiles, outlined in an earlier Ariadne by Rachel Heery and Manjula Patel , becomes important in untangling this complex web.
Even where existing standards are meaningfully deployed, there is an ongoing need for localisation and UK-specific best practice. Many systems, for example, include scope for a notion of 'audience' or 'level', which is useful in gauging the target for any given resource. Terms for describing these, though, are often not international in scope (K-12 in the USA, National Curriculum Key Stages 1-4 in England and Wales, etc.), and there is a requirement for specification and guidance within the UK in order to ensure that the standards are implemented meaningfully.
For those creating content, it is often unclear how best to create metadata which effectively describes what they create. For aggregators and portal managers, it is extremely difficult to provide comparable descriptions of resources from different sources. For the poor learner, it may be almost impossible to effectively gauge the relevance, value, or quality of many resources. In short, the current situation probably benefits no one.
Operating under the auspices of UKOLN's Interoperability Focus , the Metadata for Education Group has been formed in order to address a number of these issues. MEG offers a forum in which public and private sector bodies from across the UK can meet and address matters of concern in a way that no single agency currently has a remit to do.
The group's work is moved forward both through face-to-face meetings, which are most ably Chaired by Prof. Bruce Royan of SCRAN , and in discussion on and around the
uk-meg electronic mailing list .
The work of MEG is explicitly not about the creation of whole new standards for educational metadata. Rather, members focus upon developing consensus on the best approaches to a range of problems within the framework of existing standards and specifications. Where requirements emerge for new or revised standards, these can be fed from MEG to the relevant national and international committees for action.
The first significant deliverable from the group is the MEG Concord , which was released towards the end of 2000. This document enshrines the key principles agreed upon by members as a basis for proceeding. A high-level overview of these principles is provided, below.
The Concord is intended as a public statement of the open and consensual manner in which MEG works, and organisations are invited to lend their support to this process by signing up. At the time of writing, some 45 organisations have done so, including the JISC , the National Learning Network , the New Opportunities Fund , UfI , and many more, including teaching institutions such as the University of Hull  and Aberdeen College . A number of further major bodies are in the process of signing up, too.
Although the work of MEG is focused upon UK issues, the Concord is attracting a degree of interest from overseas. Both EdNA  and GEM  have signed the Concord, and there is interest in what it is attempting to achieve elsewhere, with the likelihood of signatures from a number of other overseas partners, and collaboration between their efforts and those of MEG in the UK.
- MEG members recognise the importance of Learning, both to the learner and to society, and seek means to facilitate it as an effective process
- MEG members aim to ensure that resources produced by themselves and others are truly accessible to the learner
- MEG members seek to encourage the creation of Learning Resources which are of appropriate granularity, and suitable for aggregation
- MEG members support work elsewhere to ensure that Learning Resources are sustainable, reusable, and interoperable
- In describing Learning Resources, MEG members will adopt existing and emerging open standards
- MEG shall aim to become the United Kingdom's forum for exchange of best practices and policy in the arena of learning resource metadata
- By advocacy and example, MEG members will work to ensure that developments in the United Kingdom are in line with best practice
- Members of MEG shall participate actively in the development, dissemination, and deployment of UK and international standards
- Where necessary, members of MEG shall seek to progress local practices through to international acceptance
- MEG members will work to produce UK–focused supporting material necessary for the effective deployment of UK and international standards
Extracted from the MEG Concord
The work of MEG is very much driven by the members. Given the informal nature of the group at present, and the lack of funding directly related to MEG activities within organisations, it is necessary to move forward with projects that directly impinge upon the workplans of individual members, in order that their existing effort may be harnessed towards development of common approaches.
Two current activities are the populating of a MEG registry and work on a common list of UK educational levels, which is at an early stage.
Building upon work on the EC-funded DESIRE project , UKOLN staff are currently working to enter information on the use of educational metadata specifications. This work includes registering the major specifications, such as IMS, as well as local Application Profiles  of these in order to make explicit the ways in which individual implementations alter a standard. Pete Johnston provides an evolving MEG-specific entry point to the registry, and welcomes new items for registering .
Membership of MEG is open to all who have an interest in improving the description of educational resources. Presently, anyone who joins the
uk-meg mailing list  is a member of MEG, and able both to attend meetings and participate fully in the process. If you have skills and experience to offer in this area, or if you just want to be made aware of where other people are moving in this field, then join the list and get involved to the extent that you are able.
uk-megmailing list is at: http://www.jiscmail.ac.uk/lists/uk-meg.html.