The e-Framework for Education and Research was founded in 2005 as a partnership between the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) in the UK, and the then Department of Education Science and Technology (DEST) in Australia. Since the foundation of the e-Framework, a major government reorganisation in Australia has replaced DEST with the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR), and the initial partnership has expanded to include SURF in the Netherlands, and the New Zealand Ministry of Education/Te Tahuhu o te Matauranga.
The e-Framework built on earlier JISC-DEST partnership work in the e-Learning Framework. It aims, through collaboration, to address the challenges involved in a service-oriented approach to software analysis and design in the broader context of learning, teaching, research and administration. Choice of the term 'service-oriented approach' was, and is, deliberate. (It is often represented by lower case soa, in contrast to the upper-case Service Oriented Architecture, or SOA). Whilst the distinction may appear subtle; one perspective of that distinction is that it is designed essentially to encapsulate the difference between the route and the destination.
Service Oriented Approaches and Service Oriented Architecture
...Service Oriented Architecture is described by Wikipedia as providing;
'...methods for systems development and integration where systems package functionality as interoperable services. A SOA infrastructure allows different applications to exchange data with one another. Service-orientation aims at a loose coupling of services with operating systems, programming languages and other technologies that underlie applications.' 
Service-orientation builds on earlier approaches to systems architecture in presupposing smaller, more flexible and loosely coupled elements, which can be re-composed and combined to support a wider range of requirements than a traditional application. In a general, business sense, the implementation of a Service Oriented Architecture is regarded as providing the following benefits;
- Acting to eliminate code redundancy, and an accompanying reduction in the costs of maintenance
- Reducing the costs associated with integration
- Increasing the reuse of assets and services
- Increasing flexibility and agility, and reducing risk
Whilst the promise of Service Oriented Architecture is considerable, many commercial entities and educational institutions shy away from an approach that suggests that they replace their application infrastructure wholesale. Extracting the essential characteristic of service orientation, that 'services can be implemented once and accessed by different applications when needed'  leaves other, more gradual routes to the realisation of benefits prior to establishing a complete SOA. This is the principle reason the e-Framework chose to use the term 'service-oriented approach' to describe its early activities in this area.
The benefits of a service-oriented approach are often posed, rather starkly, as 'business benefits'. Whilst this is frequently merely an acceptable shorthand, Patrick O'Reilly, the Head of Information Services and Technology at the University of Bolton points beyond this in terms of the flexibility a service-oriented approach offers within education;
'The problem is that Universities are not selling commodities. If Amazon sells a kettle it can use the same set of processes as it uses to sell a book... The value Amazon adds to the commodity is in the product reputation system, the tailored recommendations, the dispatch options. This is clever stuff, but not complex. There is limited process variety: only commodity variety. Universities too have standard processes: validating a course, marketing a course, recruiting, enrolling a student, collecting the fee, claiming the funding, accrediting the learning, graduating the student. But the curriculum is too complex to be a commodity, and is characterised by huge variety: the different approaches of the academic disciplines, personalised in the delivery, varying in the assessment methods, adjusted for learning styles.' 
To which might be added, that ICT-enabled or -supported curriculum delivery, and perhaps more broadly still, the opportunities presented by ICT for transforming learning, teaching and research, are still highly experimental and barely defined, let alone commodified. In this context, increasing the flexibility of ICT systems to support a range of processes, without the costs associated with constantly re-inventing such systems from scratch would appear highly beneficial.
Yet despite this promise, and continued analyst reports of the increased adoption of SOA in business, adoption across education appears markedly slower than the commercial sector. Several factors may be affecting this, including the front-loaded costs associated with process analysis and redesign, process ownership and related governance issues within an institution, and sheer technical complexity and lack of expertise. It is clearly important, in this context, to ensure that the early experiences of service-oriented approaches to systems design in education are shared effectively. In part this necessitates an approach that attempts to abstract and generalise the lessons of service-oriented work from a particular domain or work area and apply those lessons in another. This is the essence of the technical approach developed by the e-Framework Partnership - an approach which is as neutral as possible, bridging the worlds of learning, teaching, research and administration, and which does this, as far as possible, across national boundaries.
A New Work Plan
In the summer of 2008 the e-Framework appointed an International Director, Ian Dolphin, to lead the development of a rounded international workplan. The new workplan - substantively agreed at an International Partners meeting on November 2008 - has two primary areas of focus. The first is concerned with securing validation of the use of the service-oriented approach suggested by the e-Framework. The second re-affirms the e-Framework as a strategic partnership of the agencies involved, and involves an open exploration of the potential for collaboration in other areas.
It is entirely appropriate that the technical approaches suggested by the e-Framework be subjected to detailed and open evaluation and validation. An overarching technical model is in the final stages of internal review, and will be released publicly in May 2009. This provides a coherent perspective of how the e-Framework components relate and work together; it is designed to make the technical approach more approachable. The model is also an essential pre-requisite of review and validation of the contents of the e-Framework Service Knowledgebase. The Knowledgebase currently contains around sixty documentary artefacts from a variety of projects and activities across the partnership. A further sixty or so artefacts are being added in coming months, as they move through a streamlined peer review process. This represents a considerable body of distilled experience. The intention, then, is to work with the community to assess the value of the e-Framework service-oriented approach at both the level of the overall model, and the experience the Knowledgebase seeks to capture and share, in as wide a range of contexts and domains as possible.
A Strategic Partnership
Whilst the service-oriented approach developed by the e-Framework remains a clear strategic priority, it is likely to be joined by other strands of activity as the partnership continues to develop. These activities will be governed largely by the principle of subsidiarity; the Partnership will generally undertake activities which could not better handled at a national or local level.
There are early examples of potential joint work areas. The partners share common strategic interests in the development and adoption of common technical specifications and standards to promote interoperability, and are establishing ways of collaborating more closely in international standards bodies. Further joint work areas will be identified by mapping the technical and innovation activity undertaken by the partners at a strategic level.
It is already possible to determine a degree of commonality in several work areas, such as support for research collaboration, green computing, the development of repositories of research outputs, and a common interest in addressing the tangle of issues around storage and preservation of research data. In the current economic climate, sharing strategic approaches, and identifying areas of common interest and potential collaboration makes profoundly good sense.
- Wikipedia: Service-oriented architecture, retrieved 28 April 2009
- e-Framework Overview: Overview of the e-Framework for Education and Research
- 1.2 A Briefing for Directors and Heads of IT Services by Patrick O'Reilly, Head of Information Services & Technology, University of Bolton
Ian Dolphin is a former member of the Board of Directors of the Sakai Project and Foundation, and of JASIG, the parent organisation of uPortal and CAS. He is currently seconded from his role as Head of e-Strategy at the University of Hull to the e-Framework Partnership for Education and Research as International Director. This article is contributed in an individual capacity. Ian can be contacted at i.dolphin at e-framework.org or as iandolphin24 via Twitter. The e-Framework can be found at http://www.e-framework.org/ or or as eFramework via Twitter.
Phil Nicholls is Director of the Psydev Consultancy. He has worked in the e-learning and digital libraries domains as a developer and consultant for approximately fifteen years. Phil's interests lie in testing and service oriented software. He also works part time for the Department of Computer Science at the University of Sheffield.