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Changing the Game to Accelerate EdTech Innovation

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With the release this week of the IMS Global Annual Report 2015, I wanted to attempt to summarize some ways in which “our little engine of change” is helping to enable some potentially pretty profound stuff.

A little more than two years ago (December 2013) I was asked by Diana Oblinger (CEO of EDUCAUSE), to present, along with Jack Suess (CIO at University of Maryland Baltimore County),  a “game changer” webinar discussing the recently published EDUCAUSE Review article, “A New Architecture for Learning.”  We decided to entitle the webinar:  “Building the Connected Learning Platform – One Brick at a Time.”

Of course, it was flattering to be considered a “game changer” – whatever that term really means. Most people, including technology veterans, would probably think of interoperability standards (the work of IMS Global and important basis for above paper and webinar) as being “part of the game” rather than necessarily “changing the game.”  I would include myself in that group when thinking about the large majority of standards-setting activities. 

However, I did think it possible that the work of IMS Global could be a “game changer” when I became the CEO a little over 10 years ago.  Now I believe in the “game-changing” nature of IMS even more.  I’d like to enumerate here some of the specific ways that IMS has been and is changing the “edtech game” (albeit never fast enough for me!).

#1 Providing a foundation for collaboration that fits where the edtech sector wants to go in terms of diversity of platforms, resources, apps and tools. The rules of the game are different when an industry is dominated by proprietary walled-gardens then if there is plug and play interoperability of tools among a wide variety of platforms.  As consumers, we live all day long in proprietary walled gardens created by a few dominant platform suppliers with app stores and mobile devices. However, the education sector has figured out that the idea of just a few dominant platforms just does not make sense for the sector. For instance, most K-12 districts are compelled to support both Microsoft and Google. IMS standards, and more importantly the critical mass of IMS members leading the charge, don’t see a few dominate platforms as the future of edtech (to the MBA people out there that will say that every market moves in the direction of a handful of dominate providers, I just want to say that I know those arguments well, but the education sector is very, very different). I’m very pleased to report that the IMS community is leading a better way to build an ecosystem based on what the education sector requires, namely products that can actually work together to improve teaching and learning while keeping lock-in and barriers to entry low to spur innovation.

#2 Providing an interoperability development process that is based on engaging directly with suppliers and institutions. Much of the work on standards in EdTech has been very visionary and developed by some really brilliant people. And, my hats off to the great work.  However, the missing link to make this work payoff for all parties concerned is a necessary reality check of compelling sector needs and market adoption. IMS has added this extremely important element in the last 10 years.  For those familiar with venture capital or market development approaches, the IMS process is very much a funnel where lots of good ideas go in that are then processed through market validation.  So, to get out (become a published IMS standards) there has to be an acceptable combination of market, financial, people and technical risk (which are typically the four dimensions of risk that VC firms look at).

#3 Focusing on enabling the plug and play ecosystem that results in more investment on innovation. IMS is creating a major culture shift in EdTech standards, namely that the measure of a successful standard is that it helps to lift up the entire sector.  IMS sees our job as enabling an interoperable ecosystem – what has already become hundreds and in the future thousands of products that work with each other “out of the box” (or as close as possible).  Time and cost of integration goes to zero.  When that ecosystem happens it focuses investment on the innovation of the individual products themselves and also of what can occur when products work together. To anyone familiar with some of the more mainstream standards in the tech world that were huge successes, like Ethernet, the Worldwide Web, or wireless standards, you would most likely say, “isn’t that the point of most standards?” A good standard reduces cost while increasing connection into a large ecosystem, which means that suppliers are naturally motivated to adopt.

#4 Accelerating interoperability progress through synergies across K-12 and higher education.  I’ve gone on record many times that I believe there are many differences between the needs of K-12, higher education and corporate training. I know from actual experience that if you try to build a product for all of them you are unlikely to succeed with any of them. Thus, when the U.S. K-12 sector came knocking on the door of IMS about 5 years back I had an open mind, but was cautious about how it would work out. Well, it has worked out great! What we have found is that one sector can take work coming from the other sector, get use out of it, and then, amazingly, take it further in ways that have then gone back the other way to help the originating sector.  It has taken some very good market development and project filtering skills (see #2 above) to encourage the right focus at the right times. But, it is very clear that IMS is now a 50/50 partnership between higher education and K-12 – which of course means that each sector is leveraging the investment and ecosystem of the other. The bigger the ecosystem the more valuable the standards.

#5 Creating an EdTech ecosystem leadership community that will lift the sector in the sort term and is likely to endure in the long term.  This is really the most important impact that IMS is having. As I mentioned in a recent EDUCAUSE Review article, “Foundations Past and Future,” IMS is really all about education sector participants willing to lead a critical aspect of cooperation that will accelerate the innovation we need to improve education. There are, of course, many other critically important areas where cooperation and communities are developing with complementary foci. But, I do believe that interoperability is an underlying foundation for much of the rest that requires strong leadership collaboration.  The beautiful thing is that we are finding that those organizations, institutions or suppliers, that are investing time in leadership in IMS, are doing very well. It turns out that to be technically interoperable also requires organizational leadership that is interoperable. It’s a big claim to make, but I will make it. Namely that we are seeing IT, curriculum and instructional leadership and strategies getting to the next level when an organization works on and “gets” interoperability.  We are seeing a focus that goes way beyond the historical desire to just have the latest technology to being able to leverage technology toward personalized learning and other strategic goals.   As indicated in the figure, the net result is a financially strong (while still small compared to many education associations such as EDUCAUSE or ISTE) IMS organization that can play a substantial ongoing role in developing the EdTech ecosystem.

As a result of the above innovations, led by the IMS members, I do think the trajectory of EdTech is changing in a very positive way. I’m very proud of the IMS members stepping up to take on the challenge of working together on building an open and innovative EdTech ecosystem.