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Evolving to digital curriculum based on open interoperability standards, Part II

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The Importance of Interoperability in Achieving the Potential Advantages of Digital Curriculum

In part I of this blog series on Evolving to Digital Curriculum we covered five potential benefits of digital materials and the spectrum of approaches we are seeing in the marketplace for enabling more digital options for teachers and students.

In part II we will address the roles and importance of interoperability standards in the evolution to digital curriculum. We also discuss a common sense ordering of "putting standards in place" based on feedback from the market.

Now, when we say “standard” we could mean a lot of things, as standards in their best sense mean a voluntary collaboration among education community participants on the technical approach to interoperability as well as a fair/neutral decision-making process. However, the following paragraphs are just as relevant if what we mean by an interoperability standard is one agreed upon way for two applications to exchange information necessary for those applications to work together in well-defined way (in comparison to multiple and diverse ways to accomplish essentially the same thing).

Here is our explanation of the critical role of interoperability standards in evolving to digital curriculum, specifically with respect to achieving the five potential benefits outlined in part I.

  1. Potentially lower cost. Some people seem to think that all digital learning materials should be free because the distribution costs of an additional copy (once the digital version has already been produced) are essentially zero. A very small zealot group of “free software” advocates have come to the same conclusion regarding software. However, for those of us that live in the real world and want to see higher and higher quality digital products, it is very obvious that digital materials will still have a cost associated with them – and the price will be market-driven – meaning it may be lower, or may even be higher than today’s printed books. Regardless, it is very clear that having to reformat digital learning into a wide array of formats to run a wide variety of devices and software platforms (e.g. Apple, Google, Amazon, Blackboard, Desire2Learn, Instructure, Moodle, Pearson, Global Scholar) will add cost to the production equation. Even if the set of options in the education space were limited and static this is a daunting situation. It even becomes a “competitive” situation where content providers try to “be the first to market” on newer and sexier platforms with large market share. While this may all seem “fun” to the end users the reality here is that the dollars spent on essentially reformatting and recoding are dollars NOT spent on creating better learning materials. And, the cost of having to deal with the diverse platforms is shifted to the end-users (teachers and students) and the IT departments who must figure out how to equitably support BYOT (Bring Your Own Technology). Unless innovative digital learning experiences are easy to support in the educational context, well, they just won’t get incorporated. Thus, the critical need for interoperability between content and platforms to help remove the cost associated with platform diversity is very clear. While the worldwide web interoperability standards (such as HTML 5 managed by the W3C) and browsers (as the ‘platforms’) go a long way to providing content interoperability, they are lacking with respect to some key additional constructs used frequently in education, but rarely in the generic worldwide web (such as assessment).
  2. More interactive and engaging. It has been very encouraging and exciting to see exciting new learning innovations each year as finalists in the IMS Learning Impact Awards, such as game-based learning, adaptive tutors, social learning and simulations. Some of the most innovative applications come from small start-ups with very limited resources. Unless innovative digital learning experiences are easy for IT, teachers and students, as well as suppliers, to integrate into the educational context, well, they just won’t get incorporated. The hurdles that get in the way are multiple logins, manual transfer of enrollment information, passing of other parameters that enable students to interact in the right groups and so on. If every application and platform accomplishes these integrations with their own APIs (Application Program Interfaces) – all of which evolve over time – well, its difficult to get any reasonable number of tools integrated in the first place, much less maintained over the years. Most IT departments at even well-funded institutions struggle with care and feeding of 3-5 integrations. Therefore, there is a very obvious and critical need for interoperability standards to make “plug and play” of innovative digital tools and learning experiences easy.
  3. More personalized and accessible.  The popular idea of “learning objects” – meaning chunks of content or learning experiences – that can be delivered at the right place and the right time, is not new. This has been the primary objective that people have been envisioning with the explosion of the Internet/worldwide web, as well as before with CBT (computer based training). In fact there have been many products over the last 20 years that have focused on this approach – with adaptive tutors/homework applications perhaps now becoming the most successful in the education context (while still penetrating only a relatively small percentage of the market). The goal is personalized learning. However, in order for this to work when more than one content/application provider/source is involved requires a lot of interoperability to make finding the right resource at the right time tractable for teachers or students. First of all, for highly relevant objects to be “found” there needs to be some agreement on the metadata used to search for them. This metadata not only describes the content, but also potentially the state/progress of student learning, so that the two can be compared. Now, once the right object is found there are potentially the same integration issues as detailed in (1) and (2) above. The other very important aspect of personalization is accessibility. Not only do students have preferences for how they can best learn digitally (audio vs. visual, font size and type, etc.) but the exploding use of a rapidly evolving array of tablet devices both mean that alternative representations of learning objects that fit the user and usage are required. Without interoperability standards to enable user preferences and platform versatility, the development of content and apps becomes much more expensive than today’s printed books.
  4. Producing usable data. As mentioned in (3), a primary foundation of achieving personalized learning digitally is the need to describe student progress. The concept of progress is often thought of as a learner profile and the potential prescribed paths are often referred to as learning maps. As with (3), if the application is completely self-contained and does not provide data to other applications then interoperability is not required. However, if it is desired to have multiple content/applications/assessments work together to help teachers and students, then interoperability standards for activities, outcomes, learner profiles and learning maps become critical. While one can certainly conceive of a data warehouse with a huge amount of data not complying to any standard, the degree to which aspects of student progress can be agreed upon can potentially be more actionable. Of course, this is the goal for standardized testing and other forms of assessment.
  5. Easier to transport. One laptop or notebook computer certainly weighs less and takes less space than multiple paper textbooks. But, if we put all of the learning materials into an accepted format, such as PDF, this would allow us to eliminate the books without making any progress on potential benefits (2), (3) or (4). Worse yet, it is entirely possible that the teacher, student and IT department could end up having to deal with a myriad of platforms (because not all apps and content run on all platforms) AND textbooks. Yikes! More cost, more weight, more space. Thus, an absence of interoperability standards could  and probably is resulting in the worse possible scenario for students, teachers and institutions.
Now, since relatively little interoperability as required for personalized digital learning per the above exists today in the marketplace, a natural question to ask is “where is the best place to start?” Another way to ask this question is “what needs to come first in order to enable evolution over time to personalized digital learning?”
The method for determining such things in IMS is to start multiple threads of action and see which ones the market adopts first. Absent of third-party incentives (such as grants that favor one priority over another) the education community participants are pretty smart about building their future. It is very difficult to achieve market adoption of a “standard” when there is large diversity and competition among approaches. In such cases it is better to consider early developments as potential input to the standards process – rather than as a standard.
The good news is that the answer is clear based on actual market activity. In recent years, the IMS community has overwhelmingly adopted standards that provide basic plumbing to enable learning platforms, content and applications to “plug and play.” These are the standards in IMS known as Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI), Common Cartridge and Learning Information Services (LIS). In addition, IMS members are adopting Question & Test Interoperability (QTI) and the Accessible Portable Item Protocol (APIP) for providing interoperability of assessments (Note: Common Cartridge also includes a version of QTI and APIP is based on the Common Cartridge structure - so we have consistency in standards approach across learning and assessment resources). These standards are the simple "glue" that enable a seamless experience for the users, while dramatically reducing the time and cost of integration and upkeep (by a factor of 10-100x).
"Linked content" is a very popular form of interoperability that applies to hosted content, tools, simulations, adaptive tutors, games
Using this collection of standards – which IMS calls the Digital Learning Services (DLS) Standards – content and apps are plugging into institutional systems like never before. Over 150 certifications for plug and play have been issued to date – all is the last few years – and accelerating today.
For those institutions, states, districts worldwide that wish to take advantage of the progress IMS has achieved in market adoption of these standards, especially those wanting to put in place a strong foundation for digital curriculum and personalized digital learning, IMS has recently released a document that describes how to specify requirements for digital content and applications based on open standards. Please read the press release and the documentOpen-Standards Requirements for Digital Content and Application Integration with Enterprise Learning Platforms and let us know if you have any questions! We are pleased to help all institutions and states evolve to open standards.
Does this mean that IMS is ignoring the other areas such as outcomes data, analytics, profiles or learning maps? Absolutely not. IMS has been active in these areas for years and is in the process of rolling these out at market speed, using the DLS standards as the backbone.  The prioritization comes around supporting key market drivers, such as support for the U.S. Common Core State Standards, the rise of e-textbooks, the need for federated search (as integration of multiple products grows), etc. IMS members that are experts and experienced market participants in each area are driving each area – and these requirements are addressed in incremental/evolved versions of the specifications. Such evolution also allows for region specific variations, as depending on the interoperability area, there can be some significant diversity. This is of course less true in the plumbing layer.
In the next installment, part III, we will address the spectrum of three scenarios for evolving to a digital learning ecosystem. Whereas the discussion above and RFP guidance that IMS has produced will help you regardless of which of the scenarios you chose, there is a clearly preferred approach that makes sense for today and probably the next 5-10 years. Perhaps surprisingly, our view is VERY different than what is being encouraged by huge investment from the Gates Foundation in projects like LRMI (Learning Resource Metadata Initiative) and SLC (Shared Learning Collaborative) / InBloom.  We will explain in part III.

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