Takeaways from EDUCAUSE 2012: Suppliers are Rockin' to IMS; HED Institutions Just Beginning

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The annual EDUCAUSE conference is a bit of a marker for IMS. Once a project within EDUCAUSE (begun in 1995), IMS spun out in 1999 as its own non-profit member consortium.  So, we try to have a presence each year at the conference and take stock. Adoption of IMS standards is exploding across K-20 right now: Common Cartridge, Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI), Learning Information Services (LIS) and Accessible Portable Item Protocol (APIP).

Rob Abel, IMS Global & Derek Hamner of Learning Objects Talk IMS Revolution

It’s been interesting to see the evolution of IMS over the past few years at EDUCAUSE from a techie topic to now a strategy topic as well. As the world economy slowly recovers, digital content and apps make their way into education, and a growing wave of excitement and investment in new companies and products, some of the institutional leaders are asking the right strategic question: how do I better serve my customers in this new world

This year at EDUCAUSE for the first time (in the next several years I expect) we began referring to IMS as a “revolution.

One of Three IMS Revolution Banners at EDUCAUSE 2012

In my humble opinion, it is the type of revolution that education needs: one that solves some immediate tactical issues, improves efficiency from day one, but also puts in place a strategy that enables better service from IT to the end-users in this increasingly digital and mobile world. Most importantly it is a revolution focused on impact of technology in improving the success of the teachers and students.

It’s helping to enable and catalyze change in education that IMS Global is most interested in – but, we are interested in sustainable change. Change that is not a fad or blip in the long history of educational institutions, but rather a new foundation. The specific change we’re interested in making happen is to drive the time and cost of integration of innovative digital content and applications in the education space as close to zero as it can get. If we do that – as an IMS community – many good things follow: a more open market, more innovation, more expenditures on educational technology versus other less innovative things, less waste on every supplier and every institution “reinventing the integration wheel.”

Here are my top five takeaways from this year’s conference as it relates to the IMS mission – which are based on a combination of things talked about openly at the conference as well as privately:

IMS Adoption is Accelerating

  1. The IMS revolution is viral now with most HED suppliers. We were showing the chart of growth to over 125 IMS certifications issued in the last couple of years and my rough guess is that this is about 50% of the actual adoption of IMS in the market. At this point, if a supplier is not in some way taking advantage of the 10-100x cost and time advantage of IMS (see IMS revolution blog post) – well, they are at a significant disadvantage. It is pretty hard to find an education-focused supplier that is not on board – whether they are actually an IMS member or not.  The suppliers that are not are typically the large “non-educational” companies that have development groups that basically don’t care about education. This category of companies is really missing the boat because with a little amount of work they could really endear themselves to our education market – but it is just the way they are set up: the development organizations within them are focused on non-education needs and that typically means their own proprietary platforms.
  2. CIOs that are "leaders of change" get the IMS value proposition – and because there is a critical mass of them, we will start to see more institutional policy supporting adoption of standards – in fact, we already are. 10x-100x improvement in cost and time of integrating digital content and apps would seem to be a total no-brainer. But, let’s face it, most edu CIOs run more on fear of uncertainty than they do opportunity for making change happen. So be it.  If we needed 100% or even a majority of CIOs to get the benefits of standards and why they actually need to do something about it – well, let’s just say I would have thrown in the towel a long time ago.  IMS has a core group of true leaders, some CIOs and some in executive positions focused on educational technology in institutions that get it and are helping us roll out an initiative called THESIS (Technology in HED in Support of Innovation for Student Success). This program will be a collaboration of leaders to lead institutional adoption. In IMS almost seven years now I have found that any size or type of institution (or school district or state) can lead but it depends on having someone in charge who is capable of truly leading.  It’s the people in charge that matter and not the size or type of institution.
  3. Some apple carts are going to get upset in the short term (1-3 years). This is why IMS is a real revolution. Some suppliers make money from integrations being “difficult or perceived as difficult.” However, once a cat is out of the bag it is hard to put it back in. One way or the other IT is going to become “easy” in the education segments. It has to. Most colleges and school districts – even those perceived as large – are small in terms of technical resources. The users are not technical.  They need simple and easy. The good news is that there is a lot of opportunity for suppliers in making the revolution happen.  But, this is not just a supplier apple cart issue.  This is also a CIO apple cart issue – the one’s that have said to me: “We already have people that do custom integrations, so more efficient integration doesn’t save us anything.”  Oops. Wrong answer! If a CIO or other technology executive is focused on the customer (students, teachers, even administrators), as opposed to their own or somebody else’s job security, they will embrace this change. However, see point #2 above. I can only tell you that this is a change that is going to happen – it’s as predictable as the outsourcing of email was – so, in the longer run embracing and moving with it is probably a better career strategy for all concerned.
  4. There is a lot of concern about the amount of private equity in this marketplace. Everyone seems to get it (somewhat to my surprise, I might say) that private equity firms are typically “not friends of investing in innovation.” All I can say is that ultimately, if this turns out to be true (and I sincerely hope it does not), it will create more opportunity for up and coming innovative suppliers. In either case open standards from IMS are going to play a huge role.  What most people don’t get is that the “giant” suppliers in education are really pretty small. Of the $1.4 trillion revenue annually in the U.S. related to education (2012 estimate), well, only 3% is spent on technology of any kind.   Another way to think of it is that if you looked at the operating budgets of all 4000 universities in the U.S. – it is estimated to be about $535 billion.  Since there are very few educational suppliers or education segment suppliers within larger companies that ever make it to $1 billion annual revenue, well, it's clear that the “big dog” in this market are the institutions themselves. The institutions are really, in the big picture of things, the primary “suppliers” of revenue-producing goods (non-profit, for-profit or whatever). This is an important follow on point to 1-3 above in that higher education institutions are potentially in “control of their own destiny” when it comes to greater innovation and getting technology that meets the needs of teaching and learning. They do, however, need to coordinate to some degree. Reality is that this is what groups like IMS are good for – and in our case I’d say it is all the better because supportive suppliers are around the table. It is the whole community of institutions and educational suppliers that are going to create the future. I hope!  The alternative is Google or Apple come in from the outside and take over.  Think iTunes U equals the primary distribution point for education. What a nightmare! Lock-in is tolerable for individuals, but not institutions.
  5. “Happy talk” keynotes are inspiring, but leave us a little empty after all is said and done: Many points of light do not get us to a bon fire of change! It’s fun to watch the inspirational tweets when someone like Clay Shirkey speaks. Of course, it’s good to feel good and empowered that we can do it! We can be innovative!  We can stick it to the man! Etc. Me too! I’m sure there is a positive subliminal effect from this sort of thing.  A little more sobering was this year’s data from the man with data about higher ed IT, Casey Green, which included the chart shown below that shows a very large discrepancy between the perceived return on IT investment among college presidents, provosts and CIOs. I encourage you to get more information at The one sentence summary is that where CIOs may think they are getting reasonable return on the investment in IT, well, their customers, ah, not so much. The bottom line, IT needs to do better - either in terms of communicating the value or providing the value, or both.  Since few, if any, IT shops are getting more resourced going forward, well, it really is a time to “do better with less.”  Notice I did not say “more” – because this is really about giving customers what they want/need – not about more mindless technology expenditures.   I really don’t know any other way to make this happen than to become less reactive and more thoughtful about where things are going and putting in place a better operational foundation going forward. That, of course, is what the IT leaders involved in IMS are doing – and I’m pleased that our organization has a very clear value proposition and ROI with respect to institutional participation.  10-100x cost and time savings on integrations is a big time “better.”
Campus Computing Survey Data on IT Investment Effectiveness

And there you have it.  A lot of this IMS open digital innovation revolution stuff is of the famous “think globally and act locally” kind. There are definitely some things out there that help you (in the singular sense) and help you (in the plural sense). That would be the IMS revolution. The revolution will not be televised.  Made possible by the IMS member organizations.