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Learning Impact Blog


Community leadership for more effective use of technology in service to education

Well, they're out there live:

The new Learning Tools Interoperability Web Pages

Why did IMS put these out there?

1. It's Summer and we're tired of vacationing (not really - we really need more vacation)

2. We wanted some pages about LTI that were less "IMS speak" and more down to normal human propeller head level

3. We wanted a cool catalog like thingy that showed what learning platforms (consumers) and tools (producers) were out there and IMS certified (meaning that they have passed our tests and willing to work with IMS as a neutral party if there are any integration issues) more clearly than our master conformance certification table. I was recently at a meeting of the University of California ETLG where we discussed the need for such a thing and enhancements the community could make to it . . .

4. Extensions: We are aware that there are quite a few very useful extensions out there that need to be folded into the specification and conformance. We wanted a place to collect those.  This will be a major topic of discussion at the upcoming IMS meetings in August in Ann Arbor - all are invited (also having a great LTI implementation workshop there  - really about implementation - not Dr. Chuck's LTI life story :-) which of course we love but we figure everyone has heard now ). We will be compiling a list of products and the various extensions they support as we rev LTI version 1.

In short this is a series of pages that we hope will help people rapidly understand LTI and begin to implement it - as well as for certified suppliers to some space to show their wares to the growing community of LTI advocates/adopters.

Enjoy!

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For being dead (by some opinions) LMS’s are looking very alive after BbW12 ;-)

This week Blackboard had a record attendance of 3500 at Blackboard World in New Orleans. I think we can infer that the LMS is not yet dead!

At times it seems that the learning technology industry - especially higher ed - is loaded with pundits who have been saying for at least the last 5 years that the LMS is dead or dying and that Blackboard is about to go out of business. At IMS we work with over 100 suppliers and perhaps 10 or less are suppliers of LMSs.  I have explained elsewhere that the LMS is not dying – this market shows more signs of just beginning to take off rather than dying. But, there is a much bigger fish to fry.  It’s the $25 billion U.S. dollars a year spent on paper learning materials.

Michael Chasen also announced at the conference xpLor – a content and application repository that enables sharing of same across multiple platforms – Moodle, ANGEL, Sakai, Blackboard to start.

The growth of the “LMS” (which elsewhere I have commented is a very bad name for the segment) and learning technology segment in general has been epitomized by Blackboard – growing into arguably the most successful education technology company on record to date.  But, the other leading suppliers in the education space are growing as well.

In this post, I'll explain my thoughts here about how xpLor, Blackboard's leadership in standards and the coming revolutionizing of the learning technology market are all intertwined through the oft assumed to be "somebody else's thing to worry about" interoperability standard(s).

Much, if not all of the expenditure on paper books and such is going to convert to digital. Now, if you think that is going to happen without widespread adoption of interoperability standards – you’re not thinking straight.  What’s more, there are a myriad of new online tools being developed to support learning – you can see some of them here in the new IMS LTI developers catalog page. This is an emerging market that has lots of growth potential. The story of "going digital" in education will be the story of standards adoption.

As I have commented elsewhere, the education/learning segment is at the very beginning of figuring interoperability out. But, we are making outstanding progress.

I work with suppliers of all sizes everyday trying to get them to understand standards and suggest to them strategies for interacting with standards organizations. This requires a lot of work because many people and suppliers in this education/learning space simply “don’t get” the concept standards. That is because, in my opinion, we have an existing marketplace with existing practices that simply have not been able to realize high value from standards. We also have the typical “protectionism” of executives who are worried about not being able to lock in their customers. Hopefully we are beginning to get past this phase. The facts are that standards lift up the entire industry – they help “you” – the individual supplier – by helping “you” – the entire industry.

Widespread implementation of standards at the core of an industry eliminates huge cost that is wasted on reinventing the wheel from the supplier side of things – not to mention the wasted custom integration and transition costs from the institutional implementation side. Imagine what the world would be like if everyone made custom ball bearings in every mechanical product?  How far would we have come? Imagine the world without the Internet and without the World Wide Web – because that is what we would have without standards and the standards organizations that are a mechanism for industries to pool resources to put in place the standards that everyone can build upon. If you have great products you benefit when the whole industry is lifted up. I have pointed out elsewhere that the educational technology segment definitely needs such a lift - the segment invests about half the amount in technology as other critical industries.

Standards that change industries do not occur without leadership – especially when we are trying to break and remold an industry culture and vested interests.  Ray Henderson, who came to Blackboard from ANGEL and to ANGEL from Pearson is one of those leaders who completely gets it. He gets that without standards a new market, such as technology to support digital education, is generating “a lot more heat than light” (that is actually a quote from Ray to me from many years back). Ray has been a strong advocate for IMS standards all along the way. But, let’s be clear, Ray has leveraged standards as an effective business strategy, too. Both ANGEL and now Blackboard have gained customer support through leadership in standards – being first to market, being most aggressive in obtaining conformance certification and being aggressive in terms of making technical contributions.

Customers like open standards - and they will reward suppliers for putting them in place. So, I say to the many large and small suppliers out there that have not yet figured out how to leverage standards in this marketplace – you need look no further than the record 3500 attendees at Blackboard World this last week. If you are a leader of a learning technology company and perhaps still don’t get this – let me illustrate further.

By most accounts from the conference, xpLor is a breakthrough product.  If you’re thinking “app store for education” – well I guess that is one way to think about it. Another way to think about it is as a cross-platform learning object repository. Such learning object repositories that really deliver have been elusive - despite lots of investments by states, school districts, universities, university systems over the years. One of the reasons that xpLor is a breakthrough is that it supports the new world of educational content – which are not just downloadable coursepaks or learning objects – but rather web-based applications and tools of a wide variety to be “plugged into” the core platform (LMS, portal, etc.).

Now, Blackboard just announced the acquisitions of Moodle service providers Moodlerooms and NetSpot and bringing onboard Chuck Severance (closely tied to the Sakai community) in March.

So, how did this new capability get in place so fast in Blackboard?

If you are an industry watcher and you are not asking that question - well, you are not watching closely enough!

Well, for one thing, this product was under development by MoodleRooms prior to the acquisition, led by Dave Mills. MoodleRooms also had a team of folks formerly with ANGEL, including Kellan Wampler and Phill Miller, who were instrumental in the leadership of the ANGEL product, and are now at Blackboard via the acquisition.

But there are also the IMS standards themselves that made this possible, namely the Common Cartridge and Learning Tools Interoperability standards upon which xpLor is based. Dave, Kellan and Phill were all deeply involved in both these standards throughout the years.  According to LTI evangelist and guru Chuck Severance – who himself has had a major role:

"@LearningImpact Yes - Dave Mills *is* a genius. xpLor is the first learning platform to use CC and LTI as the core unifying idea." @drchuck

 

It was these standards that made this cross-platform interoperability possible, not to mention the rapid integration with Blackboard. And, if you’re thinking this is some sort of diabolical plot by Blackboard, think again: Instructure, Desire2Learn and a wide variety of other leading open source and proprietary platforms worldwide, from giant publishers to one person developers, are implementing these standards.

Now, all of this definitely bodes for a different future for the “LMS” platforms indeed – one that is more about providing a framework in which diverse sources of digital content and products can come together. However, I’ve been pretty surprised that many who seem to get that this also seem to think that this is going to somehow unseat the LMS providers. Au contraire! Why?  Because of the IMS standards - and the aggressive adoption by the leading providers of those standards.  It is the IMS interoperability standards that are making the future of the open distributed learning platform possible - and, yes, it is happening.

The announcement of xpLor is one more data point/reality check. And, news alert, there are other suppliers, like SAFARI Montage and Desire2Learn, who are using the same IMS standards to do similar things – but with an underlying basis – standards – that will serve to lift up the market and make this sort of “app store / LOR” pretty common place in the next five years.  In fact, there was just an announcement from New Mexico State University about a new thing called the SoftChalk Cloud, somewhat of a similar concept to xpLor - which integrates with Instructure how?  Via the same IMS standards!

Since the market has been trying to establish capabilities over and over again through various investments, repository products and standards for more than 15 years now without success – well, then IMHO we are indeed at a notable watershed moment.

My thanks to the many IMS faithful around the world over the years who have made the current events and future possible! There are literally 100’s of people and organizations that have been involved in CC/LTI. We are now up to over 110 conformance certification issued for these to specifications – and really we are in many ways just beginning.

It is your leadership that got us here.  You know who you are.

And I’m always looking for more people and organizations who want to help lead this quite revolution – if interested please contact me.

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Recently I was part of a very large panel at a national assessment conference in the U.S. – lots of folks from state departments of education. The panel was discussing the importance of interoperability standards with respect to the U.S. Race to the Top Assessment (RTTA) program - a $350 million project of historic proportions meant to reshape summative assessments in schools. The project is lead by two large consortia of U.S. States: PARCC and SBAC. IMS Accessible Portable Item Protocol (APIP) is on the road to adoption by both of these consortia.

It was a great panel – very supportive of the need for technical interoperability standards to support the next generation of assessment. It officially lasted for 90 minutes – but went on for another 15-20 minutes after that because everyone was so interested and enthusiastic. Unfortunately, due to the size of the panel (I think there were about 10 people all told, representing various perspectives: states, RTTA consortia, standards orgs, suppliers) there were many issues brought up that were not clarified or resolved.

One of the issues brought up by the moderator and reflected on by several of the participants was one we frequently encounter, namely:

Standards have a lot of benefits, but do they limit innovation? 

This is very important question in the adoption of standards for educational technology. We are just now beginning to understand how learning works in the human brain and what sort of teaching practices will take education to the next level. Learning as a science is infantile. The last thing we want to do is stifle the ability to innovate with respect to the application of technology to learning.

It turns out that the answer to this question is pretty easy. The answer is "it depends on the standard - some standards do limit innovation, others don't."

If a standard creates a “one size fits all” way of doing “something” when there are many innovative and competing ways to do that “something” – then the answer is “yes” – such a standard limits innovation. In my mind, this is a bad standard (discussed further below) because they actually create more harm than good.

But, if a standard creates a common “platform” that the market can innovate “on top of” then the answer is “no” – such a standard does not limit innovation. Probably one of the best examples of good standards that have enabled innovation are those that underlie the World Wide Web. These standards (developed, maintained and evolved by the World Wide Web Consortium - W3C) have enabled widespread interoperability of textual/graphical information on the web – but have also enabled untold innovation built “on top of them.” In fact, the W3C standards themselves built on top of the standards that enable the Internet.

I like to say that bad standards that limit innovation “overreach” – they try to specify too much and force the world of “suppliers” (i.e. creators of innovative technology writ large) to do something one way when the users would benefit from a diversity of approaches.

Do we have examples of  “bad standards” in the educational technology space that limit innovation? In my humble opinion, absolutely we do - in fact we have had many. Which standards are these? Well, I don’t have any desire to get embroiled in arguments with parties that have their turf to protect. So, I will decline to name any. However, there are several tell tale signs of such standards. The first and foremost is that they set a high bar for suppliers while at the same time providing very little real value to the end-users. So, the type of statements you hear from builders of products is: “We had to do all this work to implement such and such standard because the RFP asked for it and then when the system was actually deployed that functionality wasn’t used at all or there was a much better alternative way to achieve it.” Standards like these become what some call “checklist standards.” Procurement officers have learned to ask for the standard whether it is needed or not and suppliers have in turn learned to do what they need to do to “check it off” in the RFP response.

One of the artifacts of “bad standards” is they create a culture of what I like to call “standards or.” This is where the supplier says “well, I can give it to you in the standard or I can give it to you our special way – which is better than the standard.” I would say that this has been the predominant culture in the education segment the last 10 years (even though we’ve had tons of “standards” published).

If it seems to you that it might be challenging to get to a “good standard” that does not limit innovation, then I would have to agree with you. How does one set the ”bar,” so to speak, for what is included in the “platform for innovation” without “overreaching?”

To make a long explanation short it comes down to the ability to work with the marketplace to see what can be widely agreed upon while at that the same time pushing that envelope just far enough to provide clear value to both suppliers and end users. A good interpretation of the statement “provide clear value” is usually “make it easier to do something we want to do.” 

A “good standard” as described above not only does not limit innovation, it actually enables and accelerates innovation by several means:

1)   A very large distributed global community can build innovative stuff that can all work together – providing greater choice to end-users both at initial time of purchase and down the road when considering switching

2)   A lot of unnecessary cost (money and time) is saved by reducing or eliminating all the custom development and integration that formerly went into the mechanisms now provided by the standard – those savings can now be invested in more innovation

3)   A community is formed that is actively engaged in a cooperative effort to build, maintain and evolve a foundation that expands (1) and (2).

Together these three factors create kind of a “lifting up” effect for an entire industry. That is, they remove friction and create cooperation that collectively accelerates innovation.

Number (3) is especially critical for the education segment – and it is especially important for education institutions to be part of the community. As I have posted elsewhere, the educational technology industry is in its very early days – kind of where electricity to the home and electrical appliance industry were in 1900 or the automobile industry was around 1910. Adoption of technology in the educational space will be shaped by the evolution to the next generation of education. Assuming that leading institutions will be drivers of this evolution, then they are the authorities on what it means for a standard to “provide clear value” and on what it takes to “make is easier to do something we want to do.”

Our secret code phrase for this evolution to the future in IMS is “Learning Impact.”   We see it as something that is jointly concocted by institutions and suppliers working together. Obviously some of that “working together” will be between individual suppliers and individual institutions. But interoperability standards is one area where the more participants the better. In fact, it is absolutely essential that the “right” participants be at the table and that they be motivated to bring as much expertise and prior work as they possibly can.

So, the vision for the IMS Global Learning Consortium is straightforward.  It is to be the community that does for educational technology what the World Wide Web Consortium did for the World Wide Web.

And, just like the W3C built upon existing Internet standards, so too IMS is building upon W3C and other existing standards. I’d like to thank the many IMS member organizations around the world today that are helping to achieve this vision on a daily basis.

Now, if you buy into this vision and want to be part of leading the “lifting up” effect that good standards can bring to our segment, here is how you can help.

We need to create a culture shift that will lift up our industry. To do this we need to get into a mind set of “standards plus” rather than “standards or.”

By “standards plus” I mean standards “at the core” or as the foundation platform to build upon, just as the W3C standards are the platform upon which the World Wide Web is built. This means you should be looking to your suppliers to tell you how they are conformant to the IMS standards and use them at the core of their products – not as “one option” but as the baseline that they then innovate on top of. Again, just like the W3C standards provide a baseline for innovation in the World Wide Web.

The switch in mindset from “standards or” to “standards plus” changes the standards discussion from one where the technical characteristics dominate to one where the community working together to collaborate to increase innovation dominates.

Surely, the technical characteristics of the standard do matter. The standard must deliver on interoperability in a way that is at least as good, if not better, than other available alternatives.  But, it is very difficult to get to a high quality technical standard without the community working together. Working closely with the marketplace to get to “good standards” as discussed above requires very good and timely feedback.

A “standards or” mentality greatly reduces feedback. A “standards plus” mentality greatly increases feedback because it puts the onus on all the market participants to get the platform right - which can only be accomplished through strong community.

If you want to bring some leadership to this party, please contact me at IMS. We can discuss how you can help.

In conclusion, good interoperability standards greatly enable and accelerate innovation – they do not limit innovation.

Furthermore, I don’t think it’s difficult to tell when a standard achieves this bar because they have a clear enabling effect on the marketplace. Case studies appear that show that things that used to be hard are now easier and that doors that were once closed are now open – both from the institutional and supplier perspectives.  We’re seeing a bunch of case studies like that in IMS right now. So, things are headed in a good direction.  The primary risk I see in achieving our vision is the “culture switch” needed in the education segment and especially among the institutions themselves. Full benefit of interoperability standards in education will require a culture of leadership beyond what we have achieved so far. But, as I have gone on record before I think we will do it!  

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