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Learning Impact Blog


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

Many thanks to Michael Feldstein of the e-Literate Blog for the insightful post on IMS progress entitled The IMS Is More Important Than You Think It Is.

Michael and Phil Hill have been so successful with the e-Literate Blog because of their intimate understanding of the education technology sector.  The funny thing about the title of this recent blog post about IMS is that even I, as the guy sort of in charge over here at IMS, often have the same sentiment – namely that IMS may be more important than even I think it is!

To explain I will highlight a few statements from Michael’s writing and elaborate a bit – all under the category of sort of a teachable moment. The key foundation here is to understand that when we reorganized IMS beginning eight years ago we took a pretty radical approach (while trying not to appear radical) of turning a technical standards organization upside down. So, rather than focusing on standards for educational technology as the most important thing we took to heart that standards are only a means to an end. That end is what we termed “Learning Impact” which is the impact that technology can have on transforming/improving education and learning. If that seems a bit ethereal to you, it’s not: The event Michael wrote his impressions from is our annual meeting called the Learning Impact Leadership Institute. This is NOT a meeting of standards geeks (even though we all have a bit, or maybe a lot, of that in us) but rather a meeting of those wishing to lead educational transformation.

Michael: “I have long argued that the development of technical interoperability standards for education are absolutely critical for enabling innovation and personalized learning environments. Note that I usually avoid those sorts of buzzwords—”innovation” and “personalized learning”—so when I use them here, I really mean them.”

Rob’s elaboration: Michael gets that IMS is all about innovation, but lot’s of folks misunderstand what goes on in a standards organization like IMS. Some standards are about picking one of several options of a technology already developed. My favorite example is picking a gauge to standardize railroad tracks. However, IMS standards are for technology that is new. These type of standards are all about enabling distribution of innovative practices and technologies. Thus, some will fail but others will enable wider innovation.  Working in IMS is as much or more about defining the innovation and enabling it as it is about locking down a potential standard.

Michael:  “But arriving at those standards often feels . . . painful, frustratingly slow, and often lacking a feeling of accomplishment. It’s easy to give up on the process. Having recently returned from the IMS Learning Impact Leadership Institute, I must say that the feeling was different this time.”

Rob’s elaboration: We’ve figured out a few things over the years that have helped improve the process of developing standards. First we try to separate the participants into groups that emphasize different things. Some folks like to work on developing specifications. Most, however, prefer to implement. Others, especially institutional types, like to work on reviewing to understand and ensure the benefits and resulting policies. The trick is to create some separate spaces and bring them together at the appropriate times. IMS is far from perfect at orchestrating all of this – but we are constantly working at it.  When it all comes together and you have the institutions and suppliers all working together toward the same end it is truly a beautiful thing. I think probably Michael sensed some of that at the meeting.

Michael: “The first indicator that things are different at the IMS these days is the health of the community.  Membership has quadrupled. Interestingly, there was also a very strong K12 contingent at the meeting this year, which is new. This trend is accelerating. According to Rob, the IMS has averaged adding about 20 new members a year for the last eight years but has added 25 so far in 2014. Implementations of IMS standards is also way up.”

Rob’s elaboration: To us IMS is an organization that enables the education sector to collaborate in the leadership of educational and learning technology. Seems like a strange thing to say, but as I pointed out in a 2007 EDUCAUSE Review article (see Innovation, Adoption and Learning Impact: Creating the Future of IT), the education segment does not invest much R&D compared to other segments and without collaboration every institution (all very small businesses – even the largest) spend most of the time and effort they do invest in reinventing what their colleagues at other institutions are doing. This is still a lesson that we are all learning. But, our approach to IMS has been to lay this out to the sector and basically say, “Hey, we can give you a platform for collaboration, but it’s up to you to fund it and make it succeed.” If you’re not supportive it will fail, if you are it will succeed. So far, IMS has grown from a very small standards activity to being on par with the largest and most stable in the world including horizontal and vertical standards organizations.

Michael: “The IMS is just knocking the cover off the ball in terms of its current and near-term prospective impact. This is not your father’s standards body. But I think the IMS is still just warming up.”

Rob’s elaboration: One does get the sense that despite very strong growth the last eight years that IMS may be accelerating.  My personal view is that there is an enormous opportunity for institutions and suppliers in the segment to shape the future right now as digital support for learning and education is accelerating. The concept that is the foundation of IMS, namely that true cross-platform plug and play apps, content and data in support of greater personalization, more distinctive educational programs and more effective educational programs, is a game changer. And, this is truly a charge that educational institutions can and should lead.  After all, who should be inventing the future of education? And, I also expect that much of this IMS work is going to make its way into more horizontal application across other industries (not education only) and the general web.