IMS standards: Steroids that are reshaping the digital education market

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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