Do technical interoperability standards limit innovation in educational technology? Or, why institutions should be asking for “standards plus” rather than “standards or” from suppliers.

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. 1EdTech 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 1EdTech 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 1EdTech 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 1EdTech is building upon W3C and other existing standards. I’d like to thank the many 1EdTech 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 1EdTech 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 1EdTech. 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 1EdTech 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!