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Shining the Light on Freedom in EdTech

IMS Global CEO Rob AbelRob Abel, Ed.D. | November 2020

"Philadelphia freedom, shine the light." —Elton John

 

It’s with a great sense of gratitude to the IMS community that I write my last post of 2020, a year likely to go down in history for many reasons.

I am thankful for the way the IMS members inspire the staff and me every day. I am thankful for the IMS team and all they do to serve IMS members and the broader edtech community worldwide. I am thankful that an organization like IMS, which is all about a collaboration that will enable the edtech ecosystem to support every learner's needs, has managed to not just survive but grow and prosper. We have a long way to go, but it’s clear that we are a force for good on the path needed to spur innovation at scale.

Being one of the few people in the world that work on “standards” 24x7x365, I am constantly thinking about the unnoticed structures in things that can have profound impacts on the speed of innovation. Yes, and that even includes elections.

I believe most people can think about “standards” and realize that agreeing on some foundational things that are accepted and ubiquitous allow everyone to build all sorts of innovative things on top. For instance, standardizing the sizes and types of roads allows much more efficient cooperation on putting roads in place, leading to a focus on innovation in the vehicles that use those roads. These standards can have a profound impact on the innovations that can occur. That includes perhaps limiting innovation.

As the American elections have played out, I heard from people outside of the U.S. that are genuinely concerned that we are safe here, with all the divisiveness and appearance of fighting in the streets. They are surprised when I tell them that things are quite calm where I live in central Florida.

America is, of course, the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” But America is not only about people who are free. Since its inception, America has been about people who are trying to become free. And, so it goes to the present day.

Whomever you may have voted for, and for whatever reasons, I think perhaps a light that needs to shine is the ramifications caused by only having two choices. And this is what makes me think about the importance of standards. Is it the fact that we only have two choices a factor in causing the divisiveness?

What would our lives be like if we could only choose from among two alternatives in all things? Would education be better if there were only two possible alternatives? Would edtech? That seems like a silly question—as it seems like we have many alternatives. But if you look at consumer markets, especially markets that can be dominated via a network effect, well, you can see many examples today where the choices are getting pretty small.

Is this because certain organizations are evil? Or, is this because the stakeholders are perfectly fine with choosing from one of two alternatives? Or, if they’re not OK with it, perhaps they really can’t do anything about it? Sometimes you don’t choose freedom if you are satisfied with the status quo.

In 2006, when I became CEO of IMS with already decades of experience in high tech and pretty deep experience in higher education, the higher education LMS market was dominated by a single provider. While there was excitement from a relatively small number of suppliers about the potential for interoperability standards, I also had conversations with very experienced edtech executives that told me there was just no way that dominant organizations would move to open standards. I didn’t really know for sure myself. I was betting on the stakeholders in the education market, a unique market in some respects (diversity, cost constraints, the immaturity and untapped potential of learning science), being able to see the benefits of, well, freedom.

Then, like today, it comes down to how open standards allow collective focus on serving the market better because the market needs to be served better to get where we are trying to go—enabling all learners to achieve without limits.

I hope that during this holiday season, you experience the great love in this world we live in and, perhaps, have a moment or two to think about how our community is a force for good by shining the light on freedom in the edtech sector!

Thank you for everything in 2020, and you can count on IMS to do our best in 2021!