Learning Impact Blog

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

"I’m gonna go out tonight, I’m gonna find out what I got." —Bruce Springsteen


We’re now into the 4th quarter of a year that none of us predicted. In recent months, I’ve been writing about IMS’s pivot in late 2019 in seeing a need to go beyond “student success” to a more specific set of success factors that might be at the center as we evolve toward the future of education. We’ve put out there a “straw-person” consisting of three specific agenda items that must be improved to go deeper into “student success.” These are equity, agency, and mastery. 

I suppose nothing highlights how fast things can change in the modern world than a global pandemic. When humans make adjustments during an emergency, some of those adjustments stick. People are losing jobs, and some have predicted that many of those jobs are lost forever. Of course, no one knows how many jobs will be lost or potentially gained as sector activity shifts. What we do know is that workers have to be more agile than ever to keep afloat and build careers. In a 2017 report on human capital trends, Deloitte estimates the average half-life of a learned “skill” is 4.5 years.  

It wasn’t very long ago when mainstream education considered ideas like competency-based education and Open Badges as interesting, but not something to adopt any time soon. As I have mentioned in previous posts, it is undeniable from the growth of interest in these and related topics in IMS (including the last face-to-face meeting we were able to hold this year—the Digital Credentials Summit) that ideas like competencies and digital credentials are now on the cusp of entering the mainstream of education and learning in K-12, HED, and corporate.

From its start, the competency movement in education has reflected new ideas about the “whole learner” and the skills that enable both career and life success. Initially referred to as 21st-century skills more than 20 years ago, we are now seeing detailed frameworks such as those created through the research at the Center for Curriculum Redesign: Collaboration, communication, critical thinking, creativity, mindfulness, courage, leadership, and so on. 

It can be challenging enough to assess proficiency and fill gaps in highly objective areas, such as math. How can we do a better job of measuring proficiency in more qualitative skills? Depending on the type of job or career sought after, these may be more essential than the specific domain or technical skills. But the need for deep technical skills is also essential as technology changes the world of work continuously. Thus, the need for the ability to obtain mastery of subject areas in great depth. The “T-shaped learner” concept designates the two-dimensions of breadth and depth.

Suffice it to say that educators, educational institutions, and employers are still early in our understanding and ability to implement these concepts. But one thing is clear.

Learners of today and the future have a story to tell—their own. And our educational systems at all levels, from K-12 to HED to corporate, play a critical role in providing better ways to help them create and tell that story.

The results from IMS-member collaboration that I’ve highlighted in this series help to chart a path to learner curation, interoperable transmission, and matching of verifiable skills to opportunities. No doubt about that.

But, as we move forward in this work, I believe the foundational concept is at least as much about design as it is capturing. Individuals have the agency to be the designers of their learning profile, their lifelong concept of mastery, including the desired breadth and depth. And institutions/corporations are designers of what constitutes mastery of the programs they offer.

As I mentioned in my first post in this series, equity, agency, and mastery work in concert—they reinforce and enable each other. Equitable opportunities enable agency that, in turn, enables a focus on mastery, and better definitions of mastery enable equity. The world that Bruce Springsteen writes about in his lyrics is a tough and unforgiving place. That may never change. But as education leaders, we can begin to put in place constructs that can help students create and tell their story.



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

"I see your true colors shining through." —Cyndi Lauper


I’m taking a brief break from the series on equity, agency, and mastery to give a shout out of appreciation to the entire K-12 edtech world for the overwhelming support of IMS Global’s OneRoster standard during return to school this fall. I will get to mastery and the overall summation of the series next month.

Why the pause? Because I just need to acknowledge that all that technical work, advocacy, and commitment to the OneRoster standard has clearly changed the future of edtech forever. So many people and organizations deserve so much credit. OneRoster of all IMS standards really exemplifies the “power of one” that is the heart and soul of IMS.

In many ways, we have come to take for granted that the IMS member school districts will go above and beyond to make a better future for all kids and teachers. They certainly made OneRoster happen. And we have also come to expect that some number of visionary and pragmatic suppliers will go the extra mile so that integration among products can be ubiquitous, seamless, and low cost. But the success of OneRoster has clearly gone beyond. Way beyond.

Similar to what IMS saw with the radical flip to open integrations in learning management systems with LTI, the OneRoster explosion has now initiated an even more dramatic 180-degree turnaround in a K-12 market where it seemed every publisher and SIS had their own rostering approach. Within a matter of 12-24 months, the market has turned. Why? A mix of common sense and focus from IMS community leaders on the good of students and teachers. Common sense was that the exchange of roster data with a publisher or SIS is not rocket science. However, even I was surprised how major publishers readily admitted that their technical approach (which amounted to every publisher reinventing pretty much the same thing—only in their “special” way) was costing them more than it was worth. Most also realized that charging school districts for custom integrations was not a scalable approach to the future of digital. The good for teachers and students is characterized by what we like to call “digital on day one.” While achieving a seamless digital on day one requires additional integration standards (like LTI), the rostering burden has been the largest blocker in K-12.

But perhaps the clearest sign that the market has changed is the literally ubiquitous claims by both suppliers and school districts that they are leveraging OneRoster, most of whom are not IMS member organizations. One of the most gratifying experiences as IMS CEO is to be on a webinar panel with non-member school districts and suppliers who are expressing overwhelming thanks to IMS for OneRoster and the other IMS work. We know from our long history with standards in IMS that the claims and acceptance by non-members mean that things will never go back to the past.

However, we at IMS are far from congratulating ourselves. As one IMS school district member once famously said, “Interoperability is not all unicorns and rainbows.” IMS is right in the middle of OneRoster usage in all size school districts, by significant publishers, LMS and SIS providers, and integrators. So, we see it all. There is much room for improvement. The net-net is that we (the edtech “ecosystem” collectively) are not all on the same page quite yet. And, as a result, the community is not achieving the level of return on investment that we know is possible and that we seek. 

Therefore, this is not the time to be slowing down the market support for OneRoster, but rather turn it up a notch to help all size school districts achieve the full benefits in terms of choice, innovation, cost savings, and digital on day one.

An important subcomponent of achieving everything we can for schools is that the edtech product companies that are the consumers of OneRoster rostering data and emitters of gradebook data must be able to have the same experience from any provider of OneRoster data or receiver of OneRoster gradebook. Along with that, every school district must have complete transparency into their software systems OneRoster data exchange. Simply put, divergence is not an option now that we have come this far.

If that sounds like a big promise, well, it’s an unprecedented convergence of the edtech ecosystem. The good news is we already have many of the key pieces as described in the Ecosystem Accelerator program required to help every market participant get OneRoster right. Recently, I recorded a 5-minute intro on why we need IMS Compatibility Check that you or colleagues may find helpful. Some additional pieces are needed, but I am confident that we can do this together.

Success in continued convergence and return on investment of OneRoster in the market will require ongoing leadership from the IMS members. I think we can count on that. But, an unprecedented level of leadership in both transparency of the details of OneRoster implementations and technical collaboration on identifying and fixing implementation issues. We are involved in some very serious conversations to refine market support for OneRoster and do it fast so that one year from today the OneRoster convergence in the marketplace is substantially better than it is today!


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

"Together, we are going to a brand new home" —Cynthia Erivo

This month I am focusing on learner agency—the second of IMS Global's repositioning to a new way of thinking about student success from now on by improving equity, agency, and mastery. Last month, I discussed equity, which isn't about giving every student the same experience, but rather about providing the diversity of experiences that meet learners' needs.

Similarly, agency is about meeting students where they are and helping toward where they would like to go—creating a pathway to success. It's where motivations and interests intersect with opportunities. It's about the empowerment that comes with an expectation that one can chart a course in life.

Isn't it a beautiful vision for our educational systems that the educational process helps every individual find their place in the world?

Every person deserves a place in this world and can have a unique impact on making this world a better place. But finding one's place in the world is a daunting process that lasts a lifetime.

Can educational systems be designed to help develop this sort of agency in a person? 

Our educational systems worldwide are already impacting hundreds of millions of lives every day. And the passion of faculty, teachers, staff, and administrators to shape lives positively is a beautiful thing already. Yet, we know that learner agency can benefit from more authentic educational experiences that help build a learner's sense of accomplishment, empowerment, and perhaps even address the challenges relevant to their everyday lives. This is not a new concept. Experiential learning has been endorsed by a wide range of educational innovators, from John Dewey to Paulo Freire, and repeatedly reiterated in studies that learning by doing creates greater retention, transfer, and metacognition. 

As we think about adding more experiential learning, we grapple with the historical design of predominant educational and employment systems worldwide. The current systems are largely designed to suit the industrial age, even though, according to economists and philosophers, we are already in a post-industrial society, where knowledge has a higher value than production. 

It is daunting to even think about how we transform the predominant educational models from being focused on sorting and stratifying students to focusing on developing each individual's talents and strengths. It's not only that developing useful skills is gaining importance in the return on investment from education, but also the fundamental substrate of what it means to be educated needs evolution. For example, shouldn't the liberal arts be evolving rapidly to meet the changing needs of society? 

It is also extremely challenging to help young people find their place in the world when the world is so complex, and they are just beginning to learn about it. For many, the degree of agency and motivation in learning is directly connected with the actual opportunities that are at hand. Thus, better educational experiences and better clarity of how that education connects to real opportunity are two sides of the same coin. 

No doubt, these are some daunting challenges that aren't as easy to solve as creating a set of academic learning standards and assessing a student's ability to perform on them. Or by simply adding more "career days" into the curriculum. 

The good news is that we are already seeing the beginnings of the changes across K-12, HED, and corporate learning that guide us as to how to evolve to a world where opportunity and empowerment lead to more effective student agency and achievement on a broader scale. We should not kid ourselves that this is going to happen overnight. But, as usual, the changes are occurring among the most motivated stakeholders. The motivation might be pure belief and conviction. Or, it might be very pragmatic—like filling gaps in employment or college application pipelines. Or it might be both together. If you are in K-12, HED, or corporate learning, you probably see examples. In IMS, we are seeing many such as those discussed at our Digital Credentials Summit in February. This is very exciting! It's a time when innovation in new models is being appreciated that can directly connect learners to better opportunities—and the COVID-19 pandemic has made the need even more apparent as we more closely examine educational experiences, cost, and outcomes.

We have been working, along with our many partners, on enabling a connected infrastructure that encourages both sides of the agency/opportunity coin. While it is impossible to predict the many ways that innovative educational models will evolve, we in IMS believe that there is a common foundation that is an obvious way to begin connecting educational models, opportunities, and lifelong learner agency.  Simply put, we are finding broad agreement among educational and corporate leaders that we must get better at representing the full depth and breadth of student achievement and skills across all sources in a way that can be curated by individuals and connected to the dynamic market of opportunities. Learners have a story to tell, their own, and need a better way to do it. Educational systems can aid this process by validating a greater breadth and depth of achievement.

There's been much exciting news in the last year or so about interest in a better record of learning by various names such as the interoperable learning record (ILR) or the learning and employment record (LER). And, of course, there has been a lot of excitement about how blockchain might be used as the immutable distributed ledger underlying such records. Thanks to the good work of IMS members, our community anticipated these needs and is at the forefront of providing the foundation for the connected infrastructure with the combination of the IMS Comprehensive Learner Record (CLR) and Open Badges (initially created by Mozilla Foundation and now improved by IMS members including Mozilla). Open Badges can be incorporated as verifiable achievements from numerous sources into the CLR. AACRAO recently recommended adopting the IMS CLR standard, and we are partnering to help higher education institutions across a broad range of needs through a series of public CLR roundtable discussions. Open Badges are being adopted in exciting ways in formal and informal education and corporations of all sizes. IMS is also working with our K-12 state and district members (via the Partnership for Interoperable Versatile and Open Transcript or PIVOT Project) on some very innovative things.

Next month I will tie together the three focus areas for defining student success of the future while adding mastery into the mix. Till then, I hope the same determination, skill, and empathy that is getting us all through an unprecedented "back to school" can be leveraged in the future to get us to a brand new home—where our educational and employment systems work better together to help every individual better find their place in this world.


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


"I Hear My Train A Comin'" —Jimi Hendrix


Changing the status quo is hard. Changing the status quo in a sustainable way is even harder.

I'd like to think—and I believe there is good evidence to show—that the work of the IMS members over the last 20+ years has changed some very foundational things in sustainable ways. This type of impact has occurred, I believe, because IMS members have been able to look ahead in terms of how advances in technology and educational models will intersect. In recent years we have been refining the word "ecosystem" in edtech to mean something very specific in terms of products being able to work well and together reliably for the benefit of end-users. In future years we will be continuing this thread. Still, as I mentioned in my last post and the introduction to the recent IMS annual report, we have begun driving toward more specificity in the terms "personalized learning" and "student success." Our starting point is the more specific goals of equity, agency, and mastery.

In this post, I would like to begin digging into some of the pragmatic progress we are seeing in laying the foundation for equity, agency, and mastery. It's a long road and discussion ahead, but I think we can all begin to see the future taking shape.

First, a caution. Yes, some specific strategies and fixes have helped "getting through" COVID-19. In general, the school districts and universities that have done the best in terms of ramping up thoughtful digital teaching and learning have already been working on their digital ecosystems for several years. Putting in place an extensive and sustainable ecosystem does not cost any more money. In fact, doing it the right way reduces many costs. But it does require a well-thought-out strategy with respect to the instructional goals, the approach to evolution, etc. And those strategies require leadership that cuts across IT, curriculum, and instruction. There is no short-cutting that redesign takes strategy, leadership, and time to implement. I would say that this is the most important learning from IMS work over many years of experience.

So, with that caveat, what are we seeing during the period of COVID and beyond in terms of the tangible steps towards designing your ecosystem to enable equity, agency, and mastery?

Let's begin with equity. The generally accepted meaning of equity in education is that the educational experience meets each student where they are to help them achieve their aspirations rather than all educational experiences for all students being the same or equal. IMS cannot solve all the issues around equity in education. But IMS can ask,

"What does it mean for the digital education ecosystem to enable and support equity?"

We see in IMS that the first foundation for equity appears to be an extensive and diverse digital curriculum and supporting resources (such as library resources) available to all students and faculty. The recent Learning Impact on-demand series has featured the ongoing work on setting up a foundation for digital equity at Chicago Public Schools. The key feature is guaranteed district-wide access to quality curriculum aligned to standards that can be customized at the local school level to meet the needs of the school and ideally each student. Thus, local teachers are not burdened with creating curriculum from scratch, but rather can apply local understanding to fit local needs. The program is based totally on IMS standards enabling the support for a diverse curriculum and supporting products across many suppliers. The work in Chicago is just beginning to roll out, and the evolution of the interplay between central and local control will be critical to its success.

We are also seeing a somewhat similar trend in higher education via innovative offerings from publishers that ensure digital resource access. Cengage is a leader in this trend. Cengage supports not only course-level inclusive access for achieving digital on day one for all students in a course, but also provides "Cengage Unlimited" so all students can access a vast library of digital resources. The COVID experience of UC Davis in rapidly scaling access to digital textbooks from VitalSource (making extensive use of IMS standards for integration and data) has not been unusual. It provides another model for scaling access to a highly distributed student population. 

Importantly, the idea of equity is that it can work in a way that allows the right fit educational experience to reach a student—regardless of the source or distance involved. COVID-19 has provided an opportunity to grapple with distance education as the primary mode. In my recent leadership interview with Cengage CTO George Moore, he details some challenges when the modality switches to entirely online. We often think of bandwidth as the only challenge to achieving digital equity. Still, there are others that George points out, such as the ability to support identity, privacy, and security. These and other issues that George elucidates are solvable as we continue to work together on the edtech ecosystem based on open standards. But it will take much longer and perhaps never reach scale if we don't work together.

As I mentioned in my last post, equity, agency, and mastery work in concert—they reinforce and enable each other. Equitable opportunities enable agency that, in turn, enables a focus on mastery, and better definitions of mastery enable equity. I will continue discussing the trends developing ecosystem foundations for agency and mastery in next month's installment.


Inside the Digital Transformation - Part 3

This is part three in a series of blog posts from the IMS K-12 team focusing on interoperability and its advantages for educators and instruction in K-12 education, especially during the current pandemic. This post investigates the critical role of Student Information Systems in effectively and equitably responding to COVID and the continuity of learning.

By Monica Watts and Dr. Tim Clark


Sketch: remote attendance in K-12 (July 2020)

The Mothership of Our Data

A national snapshot shows that schools and districts with plug-and-play digital ecosystems using standards for interoperability are making the transition from brick and mortar to remote learning more seamlessly than their counterparts. Not surprisingly, these institutions were carefully designing, planning, and making these preparations for their digital learning landscape many years before COVID-19. They were strategically integrating their digital tools, resources, and curricula into a suite of various platforms to facilitate new learning opportunities. Of these platforms is the student information system (SIS). When it comes to student data, the strategic importance of the SIS has never been more essential.

In this blog, we examine five institutions that are continuing to pursue the above efforts, which helps mitigate some of the recent disruptions. Core to their design strategy is the dynamic use of student data that resides in their student information systems. As Greg Odell from Hall County (GA) states, “Infinite Campus, our student information system (SIS), is structured for managing data. In fact, it is the mothership for our data.”

Steve Buettner at Edina Public Schools (MN) echoes this sentiment. When asked about the tools that are key to their digital ecosystem, Steve mentions, “We are not unlike other school districts."

"We use the same types of tools other school districts use, but we have seen an evolution of which ones take priority and sit at the center of our ecosystem. Currently, our SIS sits at the center of our digital ecosystem. It is so important because it has information about our students, families, the courses, the historical transcript, and all other essential information.”

Much of this information is contained in the IMS OneRoster® standard to solve a district’s need to securely and reliably exchange roster information, course materials, and grades between systems.

Market Expectations

Now, more than ever, student information systems play a critical role in shaping state and district response to the current crisis. Major industry players build "best in breed" digital learning ecosystems by leveraging IMS interoperability standards to dominate the highly fractured, highly competitive K-12 educational technology space. Core to their strategies is the dynamic use of student data that resides in a district’s SIS. K-12 schools and districts implement various SIS providers, with some of the notable players being Infinite Campus, Follett Aspen, and PowerSchool. At the same time, some institutions even take on the task of designing their own SIS. School districts should expect to face new and complex schedule challenges to begin the new school year. The potential scenarios of hybrid online and in-person instruction will require a partner that is flexible and innovative to support the new scheduling scenarios.

One K-12 SIS, Infinite Campus, is addressing the challenges brought on by the pandemic by keeping learners connected, whether at school or home. Charlie Kratsch, Founder and CEO, is an advocate for providing connectivity to third-party learning applications. Charlie says, “Students enrolled in our SIS are scheduled into classes as in-person, remote or blended learners, and rosters are immediately updated. Learning Tools Interoperability® (LTI®) single sign-on allows learning applications to be launched with a click directly from our embedded LMS. Assignments and scores are returned via OneRoster to our SIS for review by teachers, students, parents, and administrators.” Additionally, our long-standing commitment to IMS standards benefits K-12 districts as they address challenges brought on by the pandemic.

Uniformity Is Not the Same as Interoperability

There is no one-size-fits-all implementation of an SIS, as some states utilize an enterprise solution to address the needs of the districts throughout the state. In other states, the procurement of an SIS is left up to individual districts. Dan Raylea, Director of the Office of Research and Data Analysis at the South Carolina Department of Education, says, “The drive toward interoperability is enabling their adoption of a statewide rostering solution.” Dan notes some benefits in his statewide deployment of the PowerSchool SIS. By implementing the SIS at scale, South Carolina was able to deploy the platform more economically and rapidly for the individual districts. Then Dan can visualize consistent and comparative achievement data from districts throughout the state. One issue with such a uniform deployment is that the system may not be initially interoperable with the other platforms in use by the individual districts. Dan notes that typically the SIS is used to record and maintain student attendance. Still, he sees that with so many forms of distance and remote learning occurring to minimize exposure to COVID-19, that there may be a need to recognize student participation in digital lessons. IMS Caliper Analytics®; may afford that data, and he hopes the SIS will continue to evolve for better understanding and visualization of student learning activities.

Another district example is Grapevine-Colleyville ISD (TX). The district has made significant strides in building its digital ecosystem. Its vision is to automate the rostering of users into courses and classes from their SIS to all of their platforms, tools, and apps. OneRoster makes this possible and paves the way for students to use their ecosystem right away. The leadership at GCISD is now focused on scaling their ecosystem with tools that provide insights into application utilization to visualize the impact the tools are having on a student’s educational journey. This is evidence of their digital transformation strategy. It is the marriage of their interoperability strategy and pedagogical strategy to get to the next level of their ecosystem.

Spurring Innovation

As a key component of a district’s digital learning ecosystem, the SIS has the potential to contribute to the implementation of innovative instructional strategies. Such is the case in Chicago Public Schools with the district’s goal to achieve instructional equity by improving access to high-quality academic and technology resources. According to Lily McDonagh, Director of Education Initiatives for the district, “Follett Aspen is working to implement interoperability standards from IMS Global to assist CPS in achieving education equity in the district’s Curriculum Equity Initiative.” Having a positive partnership with vendor partners is essential for CPS. Lily notes, “in the future, there may be additional opportunities for Aspen to leverage interoperability for improving instruction in CPS.

An effective partnership that leads to innovation is essential for all stakeholders and the benefit of the SIS platform. To ensure that partnership, specify expectations for collaboration and interoperability in requests for proposals (RFPs) and contracts to address the educational vision, needs, and strategies. The list below includes some requirements when considering the adoption of an SIS.

Five Essential Requirements for an SIS

  • Secure management of student data while simultaneously meeting the reporting requirements for funding purposes

  • IMS certified interoperability with existing technology tools and platforms

  • Ease of use for multiple stakeholders—teachers, students, and parents

  • Adaptability to collaborate as a partner to achieve the instructional vision and mission of the institution

  • Proven success of other implementations


Now is not the time to overwhelm teachers, staff, and families. Keeping to essential school services will enable stakeholders to absorb the new complexities with encountering the challenges of returning to school this fall. The best way to maintain stability is to work with products that are IMS certified to ensure seamless integration and interoperability. You can view all current certifications in the IMS Certified Product Directory.

In the next post, we will explore student assessment systems in remote instruction.


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


"A Change is Gonna Come" —Sam Cooke


Going into 2020—before the COVID-19 and the renewed urgent calls for equality in society—equity, agency, and mastery was IMS Global's new call to action and the theme of the May 2020 Learning Impact conference.

In last month's post, I reviewed some of the key takeaways from a series of interviews and panels I conducted for the Learning Impact 2020 on-demand series. I feel strongly that what we are learning from the pandemic pivot to remote education and the united response against inequity are reaffirmations that equity, agency, and mastery are what we want to stand for as leaders across the IMS community.

To me, one of the most used mantras for the last decade—student success—is a phrase that looks more at symptoms than root causes. It also sets the diploma/degree industrial model that seems to have taken us about as far as it can go after its 100+ year run as the primary goal. Personalized learning, another much-used phrase, while going beyond differentiated learning from the instructional perspective, has come to mean almost anything. In 2007, when IMS began the Learning Impact Awards program, we adopted what some called the "iron triangle" of access, affordability, and quality as the key criteria of impact. The goal with the triangle has been to improve all three simultaneously, an elusive goal that today still eludes us because little has changed in terms of the predominant educational delivery models that tend to trade off these parameters. 

Why are equity, agency, and mastery a compelling focus across K-12, HED, and corporate education as we move into the future? Well, we know we must get better at evolving our educational models toward the needs of society. Thus, we need to think more explicitly about the areas that we want to improve, hopefully, areas that are pillars that lead to educational system transformation. 

  • Equity of educational opportunity is not only a call to social justice, but it is key to enabling growth across underserved areas. Many believe that the pandemic will spur improved technical infrastructure to enable economic opportunity in underserved areas as the percentage of the population that works from home grows.  

  • Increasing student agency is a byproduct of more authentic and relevant educational experiences. Over and over, we have learned that educational experiences that connect to real-life challenges, questions, and interests of students open the possibility of student success and societal success.

  • Mastery stresses a better focus on what students have learned and what they can do. Current transcripts and approaches to assessment have created a self-reinforcing cycle that does not lead to better education. Instead, it is trying to drive forward while looking at the rear-view mirror.  

Most importantly, equity, agency, and mastery can work in concert, which is very different from the iron triangle's opposing forces. Equitable opportunities enable agency that, in turn, enables a focus on mastery, and better definitions of mastery enable equity. 

Next month, I will cover some of the interoperability areas that have accelerated as a result of COVID-19 and how they relate to equity, agency, and mastery. In the meantime, I am reminded of some words from my good friend and mentor Bernie Luskin, "If you want to change something, you actually need to change something." Sometimes extraordinary events remind us that we must do better. Noting that Sam Cooke wrote the song I am quoting in the title of this blog in 1964. We can and must do better—in society and education. 


Inside the Digital Transformation - Part 2

This is part two in a series of blog posts from the IMS K-12 team focusing on interoperability and its advantages for educators and instruction in K-12 education, especially during the current pandemic.

By Monica Watts and Dr. Tim Clark


Sketch: remote learning in K-12 (June 2020)

The Value of an Interoperable Learning Management System

Last week we explored how interoperability supports the transition to digital learning. In this week's post, we investigate the instructional value of a learning management system (LMS) specifically.  We recently caught up with four district leaders (virtually, of course) who are using an IMS-certified LMS to help facilitate their pivot to emergency, remote learning. These districts already implement processes to adopt digital tools and align them into interoperable ecosystems with an LMS being a key component. 

Learn what it means when your edtech products are IMS certified.

Think of the LMS as mission control where the teacher can communicate with students, provide assignments, and link to resources. As a home base for online learning, it supports and connects teachers, students, and parents as a “go-to” place to begin digital learning, whether in school or from home. Essentially, the LMS has the potential to be the digital equivalent of the face-to-face, physical classroom by seamlessly integrating and making available—with the help of IMS standards like OneRoster and LTI—all of the district's various digital tools and resources. 

When asked about how the open IMS standards have impacted their transition to remote distance learning, all responses confirmed a significant improvement to their working dynamic, especially with the use of an LMS. 

Gregory Odell, e-Learning Specialist at Hall County Board of Education in Georgia, notes that his district’s interoperable LMS, Canvas, allows teachers and students to continue school in a way that is “business as usual.” Fortunately, the district began integrating its interoperable edtech platforms before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, so its users had a bit of a head start in getting used to the technology. Michelle Eaton, Director of Virtual and Blended Learning of the Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township in Indiana, makes it clear that, although the district’s LMS, itslearning, benefits teachers, the current remote working conditions are still less-than-ideal. “I think there are some really great things going on,” Eaton explains, “but emergency and remote teaching are very different from online learning. Online learning is not something that you can just ramp up in 48 hours. For us, we have been committed to interoperability for some certainly helps us as we move to remote teaching.”

Eaton’s words highlight an important point. While the interoperability of digital systems had value in pre-pandemic life, it is even more critical now. Without interoperability, teachers assume an increased tediousness in their workloads, as they must repeatedly enter login credentials, search for resources, and enter data (such as grades) in multiple platforms. This administrative burden severely impacts efficiency and profoundly affects both student and teacher productivity. Those who are new to an LMS are usually pleasantly surprised at its ease of use and variety of features. Educators who are used to having to manage multiple usernames and passwords for even the most basic of tasks involving edtech are relieved to find that the experience is much smoother. Interoperability streamlines these duties and gives teachers better control of their remote classrooms. A district is also better able to support teachers through the consistent use of the LMS from both technical, instructional, and professional learning perspectives, which helps to ensure greater instructional equity and access.

Steve Buettner, Director of Media and Technology for Edina Public Schools in Minnesota, notes that interoperability with his district’s LMS, Schoology, is helping teachers in a big way. They have much better control over course activities, monitoring student progress, and designing assessments. Also, it makes it much easier for students to access information without having to alternate between multiple systems. The simplification has improved access to grade reports and increased the ease with which actions can be determined based on based grade triggers.

Considerations When Introducing a Learning Management System

The district leaders have a few suggestions for transitioning to an interoperable LMS. Odell urges to avoid settling for what you have or cutting corners concerning the integration of the necessary technology. Instead, push the district vendors and other technology providers to ensure your students are receiving the best learning experience you can offer. Daryl Diamond of Broward County Public Schools in Florida, also utilizing Canvas LMS, suggests, “Districts need to procure a learning management system as a ‘one-stop-shop’ for teachers to house all of their curriculum with the capability to align to external tools.” Diamond recommends that an LMS should eliminate “the need for learners to log in separately on external systems.” She asserts that the districts’ responsibility is to correspond with stakeholders whose duty is “to ensure the interoperability of all digital hardware and software and address any issues that arise within the digital ecosystem. This interoperability is vital to teachers’ ability to effectively manage course progression and their students, especially concerning the use of essential data such as rosters and rich outcome analytics.”

Introducing the above technological advances during the pandemic compels a district to consider what schooling will look like in the future. “The work of teachers has been dramatically changed since their first use of the LMS,” according to Diamond, “as it eliminates many basic administrative duties. Teachers will continue acclimating to the new systems to fully experience the benefits of student engagement and enhanced instructional capabilities.” Eaton is not surprised at how thoroughly interoperable features are being integrated into the various LMS platforms throughout school districts in light of emergency remote learning during the pandemic. She is, however, quite excited about future applications of this dynamic technology. “We can build on this momentum since every teacher in our district now knows how to use a digital learning platform. The basic training is done. Now we can focus on what teaching and learning look like in the classroom."

As a result of the pandemic response, what we are hearing, and what district leaders are seeing, is that an interoperable digital learning ecosystem using an LMS is dramatically improving student and teacher experiences. Hopefully, this will continue long after the pandemic with even more widespread integration and interoperability of technology in K-12 education.

In the next post, we will explore the value of a student information system for pivoting to remote instruction.


Inside the Digital Transformation - Part 1

This is part one in a series of blog posts from the IMS K-12 team focusing on interoperability and its advantages for educators and instruction in K-12 education, especially during the current pandemic.

How Interoperability Supports Your Transition to Digital Learning

A quick glance at any recent edtech news shows that the unexpected pivot to digital learning is a challenge for most K-12 schools and districts. In fact, it has been such a challenge that Steve Buettner, Director of Media and Technology at Edina Public Schools in Minnesota, suggests that we shouldn’t call it “digital learning.” Rather, it should be called “remote or emergency learning” to distinguish these reactionary practices from true digital learning. Yet some districts like Edina are making the transition from face-to-face to remote digital learning more easily than others. One key to their successful pivot? The interoperability of their digital tools and resources. 

In a nutshell, interoperability is the driving force that allows you to improve opportunities that enhance teaching and learning with your digital ecosystem. Technically speaking, it’s the ability of your learning apps and tools to connect and exchange useful and meaningful data. But for teachers in K-12, interoperability can be a game-changer, dramatically reducing time on tasks and increasing student and class engagement and management. Interoperability provides students, parents, and administrators with a consistently positive experience using technology resources. 

The Design of a Digital Learning Ecosystem

Edina Public Schools is one of the many school districts strategically designing ecosystems of digital platforms, content, and tools to support effective classroom instruction and enable a variety of modern learning experiences and models such as virtual learning, blended learning, and distance learning. All of these instructional models usually involve digital learning. Although districts select different educational technology resources, a core feature of an effective digital learning ecosystem is that it’s interoperable. IMS open standards are the preferred way to achieve this interoperability.  We connected with several K-12 leaders engaged in the work of edtech interoperability to see how the changes from the emergency COVID-19 pandemic response are affecting their districts and revealing about the future of their digital ecosystems to better assist their teachers and students, parents and guardians.

Most of the digital ecosystems designed by these districts are comprised of some configuration of the following core platforms to assist teachers in facilitating digital learning: 

  • Single Sign-On (SSO) Platform or Portal
  • Learning Management System (LMS)
  • Student Assessment Tool or System
  • Student Information System (SIS)
  • Learning Object Repository (LOR) of Digital Resources
  • Productivity Suite(s) 

Modifiable IMS Ecosystem image

Typically, the various core systems above, as well as other applications, are often accessed via a portal or platform that supports single sign-on (SSO). The learning management system (LMS) is usually the core of a district’s digital ecosystem with integration points to their student information system (SIS), a learning object repository (LOR) of digital resources, and a student assessment system. Similarly, the data, content, and assessments pass back and forth seamlessly through integration with the LMS as the usual delivery system. Interoperability among all of the above systems eliminates the need for learners to log in separately on external systems to complete learning activities, engage with digital resources, and complete assignments and assessments. This seamless interoperability also keeps teachers from having to enter grades or other information into multiple platforms and provides greater insight into useful data regarding student performance.

To understand in greater detail how districts provide such interoperable teaching and learning experiences, we had in-depth conversations with Hall County Schools in Georgia, the Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township in Indiana, Edina Public Schools in Minnesota, and Broward County Schools in Florida. We asked them about specific components and implementation of their digital ecosystems. And we touched base with several other districts, to find out what they're doing at this time. Over the next few weeks, we will continue sharing their strategies, experiences, and future plans to inform and guide you in the design and implementation of ecosystems to effectively support digital learning. We hope you will find this information useful and actionable as you adapt your technology and instruction to today’s new normal!

In the next post, we will explore the value of a learning management system for pivoting to remote instruction.

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


"Getting in tune to the straight and narrow" —The Who

As May—the month when the IMS Learning Impact Leadership Institute typically occurs—comes to a close, IMS has been busy (especially yours truly) in capturing the learnings from what our members are experiencing. We have created a free series of recorded webinars, some 1-on-1 interviews, others expert panels that you can find on the Learning Impact On-Demand site.  

The primary findings so far have me feeling good about the impact of the collaborative work here in IMS.

From a recent survey of IMS institutional members across K-12 and HED, 95% indicated that their relationship with IMS has helped them prepare for the transitions that are occurring due to COVID-19. More importantly, the Learning Impact On-Demand interviews indicate that a productive edtech ecosystem fostered by IMS collaboration enables institutions to focus on serving their stakeholders better now and into whatever the future may bring. While educational institutions have generally struggled to move to remote/online learning over a period spanning anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks, IMS Contributing Member institutions and suppliers are not only prepared but see this as an opportunity to help accelerate progress in their support for digital teaching and learning.

In the near term, the emphasis has been on building off of strong foundational core capabilities in both the technical and instructional domains. A robust core of highly interoperable systems and a consistent set of instructional strategies has made scaling up to unprecedented user levels much easier. Hold tight to your existing instructional strategies while adapting them to online has been a key ingredient for success. The LMS has been of central importance in HED where it was a mainstream mission-critical system already and rapidly rising in importance in K-12. IMS institutional members have also put a major emphasis on the human dimension, namely empathy for an unprecedented rate of change and meeting the faculty "where they are" across a wide range of comfort levels. IMS supplier members have played a significant role in responding to the needs for scale-up in everything from working with their cloud hosting providers to helping set up thousands of courses to help faculty get online. In K-12, there has also been a major emphasis assisting parents in adjusting to their now more substantial role in the educational process, with knowledge-based resources and call-in support. 

Institutions that have had a more substantial set of online offerings or "practice" in terms of digital snow days could leverage those learnings. Understanding the need to balance screen time with other activities has turned out to be a big help in organizing remote education modalities. Finding the right balance between synchronous and asynchronous and generally moving away from live lectures—even though that has been the primary gap filler in the short term for many institutions—is another. However, equity in terms of meeting the needs of all students during this unimagined combination of scale and length of remote learning has been the biggest challenge. While this has been a bigger challenge in K-12 it has also been a challenge in HED.

The necessity for greater collaboration has led to some breakthroughs. Both HED and K-12 institutional members in IMS are reporting unprecedented levels of collaboration across boundaries within their institutions, and with supplier partners, as well as with fellow IMS members, where relationships have built up over the years. 

The IMS community's most significant technical challenges have come in needing to address privacy, security, plagiarism, and identity, specifically related to those technologies that are required to fill the void associated with 100% remote education. These areas have been web video conferencing, assessment, and proctoring, but also having technology in place to communicate to all stakeholders, at an unprecedented scale and rate, to inform everyone what is going on and provide support. 

Right now, IMS is working closely with our institutional members to close any gaps that might exist in their digital ecosystems. This also includes working with members to address key issues in time for fall, such as the importance of data from instructional systems and what are expected to be greater levels of innovation in the use of instructional resources and modalities—after so many are gaining experience and motivation in using the wide range of technologies at their disposal. For the more advanced institutions, there will be a greater emphasis on competency-based models.

All of which brings me back to getting in tune with the primary goal. The original theme of the 2020 Learning Impact event was Equity, Agency, and Mastery. We believe these imperatives capture the evolving definition of student success. We decided to focus the recast webinar series on the impact of the rapid scale-up of digital learning. Indeed, it is turning out that these remote education scenarios are requiring an acceleration in getting better at equity, agency, and mastery. If you've got the foundational digital ecosystem in place, then focusing in on a better way forward comes naturally—even during a pandemic it seems.

More learnings to come in future posts. Stay tuned.


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

Effective Digital Teaching and Learning in the COVID-19 Era and Beyond

"IMS will be capturing and synthesizing the learnings from our members as they deliver digital learning at unprecedented levels and prepare for more to come." —Dr. Rob Abel

We are learning so much right now as more and more are involved in the practice of using digital technology to support an unprecedented move to virtual learning in both K-12 and higher education. We are learning about the limitations and advantages of a wide array of technologies—some relatively new and some that have been with us for a couple of decades. We are learning what is needed to support at scale.  

Yes, it is true that the radical nature of the shift may not be giving us much time to be thoughtful. But as an old Chinese proverb said, loosely translated: "The best time to plant a tree would have been long ago, but the next best time is now." We are all making changes based on necessity, so the goals are to make improvements for the future and for today if we can.

It is in this spirit that IMS launches our on-demand virtual series on "Solutions for Highly Effective Digital Teaching and Learning." IMS will be capturing and synthesizing the learnings from our members as they deliver digital learning at unprecedented levels and prepare for more to come.

My expectations for this series are high. IMS members are the leaders on the planet when it comes to digital learning, technology agility, and scale. I will be involved in facilitating these conversations along with others on the IMS team. What we are most interested in is what we have learned so far, and how can we all be more effective going into the summer, fall and beyond?

I will be providing synthesis and analysis right here in the monthly newsletter and Learning Impact blog. All of the recordings from this series will be made available as a public service.

Let's keep the learning going!