Learning Impact Blog

A special featured keynote by Bob Mendenhall, President of Western Governor’s University at Learning Impact 2013

It really doesn’t matter who you talk to in the education field. Literally all agree that doing a better job of understanding competencies is the way that education needs to move. It’s about what you know and what you can do, rather than what course you took and what grade you got in that course.

Western Governors University (WGU) is the recognized leader in competency-based non-profit higher education in the U.S. We are very pleased that President Bob Mendenhall will be joining us at this year’s Learning Impact 2013 to tell the WGU story and participate in a panel on higher education leadership.

As we do with many of our keynotes at Learning Impact we have published a brief interview article with Bob.

In some respects this is sort of a “coming out” for WGU in that they have been replacing proprietary integrations (those very popular “open APIs” that every vendor likes to promote) with open standards-based integrations using 1EdTech LTI. As the article mentions, WGU has quietly replaced 20 such custom integrations with LTI over the past several years, with probably 30 or so more to go!

Which brings us to the very critical link between competency-based learning and open interoperability standards.  The reason why WGU has so many different applications to integrate is because the best resources in different fields come from different providers.  You might think this circumstance is unique for WGU. It is not even today, but less so in the future. That’s because your departments and faculty want to use these sort of resources – or will be wanting to – and, if they are doing so now they are probably doing it WITHOUT INSTITUTIONAL INTEGRATION AND SUPPORT.  Sorry to get loud there, but frankly we are finding that many educational CIOs need to be woken up to both the challenges and opportunities (for better service) to departments and faculty. Well, in a nutshell, 1EdTech standards are all about enabling this – just as is happening at WGU.

There is more information on how to join this open digital innovation revolution, including two special programs to aid higher ed involvement/adoption (called THESIS) and K-12 involvement/adoption (called I3LC).  


We hope so! And we hope many universities, school districts and suppliers will collaborate on developing it!

See today’s announcement about the launch of a new collaboration to do just that.

Well, we know that the higher ed market seems to want to keep talking about the LMS, last week’s announcement from MIT and Stanford not withstanding. But, some of us are moving on. For those of us that have been attending Learning Impact the last several years (and, yes, don’t forget to sign up right now for this year’s because space is getting short!), we already know what the future of the “LMS” is (and that the term LMS is a bad name for what it has been or what it will be).  We also know what the general roadmap for digital learning resources is and how this evolution is intertwined with the evolution of the LMS. That’s because the LMS is evolving into a disaggregation of features and resources that come together easily and seamlessly for the needs of teachers and students.

The last few years have popularized, in the consumer world, the app store model. The app store in the consumer context is as much, or more, about controlling purchasing paths and revenue distribution as it is about software that the user interacts with (like iTunes). I have about eight Apple computers in my home and have been a user of Apple since the Lisa. What a stroke of genius Steve Jobs had in envisioning Apple computers at the center of home entertainment/personal digital lifestyle! And, iTunes was the delivery mechanism to make getting the digital resources easy. And, as we know, the 1-click buying, downloading, installing experience has evolved from computer to mobile devices of all shapes and sizes. Hooray!

Success of this model has lead to a lot of imitation by other large consumer-oriented companies and creating similarly vertically integrated buying experiences. To succeed at this you’ve got to have a massive point of sale presence. Amazon became the leader in e-Books. And, Google has the primary competitor to iTunes for mobile devices.

Ease of use/convenience in getting digital resources, evolving to the very popular apps (software applications) has made these vertical stores very appealing. Problem is that they also tend to lock the buyer in to a specific device or family of devices. If I want to switch from iPhone to Samsung Galaxy Note II – which I recently did – I have to start over again with the apps (Yes, the Galaxy Note II is a much better phone than the iPhone - sorry Apple!).

Of course, there are now mobile applications focused on the education segment: as our friend Robbie Kendall Melton from Tennessee Board of Regents has probably the best collection! Problem is that these vertical app stores have created a nightmare for teachers and students who generally need something that cut across many different types of devices (think BYOT). And, in order to make the user experience seamless and productive, educational apps typically require exchange of information (think user data and/or analytics) with other software in the educational enterprise (yes, like an LMS or whatever the LMS evolves to).

So, 1EdTech finds ourselves in an interesting position in that we are going to need to enable a model in education that is not Apple, Google, Amazon (or any proprietary vertical marketplace approach) centric.  The app store project is, at it’s beginning, a collection of universities that are working to define and build a reference implementation of an app store based on open standards, that any content provider can participate in.  The advantage of building apps that utilize the open standards (think APIs – but vendor neutral) is that they will be easily integrated into a seamless teacher and student experience (yes, think 1-click). Now, will it be a gigantic app store with zillions of resources? Probably a smaller set of resources that are much more manageable for each course (while some are in love with the “learning objects in the sky” concept it is not what most faculty have time for).

The 1EdTech educational app store project is in a top-level design phase now – with the expectation that there will be mock-ups and wireframes to discuss at the upcoming Learning Impact. From there we will herd the cats and begin building. The idea is NOT that 1EdTech would maintain some sort of app store.  The idea is that institutions and/or suppliers will collaborate as they see fit in providing institutional or supplier-specific versions that may or may not be coordinated with peer implementations. Contact us if you'd like to get involved.

Briefly back to Apple, Amazon, Google – sorry to have to pick on you guys. But, for education it’s time to move to the next logical phase of the app store concept. The good news is that you can utilize the open app store APIs (or others can) to link the proprietary applications built for your stores into the open educational app store should the educational community wish to do so. It would be much nicer if you would spend a little bit of time and effort to engage or even contribute to the project – but we realize you are very busy making money with your vertical platform strategies and probably won’t help out the education segment.



Answer: Yes you can. Really dumb.

For evidence see Wired Campus: Stanford U. and edX Will Jointly Build Open-Source Software to Deliver MOOCs

We usually try to show restraint, but every once in a while something comes across the bow that is so completely stupid - well, it has to be addressed.

Here is what I posted as a comment to the above article:

This idea is completely brain-dead. Note to self as Stanford alumni: no more contributions to Stanford fund - as they obviously have plenty of money to waste.

Look - LINUX was based on Unix - which was a very well-baked operating system based on at least 10 years of wide adoption.  How do you create "the LINUX" of anything from a completely new platform?

And, oh by the way, the LMS market is moving to one of interconnected applications based on open standards, namely 1EdTech LTI. This is the model that every one in the know has been talking about, and implementing, for the last three years. I know - I run 1EdTech.  We've gone from 0 to over 150 certifications of open standards based products in three years and the curve is accelerating. You can see the many examples here:  http://developers.imsglobal.or...

So, the idea of building a platform that is all encompassing in terms of functionality - even if it is open source - is completely the opposite of where the market is moving.

Finally, when you can't find a business model, build something and give it away for free - and pretend you have a business model. When you're living off grants and endowments its a good strategy for delaying the inevitable: failure.  Unfortunately that money could have been used for something useful.


An LTI-based prototype for a Student Progress Dashboard

At the last 1EdTech quarterly meeting in February 2013 at Lone Star College in Houston we spent a lot of time on analytics. Analytics is a pretty hot topic in education these days. In fact, in HED the hype has been off the charts for about two years now. At EDUCAUSE 2011 analytics was the savior, At EDUCAUSE 2012 the hype was more muted - but still strong.

Why? Economics. Retaining one student is worth substantial dollars. Retaining many = mucho dollars. Not to mention national goals for graduating more students - which has a broader impact on any national economy as the delta in wages over a lifetime is large between degreed and non-degreed people.

One of the problems with the term analytics is that it is VERY broad. At our quarterly meeting we had a parade of companies (large & small) as well as very well-informed individuals working in the analytics field.  We learned that there are at least three levels of analytics applicable to education:

  1. Learning analytics: Data analysis that helps students improve learning outcomes.
  2. Academic/program analytics: Data analysis that provides information of what is happening in a specific program and how to plug holes or otherwise adjust.
  3. Institutional analytics: Data analysis that helps make decisions about how to improve at the institutional level.

There is also a fourth level - an even higher level at which governments might crunch numbers to understand a statewide or national level. Since we don't consider ourselves to be part of the government in 1EdTech, this fourth level is not too interesting to us.

There are some great companies doing some great work in analytics. Companies like Oracle, Desire2Learn, LoudCloud, McGraw-Hill and Civitas Learning - all of whom presented at the 1EdTech quarterly.

And, of course one of the things we have learned previously about domain-specific adaptive tutor/homework applications, like Pearson My-Labs, is that they can make use of data collected across many institutions.

The use of analytics to crunch, and potentially correlate, data from what might not appear to be related things, has appeal to many. For instance, one of the claims made by the CEO of Knewton at the U.S. Whitehouse Data Palooza event last year was that the Knewton product would be able to predict how well a student would do based on what they had to eat for breakfast! That sort of data would be very interesting to Frosted Mini-Wheats, as well as some parents.

Crunching large amounts of data from many sources and then figuring out which data is most useful/predictive is often referred to as making use of “Big Data.”

But, there is also “Small Data.” Small data tends to be more localized, and perhaps, immediately actionable (see non-education article on Why Small Data May be Bigger than Big Data). As Mark Milliron said at Learning Impact 2011, “Students are good with collecting data on them if it can actually help them as individuals.”  This makes a lot of sense to us at 1EdTech.

Now, of course, data interoperability can potentially aid analytics because agreed upon data definitions used across many tools/products should be easier to compare. Analytics is a really important focus area for 1EdTech - and will be a key focus at this year's Learning Impact 2013 conference May 13-16 in San Diego.

The sort of “holy grail” of data interoperability is an agreed upon “learning/progress map” that all tools and assessments could populate. Some are working on that very issue today (see for instance the Dynamic Learning Maps collaborative that is participating in 1EdTech via CETE at University of Kansas). However, while it is relatively straightforward to agree on some types of data – like for instance assessment item results data as in QTI/APIP or usage data on things like e-books – the state of the market is that student learning models and data is in its infancy. Therefore, many tools will be producing analytics information that makes sense within the tool, but not more generally. 1EdTech wants to put in place standards that encourage that type of innovation through variability, as well as the type of standards that capture things everyone can agree on.

To enable more use of small data in education, it occurred to us that it would be very cool if it was easier for students or teachers to simply see all of the progress data in one place – even though the tools are all separate. What a major step forward it would be for a student to work in several tools and be able to see how their results compared. So, we decided to see if LTI could be used to enable a Student Progress Dashboard that is a mash-up of many dashboards from independent tools. We see such a dashboard as displaying the unique analytics capabilities of any tool – whether or not data definitions are agreed to – and, whether or not the tool provider is willing to share such data. We think this very simple idea is empowering and will complement the progress we are making on defining agreed data fields when we can.

And, now we have a very simple prototype to show one version of the concept – using tools that are not especially analytical in nature – but ones we had lying around.  If you go to this screencast by Stephen Vickers you will see the very first 1EdTech-enabled Student Progress Dashboard prototype. We expect this to be a standard feature to be supported in LTI going forward and want to see lots of riffing on this in the LTI community! Let us know what you think! And, tool providers, start your engines!

Note that we may not be able to tell how well a student will perform based on what they had for breakfast, as perhaps Knewton can, but, we can perhaps make a combination of tools – tools available today – more actionable for students or teachers!


1EdTech LTI-Enabled Student Progress Dashboard Prototype



Yesterday we released the 1EdTech annual report for 2012. Knock on wood, 1EdTech has experienced seven years of steady growth. We have been very lucky in many respects, but it has been the steady support of the members and ability to change of the 1EdTech staff that has made this growth possible.

There have been MANY headwinds along the way. A close second in that list - second only to what I'll call "jealousy" of several other failing organizations in this space that have attempted to dissuade support of 1EdTech by completely misrepresenting what we do and how we do it - has been a knee-jerk reaction of many organizations of being negatively predisposed to joining "yet another" organization/paying membership dues. Memberships is one of the first things to be scrutinized and cut in any well-managed organization. And, there is good reason for that. In my days at Collegis I was the one doing the cutting!

Quite frankly, in 1EdTech we are open to any model that works. By "works" we mean that actually provides the means to enable a high quality open platform - owned by none, but implemented by all - that education needs so desperately to focus investment on great products and innovation. And, in this post I'm going to tell you why we have concluded that a membership model is the best way for all concerned to achieve this.

1. Membership dues to 1EdTech result in something of tangible value getting created - something that if done right provides huge value to the industry. 1EdTech is truly evaluated on its ability to effect change in a very tangible way. The membership dues to many organizations are typically providing access to some amount of networking or reports that are published - reports that typically never vetted over time to see if their advice were correct or not.

2. Because there are many/diverse members paying dues and contributing to the tangible product in #1, the resulting products are supplier neutral and bring value to an entire industry (note: how the organization is set up in terms of participation, work activities and approval is very important factor in achieving this). Note that a foundation or grant sponsored project does not provide the same sort of neutral product - regardless of how the work is licensed.

3. Members of substantial numbers will only support an entity that is providing a fair and neutral process to not only create standards, but to evolve and maintain them for the changing needs of the marketplace over time. Sooooo many business models are not sustainable. Membership models, assuming that the organization is responsive, can be.

4. Commitment to the standards and the process is critically important. Membership, if done correctly, brings commitment. The leadership of the organization are committed to serve the members and the members are committed to the joint work product.

5. Stakeholders of different types and sizes get an equal vote. If the membership organization is set up appropriately institutions, government entities and suppliers can work on equal footing even though they may be paying very different membership dues. They each get one vote regardless of what they are paying, thus allowing for broad participation and a high quality product.

6. Requiring skin in the game is a good thing. It is very difficult to achieve any of the prior five things without a true commitment from true industry leaders. Requiring payment of membership dues from participants that can (special accommodation can always be made for participants who might be under financial hardship), along with a legal membership agreement to adhere to the member-approved processes, is absolutely the best way to ensure that all the activity will result in actual market movement.

7. Commitment from members results in better ways to do things. 1EdTech has made a very large number of changes over the last seven years. Just about all of those changes were ideas from the members. I'd like to tell you that we are organizational geniuses here at 1EdTech and came up with all this ourselves.  But, the truth is that we just tried ideas that the members had and have kept the ones that worked. And, because this is an organization set up to serve the members, they can decide to take this in any direction that they think makes sense - a very important consideration given that standards are evolving from paper specs to reference implementations to who knows what?

During the last seven years we seen at least a half dozen standards activities in this space attempt to start and die. There are several other organizations and initiatives that are hanging on just barely in terms of needed financial support. One of the reasons that 1EdTech began publishing the annual report was to provide transparency into how well our model was working. When we started publishing the report we had no idea that we would have seven years of growth ahead of us, and, there is no guarantee of growth from here.

But, if you're looking for an organization that is creating tangible change for the better and is clearly gaining momentum - and you are willing to understand that this is "not just another membership dues organization" - well, you have come to the right place! Myself and the 1EdTech staff consider ourselves very fortunate to be able to wrk with the many individuals and organizations noted as key leaders in 1EdTech in the later pages of the annual report.


This post is the letter to 1EdTech stakeholders contained in the recently released 1EdTech Annual Report for 2012: Leading the Digital Innovation Revolution in Education . Join us at the Learning Impact conference, May 13-16 in San Diego to provide your leadership to the cause!


Dear Supporters of 1EdTech, We are pleased to present the 1EdTech annual report for calendar and fiscal year 2012. Maturity and adoption of 1EdTech interoperability standards reached record levels in 2012. This support from the 1EdTech community resulted in record levels of revenue, membership and net assets, as shown in the accompanying chart.


Over the last 15 years, education has adopted many “point” examples of innovation in which technology has played an enabling role. Today’s “hottest” innovation is the MOOC (Massively Open Online Course). Will it be another point innovation or, instead, an educational paradigm “shifter?” Neither is certain, but we are certain that the least risky strategy for scaling up educational opportunity while affordably improving learning outcomes is to tap into the inexorable march of technical innovation. For this strategy to succeed, institutions must be free to select innovative applications from a variety of sources and integrate the resulting foundation of new and legacy applications. The need for agile integration and interoperability has never been higher and, thus, 1EdTech standards and certification never more strategic.


The goal of the 1EdTech work is to enable innovation through a broadly affordable, vendor-neutral open “platform” – owned by none and implemented by all. 1EdTech open interoperability permits the systemic integration of applications from diverse sources into a seamless, agile and information-rich educational experience, within the institution and across the Internet through its partners and suppliers. MOOCs are but one current example of an innovation that draws on the leverage inherent in 1EdTech open interoperability.

In 2012 the 1EdTech community provided overwhelming evidence that open interoperability can provide a cost and time savings on the order of 10-100x, compared to current, widely used integration approaches. These benefits accrue to suppliers and institutions, all while enabling a more seamless, and thus more productive technology experience for students and faculty.

1EdTech launched the “Open Digital Innovation Revolution” campaign at EDUCAUSE 2012 to highlight that systemic change enabled by open interoperability can have revolutionary consequences in terms of the rate of adoption of innovative digital content and applications. Moving into 2013, 1EdTech is accordingly focused on Open Digital Innovation as a core strategy upon which to build the education markets of the future. Indeed, an emboldened breed of leadership is already emerging from the 1EdTech community of suppliers and institutions. These bold, but practical leaders seek to amplify the value proposition of an open interoperable core platform as a means to shift today’s education paradigm towards future learning needs. The 1EdTech board and organization are grateful to these bold leaders, who are truly leading the scalable and sustainable future of education!

Rob Abel, Ed.D., Chief Executive Officer

William H. Graves, Ph.D., Chairman of the Board


1EdTech open standards in educational technology are all about enabling innovation. Innovation means diversity.

Never was that more apparent than on February 5, 2013 at the annual EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative conference, where to a packed room representatives from UMass Online, Lone Star College Online and University of Michigan described how they were each leveraging 1EdTech standards. For those that could not attend the proceedings have been captured in a just released EDUCAUSE Blog post.

Collaboration Enables Next-Generation Digital Learning

Each of the three institutions are providing leadership in addressing how technology can be better utilized to enable teachers and students. By taking advantage of the 1EdTech standards as a core element in providing these solutions, these institutions are collaborating and reinforcing each other's progress - even though they are all addressing different areas of innovation. Similarly they are collaborating with a very wide range of suppliers who are using and advancing the same standards. Being part of a worldwide community without having to even know who the other participants are (just as happened in the development and growth of the worldwide web) and how they are all improving the future of education is pretty cool!  This is the 10-100x factor in education we call the 1EdTech Open Digital Innovation Revolution.

Come to Learning Impact, May 13-16 3013 in San Diego and join the revolution!


Investing in a Digital Curriculum Evolution Strategy

In part I of this series, Introduction to the spectrum of approaches to evolving to digital curriculum that we are seeing in the marketplace, we described 5 potential benefits of evolving to digital curriculum. We also described a spectrum of approaches that we are seeing in the marketplace to moving the needle to more digital options for teachers and students.

In part II, The Importance of Interoperability in Achieving the Potential Advantages of Digital Curriculum, we described in more detail the importance of interoperability standards in achieving the 5 potential benefits of digital curriculum. The net-net being that unless evolution to digital is based on widely adopted interoperability standards that the digital future is not clearly better than the paper textbook world of today. It may be more fun – but it won’t be better in terms of actually achieving the potential advantages of digital curriculum or evolving to more effective instruction. To help districts and states evolve to digital curriculum and associated delivery platforms based on open interoperability standards, 1EdTech has published a policy note providing RFP language guidance for digital applications and content: Open-Standards Requirements for Digital Content and Application Integration with Enterprise Learning Platforms.

In this part III we’d like to circle back to the spectrum of approaches to digital evolution discussed in part I looking through the lens of “What strategy is going to give most bang for the buck both near term and longer term?After all, every step that a state authority or local authority takes is an investment of precious time and resources - which cannot afford to be wasted. The spectrum is visualized in the following diagram:


Each of the three strategies that are illustrated along the spectrum has their strengths and weaknesses, summarized here:

Strategy Major Strength Major Weakness
PDF or e-texts versions of books Potential for cost reduction while retaining familiar textbook model of instruction Lack of innovation, personalization and interactivity
Digital curriculum toolkit Puts onus on digital curriculum suppliers to provide coherent collections of digital assets that are teacher/student friendly Requires evolution to teaching, learning and institutional processes that enable personalized and experiential learning to obtain full benefit
Digital learning objects in the sky Google search is already what everyone does in all aspects of life, why not education? Difficult/time consuming to achieve coherence of instructional materials or the instructional experience




What strategy makes the most sense?  Well, the reality is that all three strategies are going to occur just because they are all options that are out there.  However, we think there is an obvious better choice both now and into the foreseeable future – and that is the “digital curriculum toolkit” strategy.

Why does the digital curriculum toolkit strategy make the most sense? The digital curriculum toolkit is the only strategy that attempts to improve instruction in a realistic manner. Why?

  1. It is much more likely that coherent digital curriculum that can be personalized will come through a combination of working with trusted suppliers/sources combined with institutional created content (noting that his latter category may include some of what comes from the Learning Objects in the Sky).
  2. As discussed in Part II actually achieving the 5 potential advantage/benefits of evolving to digital curriculum requires going substantially beyond the “PDF or e-text versions of books” strategy (even though some resources of those types could clearly become part of the digital curriculum toolkit strategy).
  3. The digital curriculum toolkit strategy seems to fit the “way institutions/states in K-12 do business” in terms of working with trusted providers and taking responsibility for curriculum (albeit that as noted in the above table, to achieve full benefit a concerted effort to evolve instruction to more personalized and experiential models will be required).

If you are in the U.S. you are seeing a huge amount of investment from the Gates Foundation, CCSSO and the U.S. Department of Education in the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). So, it might be natural to ask,

“Won’t the Common Core provide the glue that will enable any and all of the three strategies?”

To this we would answer that we are hopeful that it might help, but realistically it is not going to be the panacea that everyone is hoping for. Here are the reasons why the Common Core will not radically change things:

  1. No one can be sure that the Common Core will work. There is already a huge amount of deviation occurring and, some are saying that it is not implementable.
  2. The Common Core, while potentially a positive step for U.S. education, is at best still a “driving while looking in the rear view mirror” approach to educational reform (the Common Core approach largely copies what some other countries have been doing for years).
  3. One can make a very good case that to fully actualize the goals of the Common Core that instruction must be radically evolved to a much more interdisciplinary, experiential approach to learning – and in doing so the Common Core (or any agreed upon set of learning standards for math and language) becomes a relatively small (while potentially important) part of the solution.
To that 3rd point, the 1EdTech Instructional Innovation through Interoperability Leadership Council (I3LC) of school districts and states has recently published a position paper that attempts to put some of the myriad projects and investments made in the last few years in the U.S. by the Gates Foundation into perspective. These initiatives include the Learning Registry (initially funded by the U.S. government, later by Gates), LRMI (Learning Resource Metadata Initiative) and SLC (Shared Learning Collaborative), now InBloom. These projects all share the notion that learning objects or progress can be referenced back to a common set of educational standards, and are generally complimentary, and perhaps even dependent upon success of the Common Core.
The paper may be viewed as controversial in some circles because it clearly concludes that despite the huge investments from the Gates Foundation in the combined set of projects that they will not enable districts to support evolution to effective instructional reform. In the terms of this blog series, this is because the Gates investments are largely focused on enabling the “learning objects in the sky” strategy. While those investments may indeed help lead the way to enabling that alternative – in which case the Gates Foundation can point to a meaningful contribution – they are not focused on the most relevant strategy: the digital curriculum toolkit.
That’s the potentially “bad news.” The potentially “good news” is that organizations such as 1EdTech can work pragmatically across the membership to help “bridge” these strategies. Metadata and federated search are great examples of areas in which the 1EdTech membership will be working pragmatically to make the various marketplace pieces fit.  What pieces need to fit? Here is a diagram excerpted from the position paper.


The Importance of Interoperability in Achieving the Potential Advantages of Digital Curriculum

In part I of this blog series on Evolving to Digital Curriculum we covered five potential benefits of digital materials and the spectrum of approaches we are seeing in the marketplace for enabling more digital options for teachers and students.

In part II we will address the roles and importance of interoperability standards in the evolution to digital curriculum. We also discuss a common sense ordering of "putting standards in place" based on feedback from the market.

Now, when we say “standard” we could mean a lot of things, as standards in their best sense mean a voluntary collaboration among education community participants on the technical approach to interoperability as well as a fair/neutral decision-making process. However, the following paragraphs are just as relevant if what we mean by an interoperability standard is one agreed upon way for two applications to exchange information necessary for those applications to work together in well-defined way (in comparison to multiple and diverse ways to accomplish essentially the same thing).

Here is our explanation of the critical role of interoperability standards in evolving to digital curriculum, specifically with respect to achieving the five potential benefits outlined in part I.

  1. Potentially lower cost. Some people seem to think that all digital learning materials should be free because the distribution costs of an additional copy (once the digital version has already been produced) are essentially zero. A very small zealot group of “free software” advocates have come to the same conclusion regarding software. However, for those of us that live in the real world and want to see higher and higher quality digital products, it is very obvious that digital materials will still have a cost associated with them – and the price will be market-driven – meaning it may be lower, or may even be higher than today’s printed books. Regardless, it is very clear that having to reformat digital learning into a wide array of formats to run a wide variety of devices and software platforms (e.g. Apple, Google, Amazon, Blackboard, Desire2Learn, Instructure, Moodle, Pearson, Global Scholar) will add cost to the production equation. Even if the set of options in the education space were limited and static this is a daunting situation. It even becomes a “competitive” situation where content providers try to “be the first to market” on newer and sexier platforms with large market share. While this may all seem “fun” to the end users the reality here is that the dollars spent on essentially reformatting and recoding are dollars NOT spent on creating better learning materials. And, the cost of having to deal with the diverse platforms is shifted to the end-users (teachers and students) and the IT departments who must figure out how to equitably support BYOT (Bring Your Own Technology). Unless innovative digital learning experiences are easy to support in the educational context, well, they just won’t get incorporated. Thus, the critical need for interoperability between content and platforms to help remove the cost associated with platform diversity is very clear. While the worldwide web interoperability standards (such as HTML 5 managed by the W3C) and browsers (as the ‘platforms’) go a long way to providing content interoperability, they are lacking with respect to some key additional constructs used frequently in education, but rarely in the generic worldwide web (such as assessment).
  2. More interactive and engaging. It has been very encouraging and exciting to see exciting new learning innovations each year as finalists in the 1EdTech Learning Impact Awards, such as game-based learning, adaptive tutors, social learning and simulations. Some of the most innovative applications come from small start-ups with very limited resources. Unless innovative digital learning experiences are easy for IT, teachers and students, as well as suppliers, to integrate into the educational context, well, they just won’t get incorporated. The hurdles that get in the way are multiple logins, manual transfer of enrollment information, passing of other parameters that enable students to interact in the right groups and so on. If every application and platform accomplishes these integrations with their own APIs (Application Program Interfaces) – all of which evolve over time – well, its difficult to get any reasonable number of tools integrated in the first place, much less maintained over the years. Most IT departments at even well-funded institutions struggle with care and feeding of 3-5 integrations. Therefore, there is a very obvious and critical need for interoperability standards to make “plug and play” of innovative digital tools and learning experiences easy.
  3. More personalized and accessible.  The popular idea of “learning objects” – meaning chunks of content or learning experiences – that can be delivered at the right place and the right time, is not new. This has been the primary objective that people have been envisioning with the explosion of the Internet/worldwide web, as well as before with CBT (computer based training). In fact there have been many products over the last 20 years that have focused on this approach – with adaptive tutors/homework applications perhaps now becoming the most successful in the education context (while still penetrating only a relatively small percentage of the market). The goal is personalized learning. However, in order for this to work when more than one content/application provider/source is involved requires a lot of interoperability to make finding the right resource at the right time tractable for teachers or students. First of all, for highly relevant objects to be “found” there needs to be some agreement on the metadata used to search for them. This metadata not only describes the content, but also potentially the state/progress of student learning, so that the two can be compared. Now, once the right object is found there are potentially the same integration issues as detailed in (1) and (2) above. The other very important aspect of personalization is accessibility. Not only do students have preferences for how they can best learn digitally (audio vs. visual, font size and type, etc.) but the exploding use of a rapidly evolving array of tablet devices both mean that alternative representations of learning objects that fit the user and usage are required. Without interoperability standards to enable user preferences and platform versatility, the development of content and apps becomes much more expensive than today’s printed books.
  4. Producing usable data. As mentioned in (3), a primary foundation of achieving personalized learning digitally is the need to describe student progress. The concept of progress is often thought of as a learner profile and the potential prescribed paths are often referred to as learning maps. As with (3), if the application is completely self-contained and does not provide data to other applications then interoperability is not required. However, if it is desired to have multiple content/applications/assessments work together to help teachers and students, then interoperability standards for activities, outcomes, learner profiles and learning maps become critical. While one can certainly conceive of a data warehouse with a huge amount of data not complying to any standard, the degree to which aspects of student progress can be agreed upon can potentially be more actionable. Of course, this is the goal for standardized testing and other forms of assessment.
  5. Easier to transport. One laptop or notebook computer certainly weighs less and takes less space than multiple paper textbooks. But, if we put all of the learning materials into an accepted format, such as PDF, this would allow us to eliminate the books without making any progress on potential benefits (2), (3) or (4). Worse yet, it is entirely possible that the teacher, student and IT department could end up having to deal with a myriad of platforms (because not all apps and content run on all platforms) AND textbooks. Yikes! More cost, more weight, more space. Thus, an absence of interoperability standards could  and probably is resulting in the worse possible scenario for students, teachers and institutions.
Now, since relatively little interoperability as required for personalized digital learning per the above exists today in the marketplace, a natural question to ask is “where is the best place to start?” Another way to ask this question is “what needs to come first in order to enable evolution over time to personalized digital learning?”
The method for determining such things in 1EdTech is to start multiple threads of action and see which ones the market adopts first. Absent of third-party incentives (such as grants that favor one priority over another) the education community participants are pretty smart about building their future. It is very difficult to achieve market adoption of a “standard” when there is large diversity and competition among approaches. In such cases it is better to consider early developments as potential input to the standards process – rather than as a standard.
The good news is that the answer is clear based on actual market activity. In recent years, the 1EdTech community has overwhelmingly adopted standards that provide basic plumbing to enable learning platforms, content and applications to “plug and play.” These are the standards in 1EdTech known as Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI), Common Cartridge and Learning Information Services (LIS). In addition, 1EdTech members are adopting Question & Test Interoperability (QTI) and the Accessible Portable Item Protocol (APIP) for providing interoperability of assessments (Note: Common Cartridge also includes a version of QTI and APIP is based on the Common Cartridge structure - so we have consistency in standards approach across learning and assessment resources). These standards are the simple "glue" that enable a seamless experience for the users, while dramatically reducing the time and cost of integration and upkeep (by a factor of 10-100x).
"Linked content" is a very popular form of interoperability that applies to hosted content, tools, simulations, adaptive tutors, games
Using this collection of standards – which 1EdTech calls the Digital Learning Services (DLS) Standards – content and apps are plugging into institutional systems like never before. Over 150 certifications for plug and play have been issued to date – all is the last few years – and accelerating today.
For those institutions, states, districts worldwide that wish to take advantage of the progress 1EdTech has achieved in market adoption of these standards, especially those wanting to put in place a strong foundation for digital curriculum and personalized digital learning, 1EdTech has recently released a document that describes how to specify requirements for digital content and applications based on open standards. Please read the press release and the documentOpen-Standards Requirements for Digital Content and Application Integration with Enterprise Learning Platforms and let us know if you have any questions! We are pleased to help all institutions and states evolve to open standards.
Does this mean that 1EdTech is ignoring the other areas such as outcomes data, analytics, profiles or learning maps? Absolutely not. 1EdTech has been active in these areas for years and is in the process of rolling these out at market speed, using the DLS standards as the backbone.  The prioritization comes around supporting key market drivers, such as support for the U.S. Common Core State Standards, the rise of e-textbooks, the need for federated search (as integration of multiple products grows), etc. 1EdTech members that are experts and experienced market participants in each area are driving each area – and these requirements are addressed in incremental/evolved versions of the specifications. Such evolution also allows for region specific variations, as depending on the interoperability area, there can be some significant diversity. This is of course less true in the plumbing layer.
In the next installment, part III, we will address the spectrum of three scenarios for evolving to a digital learning ecosystem. Whereas the discussion above and RFP guidance that 1EdTech has produced will help you regardless of which of the scenarios you chose, there is a clearly preferred approach that makes sense for today and probably the next 5-10 years. Perhaps surprisingly, our view is VERY different than what is being encouraged by huge investment from the Gates Foundation in projects like LRMI (Learning Resource Metadata Initiative) and SLC (Shared Learning Collaborative) / InBloom.  We will explain in part III.

Introduction to the spectrum of approaches to evolving to digital curriculum that we are seeing in the marketplace

Many state level education authorities, local education authorities and colleges/universities are looking at accelerating the movement towards digital curriculum materials.  This is because digital materials have many potential advantages. Among these are:

  1. Potentially lower cost than printed textbooks because there are potential savings in the printing and distribution.
  2. More interactive and engaging student experience as digital curriculum can potentially be much more interactive and up-to-date than printed materials.
  3. More personalized and accessible in that digital materials can be chunks of content or applications that go directly at a perceived gap in competency or an alternative learning style or a preferable set of user delivery preferences.
  4. Producing data usable by the teacher and student in that digital materials can assess student progress and identify potential gaps via digital assignments, quizzes, etc.
  5. Easier to transport in that digital materials of almost unlimited volume can be carried on a tablet or laptop or even a mobile phone.

In a separate post we have described this evolution from the printed textbook as needing more of a digital toolkit that is easy for faculty to make use of on a student-by-student basis.

We feel that the digital toolkit metaphor is the right one to latch on to if you want to get this right. In fact, it is critical to actualizing the benefits listed above. This is because we see much misguided effort going into two other alternatives that are on opposite sides of the spectrum in terms of the approach.  The approaches are illustrated in the following diagram.

At the very “basic” level of going digital there is the PDF (non-reflowable digital book) or e-text (such as Kindle or Nook) version of a textbook approach. The advantage of this approach is that it is very consistent with well-understood textbook-based models of instruction. The disadvantage is that it only addresses “lower cost” and “easier to transport.” The other major issue with this approach is that many of the mobile readers each have their own proprietary platform formats.  This includes the proprietary standalone app formats of Apple devices. In other words, support across a range of platforms is a major issue with anything other than static PDF. And static PDF is not usable across all screen sizes – that is, a printed textbook is generally better.

At the very other end of the spectrum is what we affectionately term “learning objects in the sky” approach. This is a very advanced vision of being able to find, mix & match instructional materials from all over the web. This is not a new vision at all. The reason we have affection for this idea is that 1EdTech has been involved in working to enable this vision since 1995.  There has been a lot of well-intentioned investment in this vision – and there is a new wave of such activities today that are attracting quite a bit of buzz. One is the Learning Registry – that has been funded by the U.S. Government and the Gates Foundation. Another is LRMI (Learning Resource Metadata Initiative) funded by the Gates Foundation. And, the Shared Learning Collaborative, now InBloom, again, funded by the Gates Foundation.  While 1EdTech completely agrees with the learning object vision, the fatal flaw has been the ability of these “found materials” to fit together and thus produce a better instructional experience. There are numerous other issues associated with achieving this vision – none of which have been adequately addressed by the new initiatives. We will cover these in more depth in future installments. The bottom line is that whereas this approach has great aspirations to achieve the interactive/engaging, personalized experience and usable data benefits listed above, the current implementations are far from overcoming the large obstacles to getting there.

In the middle is the digital toolkit idea. This is where the productive activity is today. The approach fundamentally is about selecting digital material suppliers (commercial, OER, whatever works) that are carefully selected to be complementary to the instructional approach desired, ability to provide the data desired to students & teachers, and ability to easily work in a coordinated fashion with the other sources selected. Based on our interactions with both buyers and sellers, while there are still many issues that need to be worked out to get to this more modest goal (versus the learning object in the sky), that it is a more pragmatic approach with a higher probability of getting to all five potential benefits above.

In the next two installments we will discuss some specifics regarding the types of content interoperability that must be supported to achieve the five potential benefits of evolving to digital and the perennial issue of metadata (needed to describe and thus search for learning resources). Also, we will review some RFP guidance, policy and analysis papers as they are released in next couple of weeks.