Sharebar?

Learning Impact Blog

Editor's note: this is a guest post provided by Steve Kessinger, Director of IST, Bluefield College.

Online learning continues to evolve, keeping even the most accomplished educators on their toes. There are numerous tools and resources available to supplement online education and I'm sure your faculty, like ours are becoming more interested in these resources. They also expect them to be fully integrated within the course.

The technical challenges to a small school like Bluefield College can be overwhelming which is why we were excited to hear about the Learning Tools Portlet in Jenzabar e-Learning. So many vendors have boasted “sure, we integrate with your system” but what that really translates to is “we integrate with your system as long as your IT guys spend 6 months in a cave banging out code”. We have a total staff of 3.5 FTE; we just don’t have time for that. Using the IMS Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) standard, we now have the ability to integrate a number of solutions that we once thought were beyond our capability. And it’s easy!

It only takes a simple click to get started (+ Add a new learning tool).

User Window within Jenzabar JICS for Integrating an LTI Tool/Application 1 of 2

Then, all we need is a link, key, and secret provided to us by the vendor and we’re ready to go.

User Window within Jenzabar JICS for Integrating an LTI Tool/Application 2 of 2

We’ve even started recommending LTI compliance to vendors. It’s a real return on investment for us and for them. We get the advantage of being able to integrate a number of tremendous products into our learning environment and we don’t have to use our limited resources on custom integrations since LTI is so easy. It’s also advantageous to the vendor since it allows them to serve other Jenzabar e-Learning customers and other LTI compliant LMS solutions. We’re currently testing LTI resources and we’re hoping that we can have some of these tools incorporated in courses for the Spring.

Tags:

Yesterday IMS announced the public draft release of LTI 2 at the IMS quarterly meetings in Nashville.

Here is what it's all about:

Whereas LTI 1 has revolutionized (by 10-100x – see the revolution blog post) the time and cost of integrating digital content and resources into learning platforms at a pretty basic level, LTI 2 takes that same revolution at least 10x more to enable much more sophisticated and deeper integrations – with therefore even greater gains in speed and cost compared to today's proprietary integrations.

Public draft release means that IMS is encouraging public feedback and collaboration on alpha implementations.  Within the IMS member community we will be enabling such prototyping with a software implementation of an LTI consumer (in Ruby) developed by Vital Source.  Many thanks for Vital Source for leading the evolution to LTI 2 (along with Pearson, Blackboard and Cengage) and providing this software to help accelerate implementations!  The license for this code is purely for non-commercial use at this time because the next step to finalizing LTI 2 is for the IMS member community coming together to put in place a conformance certification program. Once the conformance certification program is in place, we will release any prototype code (that provided by Vital Source, improvements made by other members, or by others in other programming languages) with our IMS “traditional” Apache 2 open source licensing to encourage commercial implementation. We’re thinking that conformance certification may be ready in 3-6 months time – but this is entirely dependent on the contributions from the IMS community.

LTI 2 has been under development for about 5 years.  Originally LTI 2 was envisioned as the “industrial strength” enterprise version of LTI. In fact, at one point in time what is now LTI 2 was the only true LTI.  The current LTI 1 was a result of a simplified subset and implementation approach of LTI 2 – resulting in the infamous Dr. Chuck Severance led evolution of first Simple LTI, then Basic LTI – and what is now LTI 1 and the most recently released version LTI v1.1 (which supports outcomes reporting back to the consumer).

Thanks to a series of very good decisions made by the IMS member community, LTI 2 today is much easier to implement than was once envisioned! For standards, easy is essential!

Of course, the value of LTI 2 to the education community – and how soon that value manifests itself – will depend on how quickly various “learning platforms” become LTI 2 consumers. If you have “LTI 2’d” your application it still needs LTI 2 platforms to run in.  One of the great things about LTI is that it enables many types of software to be consumers of applications. Anything can plug into anything with LTI. (see LTI catalogue to see that some applications that are both consumers and tools).

LTI 1 will be supported indefinitely at this point.  In fact, there is much activity in developing LTI 1 extensions (see extensions web page).  The IMS members made the brilliant decision at the IMS quarterly meetings in Ann Arbor in August 2012 to ensure that all LTI 1 extensions would be created in a way to feed right into the more extensible LTI 2 architecture. We expect that most platforms will support both LTI 1 and LTI 2.

LTI has many advantages over LTI 1. Some of these are detailed in the briefing paper written by Stephen Vickers via JISC CETIS.

LTI 2 provides a more sophisticated and extensible platform for providing deeper integrations, and greater support for services and events. For example, tool providers will be able to specify where their links should appear in the LMS and provide support for user-selected languages. LMSs may notify tool providers when a course is copied, archived or restored to allow more dynamic messaging and updates between systems. LTI 2 builds on LTI 1 by incorporating more sophisticated outcomes reporting and a rich extensions architecture. LTI 2 uses REST and JSON-LD to deliver this new functionality.

IMS LTI Roadmap presented early in 2012 by Dr. Chuck

To me, what is exciting about LTI 2 is that we should be able to transition IMS certified products to a model of “negotiated services.”  What negotiated services means is that IMS certified product A and IMS certified product B will be able to communicate about which IMS standards they support and configure themselves accordingly. This capability brings our mantra of “plug and play” to a whole new level.

At a very basic level, what this means is that if there is a mismatch in terms of what version of an IMS specification supports (versus the connecting tool) tow connecting products support it can be discovered automatically and adjusted.  At another level what LTI 2 means is that the goofy list of export formats for content (when exporting a course) could go away: the exporting software can communicate with the accepting software and negotiate the maximum interoperable subset. Many of the IMS specifications involve optional levels of functionality – specifications like Learning Information Services (LIS) and the Accessible Portable Item Protocol/Question and Test Interoperability (APIP/QTI).  Ultimately, LTI 2 will allow the support of these services to be negotiated between certified applications.

Last week at EDUCAUSE CourseSmart announced a new analytics dashboard for users of their e-Textbooks.  The CourseSmart analytics dashboard is LTI 1 enabled. What this means is that it can use LTI 1 to plug into an LMS or other LTI consumer. However, what about the transfer of outcomes using LTI? CourseSmart is, in fact, participating on our IMS e-textbook task force who are undertaking defining LTI extensions for passing “back” usage data. But, we expect that analytics information will be an area of differentiation for suppliers. In other words, we don’t expect all suppliers to agree.  One of the things that LTI 2 could enable is a negotiation of what data will be passed. For instance, one of a few designated schemas of agreed data or even custom schemas held in a registry. Thus, LTI 2 will put in place a foundation for enabling interoperability even for product-specific schemas. Pretty cool!

My thanks to the IMS members for the dedicated work on LTI 2! Stay tuned.  

Tags:

The annual EDUCAUSE conference is a bit of a marker for IMS. Once a project within EDUCAUSE (begun in 1995), IMS spun out in 1999 as its own non-profit member consortium.  So, we try to have a presence each year at the conference and take stock. Adoption of IMS standards is exploding across K-20 right now: Common Cartridge, Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI), Learning Information Services (LIS) and Accessible Portable Item Protocol (APIP).

Rob Abel, IMS Global & Derek Hamner of Learning Objects Talk IMS Revolution

It’s been interesting to see the evolution of IMS over the past few years at EDUCAUSE from a techie topic to now a strategy topic as well. As the world economy slowly recovers, digital content and apps make their way into education, and a growing wave of excitement and investment in new companies and products, some of the institutional leaders are asking the right strategic question: how do I better serve my customers in this new world

This year at EDUCAUSE for the first time (in the next several years I expect) we began referring to IMS as a “revolution.

One of Three IMS Revolution Banners at EDUCAUSE 2012

In my humble opinion, it is the type of revolution that education needs: one that solves some immediate tactical issues, improves efficiency from day one, but also puts in place a strategy that enables better service from IT to the end-users in this increasingly digital and mobile world. Most importantly it is a revolution focused on impact of technology in improving the success of the teachers and students.

It’s helping to enable and catalyze change in education that IMS Global is most interested in – but, we are interested in sustainable change. Change that is not a fad or blip in the long history of educational institutions, but rather a new foundation. The specific change we’re interested in making happen is to drive the time and cost of integration of innovative digital content and applications in the education space as close to zero as it can get. If we do that – as an IMS community – many good things follow: a more open market, more innovation, more expenditures on educational technology versus other less innovative things, less waste on every supplier and every institution “reinventing the integration wheel.”

Here are my top five takeaways from this year’s conference as it relates to the IMS mission – which are based on a combination of things talked about openly at the conference as well as privately:

IMS Adoption is Accelerating

  1. The IMS revolution is viral now with most HED suppliers. We were showing the chart of growth to over 125 IMS certifications issued in the last couple of years and my rough guess is that this is about 50% of the actual adoption of IMS in the market. At this point, if a supplier is not in some way taking advantage of the 10-100x cost and time advantage of IMS (see IMS revolution blog post) – well, they are at a significant disadvantage. It is pretty hard to find an education-focused supplier that is not on board – whether they are actually an IMS member or not.  The suppliers that are not are typically the large “non-educational” companies that have development groups that basically don’t care about education. This category of companies is really missing the boat because with a little amount of work they could really endear themselves to our education market – but it is just the way they are set up: the development organizations within them are focused on non-education needs and that typically means their own proprietary platforms.
  2. CIOs that are "leaders of change" get the IMS value proposition – and because there is a critical mass of them, we will start to see more institutional policy supporting adoption of standards – in fact, we already are. 10x-100x improvement in cost and time of integrating digital content and apps would seem to be a total no-brainer. But, let’s face it, most edu CIOs run more on fear of uncertainty than they do opportunity for making change happen. So be it.  If we needed 100% or even a majority of CIOs to get the benefits of standards and why they actually need to do something about it – well, let’s just say I would have thrown in the towel a long time ago.  IMS has a core group of true leaders, some CIOs and some in executive positions focused on educational technology in institutions that get it and are helping us roll out an initiative called THESIS (Technology in HED in Support of Innovation for Student Success). This program will be a collaboration of leaders to lead institutional adoption. In IMS almost seven years now I have found that any size or type of institution (or school district or state) can lead but it depends on having someone in charge who is capable of truly leading.  It’s the people in charge that matter and not the size or type of institution.
  3. Some apple carts are going to get upset in the short term (1-3 years). This is why IMS is a real revolution. Some suppliers make money from integrations being “difficult or perceived as difficult.” However, once a cat is out of the bag it is hard to put it back in. One way or the other IT is going to become “easy” in the education segments. It has to. Most colleges and school districts – even those perceived as large – are small in terms of technical resources. The users are not technical.  They need simple and easy. The good news is that there is a lot of opportunity for suppliers in making the revolution happen.  But, this is not just a supplier apple cart issue.  This is also a CIO apple cart issue – the one’s that have said to me: “We already have people that do custom integrations, so more efficient integration doesn’t save us anything.”  Oops. Wrong answer! If a CIO or other technology executive is focused on the customer (students, teachers, even administrators), as opposed to their own or somebody else’s job security, they will embrace this change. However, see point #2 above. I can only tell you that this is a change that is going to happen – it’s as predictable as the outsourcing of email was – so, in the longer run embracing and moving with it is probably a better career strategy for all concerned.
  4. There is a lot of concern about the amount of private equity in this marketplace. Everyone seems to get it (somewhat to my surprise, I might say) that private equity firms are typically “not friends of investing in innovation.” All I can say is that ultimately, if this turns out to be true (and I sincerely hope it does not), it will create more opportunity for up and coming innovative suppliers. In either case open standards from IMS are going to play a huge role.  What most people don’t get is that the “giant” suppliers in education are really pretty small. Of the $1.4 trillion revenue annually in the U.S. related to education (2012 estimate), well, only 3% is spent on technology of any kind.   Another way to think of it is that if you looked at the operating budgets of all 4000 universities in the U.S. – it is estimated to be about $535 billion.  Since there are very few educational suppliers or education segment suppliers within larger companies that ever make it to $1 billion annual revenue, well, it's clear that the “big dog” in this market are the institutions themselves. The institutions are really, in the big picture of things, the primary “suppliers” of revenue-producing goods (non-profit, for-profit or whatever). This is an important follow on point to 1-3 above in that higher education institutions are potentially in “control of their own destiny” when it comes to greater innovation and getting technology that meets the needs of teaching and learning. They do, however, need to coordinate to some degree. Reality is that this is what groups like IMS are good for – and in our case I’d say it is all the better because supportive suppliers are around the table. It is the whole community of institutions and educational suppliers that are going to create the future. I hope!  The alternative is Google or Apple come in from the outside and take over.  Think iTunes U equals the primary distribution point for education. What a nightmare! Lock-in is tolerable for individuals, but not institutions.
  5. “Happy talk” keynotes are inspiring, but leave us a little empty after all is said and done: Many points of light do not get us to a bon fire of change! It’s fun to watch the inspirational tweets when someone like Clay Shirkey speaks. Of course, it’s good to feel good and empowered that we can do it! We can be innovative!  We can stick it to the man! Etc. Me too! I’m sure there is a positive subliminal effect from this sort of thing.  A little more sobering was this year’s data from the man with data about higher ed IT, Casey Green, which included the chart shown below that shows a very large discrepancy between the perceived return on IT investment among college presidents, provosts and CIOs. I encourage you to get more information at CampusComputing.net. The one sentence summary is that where CIOs may think they are getting reasonable return on the investment in IT, well, their customers, ah, not so much. The bottom line, IT needs to do better - either in terms of communicating the value or providing the value, or both.  Since few, if any, IT shops are getting more resourced going forward, well, it really is a time to “do better with less.”  Notice I did not say “more” – because this is really about giving customers what they want/need – not about more mindless technology expenditures.   I really don’t know any other way to make this happen than to become less reactive and more thoughtful about where things are going and putting in place a better operational foundation going forward. That, of course, is what the IT leaders involved in IMS are doing – and I’m pleased that our organization has a very clear value proposition and ROI with respect to institutional participation.  10-100x cost and time savings on integrations is a big time “better.”
Campus Computing Survey Data on IT Investment Effectiveness
 

And there you have it.  A lot of this IMS open digital innovation revolution stuff is of the famous “think globally and act locally” kind. There are definitely some things out there that help you (in the singular sense) and help you (in the plural sense). That would be the IMS revolution. The revolution will not be televised.  Made possible by the IMS member organizations.  

Tags:

We’re talking about the IMS Open Digital Innovation Revolution in Education this week at EDUCAUSE 2012 Denver.

Here’s what it is all about:

After several years of IMS community effort (led by the IMS Global Contributing Member organizations), we are now seeing evidence of a 10-100x improvement in the cost and time of digital technology and content integration based on the IMS standards, collectively known as the Digital Learning Services Standards (Common Cartridge, Learning Tools Interoperability and Learning Information Services).

So, at EDUCAUSE this year, we are shifting our communication focus a bit toward institutional tech leaders (CIOs, academic technology, online learning leaders).  Why? So they can take full advantage of the revolution and engage in sustaining the open digital revolution and taking it even further!  See the IMS agenda at EDUCAUSE 2012 here.  (Note: There will be free IMS revolution T-shirts at most events thanks to the organizations that have sponsored the various sessions).

IMS will be introducing the THESIS Initiative at EDUCAUSE 2012 with the goal of helping institutions adopt and lead the Open Digital Innovation Revolution

Since this is a public blog and I don’t have the time to get official permissions I will simply state some of the quotes we have heard in recent weeks from serious implementers of IMS:10x-100x improvement? Yes.

“It used to take us 6 months to do a custom integration – we now have that down to a phone call and will soon eliminate that.”

“Typically it would cost us $200,000 to translate our content to for use in another platform, now its about $20,000.”  

“Over the last 7 years we have done many integrations into our LMS – and the time required per integration ranges from 300-600 hours – with IMS it is down to 5 hours.”

“We made our new LMS purchase pleased to know that IMS conformance means that we will never be held hostage to our course content again.”

“We did an analysis of costs and we have found that using IMS for integration has cost us 8-10x less than our previous approach.”

Folks – this is the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Most importantly, not only is cost and time being saved, but the end-users: students, professors, administrators, are getting a better user experience – more seamless and requiring less manual effort to enter logins and enter data. And, the net-net for more efficient investment in and lower barriers to educational technology innovation is dramatic. Collectively we ALL need to invest on providing great digital education tools - not reinventing the integration wheel over and over and over and over.

Why do we need an “open digital innovation revolution” in education? Several reasons:

  1. In education we do not have 2-3 dominate platform and/or content suppliers that provide everything and therefore you can pick one and go digital (vice Apple, Google, Amazon, Microsoft in the consumer world).
  2. In education we need very efficient IT to support a diversity of teaching methods, disciplines and age groups.
  3. In education many of the most innovative ideas and technologies occur “from the inside out” – the education community are co-creators of the content and the applications.
  4. In education we have one of the most diverse ecosystems of open source software and open content, which increasingly need to come together with proprietary solutions. The future of education technology is not about one way or the highway - it's about diversity of supply sources.
  5. Cost and scale is an issue: Technology really does need to help education and educators become more efficient - wasting time on custom integrations is bad policy

The 10-100x cost and time improvement that the IMS open standards will enable the digital education world in the way that it needs to be enabled to succeed in the ultimate goal: better educational experiences widely obtained.  You are falling 10-100x behind the curve as of right about now.

However, do not fear– adding your product to the revolution actually doable and pretty easy! It actually saves you time and money and does not hurt your brain. We find that 92.6% of brains really like it! (Note: I made that number up – my anecdotal evidence is actually 100% of brains like it!).  And, it’s not too late – in fact, this whole digital education thing is really just starting.

Here is a chart graphing two indicators of the revolution.  One plot is the growth in IMS conformance certifications issued the last few years. As you can see, this is greater than 125 now and an accelerating curve. You can take a look at the plug and play LTI tool catalog here.  The other plot is the growth of IMS members since 2006.

The open digital innovation revolution has very solid momentum!

I think the key points about the IMS open digital innovation revolution for education are:

  1. In the digital age institutions will require much more efficient and effective integration of a wide variety of digital content and applications
  2. IMS open interoperability standards provide an open foundation for 10-100x cost/time reduction to achieve a seamless interface to enterprise systems
  3. IMS standards as an institutional or product strategy radically improve the ability of the education community (suppliers and institutions) to focus on innovation
  4. Your organization can support this work in a variety of ways – helping to ensure its success and accelerate its progress

To the last point, at EDUCAUSE 2012 we will also begin to introduce our higher education THESIS Initiative (Technology in Higher Education in Support of Innovation and Student Success). We will be providing more information on this – it’s a way for institutions to implement the open digital revolution in terms of putting in place a policy and a strategy.  Stay tuned!

Really all that the IMS Global Learning Consortium provides is the place for like-minded organizations around the world – who want to support the Open Digital Education Innovation Revolution – and who understand that to get there a collaboration to remove unnecessary friction and accelerate progress is a good thing – suppliers, institutions, government organizations alike.  If you agree with the stuff in this post, you and your organization should be joining in! And hope to see you at EDUCAUSE 2012 or the IMS Quarterly Meeting the week after (Nov 12-15) in Nashville.

Tags:

Is educational data boring?  You might think so.

But, after attending the White House/U.S. Department of Education DataPalooza event held this week (October 9, 2012) I’ll have to say that I’m a believer in the role data can play in enabling educational innovation. And for governments around the world wanting to encourage positive educational change, you need to consider the important and potentially transformational role data can play.

The event featured a morning of stellar presentations from a mix of government officials (including U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and MC’d by U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park), entrepreneurs and well-established education suppliers.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at the Education DataPalooza 10/09/2012

Organizations that presented included Gallup Education, Agilix, EverFi, Georgia Department of Education, eScholar,Personal, Utah Education Network, Pearson, York County Schools Virginia, Alltuition, Rezolve, BecomeAlum, Knewton, U.S. Federal Communications Commission, Education Superhighway, Mozilla Foundation, and The Manufacturing Institute.

Having interacted with the U.S. Department of Education under the Obama administration for several years now, I have to say that I have been impressed with their ability to bring together leaders and encourage change. This was about as good of a ½ day of thought leader presentations – highlighting real emerging practice – as I have attended anywhere at any time. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that this initiative represents the future of U.S. education innovation.

I’d like to detail some of what occurred, in terms of content covered and then relate it to our work in the IMS Global Learning Consortium.

The Education Open Data Initiative is similar to U.S. government led initiatives in other segments. The major thrust of these initiatives is that people can make better decisions and be served better if they have ready access to “their data” accumulated over a life time. It’s common sense that a patient can make better decisions and receive better care if their medical history is readily available.  Same with education. Seems like a "no-brainer."

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (recently returning from a “Back-to-School Bus Tour”)   kicked things off by challenging the audience to leverage data as a potential  “game changer” for U.S. education.  U.S. ED is doing more than just talking about this – they are actively encouraging it with initiatives like the MyData button, which encourages institutions and suppliers to make personal data (regarding educational achievements) available to educational consumers.

Of course, rarely is data by itself that useful.  It’s the information – actionable information – that is derived from the data – that is what tends to be most useful. So, for instance, using the medical analogy, an x-ray or MRI provide good sources of data for some issues – but both need to be interpreted by a specialist to get the most useful information out of them.

As such, many of the presentations featured applications that use the data, as opposed to the data itself. Where can “data” help the educational process and student success? Here were some of the key areas highlighted at the Education DataPalooza:

  1. Better understanding student interests, progress and productivity in K-12 in order to provide them with the right help at the right time, including helping them focus on their strengths
  2. Helping students connect their interests and curriculum to their career interests, even at a relatively young age
  3. Scaling personalized attention to students (data collection, and perhaps analysis, needs to be automated or semi-automated to help teachers help more students) and allowing them to work at their own pace
  4. Helping students make the right choice in selecting a college that fits their interests, background and budget.
  5. Helping reduce the time and effort required to apply for financial aid and college acceptance
  6. Helping with the movement of students within and across states and between colleges
  7. Enabling the finding of appropriate learning resources (using metadata) available throughout the web
  8. Enabling adaptive testing and creation of unique syllabus / learning plan for every student
  9. Understanding school Internet connectivity issues so they can be addressed
  10. Helping students connect their interests and curriculum to their career to job placement
  11. Enabling “badges” or “competency-based” learning credentials to either supplement or replace traditional college credit – especially with respect to skills that help with obtaining employment

Wow! Feeling a bit overwhelmed? Data is nothing less than the future of education. Which is what made this event so powerful and interesting!

Of course, as Karen Cator (Director of the Office of Educational Technology) pointed out, there is no single magic bullet in improving education, whether it be technology, data, or anything else. And, one of the most poignant comments came from Jim Shelton (Assistant Deputy Secretary for Innovation and Improvement) who stated that while the event was excellent, that the key element to success will be what happens after the event in terms of industry really working together to create a movement of transformation.

What does all this mean for the work of IMS and technical interoperability standards? Well, at first glance it is a complete no-brainer that many of the data connections required to achieve the above goals will be a lot lower cost and easier to make happen if they are based on standards.

Of course, every supplier has “open APIs” – and sometimes they will even refer to same as “open standards.”

But, the value of a “standard” is that it provides the predominant way to do something – when a standard predominates, it takes cost and complexity out of the market –and those resources can be spent on other things – like innovation. 

So, if there is a single, or a few, dominant platform providers, then, yes, they can claim their approach is a standard. In such cases you see the “platform wars” that we are seeing now with Google, Amazon and Apple. But, if you want many suppliers to be able to participate with low barriers to entry – as is absolutely essential in education – then the only viable route are standards at the core of the industry that are evolved and maintained by industry.

So, when a company – say company xyz - says that anyone can access the data out of their platform based on an open standard – well, that is misleading. If xyz wanted to get their approach accepted as an industry standard they could easily work with standards consortia like IMS to do that – and in so doing would relinquish control to the market.

But, should xyz do that?

This is of course an age old (if the technology industry can be considered “age old”) question that has sprung up many times in the past with programming languages like Java, document formats like PDF, and so forth. When does it make sense for industry to truly cooperate on data exchange?  I’m sure if there was a panel of experts at a conference on this question there would be a very robust debate.  My answer would be pretty straightforward:

When a critical mass of market leaders believe that there is more “opportunity” for them if they cooperate versus if they don’t, then they will cooperate.

I put the word opportunity in quotes because in industries like education opportunity does not simply equal more revenue, but also includes institutions themselves being more responsive to their mission.  Will they cooperate via a standards consortium? Yes if the consortium is responsive to the needs of the market. No if it is not.

One way that a standards consortium can be “responsive” to a market is to be out in front of it. That is, the standards consortium can play a role in enabling the market. I think it’s fair to say that IMS had a reasonably significant role in enabling the market for learning/course management systems in education. I think it’s also fair to say that IMS is playing a significant role in enabling a wide variety of digital content and learning tools/applications to be better utilized in the context of the educational enterprise.

So, rather than focus on the data exchanges, as tempting as that is, IMS is more focused on the opportunities that we are trying to enable.  At our annual Learning Impact Conference and Awards Program we have focused for the last six years on the transformational educational delivery models that are needed and the technology that supports them. Some of the speakers at the Education DataPalooza talked about those breakthrough ideas – like helping students focus on their strengths, learn at their own pace, and get motivated by solving real world problems.

Throwing technology at education will not create educational transformation or the movement that nations around the world are striving for.

The role of the educational institutions and educational leaders is so crucial to the transformation that is needed.  There are going to continue to be hangovers from buying the latest platform championed by a few geeky leaders in the hopes that this will create change. And, in a nutshell, IMS needs to bring together the educational leadership community with suppliers of all shapes and sizes to figure out where the mutual opportunities are and standardize the common ground.

There are many areas that IMS is actively working on that directly relate to the DataPalooza key areas listed above.  I’ll give you my perspective on just a few:

  • Using data/metadata to find content. There have been many admirable efforts over the last 15 years to establish metadata standards and several recent initiatives such as the Gates Foundation funded LRMI and the Learning Registry funded by the U.S.  Government. While admirable, and potentially usable, the models behind these of “learning objects in the sky” does not seem connected to any transformative model of education that has been realized anywhere over the last 15 years. Repositories and such have been noble efforts at sharing – with claims of lots of downloads and page views – that have not created much opportunity yet. In IMS we are focused on enabling ANY application to be the source or destination of a search:  And to make it easy for institutions to configure those sources and destinations.  If you’re thinking “we can create our own app store based on standards” – well, that’s right. Perhaps the most important aspect of this enabling the content providers to understand user information and context – which is critical to allowing them to provide the ultimate value to users.
  • Getting useful and usable information out of digital learning experiences. Analytics is a hot topic in almost every vertical industry right now. There were some pretty dramatic claims made by one of the companies presenting at the Education DataPalooza with respect to how their product could collect information across many students and analyze this information in real-time to provide each student with a unique syllabus each day. At IMS we see two fundamental types of data coming from digital learning experiences. The first is the “usage” information. How much are various digital resources used? This may seem unimportant to some – but, as we move from print to digital this is critical information that institutions and publishers need. The IMS e-textbook task force is focusing on this. The 2nd type of data is performance data – how far has the student progressed in their learning? Of course, this is the realm of assessment. More and better formative assessment, learning dashboards, and the like seem to be critical to helping with engagement.  IMS is very actively engaged in working to understand what data the market is willing to standardize on and what they are not wiling to standardize on. IMS has been covering the rise of adaptive tutors/homework applications – subject-specific software that uses data across many users to tailor learning paths and provide better feedback to students and teachers.  Can industry agree on a way to describe student progress? Will the Common Core State standards enable this in the U.S.? I think it is clear that there must be room to support diversity and innovation with respect to understanding student progress. I think a more likely scenario that will enable market opportunity is the encouragement of competing tools that can rapidly assess and recommend learning plans that are vetted by a teacher. Fundamentally, the acid test is correlating learning activities to “performance” on a variety of summative assessments. We have a long way to go before this can be accomplished, but, if doable, this does enable opportunity for market participants.
  • Education and Career Positioning Systems. Many of the products and concepts discussed at the Education DataPalooza fit into an emerging category of products IMS refers to as Education and Career Positioning Systems (ECPS). The idea is very simple – give students something analogous to a GPS but that helps them understand where they are on their educational and career path. Of course, this is easier said than done. If it were easy, it would have been done already.  IMS is currently working closely with the Lone Star College System in Texas and an advisory board of college leaders to understand what data standards will create opportunity in this exciting new area. See call for participation here.   We think it is critically important to work with colleges to bring the ECPS to fruition to enable student engagement and responsibility, as ultimately colleges must be on board for the educational improvements and innovations to be realized.  Again, innovative educational models is what will enable educational transformation. IMS and Lone Star have assembled a set of innovative suppliers that are willing to work on defining the open data standards required. To be effective, an educational positioning system must bring together data from the right set of “satellites.” And, the project is also leveraging the U.S. Department of Education MyData initiative, which already leverages IMS and other standards.  This will become, we hope, a great example of how open data can enable a new product category. And, we hope the availability of open standards will enable many existing and new suppliers both inside and outside the educational enterprise to partake.

In summary, as I have written in other posts, the education industry is one that is still trying to figure out how to best leverage technology.  We are at an infantile stage, both in terms of the technology and technical interoperability standards in this segment.

It is only through leadership of individuals and organizations – cooperative leadership – that we can realize transformation to an industry that knows how to leverage technology for better results. I’d like to thank the White House and U.S. Department of Education and the IMS Member organizations for your leadership on this journey. 

IMS is very good at fostering collaboration, even among competitors, and we have a crucial role to play.  

Tags:

Personalized learning, closed loop learning, instructional improvement – it goes by many names but the core goal is the same – match educational resources and experiences to better fit the needs of students and teachers working with those students.

IMS has been working with a leading set of U.S. school districts and suppliers to put in place interoperability of digital content and apps in educational settings that can reduce the friction of making closed loop learning a reality.

There has been a couple recent announcements from large suppliers to the U.S. K-12 market that are notable because this means that the IMS standards will soon be in a majority of districts. See SAFARI Montage announcement and Compass Learning announcement

Leading suppliers, while realizing that they are cutting into a source of revenues for custom integrations, are also realizing that the wasted effort on such integrations is literally holding the industry back.  If every automobile had custom tires and custom mounts for tires it would really slow down the adoption of automobiles. That is what is happening in education today. Luckily, leading suppliers are getting this and voluntarily moving to IMS.

But, there is also great benefit to the school districts and higher education institutions.

In fact at a recent IMS meeting – August 2012 – New York City Department of Education – largest school district in the U.S. serving over 1 million students – said that they had calculated a savings of 8-10x per integration by using the IMS standards in iLearnNYC. But, this is not just for large districts. In fact, the greatest potential is in smaller districts who can not afford the IT expense associated with product integration and maintenance.

So, at one level this is simply about removing cost – both in terms of dollars for custom integrations and the unnecessary “clunkiness” of having myriad products and platforms that are all standalone. If we want digital education to be “better” than paper education, well, both of those barriers need to be removed.  At this level the IMS standards are all about enabling a digital education revolution (or evolution if that is how you would like to characterize it).  Basically you “Don’t  want to go digital without leveraging the work of IMS.” It will be too costly, not user friendly and ultimately be perceived as more difficult than what you had prior with little or no gain in results.

Getting standards in place as the foundation of a market (as opposed to just one alternative) requires leadership. Folks like to point to the Web and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) as an example of where standards are at the foundation of a market. It would be difficult to imagine “web bowsers” and “web servers” as possible without the W3C standards. It took some strong leadership to make the web happen. Well, the challenge for the education segment in terms of leadership are even greater in that the web was a new market opportunity from scratch. Education is an existing market that is used to operating without standards. To change a market to being based on standards is a tall order!

Examples of how two K-12 districts in the U.S. are leading is documented nicely in this Tech & Learning blog interview with Keller Independent School District and Forsyth County Schools – see A New Acronym in Education: LTI, Part 2.

But, sometimes standardizing on ball bearings not just takes cost out of the equation but also enables a focus on more innovative things. There is that little thing that all nations around the world are focused on: Getting better educational results.

The clear trend is toward instructional improvement, personalized learning, closed loop learning, analytics, big data, open data, open content, open source, etc. etc. etc.

How is this all going to happen without standards?

For one thing, districts are going to need to leverage content across many forms of  systems: e-Learning platforms, collaboration software, classroom video platforms, interactive whiteboards, instructional management systems, professional development systems, assessment systems, e-books, e-Portfolios and a wide variety of learning tools on a wide variety of computing devices.

For another thing, ditto with respect to getting data out of all these applications and to a place where it can be synthesized rapidly for the benefit of the student.

Well, if you look at the suppliers who are getting IMS certified,  including the latest set if LTI tools and platformsyou will see – for the first time anywhere – the type of mixture of products that need to work together to enable the closed loop learning scenario of the future.

Is this a breakthrough? Absolutely!

This is a historic collaboration across suppliers in the education marketplace that has been enabled by great leadership from the 75 institutions, districts, states and government organizations among the IMS membership.

Where does it go from here?  See a recent interview with Tech & Learning to read more.

The nicest thing about this collaboration is that so many districts can literally just “wake up and smell the roses” and benefit from all the great work of the IMS members.

Districts can also join in explicitly via our Instructional innovation through Interoperability Leadership Committee (I3LC).  This is the community of like-minded district leaders collaborating on how to lead the revolution while receiving help from IMS (the first step is understanding how to best gradually evolve to standards to fit your situation and learning how to ask for the standards in a way that guarantees the results you are looking for).

Tags:

Well, they're out there live:

The new Learning Tools Interoperability Web Pages

Why did IMS put these out there?

1. It's Summer and we're tired of vacationing (not really - we really need more vacation)

2. We wanted some pages about LTI that were less "IMS speak" and more down to normal human propeller head level

3. We wanted a cool catalog like thingy that showed what learning platforms (consumers) and tools (producers) were out there and IMS certified (meaning that they have passed our tests and willing to work with IMS as a neutral party if there are any integration issues) more clearly than our master conformance certification table. I was recently at a meeting of the University of California ETLG where we discussed the need for such a thing and enhancements the community could make to it . . .

4. Extensions: We are aware that there are quite a few very useful extensions out there that need to be folded into the specification and conformance. We wanted a place to collect those.  This will be a major topic of discussion at the upcoming IMS meetings in August in Ann Arbor - all are invited (also having a great LTI implementation workshop there  - really about implementation - not Dr. Chuck's LTI life story :-) which of course we love but we figure everyone has heard now ). We will be compiling a list of products and the various extensions they support as we rev LTI version 1.

In short this is a series of pages that we hope will help people rapidly understand LTI and begin to implement it - as well as for certified suppliers to some space to show their wares to the growing community of LTI advocates/adopters.

Enjoy!

Tags:

For being dead (by some opinions) LMS’s are looking very alive after BbW12 ;-)

This week Blackboard had a record attendance of 3500 at Blackboard World in New Orleans. I think we can infer that the LMS is not yet dead!

At times it seems that the learning technology industry - especially higher ed - is loaded with pundits who have been saying for at least the last 5 years that the LMS is dead or dying and that Blackboard is about to go out of business. At IMS we work with over 100 suppliers and perhaps 10 or less are suppliers of LMSs.  I have explained elsewhere that the LMS is not dying – this market shows more signs of just beginning to take off rather than dying. But, there is a much bigger fish to fry.  It’s the $25 billion U.S. dollars a year spent on paper learning materials.

Michael Chasen also announced at the conference xpLor – a content and application repository that enables sharing of same across multiple platforms – Moodle, ANGEL, Sakai, Blackboard to start.

The growth of the “LMS” (which elsewhere I have commented is a very bad name for the segment) and learning technology segment in general has been epitomized by Blackboard – growing into arguably the most successful education technology company on record to date.  But, the other leading suppliers in the education space are growing as well.

In this post, I'll explain my thoughts here about how xpLor, Blackboard's leadership in standards and the coming revolutionizing of the learning technology market are all intertwined through the oft assumed to be "somebody else's thing to worry about" interoperability standard(s).

Much, if not all of the expenditure on paper books and such is going to convert to digital. Now, if you think that is going to happen without widespread adoption of interoperability standards – you’re not thinking straight.  What’s more, there are a myriad of new online tools being developed to support learning – you can see some of them here in the new IMS LTI developers catalog page. This is an emerging market that has lots of growth potential. The story of "going digital" in education will be the story of standards adoption.

As I have commented elsewhere, the education/learning segment is at the very beginning of figuring interoperability out. But, we are making outstanding progress.

I work with suppliers of all sizes everyday trying to get them to understand standards and suggest to them strategies for interacting with standards organizations. This requires a lot of work because many people and suppliers in this education/learning space simply “don’t get” the concept standards. That is because, in my opinion, we have an existing marketplace with existing practices that simply have not been able to realize high value from standards. We also have the typical “protectionism” of executives who are worried about not being able to lock in their customers. Hopefully we are beginning to get past this phase. The facts are that standards lift up the entire industry – they help “you” – the individual supplier – by helping “you” – the entire industry.

Widespread implementation of standards at the core of an industry eliminates huge cost that is wasted on reinventing the wheel from the supplier side of things – not to mention the wasted custom integration and transition costs from the institutional implementation side. Imagine what the world would be like if everyone made custom ball bearings in every mechanical product?  How far would we have come? Imagine the world without the Internet and without the World Wide Web – because that is what we would have without standards and the standards organizations that are a mechanism for industries to pool resources to put in place the standards that everyone can build upon. If you have great products you benefit when the whole industry is lifted up. I have pointed out elsewhere that the educational technology segment definitely needs such a lift - the segment invests about half the amount in technology as other critical industries.

Standards that change industries do not occur without leadership – especially when we are trying to break and remold an industry culture and vested interests.  Ray Henderson, who came to Blackboard from ANGEL and to ANGEL from Pearson is one of those leaders who completely gets it. He gets that without standards a new market, such as technology to support digital education, is generating “a lot more heat than light” (that is actually a quote from Ray to me from many years back). Ray has been a strong advocate for IMS standards all along the way. But, let’s be clear, Ray has leveraged standards as an effective business strategy, too. Both ANGEL and now Blackboard have gained customer support through leadership in standards – being first to market, being most aggressive in obtaining conformance certification and being aggressive in terms of making technical contributions.

Customers like open standards - and they will reward suppliers for putting them in place. So, I say to the many large and small suppliers out there that have not yet figured out how to leverage standards in this marketplace – you need look no further than the record 3500 attendees at Blackboard World this last week. If you are a leader of a learning technology company and perhaps still don’t get this – let me illustrate further.

By most accounts from the conference, xpLor is a breakthrough product.  If you’re thinking “app store for education” – well I guess that is one way to think about it. Another way to think about it is as a cross-platform learning object repository. Such learning object repositories that really deliver have been elusive - despite lots of investments by states, school districts, universities, university systems over the years. One of the reasons that xpLor is a breakthrough is that it supports the new world of educational content – which are not just downloadable coursepaks or learning objects – but rather web-based applications and tools of a wide variety to be “plugged into” the core platform (LMS, portal, etc.).

Now, Blackboard just announced the acquisitions of Moodle service providers Moodlerooms and NetSpot and bringing onboard Chuck Severance (closely tied to the Sakai community) in March.

So, how did this new capability get in place so fast in Blackboard?

If you are an industry watcher and you are not asking that question - well, you are not watching closely enough!

Well, for one thing, this product was under development by MoodleRooms prior to the acquisition, led by Dave Mills. MoodleRooms also had a team of folks formerly with ANGEL, including Kellan Wampler and Phill Miller, who were instrumental in the leadership of the ANGEL product, and are now at Blackboard via the acquisition.

But there are also the IMS standards themselves that made this possible, namely the Common Cartridge and Learning Tools Interoperability standards upon which xpLor is based. Dave, Kellan and Phill were all deeply involved in both these standards throughout the years.  According to LTI evangelist and guru Chuck Severance – who himself has had a major role:

"@LearningImpact Yes - Dave Mills *is* a genius. xpLor is the first learning platform to use CC and LTI as the core unifying idea." @drchuck

 

It was these standards that made this cross-platform interoperability possible, not to mention the rapid integration with Blackboard. And, if you’re thinking this is some sort of diabolical plot by Blackboard, think again: Instructure, Desire2Learn and a wide variety of other leading open source and proprietary platforms worldwide, from giant publishers to one person developers, are implementing these standards.

Now, all of this definitely bodes for a different future for the “LMS” platforms indeed – one that is more about providing a framework in which diverse sources of digital content and products can come together. However, I’ve been pretty surprised that many who seem to get that this also seem to think that this is going to somehow unseat the LMS providers. Au contraire! Why?  Because of the IMS standards - and the aggressive adoption by the leading providers of those standards.  It is the IMS interoperability standards that are making the future of the open distributed learning platform possible - and, yes, it is happening.

The announcement of xpLor is one more data point/reality check. And, news alert, there are other suppliers, like SAFARI Montage and Desire2Learn, who are using the same IMS standards to do similar things – but with an underlying basis – standards – that will serve to lift up the market and make this sort of “app store / LOR” pretty common place in the next five years.  In fact, there was just an announcement from New Mexico State University about a new thing called the SoftChalk Cloud, somewhat of a similar concept to xpLor - which integrates with Instructure how?  Via the same IMS standards!

Since the market has been trying to establish capabilities over and over again through various investments, repository products and standards for more than 15 years now without success – well, then IMHO we are indeed at a notable watershed moment.

My thanks to the many IMS faithful around the world over the years who have made the current events and future possible! There are literally 100’s of people and organizations that have been involved in CC/LTI. We are now up to over 110 conformance certification issued for these to specifications – and really we are in many ways just beginning.

It is your leadership that got us here.  You know who you are.

And I’m always looking for more people and organizations who want to help lead this quite revolution – if interested please contact me.

Tags:

Recently I was part of a very large panel at a national assessment conference in the U.S. – lots of folks from state departments of education. The panel was discussing the importance of interoperability standards with respect to the U.S. Race to the Top Assessment (RTTA) program - a $350 million project of historic proportions meant to reshape summative assessments in schools. The project is lead by two large consortia of U.S. States: PARCC and SBAC. IMS Accessible Portable Item Protocol (APIP) is on the road to adoption by both of these consortia.

It was a great panel – very supportive of the need for technical interoperability standards to support the next generation of assessment. It officially lasted for 90 minutes – but went on for another 15-20 minutes after that because everyone was so interested and enthusiastic. Unfortunately, due to the size of the panel (I think there were about 10 people all told, representing various perspectives: states, RTTA consortia, standards orgs, suppliers) there were many issues brought up that were not clarified or resolved.

One of the issues brought up by the moderator and reflected on by several of the participants was one we frequently encounter, namely:

Standards have a lot of benefits, but do they limit innovation? 

This is very important question in the adoption of standards for educational technology. We are just now beginning to understand how learning works in the human brain and what sort of teaching practices will take education to the next level. Learning as a science is infantile. The last thing we want to do is stifle the ability to innovate with respect to the application of technology to learning.

It turns out that the answer to this question is pretty easy. The answer is "it depends on the standard - some standards do limit innovation, others don't."

If a standard creates a “one size fits all” way of doing “something” when there are many innovative and competing ways to do that “something” – then the answer is “yes” – such a standard limits innovation. In my mind, this is a bad standard (discussed further below) because they actually create more harm than good.

But, if a standard creates a common “platform” that the market can innovate “on top of” then the answer is “no” – such a standard does not limit innovation. Probably one of the best examples of good standards that have enabled innovation are those that underlie the World Wide Web. These standards (developed, maintained and evolved by the World Wide Web Consortium - W3C) have enabled widespread interoperability of textual/graphical information on the web – but have also enabled untold innovation built “on top of them.” In fact, the W3C standards themselves built on top of the standards that enable the Internet.

I like to say that bad standards that limit innovation “overreach” – they try to specify too much and force the world of “suppliers” (i.e. creators of innovative technology writ large) to do something one way when the users would benefit from a diversity of approaches.

Do we have examples of  “bad standards” in the educational technology space that limit innovation? In my humble opinion, absolutely we do - in fact we have had many. Which standards are these? Well, I don’t have any desire to get embroiled in arguments with parties that have their turf to protect. So, I will decline to name any. However, there are several tell tale signs of such standards. The first and foremost is that they set a high bar for suppliers while at the same time providing very little real value to the end-users. So, the type of statements you hear from builders of products is: “We had to do all this work to implement such and such standard because the RFP asked for it and then when the system was actually deployed that functionality wasn’t used at all or there was a much better alternative way to achieve it.” Standards like these become what some call “checklist standards.” Procurement officers have learned to ask for the standard whether it is needed or not and suppliers have in turn learned to do what they need to do to “check it off” in the RFP response.

One of the artifacts of “bad standards” is they create a culture of what I like to call “standards or.” This is where the supplier says “well, I can give it to you in the standard or I can give it to you our special way – which is better than the standard.” I would say that this has been the predominant culture in the education segment the last 10 years (even though we’ve had tons of “standards” published).

If it seems to you that it might be challenging to get to a “good standard” that does not limit innovation, then I would have to agree with you. How does one set the ”bar,” so to speak, for what is included in the “platform for innovation” without “overreaching?”

To make a long explanation short it comes down to the ability to work with the marketplace to see what can be widely agreed upon while at that the same time pushing that envelope just far enough to provide clear value to both suppliers and end users. A good interpretation of the statement “provide clear value” is usually “make it easier to do something we want to do.” 

A “good standard” as described above not only does not limit innovation, it actually enables and accelerates innovation by several means:

1)   A very large distributed global community can build innovative stuff that can all work together – providing greater choice to end-users both at initial time of purchase and down the road when considering switching

2)   A lot of unnecessary cost (money and time) is saved by reducing or eliminating all the custom development and integration that formerly went into the mechanisms now provided by the standard – those savings can now be invested in more innovation

3)   A community is formed that is actively engaged in a cooperative effort to build, maintain and evolve a foundation that expands (1) and (2).

Together these three factors create kind of a “lifting up” effect for an entire industry. That is, they remove friction and create cooperation that collectively accelerates innovation.

Number (3) is especially critical for the education segment – and it is especially important for education institutions to be part of the community. As I have posted elsewhere, the educational technology industry is in its very early days – kind of where electricity to the home and electrical appliance industry were in 1900 or the automobile industry was around 1910. Adoption of technology in the educational space will be shaped by the evolution to the next generation of education. Assuming that leading institutions will be drivers of this evolution, then they are the authorities on what it means for a standard to “provide clear value” and on what it takes to “make is easier to do something we want to do.”

Our secret code phrase for this evolution to the future in IMS is “Learning Impact.”   We see it as something that is jointly concocted by institutions and suppliers working together. Obviously some of that “working together” will be between individual suppliers and individual institutions. But interoperability standards is one area where the more participants the better. In fact, it is absolutely essential that the “right” participants be at the table and that they be motivated to bring as much expertise and prior work as they possibly can.

So, the vision for the IMS Global Learning Consortium is straightforward.  It is to be the community that does for educational technology what the World Wide Web Consortium did for the World Wide Web.

And, just like the W3C built upon existing Internet standards, so too IMS is building upon W3C and other existing standards. I’d like to thank the many IMS member organizations around the world today that are helping to achieve this vision on a daily basis.

Now, if you buy into this vision and want to be part of leading the “lifting up” effect that good standards can bring to our segment, here is how you can help.

We need to create a culture shift that will lift up our industry. To do this we need to get into a mind set of “standards plus” rather than “standards or.”

By “standards plus” I mean standards “at the core” or as the foundation platform to build upon, just as the W3C standards are the platform upon which the World Wide Web is built. This means you should be looking to your suppliers to tell you how they are conformant to the IMS standards and use them at the core of their products – not as “one option” but as the baseline that they then innovate on top of. Again, just like the W3C standards provide a baseline for innovation in the World Wide Web.

The switch in mindset from “standards or” to “standards plus” changes the standards discussion from one where the technical characteristics dominate to one where the community working together to collaborate to increase innovation dominates.

Surely, the technical characteristics of the standard do matter. The standard must deliver on interoperability in a way that is at least as good, if not better, than other available alternatives.  But, it is very difficult to get to a high quality technical standard without the community working together. Working closely with the marketplace to get to “good standards” as discussed above requires very good and timely feedback.

A “standards or” mentality greatly reduces feedback. A “standards plus” mentality greatly increases feedback because it puts the onus on all the market participants to get the platform right - which can only be accomplished through strong community.

If you want to bring some leadership to this party, please contact me at IMS. We can discuss how you can help.

In conclusion, good interoperability standards greatly enable and accelerate innovation – they do not limit innovation.

Furthermore, I don’t think it’s difficult to tell when a standard achieves this bar because they have a clear enabling effect on the marketplace. Case studies appear that show that things that used to be hard are now easier and that doors that were once closed are now open – both from the institutional and supplier perspectives.  We’re seeing a bunch of case studies like that in IMS right now. So, things are headed in a good direction.  The primary risk I see in achieving our vision is the “culture switch” needed in the education segment and especially among the institutions themselves. Full benefit of interoperability standards in education will require a culture of leadership beyond what we have achieved so far. But, as I have gone on record before I think we will do it!  

Tags:

Takeaways from Learning Impact 2012 – Part IV

(Note: You may wish to visit the previous post in this series to get a summary of what was said by the panelists at the 2012 Learning Impact LMS Smackdown - this provides some background upon which the analysis below is based).

A. Would an LMS by any other name still smell as __________ (fill in the blank)?

When I came to IMS (over 6 years ago) I was very perturbed with the frequent use of the term LMS (Learning Management System) to describe products like Blackboard, WebCT or ANGEL in the IMS community. In my experience, these products were all Course Management Systems – they helped faculty manage courses – they did not manage learning in any way. Yet, the prevalent use of the LMS acronym in IMS caused me to eventually give in and use it as well – although I always felt the suppliers were making a mistake to let themselves be in a named category that spoke more to their deficit than their value. Naming of your category according to the value it brings is a really important (if not critical) aspect of product marketing.

Desire2Learn uses the term “Learning Platform” - and Michael Feldstein is also using that “category” name as describing the future of the LMS versus today’s enterprise systems.  Learning Platform is a nice broad term but it has a similar issue to LMS in terms of accuracy. Is what Desire2Learn sells really a learning platform? I would argue that the term “learning platform” has a very student-centric connotation – an LMS where the learner is in control. It connotes something that the learner owns and, therefore, probably pays for. Not today’s model. A very interesting and good model for the future – but not today’s model.

All-in-all I think this year’s IMS LMS smackdown confirmed that the perceived goal of this product category is to improve teaching and learning. This is the product category that has the expectation to do that. The problem is, as Curtiss Barnes from Cengage pointed out, these are big shoes to fill. Our understanding of the science behind how to improve teaching and learning is quite limited. We are just beginning to understand how the brain works. Learning is something we all do, and we all manage, but it certainly appears that no one has cracked the code on how to ensure better learning. Of course, Adrian Sannier’s (Pearson) point is that cracking that code is a very discipline specific endeavor that products like MyMathLab, working across a large number of institutions, have the best chance at solving.

On the other hand, there are strong arguments that at least a portion of being a better teacher has to do with the teacher being better organized and being a better communicator with students. The LMS appears by all accounts to be a product that if used well by the teacher improves the student’s experience via better course organization, ability to time shift, etc. And, the LMS has become the backbone for higher education online learning – which has grown at a 25% annual growth rate, touches about 25% of all students and is continuing to grow. For instant, we have been talking about “flipping the class time” for years – i.e. putting the expository learning materials online, asking the students to spend time on it outside of class, and then using the class time for more discussion, application, etc. This enables greater time on task and greater engagement with the material in a “problem-solving” mode. This is a great example of a delivery model that we know works better and where the LMS can play an important role. If I was an LMS provider I would be laser-focused on how to make “flipping the class” really. Really easy to do and effective in my product.

Every year we ask if the LMS is dead. And, every year Adrian Sannier tells us that it is – his point being that it is becoming commoditized because it is not improbing learning.  From my perspective, the LMS is definitely not a failed product category, dead, or even dying.  We don’t see higher education institutions dropping the LMS altogether. They may be replacing it with a new brand – but they are not saying, “Hey, we don’t need that LMS-thing.” U.S. K-12 is also now beginning to pick-up on LMS-like features, creating some opportunities for the LMS platforms, but also creating additional questions about where does it fit in a K-12 enterprise that has other products with greater market share, such as professional development and instructional management systems (yes, IMS’s – the instructional management system name/category actually did stick in K-12 although it’s not what the higher ed folks in the early IMS envisioned).

On the flip side of this we try to determine if another new product category is showing signs of overtaking the LMS. The answer to that question is clearly ‘no’. As an example, e-portfolios or e-portfolio-like systems remain a niche product. To break through to the mainstream they need better integration – probably with the LMS. Categories that have broken through – such as classroom capture – have made seamless integration with the LMS a key attribute. But, nothing has emerged as the replacement for the LMS.

All this to conclude that the good news for all the providers in this category (and therefore the buyers as well) is that the LMS is still growing in importance in terms of its ability to improve basic organization and communication. The importance of mobile is a great indicator of that. And, probably most important, the LMS has become the main integrating platform for the course-specific tools or content that will have, hopefully, eventually be the key to improving that learning experience. For a long time now I’ve expected to see the student systems or portals start to challenge the LMS as the primary integrating platform, but, so far they have not. This has been a big win for the LMS providers and a key reason why I think the term “enterprise” will remain important in the value proposition for the foreseeable future.

However, I agree with other pundits that the naming of the category will be important going forward. Taking on the mantle of “learning platform” is a good position – it is the high ground.  The “learning platform” would be the campus application that is probably of greatest value in terms of relevancy to the institutional mission and touching more stakeholders more often than any other system. But, being a learning platform is also difficult to deliver on. Suppliers will need to think carefully about how to position their products going forward – and what “learning” capabilities they can actually deliver on. Buyers will have to think carefully about what functionality they want, how they are going to be able to plug it in and how they are ultimately paying for it.

The bottom line is that the LMS, arguably the only billion dollar market cap software industry that has ever arisen in sole service to the needs of teaching and learning, is strong and, quite frankly, the star in terms of enabling institutions to “go digital,” at least for the time being. Most estimates have the LMS market in education growing at 25% per annum - a very healthy rate.

B. To be bloated or not to be bloated? Is that the question?

Do you prefer separate fax, printer, copy machines or a multifunction device? What combinations of products make up an office software suite and which ones fall outside that category? Was it obvious in 1996 – the heyday of Yahoo, AOL, Alta Vista, etc. – that Google would come along with a product focused purely on making search easier and better and dominate the market? Why did LMS become its own category and not just get subsumed into the SIS or campus portal? Some thought it would.

The coupling and uncoupling of products – and the extent to which they make sense and make life better for the users/buyers – are critical to the development of markets. Designs require tradeoffs – there is always some penalty (usability, cost, complexity) for adding additional functionality.  When your product appeals to more kinds of users it has the potential of turning off one category of users to please another. If you turn off a large segment of users – well, you have just put yourself out of business.

The issue of what constitutes the core functionality of the ‘LMS’ category is a key question. Can this core functionality be achieved at lower cost? Is an LMS with additional features of higher value? Is the value in the bundling from one supplier or am I better off getting this functionality separately?

Google disaggregated search from the bloated search portal and changed the world. However, Google also brought an entirely new business model and a patented technology that was difficult to replicate (focused on creating economic opportunities from search).

OpenClass from Pearson definitely seems to be challenging the combo features model by offering a simpler starting point. In some sense, there is nothing new here in that major education publishers have long had simplified, hosted LMS’s for faculty to use for their courses when using digital content from the publisher, albeit not connected to the enterprise in any way (for instance, McGraw-Hill PageOut). The difference with OpenClass is that it is being sold at the institutional level, not as support for individual faculty. OpenClass also strives, I think, to take advantage of other “free” apps like Google. So, the question is can this combination provide higher value than the existing LMS providers?

One can definitely look at various moves by Blackboard including the launch of the free CourseSites and moving into open source services as trying to meet the market with a less premium, more unbundled offering. But can the challengers, namely Instructure Canvas and Pearson OpenClass, win by coming at this issue with a core set of functionality that is hosted in the cloud and easier to use? An important consideration is if the new comers have a business model that works: will providing less for perhaps a lower cost actually be less expensive to provide and therefore allow them to stay in business? Outsourcing of hosted email and app suites to Google or Microsoft is subsidized with deep pockets from other sources of revenue.

Instructure has yet a different strategy which is to say that there is nothing wrong with features per se, but that the usability of the LMS must be better. Instructure has probably benefited the most from the uptake of the IMS standards as this has supported an open standards-based plug & play strategy for tools from the get go - whereas the leading LMS’s have been retrofitting standards like LTI, Common Cartridge and LIS into their stacks. That’s the wonderful thing about open standards from the buyer’s perspective and why institutions should be requiring open standards and supporting organizations like IMS – they do make it possible for new comers more easily enter a market.

The discussion of what are the core features, of course, also relates to pricing. When any product category establishes a common denominator of features that all competitors support then commoditization potentially begins to take hold. Clearly Pearson thinks a free OpenClass alternative is a good strategy for Pearson. However, in the world of marketing, rarely, if ever, does attempting to commoditize your competitor’s product help your product succeed, unless you can bring a radically different business model.  Are publishers ready to aggressively bring or buyers ready to accept a radically different business model in higher education, such as the “pay for performance” at IMS member Western Governor's University? Maybe – it will be interesting to see – but probably not. More likely publishers will be forced into business models such as this over time (see post on where e-textbooks are going <link>).

Bottomline here is that I think Instructure has a lot of this right.  It’s about making technology easy and productive. I haven’t been following Instructure too closely and I can’t verify their claims, but, I’m impressed so far. What I’m impressed with is that they seem to be breaking through on the LMS cloud model to the enterprise. eCollege (now Pearson Learning Studio), Eduprise and a few others had pioneered the hosted LMS model prior to the turn of the century. However, the focus on that hosted sale was largely the distance learning office. Instructure appears to be truly breaking through in terms of pushing the advantages of this model in a way that the many other “hosters of the LMS” – pretty much every provider does this now – have not. The other thing that Instructure has brought to the fore is an open source model that is more tightly controlled (I guess kind of what MoodleRooms was attempting with Joule, but obviously could not exert control over the Moodle community). There appears to be value in this model as well – especially as it relates to enabling institutions to customize tools, modules, etc – something a lot of universities or even faculty seem to want to do. The question regarding Instructure is whether they have a sustainable competitive advantage? It certainly appears that this strategy can be replicated by either the proprietary systems on one side or the open source platforms (Moodle, Sakai) on the other. And, actually Blackboard can play both sides of that strategy now with their recent moves to support Moodle and Sakai.

So, in conclusion – bloated or not bloated is not the issue – ease of use is. Going digital needs to make life easier for faculty and students – otherwise it won’t happen. If you are a supplier and are not focused on “easy” you need to reconsider.

C. Parts is parts? Revisiting the infamous “immature product in a mature market.”

Hey, if you want to or need to put oil in your car or buy an oil filter you have a lot of choices. Depending on the importance you place on such things you may want to get the premium product or not. If you don’t know much about it you may just take the advice of whomever is there at the time to advise you – the guy in the auto parts store or your mechanic.

Although there are clearly innovations occurring in the “car engine oil” segment, I’d characterize this segment as “mature,” meaning that no one is perceiving an investment in a car engine oil brand as a major growth opportunity – there may be price appreciation over time and nice returns on such an investment, but the market is not going to double in the next 5 years.

At this year’s Learning Impact I was struck by the potentially very high value of the ‘parts’ (tools, content, new features/functions) that the LMS providers are talking about. The items highlighted, such as analytics, mobile, discipline-specific high value content, even improving the user interface – do not strike me as ‘small’ tweaks of low value. They strike me as high value if done in a way that can change behavior to affect retention, graduation rate, etc. There are of course other add-ons/tools that were not discussed but generally perceived as important.  Things like classroom capture, e-portfolio, assessment tools and a wide variety of digital content alternatives (like e-Textbook - see my analysis).

I spend a lot of time in the K-12 segment and I would say similarly that the sort of innovations school districts and states are looking at around the world are not “low value.”

Also, the annual spend on printed educational materials in the U.S. alone is something like $25 billion.  I think it’s pretty clear that over the next 20 years that stuff is all going to convert to digital. Assuming that those dollars are going to be associated with better LMS’s, well, I guess I’m pretty bullish on the growth prospects. The LMS market could easily double in the next 5 years if focused on addressing customer needs as they go digital. Therefore, this is not a “mature market” by any stretch of the imagination (as somewhat famously characterized by our friend Casey Green’s seminal characterization for a few years now, for example see http://www.campuscomputing.net/new.html ).

But, a key strategy question for all the LMS providers, as well as institutions, is whether they are better off getting the “LMS provided parts” or other “3rd party parts.” For instance, attending the LI conference was a representative from an up and coming visualization software company, not primarily focused on the education segment – but they have some pretty impressive products. Is every LMS and content provider in education going to invest in building their own visualization software as the drive to better analytics continues?

Parts are not just any old parts if they bring high perceived value. If you’re a buyer do you want your high value tools, applications, content all from a single supplier or from a variety of suppliers?  If you are a supplier should you be investing in a particular tool or partnering with the market? There are a range of strategies that are possible on both sides of this equation. Certainly Blackboard and Pearson have acquired several parts providers (such as Blackboard acquiring Elluminate & Wimba).  But in doing this they usually want these parts to work with other platforms so they can be sold into institutions running those platforms. Who will emerge as the best providers of these parts?

I think the educational technology market is more like the market for high fidelity audio systems in the 1960s (another analogy I like to use is the market for electrical appliances around 1900). In the 1960’s you could buy the “all-in-one” stereo, radio, TV console system. This was a cool breakthrough at the time because it brought a sophisticated listening and viewing experience into many homes for the first time.  It wasn’t very clear how this scenario would evolve.  What ended up happening was that the various parts turned into their own segments – each becoming more and more innovative – with an evolution from analog to digital. This was made possible by the willingness of the buyers to spend for greater sophistication and the technical interoperability that enabled different types of products to plug together to form an integrated system. This home entertainment scenario is still evolving today with Apple’s now famous achievement of breaking into this market as a computer manufacturer.

So, I would characterize the educational technology market space, including LMS’s, as an immature product in an immature marketplace, just as the console systems in the 1960’s were immature, but so was the marketplace.  The buyers could not see where it was all going in terms of home entertainment. As per the discussion above, the buyers of educational technology are in a similar situation. The LMS as it exists today is just the beginning of where this is going.

One of the things that is very gratifying about the Learning Impact conference is that we had a goal of creating an experience for the attendees that would allow them to see what was happening in the market that were not easy to see elsewhere. In that spirit, I’ll summarize the bottom line here with two quotes from others attending the conference that were made privately to me:

“It’s obvious that all the LMS providers are primarily becoming integration platforms.”

“It’s obvious that the world’s of learning platforms, content, assessment and analytics are converging.”

We are at the very early stages of institutions understanding all the components (parts) they need, much less in the conversion from print to digital. There are not only opportunities for parts suppliers but also for providers with vision to change the game, much as Apple did.

Should be even better next year! See you there if not before.    

Tags:

Pages