Bending Towards Openness

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When called upon to reflect on open standards in the ed tech industry, I’m compelled to start with an observation about my own experience of in the early years of the current industry expansion. As an executive at Pearson circa 2000 I became active in developing the IMS Common Cartridge, a foundations level open standard for content interchange between systems.  The company was rapidly scaling digital product strategies and busily picking low hanging fruit available in those early days.  Charged with scaling our technology infrastructure forced me to think more deeply about the future, and the market landscape that would emerge as we and our kin in publishing continued in our direction while learning platform technologies growing up around us reached their full potential.  The more one squinted into the future, the more one saw the chaos to come for educator and vendor.

Naturally, competition did its work and in a very short time the publishing industry experienced its Cambrian explosion of digital products.  And naturally, those first-generation products were utterly proprietary, incompatible across subject areas even within the publishing firms developing them.  Add to this the market context that early LMS players were in the largest land grab ed tech had ever seen, with more than a dozen viable platforms emerging globally, and you begin to sense what those of us there at the time felt. 

The future was bright on the one hand—but chaotic and confusing on the other.  It’s turbid times like these that offer proprietary strategies oxygen.  They can provide a comfort amidst confusion, and they have market force to organize activity around their orbit.

I played some minor part in this, making the first arguments in support of what is today the IMS Common Cartridge specification for content interoperability.  I routed a basic specification for the idea and convened a secret meeting at O’Hare airport with my peers at the major publishing houses.  There had been some initial skepticism, especially about Pearson’s intentions by making the first proposal.  But as we gathered it quickly became clear that some set of forces brought the room to quick agreement that we must act soon. 

For some of the smaller players it offered them a more economical path to market, as standards would lower their costs to satisfy demand.  For larger players, there was some form of enlightened self- interest at play as the consequences of doing nothing were slowing market development.  And perhaps most importantly as I look back on it, rather than starting a new foundation focused on publisher related standards, we agreed to bring this project to the IMS Global and strengthen what was at the time was more of a seed than the sturdy oak it’s become.

Ray Henderson. Photos by: AFP Kelly Wikinson.
Ray Henderson. Photos by: AFP Kelly Wikinson.

Since that time this positive pattern has occurred repeatedly. The momentum established behind IMS Global has proven quitesustaining, and they’ve become a true convening authority for open standards.  They’ve added mightily to the list of participating institutions—with virtually the entire ed tech industry participating in their activities, and with numerous additional standards added.  Every quarter there’s another, much larger instance of that O’Hare meeting playing out. Only it’s no longer secret—as major vendors and the most innovative educational institutions in ed tech now send established representatives to this open standards congress on a quarterly basis.

While each operates with an agenda, and their conflicts, I’ve come to see that the same pressures that we felt at O’Hare are felt today.  Progress is needed.  At since no single set of corporate desires can prevail, we instead have informed individuals solving problems and reaching compromises together.

MLK made famous an inspiring quote — “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”  Adapting that optimism, I’ll suggest that we see “the arc of the industry is towards openness.”  While some arrive at this table with a fear of corporate control, and others with a fear of market stagnation without them, somehow what’s emerging is preserving openness and etching it into the landscape of industry practice.

Practical illustrations of this phenomenon now include basic systems interoperability with LTI, aka IMS Learning Tool Interoperability.  Its impact has been enormous, and I now routinely see startups that launch that credit their existence to this industry burden of systems integration having been removed from their core innovation.  And with content and tool interoperability now in place, the industry focus is now shifting to sharable standards for learner data, a very strategic area at all levels of education.

A first step in the path to coherence is to align interests between corporate training and their XAPI/TinCan standard with the IMS Caliper standard developed for Higher Ed, and others in K12.  It appears the right people are convening across standards orgs, getting into the same room. I’ll predict if that continues to happen, it won’t be long before we get a coherent and open standard for learner data transport.  This will be a great accelerator for developing analytics tools and ultimately instructional insight into learner progress and what drives it best.

Finally, I must share my enthusiasm for open standards development for education credentials. There’s been much written about the unbundling of education, the development of micro-credentials, and their positive benefits for learners and workforce development.  Liberating one’s credentials from granting institutions and managing them understandably recurs often in learner bill-of-rights dialog. 

The Mozilla Open Badge standard has emerged as a flexible schema to describe education credentials and common transactions at all levels. Noting that they too have recently teamed up with IMS Global—adding another room near the gathering of our industry’s best minds—gives me real optimism about its future potential.  More futuristically, MIT Media Lab has recently released a related standard for credentials described by Open Badges for their permanent storage on the Blockchain. This brings digital credentials to a global level of distribution, with a financial markets level of permanence and transactional integrity.

Everything I’ve described above has occurred from conception to acceptance 15 years, from the open standards themselves to the development of IMS Global as an international clearing house for the industry to sustain these developments. 

And while some lament it might all have happened faster, which is doubtless correct, it’s not such a long time given the limitless runway ahead for ed tech.  Nor, for the avoidance of what might have been had we not convened the industry when we did to anticipate what the future might look like.  May those at the vanguard of industry conventions continue this tradition on behalf of us all, and may the long arc continue to bend towards openness.”

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