Thoughts on Emerging Standards for the Educational Cloud

I recently attended an IMS Quarterly meeting in Utrecht, Holland, where delegates engaged in some lively discussion on the development and adoption of technical standards for learning in the “Educational Cloud”.  Questionmark takes a keen interest in conversations like this because we believe that community-driven standards are the key to the success of our Open Assessment Platform.

IMS is short for IMS Global Learning Consortium, one of the major organizations involved in technical standardization in the learning, education and training (LET) sector. Technical standardization relates to the technology we use for LET, including Questionmark technologies. Questionmark worked closely with IMS on the creation of the Question and Test Interoperability specification, known as QTI.

The quarterly meeting combines the technical work of the consortium with a number of open meetings where community members share their adoption experiences and  identify areas where future work might be needed. The meeting in Utrecht was hosted by SURF, a Dutch organization that promotes the adoption of technology standards.

The immediate benefits of technical standards are typically those of interoperability: a content format like QTI makes it easier to move content from a specialist authoring system into a delivery system. In turn this gives users more choice of tools and promises faster integration projects. The goal of the IMS is increasingly focused on highlighting the connection between these immediate benefits and the overall organizational goals of improving learning.

This approach contrasts with the way some standards bodies do their work. The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), for instance, has been very successful in getting standards for the internet adopted despite a much more hands-off approach. The IETF publishes a large number of technical proposals in its RFC series and concentrates on ensuring the basic quality of each document. Adoption is left to the community, and many ideas get no further than this stage.  Arguably, IETF is successful because it exposes ideas openly at an early stage and allows the best solutions to emerge on their own.

IMS works more closely within its membership, drafting in private before publishing and promoting what they now refer to as ‘standards’. It is changing from a technical-workshop body (more like IETF) to an organization centered on standards, conformance and promoting adoption.  As a result, we increasingly need to look elsewhere for early-stage technical work. For example, Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) started outside IMS and has only now moved inside to aid standardization. LTI has the potential to obviate LMS-specific plugins and provide a long awaited replacement for SCORM and AICC’s launch and track model.

The meeting closed with a participatory session loosely modeled on the debating style of the British Parliament (complete with cries of “Hear! Hear!” and “Shame!”). The subjects of the debate were whether we should design standards and whether or not openness would lead to chaos.  There was general agreement from the largely Dutch audience that designing standards was wrong and that openness would not lead to chaos.   Despite the light-hearted nature of the discussion, its theme was serious, and it will be interesting to see how the IMS community’s technical development model evolves.

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