Rob Abel of IMS Global Shares How Interoperability Can Help Both Teachers and Students
As education technology advances, there are always steps that can be taken to make technology faster, more efficient, and even more compatible with other technology products.
According to Rob Abel of IMS Global, a non-profit collective working to advance edtech interoperability, there’s a reason “interoperability” is such a buzzword.
“IMS [has] been working on this for about 20 years. Interoperability is a general act of exchanging information through really any means, where standards are agreed-upon ways to exchange information,” says Rob.
Interoperability and standards can help achieve trends and ideas in the education world. According to Rob, it’s important that standards suppliers team up with educators to help achieve these goals.
“The crossing of the boundaries between K12 and higher ed, and actually higher ed and workforce, is really one of the most interesting trends going on in education in general,” he says. “And so that allows us to develop standards that help enable that that those barriers to be overcome.”
Listen to our interview with Rob Abel, CEO of IMS Global, to learn more about how interoperability can improve education experiences for both teachers and students.
Hannah Nyren: Hello. This is Hannah Nyren with EdTech Times. And today I’m speaking with Rob Abel. How are you doing, Rob?
Rob Abel: Doing good, Hannah. Thank you.
Hannah Nyren: So Rob, just for anybody new here, can you tell us a little bit about IMS global and what you all do?
Rob Abel: Sure, we’re a nonprofit, member-based organization and what we do is try to advance Educational Technology through collaboration between school districts universities and suppliers. So, we’re well known for advancing what most people would call interoperability standards. Which are technical standards that allow different types of products to talk to each other and work with each other.
Hannah Nyren: Interoperability has been the buzzword of the conference, is it always the buzzword of the conference or is it even more than usual?
Rob Abel: Pretty much here interoperability is always the buzzword of the conference. It’s an interesting word because it’s become much more of a mainstream market word in the last few years. Of course IMS have been working on this for about 20 years. So we’ve known interoperability for a long time. But we also develop community standards that have come out of the market sector developed by the market sector and supported by the market sector. Interoperability is a general act of exchanging information through really any means where standards are agreed upon ways to exchange information.
Rob Abel: It’s the standards that give you the scale because of all of the market participants are using the same standards, then they can count on others using them and they don’t have to do any type of special purpose interoperability.
Hannah Nyren: Right, so the standards are really the building blocks of interoperability.
Rob Abel: Right. Well, they’re the most efficient way to do interoperability. With software you can almost always do some kind of interoperability, right? Because it’s a question of changing the software on one product and the other products so that they can talk to each other. This is commonly called API: application programming interfaces. All products have a price. But the world of standards, what we’re trying to do essentially is to get all the products to use the same API, that’s what standards are right?
Hannah Nyren: And so how long have the IMS standards been around?
Rob Abel: 20 years there’s been there’s been some IMS standards. It’s really been over the last 10 years that they’ve really started to ramp up. There’s a standard called learning learning tools interoperability which is very, very popular. Another one called One Roster.
Rob Abel: The growth of IMS is a membership organization kind of reflects this. In the last 12 years we’ve had a lot of growth of about six or seven of those years, it’s been roughly 20 new members a year. But the last five years has been 50 new members a year. So that’s been — that new growth spurt, so to speak — I think is directly connected to the fact that it’s standards like LTI and One Roster. We have something called caliper analytics are really becoming very, very popular in the marketplace .
Hannah Nyren: And by members do you mean institutions?
Rob Abel: Yeah, it’s a mix. It’s a really interesting organization because a lot of the standards organizations and other sectors are mostly just suppliers. But in education it’s absolutely essential to have the educational institutions involved because they’re the experts in education, right? IMS actually started from an institutional perspective. Because it was a long time ago, 20 years ago, a group of hired institutions formed IMS and then the suppliers came in later. But we have it at the voting level membership and almost it’s a complete 50/50 split between suppliers and institutions. And it’s also a split — 50/50 split between K12 and higher ed.
Rob Abel: So, it’s a very very interesting mix. And as we’ve talked about here at the conference, the crossing of the boundaries between K12 and higher ed, and actually higher ed and workforce, is really one of the most interesting trends going on in education in general. And so that allows us to develop standards that help enable that that those barriers to be overcome.
Hannah Nyren: Certainly, and it’s great you’re giving everyone a seat at the table.
Rob Abel: Yeah I mean, you know, the word standards is used a lot. The word interoperability is used a lot, like I said it’s almost become like a marketing theme now in the last few years. But you do have to be a little bit careful because, you know, almost anything could be called a standard. And you could argue that anything that is used a lot is a standard, because the goal of a standard is ubiquitous adoption.
Rob Abel: But there are different ways that standards get developed. Sometimes large organizations develop an API and they’ll turn it into a standard because there’s such huge market share. Like Google or whoever, right? And there are examples of that. But in the education field we don’t really have that dominant market player that just dominates the field. So the nice thing about IMS is our standards actually come out of the sector. They come from the industry participants. And those are truly sector owned and governs standards, which is much better than some of the other situations we have. Because when the other situations we have in the education space as an organization has a much smaller following. Or even sometimes it’s a single organization with a few technical folks and they’ll publish something and say it’s a standard. Well, that’s very different than a standard that’s come from 460 members of IMS, right?
Rob Abel: So, that’s important to know, especially since that membership base and the revenue base, you know, when we say members, they’re paying dues. And we’re self funded through membership dues that we’ve been growing substantially. So. we’re very sustainable as an organization. And that’s important in standards, you want to invest in standards that you know will be widely used. Not just now, but well into the future and we’ll evolve as the needs evolve in the future.
Hannah Nyren: Great. Thanks for filling me in on all that, I’m sure our audience will appreciate it. I know we’ve spoken with you before, but I think that being at this conference, I’m really immersed in everything that IMS does. And it’s much easier to understand how everything is interconnected and how all the work they’re doing is really built to support teachers and students.
Hannah Nyren: So, there are a couple of things that you’ve announced prior to this conference and I want to discuss those a little bit. But first let’s go back to some of the building blocks. Can you define LTI?
Rob Abel: Sure, LTI is for those who understand what a single sign-on is, you know, and the ability to launch a tool and handle the log in details, you know, kind of under the covers, LTI is kind of like a single sign-on on steroids.
Rob Abel: It establishes an ongoing connection so that there can be trusted communication back and forth including results and so forth of what the students are doing.
Hannah Nyren: And it stands for learning tools interoperability?
Rob Abel: Yes, learning tools interoperability.
Hannah Nyren: So, what is LTI advantage and how is it new?
Rob Abel: Well, LTI by itself is probably the single most successful standard in edtech ever. There are literally thousands of products that have implemented LTI, a few hundred of which are certified by IMS. But you don’t have to be certified by a mess to implement LTI, so it’s been very very popular. What LTI advantages is kind of the next phase. So, what it does is it adds a few additional features for that connection that I mentioned in terms of certain types of data that can move back and forth, that will actually tremendously improve the teacher and the student experience.
Rob Abel: So for instance, it completely handles passing the roster information so that you can actually roster a tool. It handles all that passing back of ongoing scores or grades that might occur. And also allows a certain technical term we call deep linking, which basically means that the teacher can be pretty creative about how they use the access to a specific tool in LTI accessing directly to a certain portion say of an ebook or a publisher content using deep linking. And so all of this is designed without being too big of a lift, because you can’t make standards too difficult. If they’re too difficult and they’re not going to be implemented. And through years of market feedback we determined that that this set of additional features is very important. And we’ve added some some very, very industrial strength security on both sides.
Hannah Nyren: Right, and security is a huge issue now that we have so much data and we can learn from that data but we have to make sure it’s not lost in translation somewhere.
Rob Abel: Right, and we’re also — a more advanced feature which isn’t in in the basic LTI advantage package now but that we’re working on is actually being able to characterize the privacy aspects of any tool in terms of what data is actually getting passed and so forth. And what that tool does with that — so it will basically become part of the spec in the future.
Hannah Nyren: So what kind of organizations are joining the early adopter program and how will this affect adoption at scale?
Rob Abel: Yes, so the other really interesting news about LTI advantage is that it’s been highly coordinated between suppliers and starting out higher ed institutions.
Hannah Nyren: That’s what it takes, isn’t it?
Rob Abel: Yeah, but it’s very interesting because the original LTI has been so successful, we really had to go to each supplier one by one. And the key suppliers are the learning platforms, because once the learning platforms en mass implement a standard then all the tool providers implement it. Because then the tool providers save a lot of money, because they can do the integration one time and it works with all the different learning management providers. The original LTI took a lot of kind of almost incremental one by one adoption. And we eventually got critical mass and then the tool side took off.
Rob Abel: In this case, we’ve got at least in terms of the higher ed platforms, you know, Blackboard, D2L, Sanvas, and Moodle all lined up and implementing at the same time. And at this conference, we’ve actually introduced a commitment letter essentially that’s being co-signed by the suppliers. Which of course don’t only include those LMS’ but we have some 15 or 16 tool providers that have also agreed to be early adopters. And then we’ve got, you know, IMS has almost 115 universities that are members, we call them our Executive Council, who have also signed this letter.
Rob Abel: So, you’ll start to see LTI advantage in the higher education marketplace in the fall and slowly start to ramp up from there. By this time next year, my guess is we’ll see, you know, a couple of hundred if not more tools implementing LTI advantage because it’s such a great advance from where we are today. But as I said, it isn’t too difficult to do.
Hannah Nyren: That’s not a bad turnaround.
Rob Abel: Yeah no, that’s I mean. We’re very, very happy and in fact it really was our institutions that led the charge for LTI advantage. They were the ones that were the first at the EDUCAUSE conference last October. They were the ones that kind of made the pitch that said, “this is what we want, we’re going to call it LTI advantage.” And then the suppliers came from there you know.
Rob Abel: And so it’s really the kind of thing we need in education because we need the value to the end users, right, as we’ve talked about over and over again at this conference. Interoperability doesn’t mean much if it’s not providing value to end users, right? And so it certainly looks like everything’s on the right track for LTI advantage. And I also believe some of the suppliers that have signed up and are also looking at it are also K12 suppliers because the same benefits apply to K12. The only reason this was driven by higher ed first is because higher ed was kind of the leader in LTI, so they’ve kind of taken this to heart to start out. But I think we’re going to see a pretty rapid adoption amongst the K12 learning platforms and the K12 tool providers as well.
Rob Abel: I can’t really predict the timing on when IMS produces a standard. It’s more than just releasing a standard. We’re actually releasing all sorts of code libraries and so forth that make it easy to implement the standard. So, for instance, we have what’s called a tool provider already implemented. An open source tool provider that really anyone that’s building a tool that wants to use LTI advantage can actually leverage and use as a framework to put their tool into an LTI advantage — the kind of infrastructure.
Hannah Nyren: How long has that been around?
Rob Abel: It literally just happened this week that we we confirmed that it works. I knew we had it in development for the last two or three months. But there was a hackathon going on, you know, in parallel with this conference. And I was just told actually out in the hall that they’ve got it working for three or four different organizations. So that’s proof point that it’s actually working now.
Hannah Nyren: We’ll have to check back in next month to see how many people are using it. So how is the LTI advantage and what you’re doing right now being incorporated into the programming at this event? I know we’re at the IMS Global Learning Impact Leadership Institute, and everything seems to be about interoperability and your mission statement. So how is this new initiative being incorporated into your programming?
Rob Abel: Yeah so as I mentioned there is a hackathon going on, and that hackathon is primarily focused on LTI advantage. But also, we put LTI advantage in the general category of Next Generation learning platforms and the standards needed to support that. So there’s a track all about that as well here. I think we have crossed close to 100 sessions here, and I’ll get it wrong, but it’s either 7 or 8 tracks something like that, and that’s one of the tracks.
Hannah Nyren: So beyond that, what is the One Edtech Ecosystem initiative? I know that you’ve recently released some news surrounding that. So, can you explain the One Edtech Ecosystem Initiative and how it will make learning and teaching easier for students and educators?
Rob Abel: Yeah, so we have another standard, it’s called One Roster. And it really originated out of the K12 marketplace. And what One Roster is all about is making it very very easy for school districts to control the release of the roster information to all the different digital apps that they’re using.
Rob Abel: And it’s a standard way to do it. So, that means that in the past what they had to do — every district had to worry about how to take their data and mung it into some format that each tool could use. And all the tools used different formats including the big publishers. When I say tools, I mean the big publishers like HMH and Pearson and so forth. One Roster changed all that. It came about two years ago and basically was supported by the entire IMS community and said, well, now we’ve got a standardized way to do this. We’ve made tremendous progress with One Roster and One Edtech is actually more expansive than One Roster.
Rob Abel: Essentially what has happened is something that I don’t think has ever happened in the history of ed tech standards before. Which is that a group of them, the largest publishers, came to us, came to IMS and basically said, “Well, we’re so into One Roster, that’s the only way we want to do rostering period. And you know what IMS, we’ve got we’ve got some variability in the marketplace. We’re willing to invest money to help us reduce that level of variability. What should we do?”
Rob Abel: And we spent about a year looking very closely at what IMS could do that isn’t going to compete with something that’s in the marketplace. Because we don’t want to compete with other suppliers in the marketplace. We want to be supportive and help the market grow.
Rob Abel: And we came up with this idea of One Edtech. And what One Edtech is is we call it a registry and a connection service. So it’s basically a way to characterize the school district implementation of One Roster and and all the school districts. And also characterize the implementations of all the different product suppliers, so that we can get very, very high levels of interoperability using one roster. And then it will become basically like a switch, like a big switchboard, where essentially essentially if you’re product supplier you can connect one time and then you can connect every other district on the other side.
Rob Abel: It’s going to take us two or three years to get to that kind of nirvana state but because there’s some technical work that needs to be done. And then once that connection is made make a direct connect between the district and the supplier so IMS isn’t actually playing around with operational data or anything like that. And the business relationship between the district and the product supplier is the same as it would be today. So we’re not creating a new catalog or an app store or anything like that. We’re basically creating a switchboard that provides very rigorous testing and characterization to make sure that we will get interoperability.
Rob Abel: We don’t see a reason why, you know, that there should be an ecosystem for every platform. So, if I’m using class link or clever or whatever, my launch system might be some mess those should not be unique ecosystems. So, the reason we’re saying one ecosystem is because we believe that the integrations with apps — first starting with one Roster, but it will also soon be supporting LTI — that should be a uniform way to integrate across any platform that might be in the school district or in a university for that matter.
Rob Abel: And the the other thing that One Edtech is providing is, I mentioned the industrial strength security that LTI advantage will have, well there’s a certain management aspect of that. Basically the One Tech registry and connection service will handle that and make it easy for them to implement that so that they don’t have to implement it from scratch.
Hannah Nyren: And how is this connecting everything else that you do? How do they all connect?
Rob Abel: Well, the One Edtech is really interesting because it is kind of the next generation I think of standards implementation, right? We’ve gone from paper-based standards that everybody had to read, then we started adding some code libraries and certifications and that’s kind of what we have now.
Rob Abel: Now once I go through those steps, use the code libraries to do the certification. Now I can connect to One Edtech, and if I pass that testing and I can get that characterization, now I know who I can connect with on the other side. And basically every single IMS standard, I could go through the entire list but take something like Caliper Analytics, which is which is a standard that is a standardized way to collect data about what’s happening in learning activities. Well, you could argue that the exact same thing if you’ve got some sort of data repository that’s accepting data using Caliper and or a tool that submitting data about Caliper. You would want EdTech switch to kind of be in the middle of that at the beginning of the integration process to prove that they actually are implementing the standard the right way.
Rob Abel: Why is that so important? Because if they’re not implementing the standard the right way, you don’t really get one of the main values of interoperability, which is choice. You can choose that if you don’t like your analytics platform, you can go with a different analytics platform, right? Unlike what we see in the commercial world. So, in education what that means is that we have to make sure that all the products, the analytics companies as well as the product companies, are implementing the same analytic standards and are actually implementing it to a standard. So that if the university or school district wants to make a change they can get their data they can get their data back.
Hannah Nyren: That’s really important for education. You don’t need more obstacles getting in the way of making things better.
Rob Abel: It’s critical. I’ve been in this field, the technology field, and working on standards for a long time. And I do see naïveté, you know, sometimes especially amongst some of the newer companies and so forth. Because I do see some coming into the education market and trying to implement some kind of platform strategy that is like a Facebook or it is like a LinkedIn or what have you. And I feel sorry for them, because you know that’s what they learned. That’s what they were taught when they went to business school. That’s not going to work in education. I’ve tried to explain to them because I was a high tech corporate guy and then the first half of my career and then I got involved in education. And this is not going to work in education.
Rob Abel: The universities and the school districts already know that that is not the way that they can do business. And so you got to think differently if you want to be a good partner supplier in the education sector.
Hannah Nyren: Well, next time I see startups trying to pitch that sort of thing at a hackathon or something else on them straight to you.
Rob Abel: [Laughs] That’d be great! I Love talking to entrepreneurs actually because I’ve been an entrepreneur myself and this is a difficult sector.
Rob Abel: It’s a beautiful thing when you have a real partnership between those that are transforming education and those that want to provide products that help that happen. And that’s kind of really what IMS is really all about. I mean, we could say, you know, we’re about standards, we’re about interoperability. But really it’s a place where we have a very serious collaboration. Where we’re building stuff together. Where there’s a high ROI for everyone, so we don’t just talk to each other. We actually build stuff together that lifts up the whole market and that’s the whole point.
Hannah Nyren: Alright, well thank you for speaking with me. It’s been great. I’ve learned a lot not only in this conversation but also at this conference. And can’t wait to learn more about what’s going on with standards today.
Rob Abel: Alright, thanks Hannah, really appreciate it.
Mariel is a Boston-based freelance writer and audio producer who has covered news, technology and innovation for public media groups including WBUR and WGBH. Outside of work, she performs and writes spoken word poetry and voraciously reads true crime novels.