Dr. Rob Abel is CEO of the IMS Global Learning Consortium, a nonprofit collaboration of universities, school districts, government organizations, content providers, and technology suppliers. It has been described by Learning Solutions magazine as an international organization that develops open standards for communicating information and for application compatibility in the field of education. To demonstrate his interest in education, he has a fistful of degrees: a Doctorate in Educational Leadership and Change from Fielding Graduate University; a Masters degree in Management from Stanford; a Masters degree in Computer Engineering from the University of Southern California; and a Baccalaureate degree in Computational Physics from Carnegie Mellon University.

What technological methods is IMS using to simplify learning processes?

The IMS community has developed open interfaces to make it easy to connect software applications that support teaching and learning.

In the 1995-2005 timeframe, most educational institutions moved into the web era. Along with the adoption of web technologies came the adoption of various software “platforms” that have become the hub for teachers and students to gain access to digital course materials and tools. While this was a step forward (and in some segments, such as U.S. K-12, we are still relatively early in the adoption of such software), each of these “platforms” was quite isolated or siloed.

So from 1995 to today, educational institutions have been adopting digital resources, tools and apps, but linking them has required about six months on average. Six months of time and resources turns out to be challenging for most institutional information technology support organizations, especially if you consider that integrations often need to be reprogrammed when a software application is upgraded.

This has led to a common scenario in educational institutions, where there may be good adoption of some software applications, such as student information software, learning management software, classroom response software, classroom capture software, assessment software, library software. But these different software applications are rarely integrated in a seamless fashion for the users: Teachers, students, and administrators.

So IMS gathered the sector participants around the table and said, “Is there a common way that we can connect all these applications to exchange useful information and also make switching among these applications seamless for the users?” And, the answer turned out to be “yes.”

From 2010 to today, IMS has granted conformance certifications to 280 products and 25 platforms (the “hub” applications for teachers and students) that use these common techniques. We call this the open digital innovation revolution, because it is indeed a revolution, for both the users and the suppliers. It opens up a whole new world of connectivity and reduces the fear and trepidation historically associated with adopting digital technology in education.

What led you to create the Learning Impact program (which consists of awards, conferences, and reports intended to help organizations use technology in learning), and how has it helped education systems?

IMS is a nonprofit membership organization where some 240 organizations from around the world need to cooperate to advance educational and learning technology. So, of course, the question arises, “What exactly constitutes advancement?”

In education especially, a lot of the technology adoption has been more to learn about the technology than technology actually improving the overall teaching and learning process. The result is many questioning whether technology can actually improve the educational process or is it just technology for technology’s sake?

So, “Learning Impact” became the stated goal of the IMS endeavors. The staff came up with the idea in 2006. We define Learning Impact as improving the access, affordability or quality of education. We look at technologies that are coming on the scene and we evaluate them based on actual deployments and actual learning impact. This keeps us focused on the target, and it also helps us understand how the sector is likely to develop.

With the focus on Learning Impact, we have a very good hype filter in IMS.

What role do you see technology playing in education in the future, and what challenges are there?

If we think of “education” as a lifelong endeavor that is closely connected to one’s personal journey, it is clear that the role of technology needs to enable more personalized, customized, individualized educational experiences. This is not a new idea. In fact, it is the oldest form of education: one-to-one tutoring intricately tied into life experiences.

The problem, of course, is that personal tutoring is difficult—if not impossible—to scale. Therefore, the role of technology in enabling the next phase of education is to enable scale, but in a personalized way. Most likely, this means providing teachers, tutors, administrators, counselors, students, and parents with better data than they have today, as well as a richer set of alternative educational resources.

Indeed, through the Learning Impact program, we have seen some great and diverse examples of innovative educational models with the educator as the “guide on the side” providing a more customized educational experience. We have a long way to go, though, as there is more than a hundred years of culture fixated on the old models. For instance, the hype around MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) is an interesting phenomenon, as MOOCs (so far in their evolution) have been about the old model of “sage on the stage”—and therefore not personalized or customized.

Thus, in our minds, the biggest challenge is cultural. Societies and nations need to think outside of the box and encourage diversity of educational models and be willing to experiment with some new rules and definitions in terms of what constitutes various levels of education. After all, knowledge has grown substantially since the creation of the current models. We need to be brave in this brave new world and consider what we need to teach and what we can stop teaching.

In the U.S., the Gates Foundation has invested massive amounts of money in what is largely “driving by looking in the rear view mirror”—that is, trying to perfect old, worn-out models, rather than invent new models. These investments may bear some fruit, but we feel that greater investment in more innovative models is needed to get education to the next phase.

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