Learning Tools | Feature

LTI Standard Promises a Kinder, Gentler LMS

Learning Tools Interoperability is helping both IT and faculty turn the learning management system into a more seamless, fluid platform.

It's taken years, but the learning management system as we know it may finally be outgrowing its name and original function. With the growing acceptance of the Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) standard, the LMS -- once a huge central platform that tried to serve up every function any institution could ever need or want -- is becoming smaller and more fluid, with content flowing in and out via many third-party tools.

Currently in version 1.1, but with 2.0 on the horizon, LTI provides an open, standard way for third-party tools to connect to any LMS. And with LTI connectivity, IT departments and LMS administrators -- and eventually students and faculty themselves -- can implement a wide range of outside software without leaving the LMS. The LTI standard is now part of every major LMS (at least the most recent releases), as well as most higher ed tools and content vendors, and it is accepted by more and more institutions.

"The LMS is not going to be all things to all people," said Kevin Reeve, an enterprise architect at Utah State University and an early proponent of LMS connectivity. "It originally was going to do everything and have everything," he said, as faculty and institutions requested more and more features that LMS vendors scrambled to provide. LTI is changing that, allowing institutions to simply connect with the ample tools and content already available.

As LTI acceptance grows, "the LMS may actually have less functionality than it has today, but that's OK," said Instructure co-founder and Chief Learning Officer Brian Whitmer, a big LTI supporter whose Canvas LMS is leading the LTI charge. "It's not about which tool has the most features, it's about a seamless learning experience."

Streamlining IT's Workload

The idea of extending the LMS platform to link with outside tools isn't new -- Blackboard Building Blocks and WebCT PowerLinks are examples of software written for that purpose. But those work with one vendor's platform only. LTI, as an open standard, avoids vendor lock-in: If a school migrates to another LMS, existing third-party tools that are LTI-compliant will continue to work with the new system without tinkering.

Penn State University (PA) took early advantage of LTI with its Blackboard Angel LMS. The school's unique relationship with Blackboard enabled the university to alter the Angel software several years ago, according to Terry O'Heron, interim senior director for teaching and learning with technology, building an IMS-certified LTI-compliant interface before Blackboard itself did.

Penn State has used LTI to integrate a range of third-party applications with Angel, including Panopto; the digital storytelling and collaboration app VoiceThread; anti-plagiarism software Turnitin; and an asynchronous learning tool called YouSeeU that can be used for online student presentations and discussions.

And, as O'Heron pointed out, when Penn State eventually moves from Angel, the fact that its next LMS will certainly be LTI-compliant will ensure a much smoother rollout. Courses in Angel using LTI-integrated third-party learning tools can be moved to the new LMS without needing new software connections built by IT. "It will make the migration much less resource-intensive," O'Heron said, "and much more seamless."

It's a similar story at the University of Central Florida, which moved from WebCT Vista to LTI-friendly Canvas in 2012. According to Associate Vice President Thomas Cavanagh, LTI compatibility wasn't specifically behind the move, but some method of easy integration between the LMS and outside applications was an absolute must.

His programming staff finds LTI useful for "a variety of integrations we want to do, whether it's a publisher's content or a tool," Cavanagh said. "And it's been easier than using PowerLinks in WebCT Vista."

UCF has built a number of third-party tool integrations using LTI, including core functions such as lecture capture tools and McGraw Hill Connect. It's also created some custom LTI-based integrations as needed by instructors or schools; Cavanagh cited an app built to allow the business school to connect from Canvas with Wall Street Journal content.

"It's not to say we couldn't do [integrations] in the past," Cavanagh added. "LTI has just enabled us to do it a lot more easily." Although UCF does sometimes encounter learning products that don't offer LTI, "it seems like most of the big players in the space are starting to accept LTI as a standard," he said.

LTI 2.0

While LTI 1.0 was mostly focused on supporting single sign-on from within an LMS, according to Rick Johnson, VP of product development and sales engineering at VitalSource, LTI 1.1 took the next logical step, enabling a two-way conversation and enabling outcomes -- such as a grade -- to be returned from the tool to the platform. LTI 2.0 builds on that, allowing more complex interactions between platforms and tools. With LTI 2.0, for example, publishers can create a business model in which e-textbook content can be supplied through the LMS to a list of specific students all at once -- those registered for a certain course, for example. Another plus of LTI 2.0 will be richer mobile interactions.

Looking beyond LTI 2.0, an active working group with representatives from all the current tool providers and tool consumers, as well as leading schools and K-12 and other organizations, meets regularly to keep the standard alive and current. "It's one of the few standards in which so many different types of communities are participating," Johnson said.

Easy Integration for Faculty

While the build-once, use-everywhere approach makes life easier for IT, LTI also appeals to faculty who want to implement learning tools without getting IT involved. Depending on the LMS and the tool (there are different levels of LTI compatibility), an instructor can typically integrate something as big as YouTube or as small as a specific piece of software for one class, without asking the IT department for help.

"LTI is a huge success story," according to Rick Johnson, VP of product development and sales engineering at VitalSource, the e-textbook platform of book publisher Ingram. "It's been successful because it solves the problem for schools of, ‘How do I pick something new that I want to use … without dealing with the IT backlog?' "

At Utah State, Reeve currently teaches a hybrid course on HTML and uses the video capture program Panopto. "With Panopto integrated into the LMS [via LTI], I just go into Canvas, click the record button, and when I finish recording, I hit a button to publish, and it pastes the link right there for students." That cuts out a long list of steps and "makes it very simple for me as an instructor," Reeve said. "The turnaround time is a lot quicker."

The two programs integrate seamlessly. "It appears that I'm bringing content into the LMS, but it's really still sitting out there on the cloud. Students don't even have to know that they're leaving the LMS," he added.

Instructure maintains an LTI directory of compliant applications at edu-apps.org, listing over 125 apps. Included are familiar names like YouTube, Khan Academy, Twitter, WordPress, McGraw Hill Campus, CourseSmart, Ted Ed, Wikipedia and DropBox. Some apps require an administrator to install them, said Instructure's Whitmer, but others are designed for a user to plug in to the LMS themselves.

A list of both platforms and tools that are certified LTI-compliant is maintained at www.imsglobal.org/lti/ by IMS Global Learning Consortium, the group that has patiently created and helped move the LTI standard forward for years. There are different levels of LTI certification -- vendors put their software through IMS's set of automated paces to gauge their product's LTI compatibility, resulting in a compatibility score.

Benefits for Tool Providers

Tool providers working in the education space have little reason not to provide LTI connectivity, since becoming LTI-compliant is fairly simple. A vendor familiar with Web services can comply with the standard fairly quickly, according to VitalSource's Johnson, who said "we are huge believers in LTI."

Building to the LTI standard can actually save vendors time, in Johnson's experience. Five years ago, he recalled, a custom integration done at VitalSource for a specific college or university took six to nine months of back-and-forth. Over time, that timeframe dropped to weeks -- but with the move to LTI, "we can bring customers online with just a phone call," said Johnson. Setting up the LTI link is usually simple, but depends on how it is implemented on both ends. To set up a Blackboard-VitalSource connection, for example, a new customer clicks through a few simple screens to exchange security information and is ready to go, Johnson said -- and LTI 2.0 will make that even simpler, establishing the trust level automatically.

Virtually every LMS that VitalSource works with, including proprietary ones, is now LTI-compliant, Johnson noted. The rare exception is platforms that are sometimes used as an LMS but that aren't really intended for that, such as Microsoft SharePoint (which is not LTI-compliant).

The LTI growth market now is K-12 and corporate training, Johnson said, as vendors are seeing the standard's clear benefits in the higher ed market. "It's an education standard that's really moving the marketplace."

The Evolution of a Standard

The path to wide adoption of a standard is a delicate balancing act requiring agreement among competitors, each of whom must see an advantage for themselves in adoption. In the case of LTI, first LMS vendors, then tool and content providers, and now institutions, are gradually seeing the light.

The idea of a standard that would allow the LMS to connect easily with outside tools and content began perhaps 10 years ago with WebCT and its Tools Interoperability function, according to Rob Abel, CEO of IMS Global Learning Consortium, the group that has built and nurtured the LTI standard.

With WebCT's purchase by Blackboard in 2006, the standards idea inched along, then lurched ahead when the open source Sakai and Moodle LMSes made their appearance in 2007. At that point, Abel said, LMS companies began to accept that having a standard, open way to integrate tools with the learning management system would benefit everyone. A key argument: Strengthening the LMS with open connectivity could help ensure that it could be an institution's primary integration platform, rather than the student information system or a portal.

Charles Severens from the University of Michigan, previously the first executive director of Sakai, furthered the vision of a learning tools standard in 2009 and beyond, working among the leading LMS providers to find common ground for a standard. That basic subset of commonality was eventually shaped into Basic LTI.

When Desire2Learn announced in 2010 that it would support LTI, becoming the first LMS to do so, the floodgates opened. Over the next two years, virtually every LMS provider jumped on board, followed by tool providers, which benefit immensely from the time savings in building to a single standard. "Before, [tailoring a tool to] every platform might mean six months of engineering time" before a tool provider could release a product, Abel said. With LTI, interoperability with every LMS can be done in just weeks.

"Most standards take a long time to catch on," Abel said, "and then all of a sudden the market is ready. It's fascinating how it works."

Institutional adoption is the final frontier for LTI, since colleges and universities themselves, as buyers and users, are the ultimate drivers of a standard. With LMSes firmly in place and tool vendors not far behind, "the word is getting out there," Abel said. "I think [institutions] are starting to understand its value." The more schools understand and ask for the standard, the more suppliers are willing to build to it -- a self-reinforcing cycle that will strengthen the LTI standard.

Eventually, those schools with large IT shops will begin building to the LTI standard themselves as they integrate their own tools to whatever LMS they are using. Some large institutions, like the University of Michigan and Western Governors University, are already building to LTI standards.

As a successful standard developed within higher education, LTI may be a crucial step in the open standards movement in education. "This is the first [open standard] that has become ubiquitous," according to Abel. "It shows higher ed that they can drive their own architecture needs in the future."

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