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Standards Update: An Interview with Ed Walker

For many faculty, standards are a series of buzzwords that have little relevance to teaching, even in the context of distributed learning. But with the widespread adoption of education technologies-particularly Web courses or Web-based resources- standards and specifications have taken on real importance as the underpinnings of the courses created and taught by those faculty. Recently, Syllabus caught up with Ed Walker, CEO of the IMS Global Learning Consortium Inc., between meetings of international standards committees convened in Australia. We asked Ed to reflect on our questions about standards and specifications from a practitioner's perspective.

S: What are the main categories of standards that apply to education technology?
EW: They really come in two major categories. One category is an infrastructure specification that an end user would generally never see or think about. The kind of thing that makes the clock run at 60 cycles.
The second category includes those things we might call learning services, or educational components. The kinds of functions that if you thought a minute, you would realize that there have to be some conventions or universally accepted mechanisms to accomplish them. For example, to present a question, record an answer, or capture information about a student.
More specifically, IMS is now working on a set of specifications for content sequencing—how one item of course content might follow another, including how that content might be made accessible to the person with some type of disability and how to arrange various learning objects and the content of test items. We're also working on how you might find a piece of content in a digital repository somewhere on a network if you don't know where it is. All these are functions that you would expect to exist, though you might not be particularly interested in how it gets done.

S: What is IMS trying to address with standards and specifications?
EW: Our role is to create the initial specification, when there is an emerging consensus around a particular technical issue. We work to distill out of that intuitive consensus a formalized specification that could be the basis for standards development or early adoption in a particular application area. Our broader mission is to promote the use of distributed learning technology globally.

S: What do you think the average teaching faculty or faculty developer really needs to know about
EW: If we're doing our job, teaching faculty only need to know that standards exist and the general scope of what they cover, including an understanding of how different components fit within an online system. If you're a developer, you need to have access to the formal definition of the specification and code bindings, so you can identify precisely what a given component d'es, and how it d'es it.

S: What is the best way for faculty and education developers to find out about these standards?
EW: Right now the answer is to join in some of the work, as a participant. This is very timely because IMS and other standards organizations have produced a basic suite of specifications, and now we're facing the critical issue of dissemination and adoption. Besides participating, visiting our Web site and the links to other relevant Web sites from there would be a good start.

S: What do you see as the benefits of specification efforts to instruction?
EW: I think that available content and ways to use it are going to increase; the average instructor is going to have more material to choose from and probably, over time, higher quality material. I believe faculty will be able to develop educational materials, be they short episodes of learning or full courses, with less effort. The result will be that more material and courses will be available. Hopefully, learners around the world will find resources more available, at lower costs.

S: Are specifications going to have the effect of making technology initiatives on campus easier to manage?
EW: Eventually, but I'm afraid I don't think the hard part is the technology. Technology can make new things possible, but the effort put in usually won't decrease. It's going to take a certain amount of time to build something no matter what your technique.

S: Do you think that standards are going to be able to keep up with the developments in technology, and be timely enough to meet the needs of institutions to implement effective technology programs?
EW: That's really a million-dollar question, and I believe they are. We've been able to keep the pace of courseware specification development pretty snappy, but the larger the set of specifications, and the greater the interactions among them, the slower you go when you make changes. Relating to that, I hope and expect that the same thing will be occurring on the hardware side as more and more complicated learning environments are developed and deployed. Changes in the underlying infrastructure hopefully will not be happening every six months, as they're happening now.

S: What is happening with respect to compliance?
EW: That's a really timely question, because IMS is starting up a conformance testing program. The demand for conformance is being driven by our own members and by
the community at large. The product developers who have tried to be compliant see that as a differentiator of their products. These vendors want a program that will demonstrate their compliance and possibly even indicate where others are not compliant. Consumers want conformance testing so they can understand the basis of the claim to be compliant with our specifications.

S: How long before we will see the conformance testing?
EW: Well, we're starting it right now. There are informal self-evaluation tests available and some operational ways of conducting tests that we'll be using as soon as we can. More formal testing depends on the particular domain of the specification; some require more elaborate conformance testing.
Conformance testing is going to become more tightly linked with the specifications because as we develop the specs, it is becoming more evident that the conformance program and the specifications are co-dependent. Specifications and the conformance tests are going to come out more or less simultaneously. There may be a little lag, because there is extra development work required on the conformance side.

S: What are your thoughts on vendor compliance?
EW: Right now it's pretty clear in the marketplace that compliance is an advantage. There are programs both in the U.S. and the U.K. that are mandating IMS compliance. So the demand has made it very clear that compliance has a competitive advantage.

S: What are the incentives or influences that will move faculty developers to be aware of and comply with standards?
EW: I think professional societies are going to play a key role in helping developers become familiar with the standards and how to use them. Organizations like the NLII and publications like Syllabus will contribute to awareness—and the professional groups around the subject matter disciplines are going to be developing standard courseware or certifying it.

S: Given the very long time from initial discussions to formal acceptance of standards, can faculty developers really have any meaningful input?
EW: Yes, and the secret to having that input to impact the final standard is to stay with it from beginning to end, either individually or through collaboration with other individuals who find the main focus of their activity in different spots in that timeline.

S: Can an individual campus technologist participate if their institution is not a member of IMS?
EW: Yes. First I need to make sure that everyone understands that there is a category of support for IMS called membership, but there is a way of participating in IMS by subscribing to our developer's network. We also hold open, public meetings. The discussion in the open meetings covers nearly everything that g'es on in our work. Another way to be involved is through developer and end user special interest groups.

S: There are a number of organizations in the standards space—IMS has been a player for a long while, but one hears about ADL and OKI as well. How can faculty developers tune in on the effort that relates to their own development activities as well as understand the relationships among the various efforts?
EW: IMS has formal relationships with both ADL and OKI, and in fact both organizations are members of IMS, participating in our working groups. We really see ourselves as working together in a larger, but informal, and organized way.
The ADL focuses on implementation and applications in the skill training space that the Department of Defense and the U.S. government is interested in. OKI focuses on the needs of large teaching institutions and higher education. We're all working on the same general problem and working together.
It's very much a collaborative effort—within both the education and training spaces—where groups like the [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] IEEE and [Ohio College Library Consortium] OCLC (as part of the library community) are developing standards. It is also done in collaboration with efforts that are not specifically about education. All these groups are in good communication, and what people might interpret as potential rivalry or competition is really just a healthy multi-faceted approach to a problem.

S: Do you think that there's going to be a consolidation of efforts, or will there continue to be an IMS, [Advanced Distributed Learning] ADL, [Open Knowledge Initiative] OKI, and perhaps others?
EW: I think the organizations aren't going to be melded into one large organization because each of them exists to address the needs of a particular constituency. Those needs need to be represented separately even if we are working collaboratively. But I would expect some evolution over time. It may be that an organization created to address a particular set of needs would dissolve or change to meet other goals as the original needs are satisfied. That could happen to any of us. But this is a movement with enough momentum that it's clearly not going to go away as a whole even if the players change over time.

S: What role will users play in the future development of standards and specifications?
EW: It's clear that we have reached a point at which the user community should become more involved. We're not at the starting point anymore—rather it's time we develop the next set of requirements, and those should come from the larger user community. Learners, instructors, and administrators should take the point of view that they have the technology in hand and can now start thinking about what they might want to do that they could not before, or had not thought of doing before. We've done our best to make some of the barriers to use go away and to make some of the basic functionality available and usable, and now we need to determine what's next.

Related Sites for Learning Technology Standards
ADL Co-Laboratory Network
Advanced Distributed Learning
Aviation Industry CBT Committee
IEEE Learning Technologies Standards Committee, P1484
IEEE Standards Association
IMS Global Learning
Consortium Inc.
International Organization
for Standardization
Open Knowledge Initiative
Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM)

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