Standards First: All Stakeholders Getting What They Need from Standards in EdTech

IMS Global CEO Rob AbelRob Abel, Ed.D. | March 2021


"If you want it, here it is, come and get it." —Badfinger


Standards First: All Stakeholders Getting What They Need from Standards in EdTech


Last week, IMS announced the Standards First program, providing support across the entire edtech sector to ensure that open standards are working, now and into the future. By “working,” we mean achieving a set of very clear goals for what open standards must provide to help edtech better serve teachers, students, and educational institutions:

  • Measurably reducing the time/cost of product integrations

  • Making it easier for products to work together to improve teaching and learning experiences

  • Improving availability and interpretation of data across products

  • Lowering the barriers to innovation for all sizes and types of organizations

If your organization is supportive of realizing the full potential of open standards for all stakeholders in edtech, I invite you to add your voice by signing the Standards First pledge.”

Standards First arose from a deep dive by an IMS Board committee on recent experiences with the IMS OneRoster® standard.  To make a long story short, many suppliers were claiming the use of OneRoster, but a range of factors led to less than perfect integrations. For instance:

  • Inconsistent interpretations of how to use some of the data fields

  • Lack of implementation of some important aspects of the standard

  • Utilizing proprietary APIs that were not OneRoster compliant

  • Implementations that were “OneRoster-ish” but actually just vendor specific

None of this is of great shock to those that have experience with software interoperability standards. Good standards are built with a certain amount of variability/extensibility, and even well-thought-out certification testing can’t catch all possible uses/variations. The implementation inconsistencies were sometimes compounded by systems that provide roster data or act as an intermediary for roster data having any of the above issues. If they do, then literally all other suppliers in the school district need to build integration adapters.

If this sort of situation is normal, then how do we converge on OneRoster (or any other software standard for that matter)? Among the challenges is that in the heat of the moment for “back to school,” it was unlikely that an implementation would be brought into compliance. Rather, everyone just needed to “make it work,” leading to workarounds rather than moving toward compliance. Once a fix is in place, it tends to increase the inertia in moving toward the standard because why fix an integration that is already working?

Things can go in one of two directions—increasing deviation of products away from the standard or increasing convergence toward the standard.

Deviation tends to compound itself over time. Deviation results in what I like to refer to as “standards in name only”—something that is called a standard for marketing purposes—but really a “standards-ish” custom integration that does not produce the benefits we seek from standards. Integrations are made to work but agility, cost/time savings, lowering the barriers to innovation are all lost.

Convergence, on the other hand, requires the technical tools and commitment for institutions and suppliers to cooperate in an effective manner, meaning more effectively than the current means of getting things working.

In IMS, we know that convergence because the member organizations are doing it and seeing the benefits of it every day. The proof is in the overwhelming support for IMS standards in the marketplace and the growth of the IMS members (12x in the last 15 years).

What the IMS Board committee realized is that now is the right time for the sector to pull together and achieve even better coherence for the benefit of all sector participants, but especially all those faculty and students that need digital on day one choice and equity. Thus, the Standards First program is the ratcheting up to a new level of commitment and collaboration needed for suppliers and school districts to ensure we get things right as rapidly as possible as well as sustain open standards convergence through a coordinated process. Therefore, Standards First begins with a “pledge,” a serious promise made by an organization (supplier, school district, industry association) to support certain key principles that ensure that we are working together towards convergence and ongoing improvement.

The Standards First pledge was a carefully thought-out collaboration statement. It was created with deep input from the IMS Board group as well as the IMS K-12 advisory board. It was designed to capture willingness to be a leader in encouraging open standards as the first and primary choice, thus ensuring that the edtech sector gets what it needs from open standards. Standards that are a “nice to have” or “maybe to have” or “second choice after a proprietary API” or “one of many choices” are not going to get us where we need to go. The pledge encourages breaking down any barriers to being able to reliably count on open standards. It also encourages full transparency and collaboration on compliance and costs. It should be noted that the pledge itself applies to all open standards including those from other standards organizations. IMS hopes we can inspire leadership to lift up all open standards used in edtech.

Importantly, I want to point out that the Standards First program is not meant to be about blame, but rather support. Convergence occurs over time. It is not instantaneous. But there can be some pretty rapid improvements by cooperating parties using processes and tools built for this purpose. The 50+ IMS Contributing Members that have already signed the pledge come to this with a goal of stepping up collaboration to improve adoption by members and non-members alike. Thus, as part of the release Standards First program, IMS is providing significant new public resources to help address common inconsistencies we found in the fall, as well as member resources to improve certification testing and live testing via the IMS Compatibility Check. As part of the program, IMS has already set up monthly technical roundtables for suppliers to work together on identifying and addressing issues and will soon begin similar roundtables and training for IMS school district members.

So, you can either jump right in to take advantage of the program today or if you feel you need a better understanding, please check out the FAQs or drop me or another IMS staff member a line anytime. If you want open standards to work across the edtech ecosystem, well, here it is.