Rob Abel, Ed.D. | July 2020
"I Hear My Train A Comin'" —Jimi Hendrix
Changing the status quo is hard. Changing the status quo in a sustainable way is even harder.
I'd like to think—and I believe there is good evidence to show—that the work of the IMS members over the last 20+ years has changed some very foundational things in sustainable ways. This type of impact has occurred, I believe, because IMS members have been able to look ahead in terms of how advances in technology and educational models will intersect. In recent years we have been refining the word "ecosystem" in edtech to mean something very specific in terms of products being able to work well and together reliably for the benefit of end-users. In future years we will be continuing this thread. Still, as I mentioned in my last post and the introduction to the recent IMS annual report, we have begun driving toward more specificity in the terms "personalized learning" and "student success." Our starting point is the more specific goals of equity, agency, and mastery.
In this post, I would like to begin digging into some of the pragmatic progress we are seeing in laying the foundation for equity, agency, and mastery. It's a long road and discussion ahead, but I think we can all begin to see the future taking shape.
First, a caution. Yes, some specific strategies and fixes have helped "getting through" COVID-19. In general, the school districts and universities that have done the best in terms of ramping up thoughtful digital teaching and learning have already been working on their digital ecosystems for several years. Putting in place an extensive and sustainable ecosystem does not cost any more money. In fact, doing it the right way reduces many costs. But it does require a well-thought-out strategy with respect to the instructional goals, the approach to evolution, etc. And those strategies require leadership that cuts across IT, curriculum, and instruction. There is no short-cutting that redesign takes strategy, leadership, and time to implement. I would say that this is the most important learning from IMS work over many years of experience.
So, with that caveat, what are we seeing during the period of COVID and beyond in terms of the tangible steps towards designing your ecosystem to enable equity, agency, and mastery?
Let's begin with equity. The generally accepted meaning of equity in education is that the educational experience meets each student where they are to help them achieve their aspirations rather than all educational experiences for all students being the same or equal. IMS cannot solve all the issues around equity in education. But IMS can ask,
"What does it mean for the digital education ecosystem to enable and support equity?"
We see in IMS that the first foundation for equity appears to be an extensive and diverse digital curriculum and supporting resources (such as library resources) available to all students and faculty. The recent Learning Impact on-demand series has featured the ongoing work on setting up a foundation for digital equity at Chicago Public Schools. The key feature is guaranteed district-wide access to quality curriculum aligned to standards that can be customized at the local school level to meet the needs of the school and ideally each student. Thus, local teachers are not burdened with creating curriculum from scratch, but rather can apply local understanding to fit local needs. The program is based totally on IMS standards enabling the support for a diverse curriculum and supporting products across many suppliers. The work in Chicago is just beginning to roll out, and the evolution of the interplay between central and local control will be critical to its success.
We are also seeing a somewhat similar trend in higher education via innovative offerings from publishers that ensure digital resource access. Cengage is a leader in this trend. Cengage supports not only course-level inclusive access for achieving digital on day one for all students in a course, but also provides "Cengage Unlimited" so all students can access a vast library of digital resources. The COVID experience of UC Davis in rapidly scaling access to digital textbooks from VitalSource (making extensive use of IMS standards for integration and data) has not been unusual. It provides another model for scaling access to a highly distributed student population.
Importantly, the idea of equity is that it can work in a way that allows the right fit educational experience to reach a student—regardless of the source or distance involved. COVID-19 has provided an opportunity to grapple with distance education as the primary mode. In my recent leadership interview with Cengage CTO George Moore, he details some challenges when the modality switches to entirely online. We often think of bandwidth as the only challenge to achieving digital equity. Still, there are others that George points out, such as the ability to support identity, privacy, and security. These and other issues that George elucidates are solvable as we continue to work together on the edtech ecosystem based on open standards. But it will take much longer and perhaps never reach scale if we don't work together.
As I mentioned in my last post, equity, agency, and mastery work in concert—they reinforce and enable each other. Equitable opportunities enable agency that, in turn, enables a focus on mastery, and better definitions of mastery enable equity. I will continue discussing the trends developing ecosystem foundations for agency and mastery in next month's installment.