Closed, Open or Flat?
In technology years “learning objects” have been around for a while. They are discrete packages of content that, when linked, can form the basis of an entire curriculum. To create these links learning objects, rely heavily on a common set of curricular and technical standards. These standards, created by organizations such as IMS Global, allow learning objects to fit neatly into standardized curricula and, in theory, provide a school district with a library of digital resources. This library of resources has the potential to fit neatly into the personalized learning universe where students can access content that meet their unique learning needs, interests, and styles.
These standards are intended to create an open universe where learning objects from different vendors fit neatly together and so can allow a teacher to select from a wide variety of resources to meet the unique needs of each student. In this open universe concept the learning object can share data with several systems. Collectively these systems would be able to record and report student progress; provide a single sign-on for access to the entire library of learning options; and can make recommendations to the student and teacher about the next learning activity that the student should pursue. This concept is the ideal of “individualized” or “personalized” learning.
The Closed Universe
Unfortunately, the employment of open standards at this time are not implemented to a degree that allows for the free selection of resources on a just-in-time basis. Even within many publishers’ own content there are titles which do not interconnect, so the teacher and student are limited to the resources from which they can select. This “closed” universe creates a cognitive load for both student and teacher as they try to navigate the seemingly impenetrable labyrinth of logins, data reports, and internet addresses. This challenge not only reduces the likelihood of adoption, it genuinely inhibits learning.
The Open Universe
One Roster and the older LTI standard, which provide for single sign-on and data integration, are still pieces of a puzzle that is not fully implemented. While these standards help with integration, they do not allow for the integration of powerful data analytics engines which can take student data, analyze it, and make suggestions about other learning activities. This standard does exist, but it is not fully implemented in the world of educational software. In the business and industry world it is broadly known as a database or ODBC connector. In the education world, IMS global has created a standard known as Calliper which seeks to achieve the same functionality.
Without data analytics and the standards to connect various databases the educational system is overwhelmed with data but no information about student learning. One example of how this can work comes from Georgia State University where data analytics and interconnected systems are being used to facilitate their advising system. At GSU, each advisor may have as many as 700 students. This kept the advising department busy retroactively dealing with students’ advisement crisis. The system could look at, among other things, student absences, registered classes, and financial aid. The system can then send a message to the advisor if the student has missed too many classes or registered for the wrong classes. Students can also project the classes they would need if they decide to change majors or drop a class (Kamenetz, 2016). This system links a variety of data collection systems and can aggregate data into meaningful information that can be communicated to the student or advisor. It is important to emphasize that this system does not force the student to do anything; it simply provides the student with meaningful information to help them make informed decisions.
The Flat Universe
Between the open and closed universes of learning objects lies what I would call the flat universe of the learning management system, currently the most common scenario of the three scenarios discussed in this article. In this flat universe, the learning management system creates a bridge between learning objects. In addition to single sign-on to learning objects, the LMS can also provide some rudimentary reporting and data analysis. This flat universe comes at a cost. This cost is frequently borne by the Technology Department as it has to expend much time and effort to ingest learning objects into the LMS, to ensure that single sign-on works properly, and to port data from the LMS into other systems for grading and reporting purposes. The LMS can also limit access to and integration with other digital resources such as Google Apps for Education. Granted, progress in these areas is being made, but differences in technologies and philosophies too often block the ideal of the open universe.
The Rub: Often vendors try to do more than one thing with their products. A content provider trying to link learning objects in its own LMS or a LMS trying to provide rudimentary data analytics are just two examples. In trying to become a closed learning universe, the vendor frequently must divert resources from its core business to support features which are a part of other vendors’ core business. Content providers should focus on content and the improvement of instructional delivery. LMS's should focus on searching the content library and the user interface which presents that content to the student and teacher. Meanwhile, everyone should devote resources to implementing standards.
The adoption of the One Roster standard is an example of how standards not only help open the closed universe, but can also reduce the workload of the IT department. On the face of it the standard is simple because it creates common data fields for export and import of information between databases.
Making informed decisions is one of the key pieces of personalized learning. Knowing the instructional strategies which work best for each student, allowing the student to pursue areas of interest while following a standard curriculum, and giving that student the tools to become the master of their own learning is critical to personalized learning. Providing exceptional content, timely feedback, and accurate information can and should be the focus of learning systems comprised of exceptional digital resources linked by common standards.