Opening Up Online Learning

October 9, 2006

This has not exactly been a season of peace, love and harmony on the higher education technology landscape. A patent fight has broken out among major developers of course management systems. Academic publishers and university officials are warring over open access to federally sponsored research. And textbook makers are taking a pounding for -- among other things -- the ways in which digital enhancements are running up the prices of their products.

In that context, many may be heartened by the announcement later today at the Educause meeting in Dallas that three dozen academic publishers, providers of learning management software, and others have agreed on a common, open standard that will make it possible to move digital content into and out of widely divergent online education systems without expensive and time consuming reengineering. The agreement by the diverse group of publishers and software companies, who compete intensely with one another, is being heralded as an important breakthrough that could expand the array of digital content available to professors and students and make it easier for colleges to switch among makers of learning systems.

Of course, that's only if the new standard, known as the "Common Cartridge," becomes widely adopted, which is always the question with developments deemed to be potential technological advances.

Many observers believe this one has promise, especially because so many of the key players have been involved in it. Working through the IMS Global Learning Consortium, leading publishers like Pearson Education and McGraw-Hill Education and course-management system makers such as Blackboard, ANGEL Learning and open-source Sakai have worked to develop the technical specifications for the common cartridge, and all of them have vowed to begin incorporating the new standard into their products by next spring -- except Blackboard, which says it will do so eventually, but has not set a timeline for when.

What exactly is the Common Cartridge? In lay terms, it is a set of specifications and standards, commonly agreed to by an IMS working group, that would allow digitally produced content -- supplements to textbooks such as assessments or secondary readings, say, or faculty-produced course add-ons like discussion groups -- to "play," or appear, the same in any course management system, from proprietary ones like Blackboard/WebCT and Desire2Learn to open source systems like Moodle and Sakai.

"It is essentially a common 'container,' so you can import it and load it and have it look similar when you get it inside" your local course system, says Ray Henderson, chief products officer at ANGEL, who helped conceive of the idea when he was president of the digital publishing unit at Pearson.

The Common Cartridge approach is designed to deal with two major issues: (1) the significant cost and time that publishers now must spend (or others, if the costs are  passed along) to produce the material they produce for multiple, differing learning management systems, and (2) the inability to move courses produced in one course platform to another, which makes it difficult for professors to move their courses from one college to another and for campuses to consider switching course management providers.

The clearest and surest upside of the new standard, most observers agree, is that it could help lower publishers' production costs and, in turn, allow them to focus their energies on producing more and better content. David O'Connor, senior vice president for product development at Pearson Education's core technology group, says his company and other major publishers spend "many hundreds of thousands of dollars a year effectively moving content around" so that ancillary material for textbooks can work in multiple course management systems.

Because Blackboard and Web CT together own in the neighborhood of 75 percent of the course management market, Pearson and other publishers produce virtually all of their materials to work in those proprietary systems. Materials are typically produced on demand for smaller players like ANGEL, Desire2Learn and Sakai, and it is even harder to find usable materials for colleges' homemade systems. While big publishers such as Pearson and McGraw-Hill have sizable media groups that can, when they choose to, spend what's necessary to modify digital content for selected textbooks, "small publishers often have to say no," O'Connor says. As a result, "there are just fewer options for people who aren't using Blackboard and WebCT, and more hurdles to getting it."

Supporters hope that adoption of the common cartridge will allow publishers to spend less time and money adapting one textbook's digital content for multiple course platforms and more time producing more and better content. "This should have the result of broadening choice in content to institutions," says Catherine Burdt, an analyst at Eduventures, an education research firm. "Colleges would no longer be limited to the content that's supported by their LMS platform, but could now go out and choose the best content that aligns with what's happening in their curriculum."

Less clear is how successful the effort will be at improving the portability of course materials from one learning management system to another. If all the major providers introduce "export capability," there is significant promise, says Michael Feldstein, who writes the blog e-Literate and is assistant director of the State University of New York Learning Network. "This has the potential to be one of the most important standards to come out in a while, particularly for faculty," says Feldstein, who notes that his comments here represent his own views, not SUNY's. "It would become much easier for them to take rich course content and course designs and migrate them from one system to another with far less pain."

But while easier transferability would obviously benefit the smaller players in the course management market -- and ANGEL and Sakai plan to announce today that their systems will soon allow professors to create Common Cartridges for export out of their systems -- such a system would only take off if the dominant player in the market, the combined Blackboard/WebCT, eventually does the same. "I'm not sure how excited Blackboard would be about making it easier for faculty to migrate out of their product and into one of their competitors," says Feldstein.

Chris Vento, senior vice president of technology and product development at Blackboard, was a leading proponent of the IMS Common Cartridge concept when he was a leading official at WebCT before last year's merger. In an interview, he acknowledged the question lots of others are asking: "What’s in it for Blackboard? Why wouldn’t you just lock up the format and force everybody to use it?" His answer, he says, is that by helping the entire industry, he says, the project cannot help but benefit its biggest player, too.

"This will enable publishers to really do the best job of producing their content, making it richer and better for students and faculty, and more lucrative for publishers from the business perspective," says Vento. "Anything we can do to enable that content to be built, and more of it and better quality, the more lucrative it is eventually for us."

Blackboard is fully behind the project, Vento says. Having endorsed the Common Cartridge charter, Blackboard has also committed to incorporating the new standard into its products, and that Blackboard intends to make export of course materials possible out of its platform. "Exactly how that maps to our product roadmap has not been finalized," he said, "but in the end, we're all going to have to do this. It's just a question of when." There will, he says, "be a lot of pressures to do this."

That pressure is likely to be intensified because of the public relations pounding Blackboard has taken among many in the academic technology world because of its attempt to patent technology that many people believe is fundamental to e-learning systems. O'Connor of Pearson says he believes Blackboard could benefit from its involvement in the Common Cartridge movement by being seen "as the dominant player, to be someone supporting openness in the community." He adds: "There is an opportunity for them to mend some of the damage from the patent issue."

Like virtually all technological advances -- or would-be ones -- Common Cartridge's success will ultimately rise and fall, says Burdt of Eduventures, on whether Blackboard and others embrace it. "Everything comes down to adoption," she says. "The challenge with every standard is the adoption model. Some are out the door too early. Some evolve too early and are eclipsed by substitutes. For others, suppliers decide not to support it for various reasons."

Those behind the Common Cartridge believe it's off to a good start with the large number of disparate parties not only involved in creating it, but already committing to incorporate it into their offerings.

Yet even as they launch this standard, some of them are already looking ahead to the next challenge. While the Common Cartridge, if widely adopted, will allow for easier  movement of digital course materials into and out of course management systems, it does not ensure that users will be able to do the same thing with third-party e-learning tools (like subject-specific tutoring modules) that are not part of course management systems, or with the next generation of tools that may emerge down the road. For that, the same parties would have to reach a similar agreement on a standard for "tool interoperability," which is next on the IMS agenda.

"This is only one step," Pearson's O'Connor says of the Common Cartridge. But it is, he says, an important one.



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