Six technical standards to build an ed-tech market

Throwing double sixInteroperability is critical if we are to build a market for educational technology, a market which will in turn enable the pedagogical innovations capable of transforming education. This post identifies six interoperability specifications which would take the first steps in this direction.

I will start by painting a quick picture of the overall education technology ecosystem towards which I think we should be aiming. I will then describe the six standards for data interoperability that I think will provide the foundation for the market that will be needed to deliver that ecosystem. These are standards for:

  • Digital Learning Activities
  • Reporting of performance metrics
  • Declarative sequencing
  • Managed use of creative tools
  • Competency definitions
  • Open classroom response systems

Picturing the education technology of the future

The purpose of this quick sketch is not to predict the future, nor to lay down an architecture to inform future standards work. It is to make the case that there are opportunities to develop a digital ecosystem that would have a transformative effect on the performance of education.

The failure of current approaches to education technology has been largely due to:

  • the failure to disentangle the educational use of technology from the teaching of technology;
  • the failure to understand the requirement for industry-strength technical innovation as a prerequisite for pedagogical innovation in the classroom;
  • the imposition on schools by prescriptive public procurements of ineffective, monolithic management systems;
  • an excessive concentration on expositive media (e.g. text, graphics, video, and e-books) rather than on software that drives teaching and learning activity.

There will be two types of educational software:

  • instructional software, which will deliver learning activities;
  • teaching management software, which will:
    • manipulate learning activities (e.g. by launching, adapting and setting contextual parameters);
    • interpret and use outcome data (including creative product).

There are likely to be many different types of learning activity, including:

  • creative assignments (either individual or collaborative);
  • simulations;
  • multi-player games;
  • traditional assessments;
  • investigations;
  • discussions, debates and other forms of social interaction.

Similarly, there are likely to be many different types of management system, often performing functions analogous to business intelligence and ERP systems:

  • management information databases;
  • learning analytics;
  • assignment managers;
  • reporting tools;
  • sequencers and intelligent tutoring systems;
  • different kinds of e-portfolio and showcasing tools.

Expositive media, which is at present commonly understood as the main type of digital learning content, will play a subsidiary role to the learning activities, in the context of which they are deployed.

Personal learning tools and interfaces will be able to co-ordinate the learning which a student undertakes in different educational institutions and in none.

Six outline specifications

1. Digital Learning Activities


The specification will allow common Learning Management Systems (LMS) to manage different types of digital learning activity, delivered by third-party software.

Summary of requirement

It is generally acknowledged that “we learn by doing” and computer software is ideally suited to deliver such interactivity. Yet to date, most digital learning content has been overwhelmingly “expositive” in nature. What interactive software has been developed has proved difficult to deploy due to the difficulty of managing assignment and reporting.

Essential technical features

At a minimum, the specification will include:

  • Single Sign On (SSO) to authenticate activities delivered by remote web-service;
  • automatic downloading and installation of local software components;
  • the passing of necessary launch parameters to the leaning activity;
  • the passing of a signal to the LMS when the activity has finished running;
  • the automatic clean-up of processes and interfaces.

Pedagogical benefits

“Learning activity” is an abstract term which covers different combinations of assessment, game, simulation, microworld, discussion and the use of creative tools. The ability to encapsulate basic learning activities in digital form will allow the most productive types of learning activity to be disseminated rapidly while also being improved incrementally. The ability to bring such learning activities under external management will allow them to be reused in different courses and instructional contexts.

Opportunities for further development

The specification provides the foundation piece for almost all subsequent interoperability specifications for teaching and learning in a formal context. An important early enhancement would be to support activities involving multiple concurrent participants (e.g. enabling multi-player games).

Opportunities for new, dependent technologies

The specification will enable the development of:

  • different types of instructional software, delivered both online and by local apps;
  • new types of management software to manage these activities.

2. Reporting of performance metrics


The specification enables a learning activity to pass a mark to a common mark-book.

Summary of requirement

Most current interactive software either avoids reporting performance, or does so using its own reporting tools. Multiple reporting tools require more training to use, are sold in uncompetitive bundles, do not benefit from specialised development, and hold scattered data of little long-term value.

Essential technical features

The standard would:

  • require conformant instructional software to advertise the nature of the marks it generates and how they should be interpreted;
  • enable instructional software to send an appropriate mark to an LMS or other reporting tool, as the student completes a specified activity.

Pedagogical benefits

The automatic reporting of performance:

  • motivates the student;
  • provides evidence of student achievement;
  • encourages the student to reflect on their strengths and weaknesses;
  • supports good classroom management, reducing the burden of low-skilled work on highly-skilled teachers, while ensuring that the teacher knows:
    • whether students have completed their assignments,
    • whether they have mastered the activity’s learning objectives,
    • what priorities should be set for on-going instruction,
    • how effective is the learning activity and how it could be improved.

Opportunities for further development

Once the transfer of basic marks can be achieved reliably, it will be possible to extend the types and quantity of depth of meaning of performance data that are returned.

Opportunities for new, dependent technologies

Efficient reporting of performance will enable the development of:

  • learning analytics systems, which draw high-level conclusions by aggregating raw performance data (that may individually be of little obvious significance);
  • intelligent tutoring systems, which can recommend interventions and appropriate progression, enabling adaptive learning that depends on student performance.

3. Declarative sequencing


A simple scripting language to support the aggregation of many learning activities within sequences that might represent homework assignments, lessons, modules or courses.

Summary of requirement

For many years it has been recognised that IMS Simple Sequencing (incorporated in SCORM 2004) has failed to achieve satisfactory, plug-and-play interoperability.

Essential technical features

A sequencing script would contain:

  • references to different activities, along with settings to adapt their behaviour;
  • “interstitial” messages, motivating and steering the student through the sequence;
  • logical rules to control how the student progresses;
  • settings to help interpret the outcomes of individual activities;
  • settings to determine what outcomes the sequence as a whole will produce.

Pedagogical benefits

Independent sequencing tools allow different kinds of complementary activity to be combined in the same instructional process. Using adaptive logic, they can help ensure that each activity is appropriate to the student’s abilities, helping the teacher manage:

  • lateral differentiation between the learning pathways of different students;
  • longitudinal progression by the same student from one learning activity to another.

While not replacing the need for professional judgement, scripts can manage short sequences of work, reducing the administrative burden on the teacher, helping to disseminate good practice, and allowing teachers to take their schemes of work with them when they change jobs.

Opportunities for further development

While a simple scripting language will help establish a market for heterogeneous content aggregations, more complex requirements are likely to be handled by delegating this function to intelligent tutoring systems, using advanced, non-standard logic.

Stimulation of new technologies

The specification would stimulate the production of:

  • sequence authoring tools;
  • sequence interpreters;
  • new types of learning activity to populate shareable sequences;
  • new types of intelligent tutoring system.

4. Managed use of creative tools


Enables the exchange of student-created artefacts between an LMS and a creative tool.

Summary of requirement

Computer based training (CBT) has in the past been dominated by expositive media and simple assessments, principally multiple choice. These digital pedagogies fail to address the higher-order skills associated with creative processes.

Essential technical features

The specification would allow a creative tool and an LMS to exchange a digital artefact. The artefact might be in an editable format (which may be proprietary to the tool) or in a standard, read-only format. It would pass through a number of lifecycle stages, from template, to work in progress, draft submission, final submission and e-portfolio item.

Pedagogical benefits

Handling the submission of large numbers of assignments is difficult enough: more complex cycles of annotation and redrafting may be virtually unmanageable at any scale. Automated assignment management systems will improve the efficiency with which these transactions can be handled.

Automating the management of creative assignments, which are costly in their use of teacher (and student) time, will allow the combination of such assignments with cheaper, computer managed activities, increasing pedagogical efficiency and reducing costs.
It will be possible to model a wide variety of innovative pedagogies by the orchestration of authoring tools, players, software for managing annotation and reflection, education-specific social networking systems, e-portfolios and show-cases.

Opportunities for further development

The specification could be developed:

  • to allow the mark-up of an artefact with annotations and reflections, added by the original author, the teacher, or peers;
  • to support data exchanges between social networking systems, specialised players or viewers, e-portfolios, records of achievement and show-cases.

Stimulation of new technologies

The specification would stimulate the development of:

  • new types of education-specific creative tool;
  • tools for managing the annotation, redrafting and submission of digital artefacts;
  • software for collaborative learning;
  • e-portfolios and show-cases.

5. Competency definitions


To be a data format that can be used to encode global definitions of different types of competency, skill, ability, aptitude, capability and domain knowledge.

Summary of requirement

Most attempts to define, measure and map competency have failed. The most successful, HR-XML, used in HR systems for semi-skilled workforces, are not adapted to the high-level, transferable competencies which are the subject of formal education.

Essential technical features

The challenge in this case is conceptual. At a technical level, it is simple enough to give each competency its own universal identifier. Agreement then needs to be reached on:

  • how to ensure the reliable and consistent interpretation of each definition;
  • how to express essential relationships between different definitions.

Pedagogical benefits

Open competency definitions will be used:

  • to classify learning activities according to their learning objectives;
  • to profile students to support personalisation of learning and track progress;
  • to measure the success of different instructional processes.

Opportunities for further development

Further work will be required, not so much in the specification of competency definitions itself, but in the way these definitions are referenced to express:

  • the attribution of competencies to particular students;
  • the confidence with which those competencies are measured;
  • the intended learning objectives of programmes of study;
  • the success with which those objectives were achieved;
  • the mapping against each other of definitions produced by different communities.

Stimulation of new technologies

Competency definitions are an essential prerequisite for learning analytics systems, which will aggregate ephemeral performance data in order to draw durable conclusions about student capabilities, allowing the management of personalised instruction.

The open publication of competency definitions will help end the uncompetitive practice whereby Awarding Bodies endorse certain instructional materials such as textbooks. Using open competency definitions, any publisher will be able to classify their products against any curriculum, and analytics systems will be able to measure the success with which those products deliver the specified learning objectives in practice.

6. Open classroom response systems


A standard interface to enable instructional software, designed for classroom use, to access student input made from any conformant response system (a.k.a. clickers).

Summary of requirement

This is an original requirement. It has attracted support from some sections of the industry, while those who benefit from current inflexible markets may be more reticent. The requirement is principally driven by its potential pedagogical benefits.

Key technical features

The specification would enable instructional software to discover any conformant clickers that were present, passing them information about the participants in the current activity.
Having registered participants automatically onto their respective devices, the clicker control software would, for the duration of the activity, pass commands to the instructional software, so that it could respond appropriately to input from participants.

Pedagogical benefits

The classroom context is pivotal for the blending of digital and non-digital pedagogies.
It has always been difficult to create sufficient opportunities in traditional classrooms for interactivity and instantaneous, conversational feedback. These are desirable if the student is to be involved in the lesson, to test and modulate his or her understandings, and if the teacher is to receive feedback on the effectiveness of the lesson.

Educationalists have experimented extensively with clickers to support e.g. “buzz groups” and “peer mentoring”—but these promising strategies have achieved little acceptance in commercial markets. Innovators cannot access most installed clickers, with which the major suppliers are generally content to bundle simple quiz-based software.

Instructional software designed for use in non-contact-time may also benefit from an in-class introductory presentation or plenary feedback. For this purpose, the use of a single computer with multiple input devices is cheaper than a dedicated computer suite.

Opportunities for further development

The API might in future accommodate different types of mobile device, supporting BYOD.

Stimulation of new technologies

The standard will stimulate:

  • multi-player instructional software capable of being used in classrooms;
  • advanced learning management and analytics systems, capable of managing blended learning experiences and capturing data from classroom interactions.

4 thoughts on “Six technical standards to build an ed-tech market

  1. Crispin, you typically (and successfully) write to create an abstraction layer that sits above the instances of IT in use in schools. One, I assume, unintended consequence in this article is that one realises that the task of creating a standard is overwhelming but the gain is not compelling enough to set out on the road. We need a better reason, a really inspiring reason to get a grip of our tech in schools which as you point out rarely gets above disappointing.

    • Thanks John for your usefully sceptical comment.

      I am sorry that you do not think that I have made the case for these standards. This post was not originally written for the blog, but rather for an audience of standards experts – so I might not really tried very much to describe the use cases in which these standards might be made.

      One point that I would make (and probably did not cover sufficiently in the article) is that these standards are not things with which teachers would have any direct contact – so neither the effort of creation nor the perceived lack of direct benefit is an issue. The consumers for standards are people who develop technologies (predominantly software) and their influence on teachers and learners is therefore an indirect (though IMO very significant) one.

      The benefit for teachers (i.e. users of these software tools) is that the software is able to automate all sorts of interoperable behaviours, making life much easier for the teacher. A creative tool will be able automatically to queue the student product in the teacher’s marking interface (and maybe inform the teacher of what proportion of an unsubmitted piece of work has been completed); a formative assessment will be able to record a mark in the teacher’s common markbook; the review by the student’s peer will be circulated amongst his/her learning network (given appropriate permissions and privacy settings); and the student’s progression to the next learning activity might be automated by an intelligent tutoring system, matching the student’s competency profile to the learning activity that experience has shown to be most effective in advancing cognition in similar circumstances.

      Perhaps an analogy is also useful? Toasters and kettles are useful to end-users – but these user-friendly technologies would be impossible without the three-pin electrical plug. The user does not wish to be involved in the technicalities of developing this sort of technical standard but they certainly benefit from it being incorporated into the technology that they buy.

      Perhaps by a more in-depth description of these types of use-case, I might be able to persuade you of the benefit of better interoperability? If there is a chance, I shall attempt it as a future post.

      Best wishes, Crispin.

      • Hi, your intended audience info makes a lot of difference! You don’t have to convince me of the value of interoperability and engineering standards, I am persuaded. But I do think that ultimately such things are end-user directed. For example all syringes and needles conform to global standards but these are massively driven by the demands of health-care providers, I don’t think that drive exists in education yet.

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