In my previous posts on this topic, I outlined the mundate yet important core use cases that LIS is intended to address. Now I'd like to start looking at some of the sexier possibilities that the spec enables. In recent guest posts, Inigral's Michael Staton wrote about the Schools on Facebook application and also let the cat out of the bag that Schools works with Oracle's LIS implementation, called SAIP. (I couldn't respond publicly at the time because Oracle's product hadn't been officially released yet.) The details of what Inigral has done here are worth exploring, both because they demonstrate how LIS can be used to do new and exciting things and because they provide some clarity about how to think about (and to not think about) social software and PLEs.
When I talk to educators about Inigral's Schools on Facebook, I generally hear the same sequence of reactions, in this order:
- Wow, that's cool!
- It's missing features X, Y, and Z that all LMSs have.
- Aren't they in danger of building a "creepy treehouse"?
Items 2 and 3 should be viewed as being in a causal relationship, i.e., if you try to turn a Facebook application into an LMS, then you will be in serious danger of building a creepy treehouse. I'm always amazed at how educators can call for the death knell of the LMS in one breath and then demand that its so-called replacement look...um...just like an LMS in the next breath. The last thing the world needs is yet another traditional LMS built upon a platform like Facebook that isn't designed for that sort of thing.
Luckily for everyone, that's not what Inigral is doing with Schools. Schools should be viewed as orthogonal and complementary to an LMS. To start getting a sense of what Schools is "for", think about the conversations that students have with their dorm mates about their classes. If you were ever a student in a dormitory, chances are that you've done some of the following:
- Asked around about which professors are good or bad, and which are easy or hard
- Gotten advice from upperclassmen about how to structure your course schedule to avoid travel hassles and minimize hangover consequences
- Asked a classmate what you missed in the last class
- Found out which classes the girl or guy you like is taking so you can take the same ones
- Exchanged notes or planned study sessions
- Debated an exciting or controversial idea that came up in class
Some of these activities will help students succeed in their school work while others will simply help them to enjoy school more. All of them are "out-of-band" activities relative to what is appropriate to go on in a formal class and be explicitly moderated by a teacher. They are "treehouse" activities. The "creepy" part would come if the teacher tried to impose authority and formal structure on these activities. Imagine if your professor showed up in your dormitory lounge while you were arguing about an idea from the class and started trying to make people raise their hands to speak. That would be creepy, right? The lounge would clear out pretty quickly. Now, if the professor, invited by the students, hung out and participated in the conversation as a peer, or just listened in and chatted, that might not be creepy (depending on the particular students' relationships with the particular professor). The key to whether or not a treehouse is creepy is who owns it and gets to decide the rules for the people inside it. Professors entering the treehouse doesn't make it creepy. Professors building and running the treehouse makes it creepy. Remember, the "P" in "PLE" stands for "Personal".
Schools on Facebook creates a non-creepy treehouse by letting students choose to overlay their course schedule on their social graph. It's a virtual dorm lounge. Inigral can do this because they have access to both the students' social connections via Facebook and their course information via IMS LIS. In particular, it's possible for them to provide this because the standard makes it much less labor-intensive and therefore much less expensive for Inigral to extract course information from the SIS. I don't want to minimize the great work that they've done, but I can say that they were able to get integration working in a short period of time with a very small developer staff. They also claim that they can get a college up and running on Schools within a couple of hours, which means that they can provide the application much more affordably than they would otherwise. Those are both signs that we did something right with the spec.
I think Schools is a pretty big deal. But I also think it's just one example of what we might be able to do now that we have a workable standard for extracting and mashing up course and student data. In educational technology, we talk a lot about the students' right to privacy. And that's appropriate. But what we don't talk about enough is students' right to access their own data in useful ways. By liberating that data through a standard that can be implemented affordably, I'm optimistic that we (including the students themselves) will be able to mash it up in all kinds of useful and exciting ways that we haven't even imagined yet. This is one of the reasons why I'm proud of the IMS LIS working group and of my product team at Oracle. I think we've enabled something significant.