In general, I am a fan of the IMS. I believe that we need interoperability standards in education, and I think that the IMS’s recent work such as the released Common Cartridge standard, the in-progress Enterprise Services v2 (now called Learning Information Services, or LIS) and Learning Tool Interoperability standards, and the foundational requirements work happening within the Learning Technology Advisory Council (LTAC) are going to prove to be important drivers of learning impact over the next several years. That said, I am also highly sympathetic to complaints about the IMS’s policy of members-only access to specifications under development. There’s something fundamentally contradictory about open standards being developed behind closed doors.
Over the past 18 months, I have had the privilege of participating in the IMS work on a regular basis. During that time, I have mostly kept my mouth shut about the openness issue. Out of respect for the staff and the board, I wanted to experience the process from the inside and see how it works today before advocating change. But at the Learning Impact conference last month, I decided to speak out.
I didn’t mince words. At one point I said, “I know plenty of people in the ed tech community–good people, exactly the kind of people that we need to participate–who think that the IMS is some kind of secret society.” I got a fair few “amens” from other participants, both publicly and privately. To his credit, IMS CEO Rob Abel responded positively and non-defensively. (I expected nothing less.) In the spirit of that dialog, I am going to articulate my case for the further opening of the IMS specification development process here.
Let me start by laying out the rationale I have heard articulated most often in support of the current policy. It’s important understand that the IMS could not do what it does without the work of its paid staff. First of all, producing a specification in a form that is implementable and reliable is a tremendous amount of work–more work than volunteer participants are likely to get done on their own. Beyond that, the staff bring to the table critical skills and knowledge that not every working group is guaranteed to have, e.g., knowledge of related standards, skill with UML, etc. I know lots of smart and skilled people in ed tech. I know very few who have all the specific skills that the IMS staff have. The specifications simply wouldn’t get done without these people. Since the only IMS’s only source of revenue to pay their salary comes from membership dues, the leadership is understandably cautious about doing anything that might result in a reduction of dues-paying members.
And therein lies the problem. The IMS apparently did open up its specs-in-draft to the general public at one point, and this correlated with a drop in revenue-producing membership. Likewise, their subsequent restriction of access to the specs correlated with an increase in dues-paying members. Some within the IMS leadership have concluded from this that an early-adopter advantage resulting from exclusive access to specs-in-draft drives membership. However, correlation does not prove causation. It turns out that my employer was one of those organizations that dropped their membership around the time that the IMS opened up access and joined again around the time that the IMS put the walls back up around the garden. Both of those decisions were made before my time, but my Oracle colleagues tell me that neither decision had anything to do with the opening or closing of access to non-members. Oracle quit the IMS because the work being done was not perceived to be relevant to the company. Keeping the specs-in-draft members-only would have had no impact on the decision since we didn’t care about what was being produced anyway. (During that same time period, a friend of mine whose opinion I respect greatly referred to the IMS as “a roving dinner party.”) Likewise, our decision to rejoin wouldn’t have been any different even if we could have accessed the specs-in-draft for free. We rejoined because we needed new and revised specifications such as Enterprise Services v2 (a.k.a. LIS) to work properly for our customers, and the only way we could ensure that would happen was to participate actively in the working groups. I believe that IMS membership has increased not because the specs-in-draft were walled off from non-members but because the organization, under the leadership of Rob and the board, is now doing more relevant and important work.
Furthermore, even if it were true at some point in the past that walling off the specs-in-draft provided a net benefit, the world has changed. Gone are the days when implementors are confined to a few well-funded vendors and large universities. The plummeting barriers to entry in software development have brought many more players to the table, from startups to smaller schools to individuals. These folks can contribute to both the quality and the uptake of the specifications if they can be enticed to participate. Greater transparancy is the best way to get the message out to them. Meanwhile, national and regional standards are being developed all over the world, and those standards are less likely to be informed by and harmonized with the IMS specifications as long as the specs-in-draft are only accessible to members. While the IMS has done a good job of outreach to other standards groups, you can only reach out to groups that you know about. In contrast, opening up the specs-in-draft enables other standards groups to discover that the IMS is doing work relevant to their own in a timely manner via a simple Google search. In terms of building revenue-supplying membership to pay salary for vital staff, I think the IMS’s biggest risk is opportunity loss resulting from lack of transparancy.
To be fair, the IMS has already taken recent steps toward openness that many people may not know. (Alas, transparancy takes a lot more work to achieve than openness does.) For example, the draft of the LIS standard will be made available for public input around the end of this year, only a couple of months after it will be available to the IMS membership at large. Public comment will be open for at least a good six months before the spec is finalized and, as a member of the working group, I can assure you that we will be doing everything we can to actively solicit input and incorporate it into the final draft. (Stay tuned for details as we get closer to the release.)
I understand the IMS leadership’s desire to approach further steps cautiously and incrementally, given the stakes. So I suggest the following next steps:
- Eliminate altogether the distinction between the members-only CM/DN draft and the one available to the general public. IMS members who want an early-adopter advantage should join the working groups.
- Create a clear policy that individual working groups are free to release public general updates and solicit public input on specific issues prior to release of the public draft as they see fit.
- Begin a conversation with the IMS membership about the possibility of opening up the working group discussion areas and document libraries to the general public on a read-only basis.
I believe that these steps would lead to increased quality and uptake of final specifications and, ultimately, increased IMS membership. They could lay the groundwork for further openness at low risk to the organization.