Blackboard backs ed-tech standards

Common standards could save money for campus IT departments.

Common standards for online learning became more likely this week after Blackboard, Inc. announced that it would support an open database initiative that could make educational content usable on any platform.

Blackboard, in a Jan. 10 release, said the leading learning management system (LMS) and dominant market force would have “full support” for ed-tech industry standards known as Common Cartridge and Basic Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI).

The standards have been developed by IMS Global Learning Consortium, a nonprofit organization that advocates for greater use of education technology through interoperability. IMS officials certified Common Cartridge and Basic LTI in November.

Blackboard’s commitment means faculty members could use online exams, for example, on a variety of web platforms, instead of being limited to the LMS their college or university uses. Using Common Cartridge standards would mean professors and their students would be able to log onto several websites through the same account because the platforms will be integrated.

Common Cartridge is supported by a host of publishers, vendors, and LMS platforms, including McGraw-Hill and Pearson.

Rob Abel, chief executive of the IMS Global Learning Consortium, said standards designed to span across the educational market “are much more effective when market share leading organizations are committed to their success” because participation from a company like Blackboard “motivates the many partners of such leaders to also implement the standards.

“Standards depend on a network effect in that they become exponentially more valuable with each implementing organization and the value each organization brings is related to its market share,” Abel said.

The common standards apply to Blackboard’s Learn 9.1 platform, the company said in its announcement. Applying IMS’s standards to that platform would mean educators could use digital learning tools from other companies’ LMSs and could share the tools more easily.

“This is a big milestone for us and for our clients, and a sign of the maturity of the education technology industry,” said Ray Henderson, president of Blackboard Learn and a member of the IMS board of directors.

If a professor uses Desire2Learn to create a course platform, for instance, the standards will allow her to “reuse the learning content” if she is hired to teach the same course at another college that uses Blackboard.

Without the standards, the professor could not import her course from one platform to another, meaning she would have to take hours to recreate the course online.

Applying standards to Blackboard’s popular platform made good business sense as campus technologists and educators look for more flexible online learning tools, said Charles Severance, a faculty member at the University of Michigan’s School of Information and a developer network coordinator for IMS.

“Strong support for standards and interoperability is very much in Blackboard’s best interest and for me it always felt like it was only a question of when it would fit into the Blackboard development cycle,” he said, adding that the company’s pledge to Common Cartridge and Basic LTI could mark the first step in Blackboard assuming an active role in advancing standards. “Beyond Blackboard’s customers, I hope that this is the beginning of Blackboard taking increasing leadership for the entire marketplace in terms of standards and interoperability.”

Blackboard’s commitment, Abel said, could also be a money saver for college and university IT departments that have seen deep budget cuts in recent years.

Custom integrations that bridge many learning systems are expensive, Abel said. But Basic LTI would allow applications to be shared from one LMS to another without IT staffers spending hours – or days – completing customization.

“I am imagining a future where Blackboard becomes increasingly open in what it is thinking about for next-generation approaches to teaching and learning,” Severance said.