Dr. Rob Abel is the Chief Executive Officer at the global, nonprofit organization IMS Global Learning Consortium (IMS). IMS collaborates with universities, schools, governments, content providers and tech companies to "accelerate learning technology interoperability, adoption, and impact." Abel applies his background in computer science and extensive professional experience in not only the fields of education, learning, and e-Learning, but also in technology. He has held roles in general management, research & development, product development and business development at companies including Collegis, Oracle, National Semiconductor, and TRW. Abel holds an Ed.D. from Fielding Graduate University, an MS in Engineering Management from Stanford University, an MS in Computer Engineering from the University of Southern California, and a BS in Computational Physics from Carnegie Mellon University.

How did your educational trajectory and past professional experience shape your current work?

My current work, the IMS Global Learning Consortium, is all about improving education by enabling better digital teaching and learning environments. At IMS, this is accomplished through the cooperation of a very wide range of leading edtech suppliers and institutions (K-20). IMS is enabling a shared architecture for educational innovation that is collectively developed by the participants in the global education sector, which has been receiving notable coverage in major educational publications (see A New Architecture for Learning in EDUCAUSE Review). All participants can be providers of pieces of this open standards-based connected platform, and create businesses for various types of learning platforms, content or tools. . . but no one organization owns the architecture. It’s kind of like the model of the web (an open standards-based architecture), but focused on the specific needs of education. What it’s completely different from is Apple iTunes where one vendor owns the architecture and controls the business model.

My educational trajectory started deep into computer and networking technology (Carnegie-Mellon and USC), but eventually led me to more of an entrepreneurial market development business focus (Stanford), and most recently to a study of educational leadership and change (Fielding Graduate University). A certain amount of expertise in all of these areas is required for what we do in IMS because technology, market development, and new educational models intersect to motivate the shared architecture to enable great educational innovation. Personally I think it is important to be capable of both theory and practice in your field(s).

I have been an entrepreneur most of my career—even though I have worked for several large technology companies (intrapreneuring), as well as start-ups. Being an entrepreneur means understanding your customer—perhaps even better than they understand themselves. At IMS it means working with a very broad set of sector stakeholders (suppliers and institutions) to ascertain the universe of future educational models and then focusing on the building blocks that are ubiquitous to enabling the spectrum. For an architecture to be successful it must be compelling in the short term and adaptable to the long term. Good entrepreneurs understand the importance of this.

How do you hope your work will change the learning landscape?

Diversity is the spice of life, but enabling diverse models of educational attainment and delivery is the only way to get to the future of education and learning. We are at the very beginning of understanding how learning works. Everybody learns. It’s basic to survival. However, today it’s clear that learning and education are tied to quality of life and meeting societal challenges of the future. Are we learning fast enough? If we are, we will be able to redesign our educational systems to help us learn how to learn more effectively. Do we know how to do this? No. We do have some initial insights. But, today’s educational models are stuck. Many of the "reformers" are thinking they can affect education by looking in the rear view mirror and trying to perfect old models. New models of education are needed.

Some of the new models are not new models at all, but old models like the purpose-driven practitioner facilitated education envisioned by educational philosopher John Dewey. But the problem is that such models are difficult to deliver at scale. That’s where technology innovation needs to come in. We need to get people the basic skills they need rapidly, but we need to do it in a situation that has real motivation. Technology that we have today, ranging from learning management systems to eportfolios to new types of digital learning apps/content/adaptive tutors, mobile devices are the very beginning of a long road to enable these new models. No one can predict exactly the technologies that will work the best.

But, we do know that we need to encourage innovation from all possible sources. We also know that we do not want one supplier controlling it all—akin to the Apple iTunes model. IMS Global is enabling plug and play digital education applications, environments, and digital resources—all connected through the open standards-based architecture. Not in the simple-minded single-platform iTunes kind of standalone platform with a variety of apps, but a large variety of digital platforms, apps, and resources that can be integrated with one click into an educational enterprise or entire network of educational enterprises, thus connecting students to students, students to teachers, and all to high quality innovative institutions of learning that are rising to meet tomorrow’s educational challenges. Educational technology needs to easily connect and work together and that relatively small change will enable lots of diversity and progress.

What broad trends do you think will have the most impact on learning in the years ahead?

I’m focused on solid bets in the two to five year timeframe.

The most important is that the shift from paper to digital is clearly happening now and represents a huge opportunity. It seemed like three years ago people were still wondering if digital resources could replace textbooks. No one is wondering any longer if they can. And major publishers are now leading the charge to move to digital. If you analyze the spending patterns on educational materials in North America, it is very clear that the spend is shifting by 3–5% a year now. K-12 is leading the way with higher education still mired in the preferences of individual professors.

A most exciting development is that the digital conversion in education has clearly moved beyond PDFs and the same old content available online. Digital opportunity has finally created competition around creating better digital learning experiences. We are seeing the leaders in a range of business models, including open education resources (OERs), making great strides in actually providing a better product. I love this because it shows that we are moving away from the looking-in-the-rearview-mirror mentality.

Integrated e-assessment as an engagement and feedback mechanism will make huge strides. Summative assessments are rapidly moving from paper to electronic, including advancements in computer adaptive testing. While electronic summative assessment is more rapid in terms of feedback than paper exams, it is very clear that we need more immediate feedback at the point of learning so the student, teacher, and parent can course correct.

There is a very strong movement to use data to improve educational results. One of the important potential benefits of digital in education is getting better data on usage and progress and correlating user activities to measures of progress. It is very clear that standards like IMS Caliper are going to make good data on the use of digital learning materials and platforms commonplace in three to five years. That’s because Caliper will make it 1000 times easier for platforms and applications to share data.

The last major trend I’ll mention is the move toward more granular digital credentialing. A pent-up demand for the desire to be able to better ascertain the accomplishments and competencies arising from an educational experience are intersecting with digital lifestyles and self-promotion to create a fertile ground for some leading institutions to take us beyond the transcript. This is a challenging transition because the world has grown accustomed to operating in a certain way around transcripts, resumes, and so forth, but it is very clear that movement is afoot and changes are coming.

What are you currently working on & what is your next big project?

Well IMS as of today has grown to 320 member organizations and has now issued 500 conformance certifications for products that have implemented aspects of the standards-based architecture for educational innovation. In 2006 we had a total of 50 members and in 2014 we added 56, and are adding at a similar clip in 2015. In other words, things are catching fire and we have a lot on our plate with the IMS expansion. Indeed we are adding staff.

Our top five areas of focus are digital content interoperability (Common Cartridge, Thin Common Cartridge, EDUPUB), learning platform/tool interoperability (Learning Tools Interoperability [LTI], OneRoster), educational analytics (Caliper), e-Assessment (Question & Test Interoperability [QTI], Accessible Portable Item Protocol [APIP]) and Digital Credentialing (extended Transcript and educational badges). The work in all five areas spans higher education, K-12, and is even beginning to be picked up in corporate education now. Accessibility of digital educational content, tools and platforms is also a major focus of IMS that spans all the other areas. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has provided IMS a small three year grant focused specifically on Caliper Analytics and Learning Tools Interoperability.

One of our more integrative projects is CASA, the Community App Sharing Architecture. CASA is a peer-to-peer app catalog for institutions to share educational apps based on the IMS standards (and thus able to work on multiple learning platforms). CASA is the education sector’s answer to the single-instance, single-vendor controlled app catalog, like iTunes. Single-vendor controlled platforms just don’t fit the needs of the education segment, despite the fact that they are obviously very popular currently with consumers (until they try to switch of course). CASA is being led by UCLA and being deployed selectively by institutions in the University of California system. If successful the underlying standards and technology can be used to make it even easier to participate in the IMS ecosystem.

Who are the most interesting people you are following on Twitter (if you have a Twitter account)?

Twitter is too noisy to be very productive. We follow the IMS members and do our best to retweet interesting news from the IMS members.

Image: Courtesy Rob Abel