June 18, 2014
I spent countless hours playing with LEGO sets as a kid. In retrospect, it's not surprising that my time spent with those interlocking bricks helped spark my interest in technology. As I reflect on my childhood experiences with LEGO and on my career in technology, I see how the construction of these iconic toys goes way beyond the playroom.
It might seem obvious, but the fundamental element that makes LEGO such a longstanding success is its simple structure. Every connection that could ever be made between two bricks -- even between two entirely new bricks that have yet to be invented -- is underpinned by a single, universal system patented in 1958. Yet, far from stifling innovation, this system has facilitated creativity from children and professional designers alike for 50 years.
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As a technologist, I can't help but think that LEGO-style systems of interoperability have the potential to reshape industries for the better. And education technology -- unique in both its potential to impact our children and its relative lack of uniformity -- might be the industry most in need of a LEGO-inspired intervention.
The cost of incompatibility
Investment in ed tech has exploded in the past decade. And while that has led to disruption and innovation, such as the rise of adaptive learning and massive open online courses (MOOCs), it has also led to some unintended consequences. The eruptive technology growth, taking place without a guiding roadmap or underlying structure, has left the ed tech field looking a bit like the Wild West. As technology tools have proliferated, they have become increasingly complex and incompatible.
How does this impact schools? Simply put, it means that the various software and hardware tools being used in the classroom don't "talk" to one another, forcing schools to use separate, unintegrated systems for their gradebooks, formative assessment tools, adaptive learning tools, and reading and math programs.
Some schools might spend hundreds of hours and tens of thousands of dollars developing software patches to integrate their systems better, but most don't have the resources to do this. In many cases, the burden shifts to teachers and students, who are forced to waste valuable class time learning how to operate within multiple systems. Incompatibility quickly translates into wasted money and class time, and it has the potential to drag down student achievement.
The LEGO solution
It doesn't need to be this way. With a common standard of interoperability, students could focus on learning, teachers on teaching, and developers on designing the best teaching and learning software possible, rather than on redesigning yet another platform. Even something as simple as consolidating multiple system logins into a single platform could save hours of wasted class time.
Skeptics sometimes worry that uniform technology standards stifle innovation. We need look no further than LEGO for proof that this isn't true. My son's LEGO sets are more sophisticated that anything that I could have imagined when I was a child, yet they still integrate seamlessly with my own LEGO sets from the 1960s. Each of the more than 400 billion LEGO bricks in the world is fully compatible with every other LEGO brick that has ever existed or will ever exist, yet innovation remains unencumbered. That's interoperability at its finest.
The LEGO solution isn't just limited to toys. Interoperability can work -- has already worked -- across entire industries.
From the USB port to HTML, we've seen time and time again that more uniform, open operating standards can help technology thrive. In the mid-1990s, for example, the USB became the industry standard for connecting computer peripherals such as keyboards, mice, and printers. This dramatically simplified the process of setting up and using computers. Even more important, the "openness" of the USB standard unleashed a wave of innovative hardware design.
We need a set of ed tech standards that allow that kind of plug-and-play functionality across all platforms and applications.
Guidelines for the future
Thankfully, the solution is already in our hands. The IMS Global Learning Consortium has led a community-driven effort to develop guidelines that will encourage plug-and-play integration of apps, tools, and content built on open standards, services, and APIs.
Several major education technology companies, including my company, McGraw-Hill Education, have already signed on as contributing members of the IMS and have vowed to help implement the standards in their own products.
Proprietary connections make things difficult for teachers and students and hinder innovation. Teachers should not have to be IT experts to make education technologies work together. Data and information in one application or platform should be easily accessible by another application or platform.
As we move further into our digital future, let's not create unnecessary challenges by building our software in isolation. Let's take a cue from LEGO and focus on building the best compatible tools possible -- not on reinventing the rules of the brick.
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