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Potent Alphabet Soup: How SLI, LR and LRMI Will Shape Education Technology Content

Small thumb unnamed 1422653861 1422676498 1428741641 1428750056 Frank Catalano

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Imagine how you would feel if, while you’re focused on upgrading your home’s fixtures and appliances, the underlying plumbing was plotting to re-configure itself.

In a household metaphor, that’s the situation education technology application developers face with three major but little-understood multi-state or national digital education initiatives. All three plumbing efforts are foundation- or association-driven. And all will demand at least some of your attention between now and next spring – whether you’re an established company or a wanna-change-the-classroom startup.

What makes the triumvirate of Learning Resource Metadata Initiative, Learning Registry and Shared Learning Infrastructure confusing isn’t just the alphabet soup of acronyms. It’s the fact that the three separate initiatives, launched in roughly the same time frame, have become inter-linked and somewhat interdependent.

This confusion led to the development of my proprietary Industry Cluelessness Factor (ICF), based on a gut check of how many in the industry really understand what each is. Needless to say, the simpler an initiative is to explain and the more “real” it is today, the lower the ICF.

To start to grok the three, think of the first two as being about digital content – paid or free – and the last about digital data plus that content.

Learning Resource Metadata Initiative (ICF = 50%) is spearheaded by the Association of Educational Publishers and Creative Commons. It provides a taxonomy to consistently tag digital learning content so it can be easily found in web search by teachers. LRMI’s version 1.0 spec has been submitted to Schema.org, and when approved, means it will be used by Google, Bing and Yahoo in delivering search results. Digital content is already being tagged as proof-of-concept by McGraw-Hill, Pearson, CK12, Curriki and others.

Learning Registry (ICF=70%) originated from the U.S. Departments of Education and Defense. It provides a structured index – not a repository – of digital educational content from various free and paid sources and can present a visual map of available content directly in a browser or from within other tools. That makes it easier for teachers to find, in one place, related content and lesson plans by subject, grade level or other criteria. (Entrepreneurs of a Certain Age may recall the analog equivalent: a library card catalog.)

As an index, it can be replicated in real-time across the web in copies called “nodes.” One key point: the Learning Registry recognizes LRMI tags. It also applies other kinds of tags to content, reflecting how the content is used and how it might be rated by teachers. The Registry was launched a year ago and is technically in beta, but has content from NASA, the Smithsonian and more sources.

Shared Learning Infrastructure (ICF=90%) was instigated by the Council of Chief State School Officers and is driven by the Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation under the aegis of the Shared Learning Collaborative. The SLI provides a data warehouse in the cloud for all kinds of student data, and links that data, through Common Core standards, to digital educational content.

Key fact to remember here: the SLI does not store digital learning content. It only stores data (assessment, behavior, attendance, standards mastered, etc.). The content part of SLI is actually a bunch of pointers to content from SLI’s node of the Learning Registry and/or that may be identified with LRMI tags. And, importantly, the SLI has open APIs that let edtech products interact with the student data and content info, critical for layering on data analytics, personalization engines or other learning apps that interact with what SLI stores.

While the SLI is far too complicated to explain well in brief (see this MindShift piece for more detail), it’s currently in alpha with a production release slated for the end of the year. Pilots are underway in districts in five states (Massachusetts, New York, Illinois, North Carolina and Colorado), developers can now play with fake data in a sandbox environment, and pilots will be added next year in four more states (Louisiana, Georgia, Delaware and Kentucky).

Connecting the bits of all the initiatives: LRMI tagging is used by the Learning Registry, and both LRMI and Learning Registry are referenced by the part of the Shared Learning Infrastructure that has to do with Common Core-aligned content. And SLI also stores student data.

So what’s an entrepreneur or established edtech enterprise to do, today?

If you’re a content company, you should pay attention to LRMI and, to a lesser extent, the Learning Registry – especially once Schema.org approves the LRMI spec and Google is using it. If you don’t use LRMI tags, your digital content may not be as discoverable in the major search engines where many educators begin looking for classroom materials. Dave Gladney, who works on LRMI for AEP, says an automated tool is in development to make content tagging faster. Not taking part in LRMI may hurt your content's SEO.

Learning Registry’s immediate importance is harder to determine. Richard Culatta of the Education Department’s Office of Education Technology says someone with programming skills could publish a list of content to the Registry and its nodes in literally half a day, at the simplest level of participation. But the big if is whether teachers or districts will start using the Learning Registry, or tools that embed it, in significant numbers to find chunks of content. Still, with a promised low bar to entry – and the fact it gets an organization’s digital learning content in the SLI – the question of participation may more likely be, “Why not?”

Finally, if you’re an assessment or student information tools company, you must pay attention to SLI (lucky content companies get a mostly free ride by taking part in the Learning Registry and/or LRMI). SLI is the most complex of the three and, as a result, the most time-consuming for a company to even understand (Stephen Coller of the Gates Foundation figures it will take one to two people in engineering up to two to three weeks, including integration). It also could present a new barrier to entry.

Should a district or state adopt SLI as its data storage solution and require all educational apps to exchange data with it through SLI’s open APIs, products or services that remain closed could be locked out – as at least one pilot district has already flatly stated. However, the Shared Learning Infrastructure faces its own hurdles due to its audacious vision and complexity, and its spread depends on the nine pilot states fully adopting it.

Love them or hate them, the education industry can’t safely ignore the LRMI, Learning Registry and SLI efforts. And only time and educator adoption will determine if the three related initiatives all orbit the Happy Fluffy Bunny Planet – or some kind of edtech Death Star.

Frank Catalano is an industry consultant, author and veteran analyst of digital education and consumer technologies. He's a columnist for the tech news site GeekWire, a regular contributor to the NPR/KQED education site MindShift and generally takes a practical nerd’s approach to tech. He tweets @FrankCatalano and consults as Intrinsic Strategy. He presented similar thoughts about LR, LRMI and SLI at the EdNET conference in early October.

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