Published on 2014/02/12

The Ed-Tech Ecosystem: Reviewing the Needs and the Barriers

The Ed-Tech Ecosystem: Reviewing the Need and the Barriers
Creating an ecosystem among higher education service providers contributes to the industry’s growth and innovation.
As an industry, education technology (ed-tech) typically lags about five years behind the technology space in terms of innovation. Take drag-and-drop, a mainstay design feature for years. Ed-tech providers are finally coming around to it and patting themselves on the back. Meanwhile, the tech scene is knee-deep in mobile. It’s a blistering pace and ed-tech is the tortoise that never quite catches up to the hare. As a company with skin in the game, it has been frustrating for us to witness this.

Granted, it is unfair to paint the entire industry in broad strokes. Ed-tech’s recent attention from the venture capital community is helping to usher fresh blood into the space with exciting solutions. However, it’s disappointing that even these new entrants are falling into the same trap that has plagued ed-tech’s legacy members; that is, an unwillingness to contribute to an education ecosystem.

Unfortunately, the view shared by far too many vendors in this space is that their product is a standalone solution. Many see their solution as the AOL of education: a platform that everyone should use for everything — all discussions, all quizzes, all communications and so on. This trap is a dangerous one to fall into because it discourages collaboration and combining approaches for better solutions. Worse, it prevents new innovators from entering the space and challenging the status quo.

Ultimately, this approach cannot sustain a healthy ed-tech ecosystem. For this space to thrive, everyone cannot view themselves as the one-stop shop for education. Remember the poster of the ocean life ecosystem in elementary school that not only featured the whales, but the small fish that cleaned them? A healthy ecosystem has to be a collective environment, where small players are valued and can own their corner.

When we launched Canvas in 2011, we saw a dearth of innovation due to this lack of collaboration. To kick-start the ecosystem, we started pushing for IMS Global Learning Consortium’s Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI), which allows remote tools and content to be integrated into a Learning Management System (LMS). We encouraged (and still encourage) everyone to open up their application programming interfaces (APIs) and designed the LTI extensions to even work with Blackboard, Desire2Learn and other platforms. In fact, at Instructure, our internal motto is, “LTI is the highway.”

Of course, any proponent of change needs to lead by example, and we have done our best to do so. We have LTI extensions with more than 130 apps, ranging from learning resources such as Khan Academy to social tools including Twitter and YouTube to textbook platforms like Flat World Knowledge. Instructors have the freedom to pick and choose which educational tools they want to be used in their class, and the learning experience is enhanced that much more as a result.

As one would expect, colleges and universities are thrilled with this developing ecosystem, having waited for so long for someone to take up this charge. They obviously would prefer not to be locked in. They want the freedom to switch their LMS without having to start from scratch again and rebuild every integration.

The ecosystem’s greatest challenge comes from vendors viewing collaboration as a competitive threat. This is an unfounded fear. Some worry that contributing to the ecosystem prevents them from maintaining exclusivity with certain partners. To the contrary, LTI allows for exclusive integrations and simply acts as a baseline.

The industry has made some traction, but there is still room for improvement. The ecosystem is just beginning and it has been rewarding to see even members of the old guard jump on board. The risk with any set of industry standards is that it can become a barrier to entry and cause new players to question the value for the effort put in. In my estimation, if the industry can maintain its current progress, we can have a thriving ecosystem five years from now (and no longer be five years behind everyone else).

If there is any space where collaboration should take precedence over strict competition, it should be education. We’re so bought in to LTI that our internal motto for partners is “it’s LTI or the highway.” We even build our own new features on top of LTI. We hope this attitude of collaboration becomes the new standard across the education community.

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Readers Comments

James Branden 2014/02/12 at 10:46 am

Vendors are increasingly expected to act as connectors and have excellent compatibility with a variety of products in the market. Like the savvy consumers of today, institutions are now doing their own research and comparing products and quotes, instead of simply listening to the recommendations of their vendor. As a result, more ed-tech vendors are adopting the “highway” type of thinking that Whitmer describes when they design and pitch their products.

Ewan Philipps 2014/02/12 at 12:45 pm

Comparing the ed-tech industry to an ecosystem is a good analogy, because there are big and small players, and all have a role to play to bring higher education institutions up to speed with other industries. The wise vendor will look at working with other vendors as a competitive advantage, rather than a weakness, in order to capitalize on institutions’ push to use multiple vendors to meet their needs. In fact, as an ed-tech vendor, the questions I’m most often asked during presentations relate to compatibility.

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