The Instructional Management Systems Cooperative: Converting Random Acts of Progress into Global Progress


Educom Review table of contents
November/December 1999
This article was published in Educom Review, Volume 34 Number 6 1999. The copyright is copyright is shared by the author(s) and EDUCAUSE.
An EDUCAUSE publication



The Instructional Management Systems Cooperative: Converting Random Acts of Progress into Global Progress
by William H. Graves

The Basic IMS Concept and Its Context

Five years ago when we organized and rolled out what is now the EDUCAUSE National Learning Infrastructure Initiative (NLII), two exciting instructional technology tracks had barely begun to intersect.1 Advances in microcomputer-based multimedia technology had enabled the development of media-rich, interactive learning materials in the stand-alone medium of the microcomputer with a CD-ROM drive. In a separate but parallel track, the introduction of the HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP), the HyperText Markup Language (HTML), and the Web browser had made it possible to deliver learning materials for "anytime, anyplace" study by students who had access to an Internet-connected microcomputer and a Web browser. Similarly, Internet-based e-mail (and lists) were enabling "anytime, anyplace" communications within learning communities of students and instructors.

The Internet and its Web protocol (HTTP) were promising to resolve the distribution and revision bottlenecks inherent in providing instruction through CD-ROMs and floppy disks -- and books. And the Web browser, supporting HTTP and HTML, was becoming a standard for gaining access to learning materials "published" on the Web using HTML tags, obviating the need for students to have any software more specialized than a Web browser. But the Web was not then, and still is not, as rich as the stand-alone multimedia microcomputer environment in the potential to focus the full range of human senses on decisions and actions that lead to learning.

Some nevertheless thought that a national learning infrastructure would inevitably emerge with the commercial evolution of the Web. The Web, they argued, would surely become a more interactive, media-rich environment in which innovative instructors would "author" Web-based courses richer and more immersive than any collection of linked HTML files. They were partly right. Technologies such as Java now hold this promise, but their broad educational potential has yet to be realized. Progress to date owes mostly to the work of individual instructors using a variety of technologies that either do not scale or have not met with the universal acceptance accorded HTTP and HTML. Indeed, progress thus far might best be described as random acts of progress. The larger purpose of the EDUCAUSE Instructional Management Systems (IMS) Cooperative is to channel the necessary bottom-up innovation and progress into national and global progress that can be understood and supported from the top down. 2

Not only is there not much evidence of a national or global "educational object economy" on the Internet, but only a few institutions can claim to have created a coherent institutional environment for instruction on the Internet. Many are delivering courses on the Web and/or enhancing traditional classroom courses with Web components. But seldom do these efforts scale to the institutional level or, in the aggregate, add up to an institutional program. They certainly do not constitute a national and global learning infrastructure that takes into account the need for both freedom of choice and broadly accepted (de facto) technical standards, as a means to stimulate the development of those choices.

For an analogy, imagine how much more unfriendly the skies would be if

  • every airline had to build its own airport in each market it wanted to serve,
  • travel agents had to master a different ticketing system for each airline, and
  • there were no agencies, such as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), or protocols to route air traffic and ensure safety in the air and at the airport.

Although it is far from perfect, there is a national air transportation system, part formally developed and part informally evolved, that balances the interests of airlines, airplane manufacturers and other industry suppliers, pilots and other industry employees, airport authorities, travel agents, and passengers. This national system is held together not by a single standards or regulatory agency such as the FAA but by negotiations and contracts between the FAA, the National Air Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Trade Commission, pilot and other employee unions, airlines, travel agencies, and industry constructs such as code-sharing (precompetitive) partnerships among airlines. Our national air transportation system is part of a loosely coupled global system. Both systems have many "moving parts" and yet accommodate iterative changes to reflect new developments.

The IMS Cooperative is trying to accomplish a similar balancing feat to provide synchronizing, technical leverage for the forward-looking initiatives of all stakeholders in education and training. At stake are the interests of

  • organizations that sponsor and deliver instruction and/or certify its outcomes,
  • educational policy and standards bodies,
  • instructors,
  • developers of instructional resources,
  • commercial and noncommercial providers of instructional resources and other suppliers to the education and training "industry,"
  • learners, and
  • the commercial and societal groups that expect some form of quality assurance in the education and training marketplace.

As in the friendly skies, there are many "moving parts." Those who believe that the IMS Cooperative is about a single piece of instructional management code or a single functional standard for instructional management systems are off base. The IMS Cooperative is trying to build the "Internet architecture for learning." An architecture requires a blueprint that conforms to a set of building codes. The IMS Cooperative gathers ideas about what kind of functionality will be needed in the online components of a global learning infrastructure. The IMS technical team then designs and vets technical specifications to support that functionality, with the ultimate goal of facilitating the acquisition of component parts from a range of suppliers in the educational value chain of nonprofit and commercial interests. These technical specifications are the IMS candidates for industry-wide de facto standards that will enable different software technologies in the various online instructional infrastructure and application layers to exchange information and otherwise to interoperate. They are offered publicly as de facto standards for interoperability among learning systems, management systems, content, and discourse. The intent is to promote broad adherence to the open IMS specifications. If any become formal standards, so much the better.

The Challenges Inherent in the IMS Concept

There are many reasons why progress toward a global learning infrastructure has not been systemic. And many of these reasons illustrate both the need for and the complexity of the IMS agenda. Here are some examples.

A Student's Education Involves More Than a Single Course and Instructor

An education is earned by successfully navigating multiple learning events, typically organized as courses and orchestrated by different instructors working in complex organizational settings. These settings are sometimes interinstitutional -- as is often the case when the context is "K-grave" lifelong learning. In this broader view of what constitutes a formal education, little institutional and interinstitutional progress has been made in using online technologies to enhance the instructional process and to record the learning accomplishments that should be its goal. We initiated the IMS Cooperative to encourage the coherence of pockets of progress into a systemic global learning infrastructure. Initially focused on higher education, we envisioned a future in which postsecondary students would select their educational opportunities in a competitive education marketplace. Students would have choices as they tried to balance a variety of individual educational requirements, including, especially, individual requirements for convenience and quality. This open education marketplace would be defined by thousands of competing offerings that would aggregate the work of expert content organizers and learning mentors (instructors), content authors and publishers, and providers of education and educational infrastructure (institutions). The IMS specifications can be the technical glue that will integrate these components, to the mutual benefit of the student, the instructors, the institutions, and the companies involved in a student's education.

A Course Is More Than Content

Even when the acquisition of "content" is designed on the constructivist model to engage multiple senses and learning styles -- as with exploratory multimedia learningware -- most students need the guidance of an instructor. Instructors help learners acquire knowledge and assimilate that new knowledge in the larger context of a coherent body of knowledge that constitutes a "way of knowing": a curriculum, a liberal education, the scientific method, a body of professional knowledge and skills, or other educational constructs. Instructors accordingly are responsible for much more than the delivery of content, and the IMS specifications offer the prospect of seamless technical integration for instructors who use a variety of technologies to amplify their effectiveness and efficiency as they fulfill their responsibilities in the instructional process. Those responsibilities include the following:

  • Select and sequence the content to be studied
  • Organize discussions and other class group activities to encourage and facilitate collaborative learning
  • Guide students' self-study
  • advise, tutor, and assign readings, papers, projects, etc.
  • Critique and measure (grade) students' individual progress
  • Manage and report students' progress within an institutional or interinstitutional process that leads to the certification of students' individual accomplishments

Content Is More Than Lecture Notes

The textbook has long been a mainstay of instruction. It is used by instructors to organize a course of study and to provide students with material for self-study. Few instructors are textbook authors. Instead, most instructors select a textbook and prepare syllabi and lecture notes to reorganize and supplement that textbook with their insights and expertise. Because syllabi and lecture notes can easily be published on the Web, we tend to confuse that act with the electronic equivalent of authoring and publishing a textbook. But the posting of syllabi and notes on the Web usually happens without the peer review and professional editing associated with the publication of a textbook. The true technology-enhanced counterpart to the textbook is, instead, learningware -- carefully designed and reviewed interactive software environments that organize and deliver not only knowledge but the means to participate actively in the creation of knowledge through simulations, modeling, tutoring, and the like. There is as yet no significant higher education marketplace in learningware. Moreover, instructors and their institutions are no more likely to succeed in the business of creating reusable, nationally or globally reviewed learningware than they would be if together they organized a business for refining class notes into published textbooks to compete against commercial publishers in the textbook market. The IMS specifications can help create a sorely needed commercial infrastructure for developing, selling, and distributing learningware that can be used interchangeably in a global learning infrastructure.

Convenience Is Important for Both Students and Instructors

Students who seek educational opportunities at a distance often raise a variety of convenience issues. Is communication primarily asynchronous, or are there requirements for real-time class participation or location-based participation? Can admission and registration, academic advising, book purchases, library research, or assignment submission be accomplished online? These are issues mostly of convenience, not of distance. Even students who seek a residential educational experience often enroll in Web-based courses or utilize online administrative and student services for reasons of convenience. Whatever the context, online communication, study materials, and instructional processes will not be perceived as convenient unless they are seamlessly woven together to obviate the need for multiple application interfaces and navigational rules that vary significantly from course to course, department to department, and institution to institution. Moreover, instructors who do not count themselves among the early adopters of technology-enhanced instructional methods are not likely to participate in online educational environments unless it is convenient to do so -- or they are forced to do so. The IMS specifications can make the Internet a convenient medium in which to conduct education and training -- from the perspective of all the stakeholders involved.

When There Are Many Moving Parts, Quality Assurance Is Difficult

The considerations described above reveal that there are many moving parts in the instructional environment with its many stakeholders -- learners, instructors, authors, publishers, institutions, and the external commercial and societal beneficiaries of education and training. As with the friendly skies, there must be ways to monitor and negotiate the overall quality of the enterprise. The IMS Cooperative is working to ensure interoperability and competition within the enterprise and thus choice in the value chain of developing, purchasing, delivering, and certifying education and training. Choice permits the exercise of judgment and provides a framework for pursuing and negotiating quality assurance from a variety of perspectives.

The Status and Future of the IMS Effort

The IMS Cooperative was created in early 1997 to succeed (or fail) over a three-year period. Success was defined as attracting enough investment members to craft and openly publish technical specifications that, near the end of the three-year period, would be the technical foundation for a host of product and service development efforts from within the IMS Cooperative and from other interested parties. The IMS Cooperative quickly attracted investment members, over thirty by early 1999. Those members have funded the excellent work of a full-time staff and have contributed critical expertise and other forms of in-kind support.

The IMS staff has organized the collection of requirements and has facilitated the attendant process of developing technical specifications for the "Internet architecture for learning." By the end of 1998, almost two years into the effort, success appeared much more likely than not. Thus began a process for securing the future evolution, promotion, and maintenance of the IMS specifications. To understand this future, we must understand the current organizational structure of the IMS Cooperative. And that brings us back to the host organization for the IMS effort: EDUCAUSE.

The EDUCAUSE NLII was designed to advance systemic thinking and action on the uses of network technology in higher education to

  • increase access to instruction,
  • improve the quality of the outcomes
  • the learning accomplishments
  • of instruction, and
  • increase return on investment in instruction from the perspective of all of its stakeholders.

To advance these key goals, the NLII serves as a neutral incubator for ideas, actions, and products developed by member organizations and others with a stake in higher education. The NLII is led by an EDUCAUSE vice-president, is advised by a Planning Committee, and is staffed for facilitation, not for implementation. The NLII accordingly facilitates an RFP (request for partners) process to promote common-good collaboration among participating organizations. The IMS Cooperative is the distillation of several RFPs with similar agendas. The common agenda identified a necessary technical dimension to any attempt to convert random acts of progress on the instructional technology front into national and global progress. It recognized the complexity of using the Internet as a medium in the instructional process. It recognized that a broadly shared technical framework could encourage the development of a robust, open market of interchangeable technology-enhanced products and services -- a flexible, integrative foundation for taking advantage of the Internet in all aspects of the development, delivery, and management of instruction, its content, its human interactions, its learning accomplishments, and its records.

The IMS Cooperative thus was conceived in the context of EDUCAUSE's institutional membership base in higher education and has operated for over two years under the legal and financial aegis of EDUCAUSE. But this hosting arrangement was never viewed as necessarily permanent. Two aspects of the current hosting situation reveal the kind of issues now surfacing:

  • To succeed in becoming the "Internet architecture for learning," the IMS specifications must be adopted in significant education and training markets external to higher education -- notably, in the public-school sector and in corporate and government education and training markets. Indeed, many of the current investment members of the IMS Cooperative are from or operate in these other markets and believe that IMS organizational and governance structures should reflect their interests, as well as those of higher education.
  • Under the current arrangement, the EDUCAUSE Board of Directors has ultimate legal responsibility for the IMS Cooperative. Many investment members, in light of their financial stakes through IMS dues and, more significantly, their large investments in product development, have argued for a governance structure that unambiguously places ultimate responsibility with those organizations that agree to fund the IMS Cooperative with significant contributions in cash to sustain a staff and its organizing, facilitative, and promotional work into the future.

A working group of the IMS Advisory Board recently formulated some future IMS scenarios. After considering these, the Advisory Board formed an IMS Transition Team to create or find a new nonprofit organization as the future base for IMS activities.

The new IMS organization would be governed by a board of directors composed, in the majority, of directors elected from and by the membership -- those individuals who on a one-to-one basis represent the commercial and nonprofit organizations that choose to pay an annual membership fee. Membership fees would be structured both to promote membership and to meet the estimated financial needs of the new organization. The new IMS organization would have several fundamental responsibilities:

  • Be responsive to the needs of both developers and customers of products and services that conform to the IMS specifications
  • Develop and operate formal, representative mechanisms for gathering functional and technical requirements from key education and training communities, especially from the higher education community, the public-school sector, and the corporate and government education and training sector
  • Staff and facilitate a neutral, precompetitive technical-specifications development process in which any member organization can actively participate in the formulation or revision of any IMS specification before its public dissemination
  • Promote the adoption of the IMS specifications through market development activities; these activities should include working with standards bodies, when appropriate, and organizing a developers' support mechanism open to any organization willing to develop or use products that conform to the IMS specifications -- the idea behind the current IMS Developers' Network


EDUCAUSE's three-year IMS Cooperative effort has succeeded in the most difficult of endeavors -- facilitating progress toward a common goal shared by a group of diverse organizations, each with its own overriding interests to protect and advance. Ensuring the ultimate, sustainable success of the effort will require a transition to a new organizational and governance construct and educationally representative agenda. That new construct and agenda will have to recognize the key role of companies' investments in IMS-compliant commercial products and services while also providing a formal mechanism to ensure that those products and services are informed by the needs of customers -- from higher education, the public schools, and the corporate and government education and training markets. By the time this article appears, more details about the new IMS organization should be available on the Web at

You can help advance the next-phase IMS effort by encouraging organizations that will benefit from a sustainable IMS construct to participate as fee-paying members.


1. Dr. Robert Heterick, in his role as president of Educom, invited Dr. Carol Twigg and the author to collaborate with him, under Educom's sponsorship, to conceive and roll out the Educom National Learning Infrastructure Initiative. Twigg subsequently joined Educom as a vice-president to lead the initiative. The author continues to chair the Planning Committee for the initiative, which is now led by EDUCAUSE Vice-President Dr. Carole Barone.

2. The IMS Cooperative is a project of the NLII. A wealth of information and a formal statement of IMS goals and objectives are online at http:/

Dr. Graves is Chairman and Founder of, a recently formed Internet company providing enterprise-wide services and scalable technologies to enable rapid transition to Internet-empowered education, training, and management of knowledge resources. He brought to this new venture over thirty years of faculty and administrative experience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, including serving as senior information technology officer and founding and directing the Institute for Academic Technology.



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