The evolution of technological innovation and standards, to this day, including commercial variations, owes the military industrial complex a great deal of gratitude. Corporations continue to enjoy the boons of public funding going into innovation, which in the case of EdTech barely begin with DARPA’s better known initiatives, from the onset of the Internet to the development of graphical user interfaces we enjoy today. The US Defense sector enjoys resources mirroring a small ecosystem’s worth. More uncommon knowledge is the fact that, DoD is the world’s single largest spender of R&D, often representing more than half of the whole government’s budget. Amazon, Alphabet, Intel, and Samsung may dispute the public rankings year in and year out. In 2017, the former came on top with a reported $16.1 billion USD. Meanwhile, US Defense R&D for the same year reached $68.1 billion, or about the four of them combined. The current executive’s priorities increased it some $4 billion compared to 2016, back on track to its inflation-adjusted $79.4 billion peak of 2005. The promotion of online learning standards, from SCORM to xAPI, has been the mission of the DoD program, Advance Learning Initiative, which leads several “R&D efforts” on the areas of “education, training, informal learning, and just-in-time support.” If you still struggle with SCORM to this day you have the US government to thank.
ADL also chairs the Defense ADL Advisory Committee, which coordinates learning initiatives among the Department of Defense, including the Armed Forces, the Office of Personnel Management and the Defense Language and National Security Education Office. It leaves little doubt that the US government still considers effective EdTech a matter of national security.
The interplay between national security concerns and the private industry’s interests finds in ADL one of its most explicit havens. While the agency actively promotes collaboration and “emphasizes collaboration” with “international partners, industry and academia,” it is funded entirely by the American taxpayer. The development of its programs is usually contracted. Unlike similar cases of military or security innovation, ADL intends its development to play an active public role. The thinking may go as follows: Spreading EdTech standards helps industry adoption. Procurers of EdTech-related services can readily offer compliant services. Defense agencies can trust on the national industry to procure solutions efficiently. Personnel can receive qualified training that is fast and secure. As a result of promoting open EdTech standards, the US Government personnel is better capable to address any given threat.
There are two fundamental reasons why government promotion of standards, like xAPI, as well as other network-level initiatives, is hard to replace by the private sector, whether one large agent, or the combination of smaller entities working in a developed market.
- Systemic benefits. If left to its own devices, the industry should have no trouble coming up with sets of standards as part of business models pursued by innovators. But once such model is seen viable, the market will be flooded with choices, which to an extent defeats the purpose of standardization. Better and more efficient solutions will likely arise, and some companies will thrive at the expense of others. Meanwhile, capital, human and cognitive resources will be wasted in vain in marketing, development and training for dead specifications. Over time, the consumer will be only slightly better off, but probably more confused. It would be the EdTech equivalent of wanting to solve world hunger, and getting 20 brands of bread in return.
- Decades-long hockey stick. Technologists tend to agree: xAPI is ready for prime time. What is still not there: a business model that can argue its value proposition to the mainstream successfully. History shows time and again that the social value of a technological solution can predate its financial sustainability for long periods of time. Without relentless government support for space exploration or renewable energies —let alone basic research— and often defying the public opinion, we would not have a modicum of the technological markets we’re bound to enjoy today.
There are no easy, always right answers on neither the government intervention issue, nor the issue of implementing a next-generation specification that the market has yet to figure out. While innovation is by definition a gamble, economic and social forces can provide useful sandboxes that encourage sustainable development. For the time being, everyone in EdTech stands to benefit from ADL’s laser-focused approach to EdTech R&D:
“[W]e take “low fidelity” laboratory prototypes and mature them into workable systems, ready for real-world “test flights.” To be effective, we must overcome the research-practice gap between good ideas working in a lab and functional systems that work under real-world conditions in order to bridge the so-called ‘valley of death’ that so often defeats good research and development (R&D).”■