A View from Down Under

International Standards in IT for Learning Technology

Dr Jon MasonSydney (AU), July 2017 – (by Ingunn Ytterhus, IMC Australia) Dr Jon Mason, one of the most respected thought-leaders in the field of standardisation in information technology for learning, education, and training shared his knowledge and experience at the recent ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC36 Conference hosted by Standards Australia, in Melbourne. Dr Mason leads Digital Education Futures research at Charles Darwin University. He is also the regional editor of the International Journal of Smart Technology and Learning, a member of numerous boards, as well as being an active researcher.

Jon Mason has worked in international ICT specifications and standards development since 1998 and serves as the Australian Head of Delegation to ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC36 on behalf of Standards Australia. He specialises in defining global market standards and technical reports in eLearning, education, and training. 

You are an active researcher and your recent publications included a cross-cultural study on the relationship of thinking styles and emerging roles in computer-supported collaborative learning. What are you currently working on?

Dr Jon Mason: I am working on a range of projects about opportunities and strategies on how to improve how we teach and learn when using digital technology. In particular, "question technologies and tools", as I describe them, that assist the development of our critical thinking and questioning skills.

With Khalid Khan, my colleague at Charles Darwin University, I am also exploring various aspects of data literacy, which has a growing importance in the education sector. This involves a deeper understanding of the nature of data, how it is produced, how we produce it, and how others collect it from us. I’m also doing investigations in regard to knowing how to examine fancy data visualisations, how to detect fake news, and so on.

You have been working in standards development for almost twenty years. What motivated you to get into this industry, and what makes you so enthusiastic about what you do until this day?

Dr Jon Mason: It was a coincidence that I got into the industry. Working as an IT Manager at the University of Melbourne, I was part of a national project called Education Network Australia. During my work, it became apparent to me that there is a need for standardised ways of describing content on the web. I left the university to join the government agency Education.au and got involved with two groups working on various approaches to metadata, the Dublin Core Group and Instructional Management Systems (IMS) in the US, which led the way for me to advocate for standardised approaches to a range of things associated with digital infrastructure in Australia.

With other colleagues, I participated in IMS working groups involving digital repository interoperability, learning design, and abstract framework development. At that time, IMS used the marketing strapline "Designing the Internet Architecture for Learning" – I even had a shirt with that written on it! There was a lot of politics, debate, and turf wars going on, but soon I became involved with the newly formed sub-committee within ISO - SC36, which focusses on formal IT standards development for learning, education, and training.

What are the benefits of international standards in IT for learning technology? Are there any disadvantages?

Dr Jon Mason: Standards make things work. Some things work without standards, but they don’t usually persist for long. It is reassuring when I travel that the planes I board are all built to specification and all components conform to relevant standards. Where it gets difficult is figuring out what needs to be standardised. The innovation that drives the Internet continues to be disruptive. Standards make that innovation possible because they are essentially stable reference points.

Without HTTP there is no web-addressing infrastructure. Many of the features of learning-management systems rely on standardised components and protocols. The biggest disadvantages of creating standards are hidden from the end-user – the lead times for getting them to the market and how to choose the right ones. Often, standards get confused with regulations, and this is increasingly true in the education sector, where standards are often connected to competency and achievement. But with technical standards, it is different: a standard is either fit for the purpose or it gets replaced by one that is.

What do you think are the main challenges for the future of standardisation in information technology for learning? Are there any issues arising that need to be addressed soon?

Dr Jon Mason: We are moving into a whole new era driven by data and artificial intelligence. In a way, the Internet is based upon an open architecture of standards and protocols, but this openness has also delivered the tools for surveillance. As Tim Berners-Lee recently said when reflecting on 25 years after he first invented the worldwide web, "We have lost control of our personal data." Many of the open standards and protocols are just part of the story because the success of companies like Google and Facebook also lies in the black-box algorithms that drive their services.

The biggest looming challenge is how to deal with more and more black-box algorithms. Probably the most promising and challenging area for standardisation at the moment is analytics and how privacy is handled.

In your opinion, how has online learning evolved over the last decade, and what will the future of eLearning look like, especially when taking standardisation development and possible challenges into account.

Dr Jon Mason: We are moving into a new era of data-driven everything and education that is increasingly making use of artificial intelligence. Things like MOOCs might make headlines for a little longer, but I expect more personalised approaches will ultimately be more satisfying to those who want to learn. Learning is ultimately about engagement – whether that is with other learners or with mentors or teachers.

As the AR & VR tools are further developed, it will also be about immersive experience, which is not possible if you are not engaged, and we won’t get engaged unless the devices we access work well. These devices will not work well without standards.

If social media wouldn’t have gained so much influence in everything we do today, what do you think would be different in the way we learn?

Dr Jon Mason: The possibility of social media developing the way was always there from the moment the web was invented. Social media did not develop out of web 2.0, it emerged from web 1.0. What is important is the environment in which we learn, an environment that becomes more networked and we can instantly connect with others. As the internet of things further develops, this connectivity becomes more profound, as devices and machines are also capable of learning.

Do you believe that traditional learning will be totally replaced by eLearning in the future?

Dr Jon Mason: Sometimes the words we use are a bit over-hyped. When the term mobile learning or m-learning was introduced about fifteen years ago, it was talked about in revolutionary terms. But if we think about human history, human beings have always been learners on the move, learning how to adapt and survive adverse circumstances, so there is no definition for "traditional learning" in that sense. However, teacher-led instruction in a classroom is going to change, as well as the learning-management-systems approach to learning.

ELearning is not just about formal learning; we can learn at any moment using any device or any service. But just because there are opportunities to learn online does not mean that we are effective at making the most of those opportunities. There’s no real point in trying to predict the future. I prefer to prepare for it, which means accepting it as something unpredictable!