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Interview with Erlend Øverby

We must develop technical standards that are a driver of innovation

31. August 2017

At IMC we like to get different perspectives about topics, as this is how we broaden our horizon and can offer the most valuable insights to our customers.  After speaking to Dr. Jon Mason, the Australian Head for Delegation to ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC36 [1] on behalf of Standards Australia, we interviewed Erlend Øverby, Chair at ISO/IEC JTC1/SC36 Information Technology for Learning, Education and Training from Norway, about his experiences on international standards in IT for learning and how those standards will have significant impact on the future of e-learning.

You are working in international standards development over 15 years. What motivated you to get into this industry and what makes you so enthusiastic about what you do until this day?

When I got the interest in computers back in the early 1980s, I was intrigued about how the computers work, and how the different aspects of the computer worked together, all by shifting 0 and 1s around in a register. This was fascinating, and the different levels of abstraction that makes this work, and the ingenuity of the people developing the computers and their systems was inspiring. And when writing my first program, and experiencing that my commands could control this complex machine was inspiring.
Later I realised that to make this work effortless there had to be some level of agreement and standardised communication among the different parts of the computer system to make it work, and that allowed me to add different types of peripherals from different vendors to the computer - and it just worked.Today computers, smart phones, tablets, IoT (Internet of Things), cloud computing are built around the same principles, and a set of common rules, agreements and standards for how it should work and be able to provide services to everyone without any problems. We see that by providing international standards, others are providing innovations and services that was hard to imagine a few years ago.

You could bring your device to school regardless of the ecosystem, and it just works in the school environment. You could take your content and it just works on any device, anywhere - and to have the privilege to be able to work with the smart people that makes this happens is why I find it so rewarding to work with standardisation, and all the great people who contributes to true global standards.

Is there a particular area about standards development in IT for learning which interests you the most?

We need to realise that for the educators, teachers, trainers, professors and others working within the sector - technology is not important. What is important is to educate, train and teach - and technology will not make an impact before it becomes invisible and un-important. And to make that happen it just have to work for everyone free of barriers, free of problems, free of errors. The only thing that ensures this is that the systems built in schools are based on international standards. The moment we have «closed» ecosystems, or proprietary solutions the technology becomes a factor you have to relate to, and this takes the distraction away from what is important for the schools, and that is not the technology in itself.
To make this transition happen, we who develop global standards must have this in mind. We must develop small technical standards that enables openness, are a driver of innovation. The standards we develop must guarantee that the focus of the educators is not on the technology, but on the main purpose of their activities.
Currently we are developing standards around Learning Analytics that are of importance, and in the near future, we will start working on standards that will help the adoption and usage of AR and VR.

Could you tell us how you became involved with standards and in particular ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC36?

I started working with standards in the late 1990s, and then especially standards on content, semantics and metadata, I was a part of the early adopters and evangelists of the use of XML, that was based on an international standard. In year 2000 I was part of a start-up that was developing an open source based ecosystem for education, at the same time ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC 36 was established, and I was asked by Standards Norway if I would like to participate in that work, and since I have been with SC36. The first year as a regular expert from Norway, and later as a convener of the working group responsible for developing standards that ensures that the use of technology is free of barriers e.g. accessibility standards. Some years ago, I became the chair of SC36, and are then responsible for all the activities in the committee. I have had the pleasure of working with many experts from Australia in this committee who have taught me a lot.

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

The advantage of global standards is that they open for everyone that follows the standards, it gives the educators the opportunity to choose the methodology, and resources they think are the best to educate. They do not have to use only the resources or tools provided by a single supplier.

The use of global standards in education are the only guarantee that technology is not important, it gives the educators the opportunity to focus on its main task, and then to choose freely among the methods, and pedagogical principles they find the best to teach a topic or to explain a complex task.The use of global standards also gives the authorities the opportunity to put forward requirements that gives the educators the freedom to choose, and at the same time requesting that global standards is to be used could also save a huge amount of money for the educational institutions.

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

The main challenge for the future is that the focus is on the technology itself, and not the opportunities technology enables if done properly. Global standards will become important in the moment educational governments say it is important, and that all use of IT in the educational systems should be based on global standards. Global standards are the only guarantee that education will be affordable and open to everyone. Global standards should be addressed to ensure that educational organisation have the freedom to choose their methods and tools.

Topics that we see arising now, are the use of learning analytics, deep learning and AI - that needs a variety of global standards to work seamlessly across devices, resources and activities. Soon, I think we will have an increased focus on the applicability of AR and VR, that must be based on global standards to work for educators.

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

When e-learning started, the focus was on how to put the CD-ROM online, and then later on how to put «power» on the text book. When we see the focus of the EdTech industry today, it is still much in the direction of the «book on the web» metaphor, the book has become more advanced with movies, simulations, audio, interactions and so on, but the governing principle behind is still a «book». What I think we will see in the future is more of learning processes, where technology is used to support and facilitate reflections on topics where that is demanded. I also think we will see that technology is used to provide individualised learning based on the preferences and learning strategies of the individuals.
In the future, we will not talk about e-learning, or learning technologies or EdTech because we will have standards that removes the focus away from the technology to how we best could educate. In the future, we will look back at 2017 and say “what was all this fuzz about technology, and its role in education?”

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?

Depending on what you educational goal is, you need different strategies, and you need different ways of demonstrating that you have learned. Some of these demonstrations could be in an argument with others (where social media could have a function) other situations could be that you solve a puzzle or an equation or that you are able to construct something.

Do you believe that traditional learning will be totally replaced by e-learning in future?

No - I think in the future the educators will have the tools and opportunities to choose the method that are best suitable for the individual based on the topic. For some using paper and pencil will still be better, for some doing an experiment outside in the woods would work best, for others reading a series of books would do the trick. In the future, the educators will have the freedom to choose, in the future educators will be educators.

[1] ISO/IEC JTC1 SC36: sub-committee 36 of the Joint Technical Committee 1 of a partnership between ISO, the International Organization for Standardization, and the IEC, the International Electrotechnical Commission.

Do you have any questions?