MegaTech and MiniTech (Part 3)

This post is, finally, the third post of a three-part blog series that I began quite some time ago <ahem>. See and for the first two posts.

The second post looked at a relatively small and simple software system, SPONGE (the Simplest Possible ONline Grouping Environment), that I created for my research in a primary school setting. Despite my best efforts and intentions the teachers completely avoided the use of SPONGE in their lessons. Completely.

SPONGE was created following some work with and around the IMS Learning Design (IMS LD) specification released in 2003 (IMS Global Learning Consortium, 2017). With this in mind it seems appropriate to consider IMS LD through the lens of MegaTech and MiniTech. As with SPONGE it is important consider how the appearance of IMS LD as MegaTech or MiniTech can alter depending on the perspective of the user. Three perspectives are considered here, namely: the creators of IMS LD; distance learning higher education (HE) institutions; and teachers in blended teaching and learning environments.

The Creators of IMS LD

One of the goals of IMS LD was to create a single specification that could be used to capture any teaching and learning experience regardless of its underlying pedagogy. The capability of IMS LD in this regard had already been documented (van Es & Koper, 2006). In essence IMS LD reduced the workflow of teaching and learning to its essential components and presented these in a machine-readable format.

Readiness-to-hand: IMS LD, within the practical constraints of needing to be presented through appropriate tools, is a specification that allows any pedagogical approach to be represented using a machine-readable format. From this perspective IMS LD serves a clear purpose and its use is obvious. Result: ready-to-hand.

Positioning: the versatility of IMS LD positions its creators as having solved the problem of how to capture any pedagogy using a universal, machine-readable specification. A relatively straightforward solution for a complex problem. Result: positive positioning.

Who benefits: the creators of IMS LD benefit from its creation in a number of ways. For example: reputation; further research opportunities. Result: directly beneficial.

Result: from this perspective IMS LD is seen as MiniTech.

Distance learning HE institutions

IMS LD has its origins in the Educational Modelling Language (EML) (Koper & Manderveld, 2004) which was developed by the Open University of the Netherlands (OUNL) who used EML to create and deliver a large number of courses (Griffiths et al, 2005). This distance learning heritage promotes a write once, deliver many times approach to course and module creation, where designers create content that will be repeatedly delivered by others. This approach encourages a clear separation of design and runtime that persists in many implementations of IMS LD. The creation of self-contained Units of Learning (UoL) in IMS LD allows content and multi-user workflow to be consistently delivered many times to many groups of learners, without constraining the choice of pedagogy.

Readiness-to-hand: IMS LD provides a pegagogically neutral way of creating modules that can then be repeatedly and consistently delivered to groups of learners. Result: in this context IMS LD serves an obvious purpose and can be viewed as a ready-to-hand tool.

Positioning: IMS LD is compatible with a distance learning model and therefore its use does not challenge the position of those involved. Furthermore the self-contained UoLs support the consistent reuse of content and workflow through a technologically-mediated, multi-user environment. Result: positive positioning.

Who benefits: the distance learning institution benefits directly from an approach which is so well aligned with its mode of operation. Result: directly beneficial.

Result: from this perspective IMS LD is viewed as MiniTech.

Teachers in blended teaching environments

Although IMS LD emerged from a distance learning context, it is also intended to support blended learning environments (IMS Global Learning Consortium, 2003). But how would a specification steeped in distance learning cope in a blended environment? Yes, face-to-face teachers spend time creating plans that form the basis of the lessons they deliver. This, to a certain extent, means that there is a separation of design and runtime. But what about the endlessly complex dynamic of human relations in the face-to-face classroom? Ackoff writes about how:

Managers are not confronted with problems that are independent of each other, but with dynamic situations that consist of complex systems of changing problems that interact with each other. I call such situations messes.
(Ackoff, 1979, p.99, original emphasis)

Replace the word “managers” with “teachers” and the quote seems just as relevant. Herman (2011) provides one compelling example of a messy classroom situation. Although the specifics, as they are bound to, differ from my time working in compulsory education I can recognise much of what she talks about. What happens when the neatly manicured and premeditated workflow of the UoL bumps against the messy classroom where the unexpected happens and plans are prone to change as a result? Things do not always go to plan. Pupils have bad days. One pupil might not possess the prerequisite knowledge for the morning’s activities, requiring some quick thinking and adhoc adjustments on the part of the teacher? Could IMS LD cope in such a situation?

To be fair to IMS LD it is important to separate the specification from the tools that have emerged around it. Tools which have often been based on and therefore supported the distance-learning approach outlined above. It is arguably not fair to judge the suitability of these tools outside of their intended context. It might be possible to design IMS LD compliant tools that allow on-the-fly changes to be made during runtime. Tools that blur or remove the distinction between design and runtime.

But, regardless of tooling issues, would such adhoc changes during runtime, given the complex relationships that can exist between elements of a Unit of Learning, be the teaching equivalent of pulling on a loose thread in a piece of fabric or removing the keystone from an arch? Could the integrity of a complex UoL be maintained? But even if this was technically feasible how would it fit with the teacher’s “way of being” (Winograd and Flores, 1986) in the classroom? How is the teacher’s position in the classroom affected if there is a perceived shift in coordination and control of the classroom from the teacher to the computer? How will students react to the lesson being “paused” while the teacher fine tunes the workflow of the lesson? If we accept that certain aspects of what it is to be a teacher are so deeply engrained that they become part of the classroom “ritual” (ritual in the sense of van Langenhove & Harré, 1999), then what happens when a technology comes along that tries to break that ritual by repositioning the teacher as something else? The issues at play from this perspective do not relate to the completeness of IMS LD as a specification, or its technical ability to support a particular pedagogy or teaching environment. The important considerations here are all of the factors which are not and cannot be captured by a specification focussed on workflow and activity. The mess, which is contextually unique and far too complex to capture in a one-size-fits-all machine-readable format, is where the skill and knowledge of the teacher comes into its own.

Readiness-to-hand: the purpose of IMS LD as a tool is uncertain. Teachers may question how it works and why it works the way it does. This raises questions beyond the technological, ie something broken or missing that might be fixed (Heidegger, 1978). Result: IMS LD as a tool exhibits obstinate unreadiness (ibid.) and gets in the way of what the teacher is trying to achieve.

Positioning: IMS LD, as an example of a classroom tool, risks challenging what it is to be a teacher and in the process breaks the ritual of the classroom. The teacher rejects the tool*. Result: unacceptable repositioning.

Who benefits: The benefits to the teacher are uncertain. “Why do I need to use this?” Result: no clear benefit to teachers in this content.

Result: From the perspective of classroom teachers in a face-to-face environment IMS LD is either impractical or undesirable and is therefore seen as MegaTech.

* One major assumption made here is that the teachers are free to choose the tools they use. What if this was not the case? For example, if the use of IMS LD was in some way mandated in a particular setting by a local authority or some government initiative that viewed IMS LD as MiniTech. A teacher in this situation would face all of the difficulties suggested above but would lack the freedom, without facing some kind of consequence, to reject the use of the technology.


Ackoff, R. L. (1979). The Future of Operational Research is Past. The Journal of the Operational Research Society, 30(2), 93–104.

Griffiths, D., Blat, J., Garcia, R., Vogten, H., & Kwong, K. (2005). Learning Design Tools. In Learning Design: A Handbook on Modelling and Delivering Networked Education and Training (pp. 109–135). Springer.

Heidegger, M. (1978) Being and Time.  Wiley-Blackwell.

Herman, E. (2011, July 31). Extraordinary isn’t enough. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from

IMS Global Learning Consortium. (2003). IMS Learning Design Best Practice and Implementation Guide. Retrieved April 20, 2017, from

IMS Global Learning Consortium. (2017). Learning Design Specification. Retrieved April 20, 2017, from

Koper, R. and Manderveld, J. (2004). Educational modelling language: modelling reusable, interoperable, rich and pedrrsonalised units of learning. British Journal of Educational Technology, 35(5), pp.537-551.

Koper, R., & Tattersall, C. (2005). Preface. In R. Koper & C. Tattersall (Eds.), Learning Design: A Handbook on Modelling and Delivering Networked Education and Training. Berlin Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag.

van Es, R., & Koper, R. (2006). Testing the pedagogical expressiveness or IMS LD. Journal of Educational Technology and Society, 9(1), 229–249.

van Langenhove, L. and Harré, R. (1999). Introducing positioning theory.

Winograd, T. and Flores, F. (1986) Understanding Computers and Cognition. Addison-Wesley.


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