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New standard makes whiteboard content more accessible

"CFF, and open source in general, is where the entire world is going," said Hedrick Ellis, senior project manager for RM Education.
"CFF, and open source in general, is where the entire world is going," said Hedrick Ellis, senior project manager for RM Education.

In what educators and vendors are calling a giant step forward in education technology, the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA) recently announced that all major interactive whiteboard vendors have agreed to make their educational content available in the U.K. in a common file format (CFF).

By making these educational resources more shareable and accessible, many say, BECTA is setting a powerful example for change that could go global. Now, some in the United States and Canada — where such software still is mostly proprietary and incompatible — want to know when these same vendors will adopt the common file format in North America.

In 2007, BECTA—which is leading a national drive in the U.K. to ensure the effective and innovative use of technology in learning—teamed up with the RM Group, one of Europe’s largest suppliers of technology-based curriculum products for education, to address the issue of multiple interactive whiteboard (IWB) solutions each having their own proprietary software.

At the time, most content files developed for any one type of IWB could not be opened with the software on other IWBs, which limited the ability of teachers to share resources across different IWB platforms.

BECTA appointed RM to develop a common industry-wide standard that would benefit educators by allowing the exchange of resources within and between schools.

Now, three years later, BECTA and RM have created not only a file specification for software (.iwb), but also a Viewer application, accompanying supporting documentation, and a code library that software publishers can used to integrate support for the CFF into their own applications.

So far, eInstruction, Hitachi, Luidia, Mimio, PolyVision, Promethean, RM, Sahara Presentation Systems, SMART Technologies, and TeamBoard have committed to adopt the CFF in the U.K.

“We know that this technology is capable of bringing lessons to life, motivating learners to participate with enthusiasm, and helping them to achieve better results,” said Steve Lucey, BECTA’s executive director for strategic technologies, in a statement. “BECTA is working to help the education sector get better value from investment in technology, which is more important than ever in the current economic climate. Sharing resources and ideas is one of the ways to stimulate more effective use of technology and make the most of that investment.”

Lucey said BECTA was spurred to develop the CFF as a result of the advocacy efforts of IWB users in England and internationally.

Interest in the CFF also has come from European education ministries hoping to procure IWB solutions on a national scale.

“Our goal was to make all files interchangeable through a generic file format,” explained Hedrick Ellis, senior project manager for RM Education. “We wanted something any word processor could open.”

Ellis said educators without IWBs can still view IWB resources, thanks to the CFF.

“With a free download, educators will have the ability to drag and drop, annotate, and make many other changes to the material as well. It’s also assistive technology-friendly and has the ability to change size and color,” he said.

Although IWB vendors who sell to schools in the U.K. are committed to including the CFF standard in their software, it will not be available immediately because developers go through a “software cycle,” Ellis said. The CFF should be included in vendors’ next software cycle.

However, some developers are already including the new common format in their software.

According to Kate Wallace, vice president of strategic partnerships for RM Education’s United States division, RM has made steps to include the CFF in the next generation of RM Easiteach.

Another IWB vendor, PolyVision, which uses RM Easiteach and Qwizdom as its content providers, is software agnostic, meaning customers can choose what software they run on the IWB.

“The power of information is the ability to share that information,” said Peter Hildebrandt, director of global product management, research, and development for PolyVision. “We encourage our partner companies to adopt a CFF, since we believe it’s a natural step in technological progress.”

TeamBoard’s Draw 5.5 software currently supports the BECTA CFF as well—and TeamBoard says it is the first commercially available IWB software to do so.

Making the case for CFF

BECTA and RM cited pressure from the government and IWB users, as well as their mission to ensure that education technology is as useful as possible for educators and students, as the reasons for the project’s success in the U.K.

However, with no government equivalent to BECTA in the United States, vendors and educators are wondering if adoption of the CFF in the U.S. might take longer.

The delay, some say, is because two of the largest IWB providers in the U.S.—SMART and Promethean—sell their boards with proprietary content.

“The key to getting the likes of Promethean and SMART on board [in the U.K.] was to get the standard ratified internationally, and hence ensure that a requirement for the standard became a feature of [the school bidding process],” explained Wallace.

“Here in the U.S., I have not come across the equivalent of a BECTA-type organization, and I think this will be one of the challenges to getting it rolled out. SMART and Promethean, of course, signed up in Europe, but what governing body can we rely on here to rally the providers and get them to adhere?”

According to Wallace, the next generation of CFF-enabled RM Easiteach will be released in the U.S. this spring and will be the first platform to embrace CFF in the U.S.

However, Wallace said, “we need all whiteboard software providers to comply in order for school districts to benefit from sharing resources in the truest sense, as well as reduce training overheads. The biggest advantage of CFF is that it aims to retain as much interactive functionality of each resource that is exported/imported.”

Wallace said RM Easiteach has always been platform agnostic and designed for any interactive whiteboard or slate, but the CFF will “open the floodgates to free the flowing of information between interactive software platforms.”

Promethean was noncommittal when asked whether it would support CFF in the U.S., and SMART Technologies declined to comment for this story.

Although the U.S. does not have a direct equivalent of BECTA, Joshua Marks, chief technology officer for Curriki—an online educational community whose web site offers free, open K-12 instructional materials—said there are some organizations in place to help make a push for CFF in America.

The Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF), which aids in data sharing among K-12 institutions, could help push for adoption of CFF in the U.S., he said. So could the IMS Global Learning Consortium, which has developed a common set of standards that will allow any kind of digital learning content to be used with any type of learning management system, student information system, or web portal.

“Standards are helpful in enabling multiple types of collections of diverse materials, and we encourage open standards that are non-proprietary,” Marks said.

In theory, he said, U.S. adoption of the CFF could occur in one of three ways:

  1. It could be government-mandated, in the same way the National Television System Committee (NTSC) developed the broadcast standard.
  2. It could be industry-initiated: IWB vendors could agree to partner on a CFF for the U.S. schools market.
  3. A dominant entity or vendor could commit to supporting CFF in the U.S., forcing other IWB vendors and entities to follow along as a result of market pressure.

“I’d say probably the easiest way to go would be through a government mandate,” said Marks, “just because different companies have diverse needs, and this could lead to very complex standards.”

Another way, however, could simply be pressure from educators on IWB vendors to adhere to a CFF.

After all, “the greatest benefit will be to educators,” said Eileen Shihadeh-Shald, vice president of marketing for eInstruction. “The creation of a CFF for all interactive whiteboard content will enable educators to develop and share interactive content with their colleagues, across their institutions, and even across borders without having to worry about which brand of hardware they chose.”

Shihadeh-Shald said eInstruction would be in favor of such an opportunity in the U.S. and would seek to help drive it.

“As an industry, it makes no sense to limit educators’ choices; rather, we should provide them [with] the utmost flexibility,” she said. “Though the principal difference is that decisions like this in the U.K. tend to come from the top, and in the U.S. decision making is much more distributed, this type of change can be initiated by the vendors themselves and by educators.”

According to IWB manufacturer TeamBoard, a CFF helps teachers in two significant ways.

“First, a world of content is opened up to them, regardless of the hardware platform they enjoy,” said TeamBoard in a statement. “This can only increase the utility of the interactive technology itself. Secondly, teachers can feel free to invest in the development of their own resources in the CFF without fear that a future hardware brand change (such as changing classrooms or switching schools) will render their investment unavailable.”

“CFF, and open source in general, is where the entire world is going,” said RM’s Ellis. “In the future, people will not be tied or shackled to their software or hardware purchases. With enough pressure and determination, we can spur this change.”

Looking to the future

While the progress in creating a CFF and Viewer in the U.K. is significant, the project is still in its beginning stages, and much work remains to be done, those associated with the effort say.

Marks explained that the CFF will really start to make an impact once it’s integrated with a common learning outcome standard, and once developers have the ability to tag and describe their resources.

For example, SIF requires each resource to be tagged with certain characterizing information, such as the author of the resource, the grade level, and keywords relating to the learning object.

“By having both these standards,” said Marks, “educators can tailor instruction by putting together materials like Lego blocks. Students get tailored instruction, and teachers are better educated by being exposed to vast resources; this is continual improvement happening in real time.”

“We’re not saying we’re done yet,” Ellis said. “[The] CFF is open source, meaning it can be updated constantly for technical changes that occur in the industry.”










Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the Next Generation Collaboration resource center. The ability to work together on group projects is seen as an increasingly important skill for the 21st-century workplace, and a growing number of schools are rewriting their curriculum to include opportunities for such collaboration as a result. Go to:

Next Generation Collaboration

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