Published January 11, 2019

Leading up to the Unizin Summit 2019, we will feature a monthly Summit-centric blog post and webcast.  First up in the series is a Q&A with Kara Armstrong, Unizin’s Product Manager for data, in which Kara will share her knowledge on Caliper.  Then join us on January 31st at 1pm for a panel webinar with experts from Unizin, IMS Global, and the University of Michigan.

Kara, can you tell us about your role at Unizin?

Sure! I am the product manager for Unizin’s data portfolio, which right now is comprised of the Unizin Data Platform (UDP), but will also include any products or services built on top of the UDP in the future as it matures.

What this means practically is that I act as the voice of our members, ensuring that their needs are appropriately understood and prioritized both internally (as part of the development of our data products) and externally (such as working with vendors to integrate them to the UDP).

In the latter capacity, I also participate in the working group for the IMS Global Caliper standard, which helps shape the exchange of teaching & learning data. My participation ensures that our members’ needs are appropriately addressed in the standard’s ongoing development.

So, you are definitely an expert on Caliper!  Can you explain what Caliper is and why it is important?

In short: Caliper is a technical standard for event data that is captured in an educational context. But let’s unpack that a bit:

When thinking about data in education, especially teaching & learning, you can think of it as having two parts: behavioral and contextual. Behavioral (or event) data is information about an action a person or system took — “Kara read a book”; “Jill created an assignment.” Contextual data is the context, or the scaffolding, in which that behavioral data took place: the course in which I was assigned the book or the cohort for whom you created the assignment, or the institutions at which we are both enrolled. Both pieces inform the other; you can think of behavioral as the “what” and contextual as the “why” or “how.”

Zooming in a bit on behavioral data, “Kara read a book” is understandable to us because English has syntactical rules that this sentence follows: it has a subject, a verb, and an object, and it’s ordered in a legible way. Similarly, Caliper defines the grammar of event data: what concepts should it capture?, and (equally as important) what concepts should it not capture?, and how should those concepts relate to each other?, and what structure should they be presented in?

Caliper, in contrast to other event standards like xAPI, constructs its grammar from an explicit dictionary of verbs and nouns. This strictness allows for a high level of semantic interoperability, which is important for two reasons: technically, systems are able to understand each others’ data; and conceptually, different participants in the data community (institutions, vendors, consortia, etc.) are able to understand each others’ use of data, because adoption of the standard acts as a lingua franca. That is, it makes it easier to both integrate data across a variety of systems and disseminate your opinions on how that data should be leveraged to drive data-informed processes to the larger learning analytics market when everyone is using the same standard.

What does it mean to be Caliper 1.1 certified by IMS Global?

As learning analytics grows, so too does the need for different vocabularies and concepts to be captured as a part of the Caliper specification. It is a document under active development, with new versions being released on a yearly basis. (Version 1.2 is slated for release in mid-2019.)

Caliper certification is IMS Global’s official seal of approval to confirm that your product emits events in a manner that aligns with a given version of the Caliper standard.

More importantly, it signals that you understand the value and importance of providing data to institutions in a way that is useful, interoperable, and immediate. As the Caliper standard is quite early in its adoption, you are also positioned as a thought leader in learning analytics: one who buys into a data-informed learning ecosystem vision and is willing to put the time and energy into realizing it.

In regard to the Unizin Data Platform (UDP), what are the benefits of being Caliper certified?

Unizin’s members deserve to own their data, but they also deserve to own it in a way that is usable, clean, actionable, and valuable. To make those requirements a reality, the UDP has a strong opinion on the types of data that it allows in, requiring that incoming data align with market-leading standards, like Caliper, that benefits our institutions as data users.

As part of enforcing this strong opinion, the UDP will reject incoming events that do not meet the Caliper 1.1 standard (including Caliper 1.0 events and xAPI statements). Caliper certification from IMS Global will ensure that your event data is able to safely make it into the UDP and immediately begin providing value for consumers of that data.

As the standard matures, the UDP will grow alongside it and allow for those newer versions to be brought in as well. Aside from the need to re-certify every year, keeping your products on the latest version allows you to provide richer, more descriptive, and thus more useful data to those end users and remain on the leading edge of the learning analytics market.

I’m from the teaching & learning side of the house in academia.  What does Caliper mean for me?

Academics should not have to be data wranglers, but oftentimes they have to be: different systems define similar data in different ways, and understanding how each system wants you to interpret that data is cumbersome. Caliper removes these idiosyncrasies, freeing academics up to actually focus on what they wanted to do with the data in the first place: generating actionable insights that improve T&L processes.


Thanks for joining us Kara!  If anyone is interested in meeting Kara in person to talk about Caliper, the UDP, or a variety of other topics, look for her at Educause ELI in February, the LAK Conference in March, and the Unizin Summit in April.