Data Interoperability: What Educators Should Know
As technology has become more ubiquitous in schools, so has the number of tools that districts and teachers use to support learning. There are myriad systems that track student data, deliver content or curricular resources, enable digital assessments, etc.
And while the capabilities of those tools introduce exciting opportunities for both teachers and learners, it also can lead to headaches around multiple user accounts, data privacy, and siloed data.
This is where interoperability comes into play as there is an increasing interest and pressing need to find ways to ease those headaches.
What is Interoperability?
“As districts have increased their use of technology-based solutions, the need for interoperability has also increased. Interoperability—“the seamless sharing of data, content and services, among systems or applications”—enables districts to mix and match solutions according to their unique needs, provide enhanced personalized learning to their students, and increase effectiveness in monitoring and reporting progress” (Maylahn, "2017 K-12 IT Leadership Survey Report", 2017).
On a more practical level, what types of things would interoperability impact or affect for a K-12 institution? The Consortium for Online School Networks (CoSN) lists the following key areas in their primer on Interoperability Standards for Education:
- Digital content
- Data connectivity
- Data integration
- Authentication, Authorization, and Identity Management
- Portals and Portlets
- File Sharing
- Network Infrastructure
- Digital Accessibility
The list above has many touch-points on what districts, schools and teachers use every day—from signing into an account to getting students automatically enrolled or “rostered” into another system.
Why Do Districts Need It?
On the instructional side, having systems that require separate logins or use different data reporting functions or require manual account creation can be frustrating and can take time away from what it’s important: teaching and learning.
In Schoology’s Global State of Digital Learning Survey from 2017, the digital learning challenge most often cited by teachers was “juggling multiple tools for teaching and learning.” Additionally, according to a report from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, teachers “see existing digital tools as having different—and often separate—roles that require them to use multiple products and to manually integrate information to develop a holistic picture of student performance” ("Teachers Know Best: Making Data Work for Teachers and Students", 2015).
On the technical side, having systems that “talk to each other” can ease burdens around both cost and efficiency. With disparate systems, extracting and syncing data is often a manual and time-consuming process. This has become increasingly important as state and district initiatives around personalized learning have jumped to the forefront. Personalized learning relies heavily on information sharing around student learning, which means that IT personnel have the responsibility of supporting those structures. If the systems are able to pass information back and forth in a “seamless” way, district-level data management can happen without a “human API.”
How Do Ed Tech Vendors Fit In?
One of the challenges with moving forward with interoperability is having vendors who are willing to embrace open standards for moving data between systems. Yet, districts have a strong desire to effectively leverage the multiple tools and systems in place, and this can directly impact a purchasing decision.
Digital Promise’s State of Data Interoperability in Public Education survey revealed that “88% of respondents report data interoperability as having an impact on decision-making or being a primary consideration in district-level purchasing of an ed-tech tool.” Districts who are in the market for an educational solution are looking for vendors who understand that need.
There are organizations who are dedicated to ensuring that standards and compliance are in place for developers and vendors. The IMS Global Learning Consortium is a nonprofit that leads the way in publishing global standards for learning tools as well as providing a database of products that comply with those standards. This helps vendors employ those standards when developing tools and features as well as letting districts and other learning organizations find products that are guaranteed to meet the standards. Schoology is not only one of the certified products but also a Contributing Member. Schoology's participation in IMS Global includes its suite of certified products, participation as a Contributing Member, and involvement in steering committees and working groups that advance the IMS Global interoperability standards.
Organizations like Project Unicorn encourage vendors and districts to sign a pledge as part of its mission to “create an uncommon alliance dedicated to furthering interoperability within the K-12 education space.” Part of their advocacy efforts also include providing resources and building community partnerships to help further their efforts to improve data interoperability within K-12 education.
Schoology has signed that pledge and is part of Project Unicorn’s Vendor Coalition. Joel Hames, Schoology’s VP of Product, explains how this represents Schoology’s commitment to this and other initiatives when stating, “We are dedicated to the advancement of interoperability standards, as represented by both the capabilities within our products and our participation and commitment to initiatives that advance the promotion and development of standards. This, fundamentally, is how we advance what’s possible in education.”
Moving Toward a More Interoperable Education Environment
Interoperability will continue to be an increasingly important conversation in the K-12 space, especially as personalized learning and data-informed instruction continue to grow and mature across district systems. Districts who partner with vendors that have aligned priorities around open standards will see greater benefits for all facets of educational technology.
Moving towards deeper integrations and data flows between systems will ultimately benefit the greater education community. That education community will hopefully see more vendor partners in the edtech landscape with whom they can support a better experience for districts, teachers, and students.
What are your thoughts on data interoperability? Let us know on Twitter @Schoology.