The LearnLaunch Interoperability Panel: Where Do Districts Begin?

School districts are asking:

•     How can we integrate data in a way that is scalable, sustainable and cost effective?
•     How can our teachers and administrators make better use of the data we have?
•     How can data be used to positively affect student achievement?

On a brisk morning at the start of February, the 6th annual LearnLaunch Across Boundaries conference in Boston was abuzz with veteran educators, edtech newbies, entrepreneurs and investors – all brightly enthusiastic to hear about the latest education trends.

In one conference session, four industry leaders came together to share thoughts on the state of interoperability in education – specifically data and application interoperability. It’s a hot topic, with districts now challenged by the growing proliferation of non-integrated data systems, teaching technologies, classroom applications and scores of free online learning resources. The panelists were Mike Bauer, program manager for Data Driven Education at the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation; Erin Mote, executive director at InnovateEDU; John Myers, president of Edsby; and Mark Rankovic, president and CEO of Certica Solutions. The group comprised both non-profit and for-profit organizations, and all had an obvious passion for the topic of interoperability.

The issues discussed included: How can districts get started with interoperability? How can the education sector move the topic forward? When will there be more tools and technology available for school districts to achieve real, scalable, cost-effective interoperability? Here are a few ways for districts to get started.

1.    Understand the meaning of interoperability. Interoperability does not mean that one application is launched from within another application. It also does not mean that data is synchronized “point-to-point” between applications. Interoperability is, instead, the bi-directional exchange of data between multiple district applications, ideally via a centralized hub. When applications can both contribute and consume data – in a secure and controlled manner – education applications will be able to “talk” to one another. The benefits of centralizing and sharing data are significant: high-quality, consolidated data to support personalized learning, real-time analytics, longitudinal reporting, and data-driven decision-making.

2.    Adopt an education data standard. The Ed-Fi® open-source data standard, developed for K-12 and supported by the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, is blasting off. In the past several years, Ed-Fi gained momentum with state education agencies and large districts. Now, the Dell Foundation, through its                         Ed-Fi Alliance subsidiary, is highly focused on school districts’ adoption of the Ed-Fi data standard, as a means of connecting educational data systems. The Ed-Fi data standard is bundled with a suite of open source technology: a centralized operational data store (ODS) and an API through which data application vendors can integrate with the ODS.

3.    Work with your vendors. The pace of districts’ ability to achieve interoperability will be gated by their application providers’ (e.g., student systems, assessment platforms) willingness to “open their doors.” Members of the LearnLaunch panel described some vendors’ tendency toward proprietary-ness and protectiveness as a “walled garden” which limits districts’ data access and self-determination. Districts and vendors can work together to achieve a balance of data access, security, and preservation of intellectual property. Promoting an open-source data standard like Ed-Fi with a common ODS and API means that vendors have a level playing field – all vendors integrate with the same centralized data hub. Further, the one-time product development task to support the Ed-Fi API can be leveraged again and again – allowing edtech vendors to give their district customers more comprehensive reporting, easier access to data, and a better overall user experience.

4.    Have a voice. The panel acknowledged that it may take time before true interoperability is achieved by all districts, but districts have the power to move the market. Getting involved with peer communities that support learning and advocacy will demonstrate to vendors, district leaders and funders that education agencies are serious about interoperability. Project Unicorn is an initiative focused squarely on interoperability to empower teachers, students and families. The Project Unicorn “pledge” is a way for districts to signal their commitment to interoperability – more than 400 public school systems and charters have signed the pledge already. The Ed-Fi Alliance has a central focus on interoperability and a thriving user community. The Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) features an interoperability track in its IT Management focus area. Districts can also signal interest by claiming their Data Connect™ Integration Console, a facility provided by Certica Solutions which allows districts and providers to integrate and collaborate. The Data Quality Campaign is a great resource to follow for information on education data use, policy and privacy.

The momentum is tangible, and the time is now. Districts have an abundance of resources and support for taking decisive steps on the path toward interoperability: standards, technology, architecture and community to deliver sustainable, connected educational data systems.