Why Point-to-Point Integrations Can’t Be the Right Answer for Interoperability

School districts across the country – from Providence to Tulsa, from Atlanta to Fresno – are becoming more sophisticated in their use of student and education data to provide better and more effective learning strategies. And as they expand their use of data, districts are voicing a louder call for data interoperability.

And the education technology providers are listening! Data integration solutions are sprouting up all over the K-12 education sector. But, unfortunately, too many of these solutions – often driven by district-specific needs – focus on integrating data only between two individual systems. It’s completely understandable: when a district customer asks a vendor to help them integrate, say, rostering data from a student information system (SIS) to an assessment platform, or student performance data between a special-education application and a learning management system, that’s exactly what you can expect the vendor to focus on.

And while these approaches may answer a specific data integration need for one or a few districts, they have taken the K-12 sector into a realm of deep costs and long-term sustainability risk. Specifically, these point-to-point solutions become exponentially unsustainable with each additional vendor or system integration that must be maintained. It’s an identical problem to the classic networking communication formula first expressed as “Metcalfe’s Law,” where the number of “connections” (in this case, the number of data integrations) increases with the square of the number of vendor systems.

I spoke to one edtech vendor last month who proudly related that they were currently maintaining 17 different SIS integrations, and to another who manages over 150 data integrations across multiple systems. Think about what it means when this approach is applied across the K-12 ecosystem. Last year, EdWeek reported the edtech market has a 4.5% compound annual growth rate and is expected to grow to 1.83 billion USD by 20201. This growth is being driven by more than 1,500 vendors and potentially upwards of 150,000 edtech systems and apps (including Android and iOS) being used in districts2. The costs associated with individual data integrations could quickly reach 10s and 100s of millions of dollars. Of mostly taxpayer money, it’s worth remembering.

For this reason, point-to-point solutions simply can’t be the right long-term solution for school districts’ interoperability needs.

And that’s where the Ed-Fi® Data Standard comes in. Ed-Fi, developed by the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, and given to the entire K-12 sector as a philanthropic donation, offers a single point of integration for districts and vendors alike. With its hub-and-spoke architecture, vendors can choose to integrate once into a common Ed-Fi Operational Data Store (ODS), instead of spending the time and money to integrate with multiple systems.

Ed-Fi provides both a common data structure and language, and also a centralized ODS, where a district’s data can all come together. Both for analytics that need data from multiple systems, and for all those situations where one system needs access to data from another system. The number and complexity of district systems is only likely to grow in the near future. Why would anyone want to pursue a path that isn’t fundamentally designed for scalability and sustainability?

Vendors benefit from Ed-Fi not only because of the “one and done” task of supporting a common data standard, but vendors who jump on the bandwagon are now able to provide a more comprehensive set of data and analytics, as well as meet a growing interoperability need in their district customer base.

If you’re a school district, please add your voice to initiatives like Project Unicorn – let your vendors know you need better and deeper solutions from them, and solutions that are looking further ahead to provide the kind of long-term scalability your district requires.

And if you are an ed tech provider, whether of large-scale systems and platforms, or of smaller, purpose-built apps, your customers desperately need you to look further down the road at where the marketplace of data will be in a few years. Please put your resources into solutions that will stand up to the test of not only time, but a fast-growing set of data and analytic needs that inevitably need to extend beyond the boundaries of any one system, no matter how large it is.


Read more about how 
Providence,
Tulsa, Atlanta and Fresno are moving towards interoperability.

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1  Molnar, M. (2017) K-12 Ed-Tech Platform and Tools Market Value to Increase to $1.83 Billion by 2020, Report Says. EdWeek Market Brief.
Retrieved from https://marketbrief.edweek.org/marketplace-k-12/k-12-ed-tech-platform-tools-market-value-increase-1-83-billion-2020-report-says/

2 Australia Unlimited (July 2017) EdTech: US Market Snapshot. Australian Trade and Investment Commission

Bryan Bleil

Bryan Bleil is Certica’s Ed-Fi Ambassador – working with other edtech providers to encourage them to embrace the Ed-Fi® Data Standard and assist them with integrating the Ed-Fi ODS and API. Prior to joining Certica, he was at the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation as part of their Data Driven Education team. Bryan’s career in the educational technology industry spans more than 25 years starting at Scholastic, Inc. where he worked on “The Magic School Bus” television program. Bryan has designed and led development for over 100 different edtech products at companies including IBM, Riverdeep - The Learning Company, and Leapfrog.

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