As we stand at the beginning of 2019, the state of interoperability varies quite a bit if you’re looking at individual schools and districts. But for those who are plugged in, adoption of certain standards is moving along quite nicely. In more than four decades of working in education, I’ve never seen a set of standards gain traction so quickly.
Many of the larger school districts (and many small districts as well) have come to recognize that interoperability is key because, without it, students and teachers suffer from a huge delay between the time school starts and when they actually have access to any of the various platforms and resources that should be available to them.
This swift movement is very encouraging because the end result is better for everyone involved. As more schools and districts demand that vendors, content providers, and platforms conform to common standards, those providers will be able to more quickly assimilate information and make their content or platforms available to students in a timely way.
Plug & Play, Not Plug & Pray
That rostering standard addresses a very specific problem—one that I faced as a technology director—of being able to share class rosters, course material, and grade files across different systems. It’s a big part of the interoperability puzzle for schools, and it’s bringing a lot of attention to the larger issue of interoperability.
Another area where we’re seeing a move toward interoperability is content. In the past, individual providers of curriculum and content each had their own systems. They each wanted to be the owners of a district’s data and methodologies. But as learning management systems (LMSes) have become ubiquitous and ever-more central, school districts are increasingly saying they want their students and teachers to access these resources via the LMS, as opposed to logging into vendors’ individual platforms. It’s just onerous to have to do that as opposed to pulling information from the various platforms and embedding it in the LMS to create lessons addressing various standards.
We are now seeing a movement by content providers to make their content accessible via an open standard. This one is called the “thin common cartridge” and, once again, it’s an IMS Global standard. It allows for various publishers to make individual learning objects—whether they be PDFs, PowerPoints, videos, interactive activities, or other resources—associated with their platform available through the various LMSes. That availability through the LMS means teachers and students don’t have to go to disparate places to collect the various items they need to teach or complete a given lesson.
I recently spoke to somebody from one of the major publishers who said to me, “Yes, but all of our learning objects, all of our lessons are designed to work together.”
I said, “That’s well and good and you’ve got some great resources there, but other people have great resources as well. If I’m trying to teach a child a particular concept I may pull from your bank of items and I might also pull from three or four other sources in order to build that lesson. I want that lesson to be ubiquitous, and I want that content to be accessible right there instead of saying, ‘Go to content provider A, then go to content provider B, go to content provider C, and here’s the URL of a particular item that I want you to see.” It becomes onerous to the point that students are confused, and it’s too much work for teachers.
To achieve content interoperability means, every learning object has to be tagged with metadata that indicates which standards it hits, what subject areas it’s for, what grade level it’s appropriate for, and more. This makes them searchable and available so teachers can easily add them to a lesson inside any LMS.
Student learning standards are another area where interoperability is progressing. Also from IMS, the Competencies and Academic Standards Exchange (CASE) specification offers a machine-readable format for student standards and competencies. These standards allow for sharing of information about rubrics, criteria, performance, and other data related to student competencies.
There are also some standards out there that will allow for information obtained in these disparate platforms to flow back through the LMS and into, say, a grade book or into some sort of artificial intelligence that looks at what students are interacting with and how successful they are afterwards.
All of these standards have to work together for the whole to be able to work hand in hand. What we’re after is plug and play, not plug and pray.
Interoperability on a Grander Scale
Beyond the school level, there are interoperability standards addressing a much larger scale. The Ed-Fi Standards adopted by a number of states are a good example of interoperability using a much, much larger data set. The Ed-Fi Alliance is committed to bringing standardization and interoperability to massive amounts of student data, especially the data required for state and federal reporting. In that case, various student information systems may have to modify or do some sort of a translation of their data to comply with the standards.
These standards, as well as many of the IMS standards, are based on the Common Education Data Standards (CEDS) file format. The Ed-Fi standards, however, go beyond content and are larger than the scope of rostering. They have much more detailed information about demographics, exceptionalities, test scores, attendance, perhaps even discipline. It’s a very large data set, but each individual school’s data source doesn’t always conform to the Ed-Fi schema.
To oversimplify this whole thing, think of a couple of spreadsheets. In one, the column for a student’s name may be headed “Given Name” and require you to enter the student’s full name. In the other, there are three columns: one for first name, a second for middle, and a third for last. You can’t merge those spreadsheets or otherwise transfer data between them without extra steps. We need to standardize the headers and the conventions for how data is entered into them consistently between data sets so everyone is speaking the same language.
It’s unfortunate that education is lagging a bit behind in terms of making all this happen, given the amount of data that’s out there now and the importance of reporting on student information and accountability, but groups like Project Unicorn are working to get districts not just talking about interoperability, but acting on it.
The Way Forward
Probably the biggest challenge in implementing all of this is that there are so many school districts out there, and many of them are very small. It’s difficult to spread the word to these districts that:
1) There are standards out there; and
2) They need to speak to their curriculum platform providers about enforcing the use of those standards because it will…
3) Reduce the load on IT departments and pave the way for students and teachers to have access to all of their resources.
Oftentimes, I hear, “Well we’re not a great big district. We don’t have that kind of leverage.” My response to that is, “Many small districts are a part of a consortium, an educational service center, or some larger group. Band together as part of that group and put a stake in the ground over enforcing this, and you have more influence than you think.”