Jan 08 2019
Data Analytics

Data Interoperability Looms Large as Districts Pursue Innovation and IT Savings

Personalized learning and one-to-one programs make interoperability a must-have, expert says.

Until now, data integration at Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools required IT staff to manage point-to-point data integrations, with 40 data extracts to schedule and run each night. 

One of those extracts goes to the district’s ­middleware product, which then ­connects it to close to 100 separate learning applications, says Lance Lott, MNPS executive director of technology and information services.

“That’s not ideal in a district with growing technology needs,” Lott says. As the use of digital content and the number of digital tools in K–12 education explode, districts like MNPS need more efficient ways to bring data from all those sources together to maximize its impact on teaching and learning, says Lott. 

In response, MNPS is using a comprehensive data interoperability strategy that includes an operational data store (ODS) to aggregate data from its student information and enterprise resource planning systems across the district of 86,000 students and 170 schools. 

Central to the district’s interoperability strategy is CA Technologies’ Live API Creator, which generates and manages the application programming interfaces that enable secure data sharing in and out of the ODS, in accordance with the Ed-Fi Alliance interoperability standard. API Creator has transformed data integration from an overnight process to one that now takes 15 minutes, says MNPS Enterprise Solutions Architect Lee Barber.

“The CA tool significantly reduces development time and ensures the security of the data, which was our top priority when we were researching the technology,” Barber says. 

The interoperability project, which has support from the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, will take about two years to complete. The final phase will be a portal for vendors that will automate the interoperability screening process for new applications, says Lott.

“We’re already a much nimbler operation that can more easily integrate new solutions and respond quickly to the needs of the district,” he says. 

MORE FROM EDTECH: See how interoperability can boost K–12 school communications.

Interoperability Mitigates the Costs of Walled Data Gardens

The push for data interoperability comes as school districts realize that they’re bearing the costs — in dollars, staff time and, most important, stalled educational innovation — of maintaining systems that don’t share data easily, says Erin Mote, executive director of InnovateEdu, an educational nonprofit that runs the Project Unicorn initiative. Project Unicorn is a coalition of school districts and vendors working toward data interoperability in K–12 education.

“When applications don’t talk to each other, humans move the data from one system to another by hand, taking hours and days that could be better spent,” she says. “The proliferation of tools, along with the growth of one-to-one programs and the increased emphasis on personalized learning has made the need for data interoperability more imperative.”

While Project Unicorn doesn’t support a specific interoperability standard, adoption of industry-aligned standards, such as those developed by the Ed-Fi Alliance or the IMS Global Learning Consortium, is a necessary step to ensure that interoperability becomes the norm as ed tech applications emerge, says Mote.

Peterson quote headshot
We're already a much nimbler operation that can more easily integrate new solutions and respond to the needs of the district."

Lance Lott Executive Director of Technology and Information Services, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools

Vendors also recognize that data interoperability gives them a firmer foothold in the evolving educational technology landscape as districts look for tools that can help create a holistic view of student progress.

“The old way of walled gardens of data is over,” Mote says. “Vendors are recognizing that bringing data together and getting it in the hands of teachers in ways they can use helps them as well as the teachers and students.”

Manage Vendor Partnerships to Optimize Data Exchanges

For Josh Allen, director of technology architecture and strategy for Denver Public Schools (DPS), data interoperability is largely about managing vendor relationships. 

“It’s not really a technical issue for us most of the time — it’s a matter of clarity with all our vendors,” says Allen, whose district serves more than 93,000 students in 207 schools. “They need to know what requirements they have to adhere to and that exchange of data is a must.”

Those requirements include support of a data-sharing and single sign-on platform based on the IMS Global Learning Consortium’s OneRoster data transfer standard. Colorado’s Student Data Transparency and Security Act also mandates the security of all student information, whether it’s stored or in transit. 

Data from financial, administrative and student information systems are fed into the DPS ODS. The district’s development team works with vendors to verify and sometimes help write the APIs that move information in and out of the data store.

“Once we’ve done the prework with a vendor, we test the application to prove that it has interoperability with our environment,” Allen says. “We ensure our data is safe and that we can use all of it. Vendors are cooperative because standards benefit them too.”

Data interoperability has allowed DPS to build portals that give teachers easy access to the data they need for a comprehensive view of a student’s progress and challenges, says Allen. Parents use the portals to track grades, class assignments and attendance, and can even add to the student’s lunch money account or see school bus locations in real time.

MORE FROM EDTECH: K–12 schools change the integration conversation.

Interoperability Lets Schools Share Data for Personalized Learning

With 41 schools, the Providence (R.I.) Public School District currently uses applications from more than 50 vendors, and that number is growing. The district is also committed to bringing data from all those sources to bear on the education of each of its 24,000 students, making interoperability a priority, says PPSD Superintendent Christopher Maher.

“Personalized learning is the core of what we’re doing in instruction, and for that we need to give students real-time data,” he says. “For that, all the pieces of our ed tech environment have to talk to each other.”

As it is at DPS, interoperability with systems already in place is a basic requirement for any ed tech tool the district purchases, says Cameron Berube, PPSD’s executive director for teaching and learning. 

“We include a data-sharing agreement when we sign a contract,” she says. “Vendors have to take care of APIs. If you want to work with us, you have to have interoperability with our systems.”

Berube curates an annual vendor fair so that PPSD teachers and administrators can evaluate technologies that meet quality and interoperability criteria and that fit the district’s educational strategy, which is to give students the tools for self-directed learning.

“We’re creating individual learning profiles through which students will be able to see how they’re doing and performing against standards,” says Berube. “They and their teachers will have data that shows their strengths and their struggles and gives them more control of their own education.”


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