Susan Bearden, Director of Digital Programs for InnovateEDU, says data sharing can solve educational problems.

Oct 01 2021

Q&A: Susan Bearden Pushes Ed Tech Users to Implement Interoperability Standards

The digital programs director for InnovateEDU is leading efforts to get school districts onboard with supporting data interoperability to get data out of silos.

Consumers expect their apps and gadgets to work together seamlessly, but in K–12 education, it’s often a battle of the brands. Susan Bearden, director of digital programs for InnovateEDU and their Project Unicorn lead, is focused on helping schools build a more harmonious future for their technology.

Project Unicorn is a coalition of 16 national organizations working together to promote data interoperability in the K–12 space. Bearden, who is also the former chief innovation officer for the Consortium for School Networking, spoke to EdTech about why interoperability is necessary.

EDTECH: What is data interoperability? What does it look like to the average person?

BEARDEN: An analogy that someone once described to me is this: Think of the difference between LEGO, Lincoln Logs and Tinker Toys. Those are all systems that you can use to build things. But you can’t use LEGO with Lincoln Logs, and you can’t use Tinker Toys with LEGO — not without custom-designed pieces to help the other pieces interlock, which would be expensive, inconvenient and difficult.

Interoperability, with regard to how data is stored and exchanged, is the same challenge. We’re so used to experiencing interoperability in our daily lives that we don’t even realize it’s happening. When you can withdraw money from your bank account using just about any bank’s ATM, that’s made possible by interoperability, because all these financial institutions agreed upon standards for storing and sharing data.

When people hear ‘interoperability,’ it sounds like this really big, scary thing. It’s not sexy. The word itself is intimidating. But once you understand how it actually, practically works in everyday life, you start to appreciate how incredibly valuable it is.

EDTECH: Given that there are generalized expectations about interoperability, what are the barriers to actually achieving it at the K–12 level?

BEARDEN: The K–12 industry is way behind other industries, such as finance or healthcare, in terms of leveraging interoperable standards, partly because there’s never been a significant market driver to push vendors to implement interoperable standards and to push districts to demand it.

Susan Bearden

Susan Bearden, director of digital programs for InnovateEDU, encourages K–12 districts to demand interoperability standards.

Second, there are different standards that are available for different use cases, and there’s some overlap between them, but there’s also some confusion in the market as to what is the best standard for a particular use case.

And a third factor is that there’s not a surplus of highly skilled data analysts and data engineers in the K–12 space. A lot of K–12 IT departments don’t have the personnel or the time to really step back and take a holistic look at their data systems and think, “How might we bring all of this data together?”

RELATED: Download the white paper on achieving effective data analytics.

EDTECH: It sounds like districts really need to push the industry to create more vendor-neutral data storage and sharing agreements.

BEARDEN: Absolutely. At Project Unicorn, we’re trying to push vendors to implement interoperability standards in their products from the get-go, not to charge districts for providing their data in a format that’s aligned to a particular standard. We’re trying to encourage districts to require interoperability alignment in their requests for proposals, to try and push the market toward interoperable solutions. It’s a complex problem we’re working to solve.

EDTECH: Given the threat of ransomware, which has exploded this past year and is now targeting more schools, could interoperability help boost security?

BEARDEN: Yes and no. Interoperability in and of itself does not improve privacy or security. But the steps that districts need to take to move toward leveraging interoperability can definitely help improve privacy and security.

There are several ways that districts can work to improve their data, the quality of their data and the stewardship of their data, that help improve a district’s privacy and cybersecurity posture.

Susan M. Bearden
The steps that districts need to take to move toward leveraging interoperability can definitely help improve privacy and security.”

Susan Bearden Digital Programs Director, InnovateEDU

One way that interoperability can support privacy and improve cybersecurity is by eliminating the need for downloads of CSV files to upload information into other forms, which then are stored in nonsecure locations, such as an Excel file on someone’s desktop.

Any time you have increased user interaction with data or you’re pulling it out of systems, that can be a security risk. Interoperability can improve cybersecurity and student data privacy by using single sign-on, where users have to remember only one set of credentials.

EDTECH: What makes a school district an interoperability standout?

BEARDEN: I would say a district that’s able to leverage previously siloed data in different ways to solve educational problems and improve education for kids.

Some people don’t want to hear about all the plumbing that happens underneath that makes technology work, but it’s necessary to facilitate things people really need. Interoperability seems like a scary technical concept. But once you understand what you can do with the data and how you can use that to improve learning for kids, it’s really powerful.

DIVE DEEPER: Use student data to improve equity and learning outcomes in K–12. 

EDTECH: If a school is thinking about this problem, and they want to figure out where to get to, what steps do you recommend?

BEARDEN: I would encourage districts to take two steps. First, sign the Project Unicorn pledge at projectunicorn.org to move forward in their use of interoperable tools or their readiness to use interoperable tools.

Two, take our school system data survey. After districts take the survey, the Project Unicorn team follows up and goes over the survey results with them. We talk about areas for growth and how they compare with other districts that have taken the survey. We also provide them with a customized list of resources that can help them with their specific needs.

Photography by Jane Shauck