Jul 09 2020

Empowering Teaching and Learning with Interoperability

Here’s why everyone in your school district should know the “I” word.

A quick search of the words “interoperability” and “education” yields over 21 million results. Considering this massive volume, this combination of topics is clearly on the hearts and minds of teachers and students.

However, a quick survey would show that this is not the case. Other than those who are quick with their affixes and root words, there is barely a soul outside of an IT role who can give you a close definition.

Yet if you ask students, teachers, administrators and curriculum directors what they expect from their technology tools and resources, they state that they want them to work easily and seamlessly to provide a great learning experience. The vast array of systems and applications are causing technology itself to be seen as a problem by many teachers. The learning curve associated with technology tools and resources may seem overwhelming.

To illustrate interoperability’s magnitude in the world of an educator, consider the following ‘day in the life’:

Mrs. Bond teaches precalculus. As her students walk into her classroom, they quickly recount the prior day’s lesson and do a close read of the learning standard they are working on today. With a partner, they address what they already know about the standard and what misconceptions they may have, then share out with the class. They sign on to their computers and then log in to their learning management system (LMS) to grab their assignment for the day. The assignment requires that they log in to their instructional material’s publisher platform and complete a quick diagnostic to help target the content to their level. While they complete the diagnostic, Mrs. Bond uses the data in real time to create groups that will be targeting specific gaps in learning in their intervention program and through small-group instruction.

Each small-group activity had painstakingly been designed by Mrs. Bond the night before. She searched the internet for a variety of activities that her students would hopefully find interesting and that would still meet concepts addressed in the academic standard. She then provided instructions for each activity, including opportunities for reteaching and extension. As the students completed their assignments based on their instructional needs, Mrs. Bond rotated through each group of students to check for understanding, ask probing questions, monitor student behavior and clarify any necessary information.

At the end of class, the students recap their learning through a self-assessment and reflective activity. Throughout the class, Mrs. Bond has been entering notes on student performance, noting their strengths and weaknesses and how they can make progress moving forward. Then the next class walks through the door, and it starts all over again.

After four more lather-rinse-repeat cycles, Mrs. Bond is expected to make sure all of the learning artifacts and data from the day have been tracked and recorded back in her LMS, intervention program, assessment platform, instructional materials programs and the student information system where the gradebook is housed. This could mean going into three or four different systems and transferring information, such as scores on a performance task, among them. In addition, she must translate her notes from the day into action steps moving forward for the 107 students she saw that day, then repeat it tomorrow for another 72.

The above situation illustrates the myriad data points a teacher must securely maintain in multiple systems on top of everything else he or she must accomplish in the educator’s role.

This complication is alleviated by the solution of interoperability.

DISCOVER: Learn how K–12 schools can measure ed tech ROI with data.

What Is Interoperability?

Interoperability involves multiple systems sharing a language or a framework for language that’s designed to help them function together as a whole to improve usability and/or security. Interoperability in practice might look like many systems acting as one based on a shared data standard. Interoperability is synchrony.

Some systems already have interoperability and ubiquitously adopted standards. Our libraries have (for the most part) settled on a standard for filing and organizing their books. When you open a toolbox, you generally find two types of screwdrivers: Phillips and flat-head. Most large home appliances are a standard size to allow you to swap them out when one fails.

What Is the Importance of Interoperability to Instruction?

So why is interoperability important in education? As the variety of educational systems and apps exponentially increases each year, the entropy of the system is bound to increase as well; the second law of thermodynamics seems to hold true for educational systems. With more systems, there are more pieces of data with different names for different fields.

Data standards, like those created and supported by IMS Global Learning Consortium, seek to eliminate those discrepancies. If the systems were speaking the same language with the same labels for the same data, then all of your programs could seamlessly communicate with each other and securely share important data.

READ MORE: Find out why schools should establish a data-driven culture.

How Can We Solve Instructional Pain Points with Interoperability?

What pain points could interoperability have potentially relieved in the above scenario?

First, one login could be leveraged through a single sign-on (SSO) platform for all of the various systems. Each link to a new resource automatically and securely logs the teacher and students in to that new application. As they complete assignments and assessments, their performance is automatically scored and transferred to the appropriate system of record.

Based on that data, Mrs. Bond or the students themselves could receive recommendations of other resources and strategies categorized by metadata (descriptive information, such as title, grade range, permissions, publisher, etc.) and aligned to academic standards to better meet each student’s learning needs. At the end of the class, the student and teacher will know exactly what concepts have been mastered, as all of the performance data has been safely and privately transferred to one comprehensive record, dashboard or gradebook, perhaps with badges to demonstrate accomplishments.

Instructional Impact of Interoperability

For a practicing educator, the power of interoperability can have a meaningful impact. Teachers, administrators, and students have a lot of important decisions to make and concepts to tackle. Learning how to operate disparate systems should not be one of them, so ease of use is vital. Providing seamless handoffs and improved workflow between systems allows them to focus on the central tenets of their work, instead of the systems themselves. Increased focus on interoperability by key stakeholders allows the technology to fade into a support role.

This ease of use helps to release teachers from the administrative burdens typical of instruction, such as grading student assignments, entering scores, searching for additional resources that meet disparate student needs, printing materials and handing out assignments. Interoperable automated processes help to preserve instructional time so that teachers are free to work with students individually, address their social-emotional needs, and differentiate or personalize instruction.

Likewise, professional learning experiences can also be improved for the teacher because of interoperability. First, the professional learning itself is better facilitated because it isn’t necessary to train teachers on how to utilize all of the separate systems and their different interfaces since all of the systems are integrated and function seamlessly. This improved functionality enables more efficient professional learning at scale to reach each teacher in every building — even the teachers who may have resisted utilizing technology in the past.

Additionally, teachers no longer need to transfer data manually; rather, that time can be spent on learning to interpret actionable data to better meet students’ needs. Finally, more time can be spent on how to develop a nurturing learning community in the classroom using technology resources that have the potential to improve collaboration and communication. After all, positive relationships with the teacher and other students engaged in the processes of learning are the experiences that will guide a student’s life.

For more information on interoperability in education and for strategies to ensure interoperability, please visit IMS Global and Project Unicorn.

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