Defined as the seamless, secure exchange of information between various systems, the need for data interoperability has increased in K-12 education. As technology’s role in the classroom expands — from mobile apps to learning management systems to collaborative software — educators are finding they must manually transfer data because the various platforms are not designed to “talk” to each other.
This transfer costs hundreds of hours each year, says Erin Mote, executive director and co-founder of InnovateEDU. “If we’re emailing student information in CSV and getting a vendor report in PDF, teachers must transcribe that data from one format to another,” Mote says. “If they’re doing that for 20 tools because they’re using many types of technology, the task can consume much of their weekend time.”
Finding ways to link systems can eliminate the tedious work, but understanding the problem and finding solutions that merge with existing platforms can be a challenge. These six strategies can help administrators pursue data interoperability in their districts.
1. Join a community
An initiative by InnovateEDU, Project Unicorn, unites educators, administrators and developers to advocate for secure K-12 data interoperability. “One of our primary goals is to help teachers, districts and students ask for what they need so vendors have the understanding to adapt their products,” Mote says. “We’re committed to changing the narrative — but also focused on providing technical resources to get the job done.”
2. Take a data inventory
Many K-12 leaders are unaware of just how many technology tools educators are using in their classrooms. “Districts need to take inventory of the products being utilized,” Mote says. “Teachers are often using a huge number of apps, resources and tools — and those are generating a lot of data.”
Creating a list of tools, what kinds of data they gather, and how educators store and share that information establishes a helpful baseline as districts consider interoperability solutions.
3. Outline interoperability goals
Before mapping out a plan of action, administrators must identify goals. Invite teachers and IT staff to share needs and insights, and use that information to create a list of objectives — and a roadmap to reach them.
After assessing the types of student data and formats it was stored in, administrators at Morris School District in Morristown, New Jersey, created a list of intentions and planned a solution. “We’ve outlined six specific steps to reach our interoperability goals, which helps all stakeholders understand the vision, its purpose, our values and the process to get there,” says Superintendent Mackey Pendergrast.
4. Prioritize data security
Data security is a serious concern — and a topic parents and students often ask administrators about. Many people fear “data interoperability” indicates a centralized storage system that is vulnerable to cyber attacks. Instead, Mote argues that enhanced security is a key benefit of interoperability.
When student data is copied by hand, dispersed through various apps and emailed via CSV files, it is far more vulnerable than it would be if enclosed in a secure system. “We have this false assumption that interoperability means putting data all in one place, but it really means secure transfer of the data,” says Mote. “When done well, it allows data to be shared in a way that is encrypted when at rest and when in transit. It means taking the type of care with our data that our bank takes when we do a mobile deposit, or a hospital does with patient information.”
To build secure systems, vendors must be on board. “Software providers have a responsibility to be proactive in ensuring data security,” says Jack McDermott, product marketing director at Panorama Education. “For example, our team has collaborated with vulnerability researchers, also known as ‘white-hat’ hackers, to test our systems from the outside in.”
Administrators should ask vendors what they’re doing to build data security into their products and find out whether they have signed the Student Privacy Pledge or Project Unicorn’s Edtech Vendor Pledge.
5. Talk to vendors
When considering new technology products, districts should vet vendors on their openness to interoperability. “It’s important to find vendors and data system partners who will listen and respond to your needs as a district,” McDermott says. “Administrators should ask questions about the support that these data systems offer when it comes to data interoperability before choosing to invest.”
Fayette County Public Schools in Kentucky has created a set of questions about data interoperability that district administrators can use as a guide. Project Unicorn also offers a number of resources for districts to aid conversations with vendors.
6. Evaluate standard vs. custom data solutions
Some districts benefit from seeking custom solutions for their data systems, but standard configurations are often simpler to implement and far more cost-effective. Several open standards for K-12 data have emerged, such as the Ed-Fi Data Standard and Common Educational Data Standards.
“If you can reach 90% or more of your desired outcome using a standardized solution, then it’s likely worth it as opposed to chasing down that last 10% in custom solutions, which are often expensive and difficult to maintain,” said McDermott. “I’m especially enthusiastic about the Ed-Fi Data Standard and its wider community of users and developers. It’s really gaining momentum by bringing together states, districts, partners and vendors in a collaborative environment.”