Data Integration | August 2013 Digital Edition

How Your Student Data Could Be Saving You Time

Two new startups are helping save schools time by making constant input of student information a thing of the past.

This article originally appeared in T.H.E. Journal's August 2013 digital edition.

illustration of people turning on water taps to collect data

It's become something of an inside joke in education: On the road to truly personalized learning, data and analytics are actually making things more difficult--or at least more time-consuming. Schools collect and maintain reams of up-to-date student data in their Student Information Systems (SIS), for example, but students, teachers, and administrators regularly retype it whenever they introduce new software. And these days, schools are adding a lot of new applications.

"We've talked to schools who, a couple of years ago, were using one or two pieces of software, and today are using five or six and are continuing that trajectory. In a couple years, they may be using 20 or 30," says Tyler Bosmeny, a cofounder of Clever, a company that, along with fellow startup LearnSprout, is tackling this problem head-on by connecting the data in an SIS with third-party products, thereby reducing redundancy for administrative staff and teachers.

After all, says LearnSprout cofounder and CEO Franklyn Chien, what good is all this data if its use is so limited? "We want the data you have in your SIS to be valuable to you," he says.

Meet the API
The two companies share more than a focus. Last year they were both among the finalists in the Software & Information Industry of America's Innovation Incubator program, which rewards forward-thinking software startups and products new to the ed tech scene. (Clever won with the top two awards, Most Innovative and Most Likely to Succeed.)

Free for schools, Clever and LearnSprout are striking a chord with thousands of schools across the country that are looking to connect the many silos of data they collect. Both companies are working with thousands of schools and districts, including some of the largest in the country. Venture capitalists also see data integration as a market likely to grow. In May, LearnSprout landed $2.8 million in funding; last year, Clever raised $3 million from a list of investors that included Google Ventures.

Undergirding both companies' technology is an API. Short for Application Programming Interface, an API specifies how two programs can communicate and share information with each other, much like how Facebook allows sign-in and commenting features on third-party websites. Clever and LearnSprout's APIs help schools solve a small, but formidable, problem: the need to provision separate login accounts for every student across the growing number of software applications that capture everything from math scores to reading habits to the progress made in a student's IEP. To simplify the process, schools can use software from Clever or LearnSprout to authorize the transfer of data (such as names and birth dates) from an SIS into a third-party software program like Khan Academy.

Less Tech Support, More Teaching
In describing the impetus behind starting Clever, cofounder Dan Carroll recounts the frustrations he experienced during his tenure at a Colorado charter school, where he was first a high school science teacher and later a tech director. "I knew that if I could get students on computers, that was one great way that the faster students could learn as fast as they want and the slower students could get extra support," he says. "The reality is that I ended up having to do tech support in the classroom and I would be resetting passwords and helping students log in, and I didn't get to do that 1-on-1 or small group instruction I had hoped."

When most people think about data integration, Bosmeny says, "they're imagining a one- to six-month project that's very tedious and time-consuming." Both Clever and LearnSprout, however, stress that their software takes only about five minutes to set up initially; after that, data flows freely between the SIS and the programs a school has authorized it to connect with. Every time a new student enrolls (or leaves the school), the accounts are updated.

So while students and teachers still have separate accounts for each software provider, the onus to create and maintain those accounts is no longer on them. And because the third-party vendors are charged for the connection, it doesn't add to schools' overhead. The result, the companies say, is a school freed from the constraints of having to create and manage student accounts on a classroom-by-classroom basis, or needing administrative staff to upload CSV files to each vendor for data integration.

Schools, too, are seeing benefits. According to Chris Liang-Vergara, the director of educational technology for FirstLine Schools, a charter school network in New Orleans that uses Clever with software from vendors like Curriculum Associates and Scientific Learning, "Our students use multiple content providers, so if we had a new student come in we would have to have a human going in and logging into three or four providers, creating a new account, and making sure they were set up underneath the right teacher….

"That time adds up. And it's the same when students leave or transfer. You have to log into multiple systems to remove their accounts to free up that license." Now, Lian-Vergara says, his schools are able to focus more on formative assessment thanks to the time they are saving.

Making Sense of Data
So far, neither Clever nor LearnSprout deal in transferring collected data back to schools for analysis. But Liang-Vergara says that saving time on the front end is freeing up time for teachers to go in and look at the data, even if it is still trapped mainly in individual silos. "I would say on the back end of the data, the data integration still is not clean," he says. "A teacher has to log into a specific provider's dashboard to view the data. It doesn't get pulled into a single place." (For that, some schools are turning to new initiatives like the still-in-beta nonprofit inBloom, which is trying to solve this very problem.) "But in terms of being able to use this type of data, it's still a complete game changer for us compared to a paper-based method."

For its part, LearnSprout's new lightweight analytics tool, Dashboard, is at least dipping a cautious toe into synthesizing the bottomless oceans of data that educators must wade through. Currently, the program is capable of analyzing data that already exists inside a school's SIS (attendance and grades, for example) and generating graphs and reports that let administrators compare trends, such as the correlation, if any, between performance and attendance for a given student population.

A few SISs, LearnSprout's Chien admits, already have built-in tools for viewing this type of data, but he says the value of the program doesn't lie in its current functionality but in its promise. Here again, APIs are the key. They make the transfer of data from the SIS to Dashboard possible and, ultimately, they may someday facilitate the transfer of student data, such as scores from, say, a math assessment program from a third-party content provider to an SIS or LMS, where data from myriad sources can be mixed and matched.

"One of the reasons why we built Dashboard, to be honest, was to actually show what normalized data can do for you," Chien says. "The Dashboard is basically a tool to help schools realize that, one, the data you have in your SIS can be valuable and, two, allowing other vendors to utilize a subset of that [data], such as the class roster, can be really beneficial and save you a lot of time."

A More Manageable Future
At present, LearnSprout is focused on increasing its compatibility with a broad spectrum of SISs and software vendors, and on expanding the amount of data it can pull from each system, while Clever is working on rolling out a new release--a "launchpad" from which students and teachers can view and start up all their software in one place, making separate accounts even less noticeable to end users.

After that, who knows? Ultimately, the goal is for these APIs to spur the creation of more Dashboard-like applications--by the companies themselves or third-party developers--that integrate with the data that they are already authorized to share. Right now, though, both companies are staying mum on where they're headed, except to say that wherever it is, it will be directed by the problems schools are facing.

"We're really open to what we do when we think about the future," Carroll says. "We really believe in customer-centric and user-centric design."

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