Policy & Advocacy | April 2013 Digital Edition

New Initiatives Aim to Make School Data Interoperable

An array of new initiatives is helping make student data interoperable.

faucet dripping

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

Have you ever had a leaky faucet that would not stop dripping, that broke your concentration, or kept you awake as you waited for the next drop to fall? That drip is annoying, but it isn't as bad as the DRIP we have right now in education. Time and again, I have heard educators talk about schools suffering from a DRIP, because they are data rich, information poor.

This pithy acronym refers to the idea that schools now have the capability to gather an enormous amount of information about students, teachers, and innumerable aspects of school and district performance through their student information system, gradebooks, assessment systems, and other sources. In other words, they are "data rich." But these systems rarely, if ever, talk to each other to exchange, coordinate, or integrate the data and report that integrated data in a way that is actionable by anyone. That's what makes these same schools "information poor."

To use a technical term, there is no interoperability among educational data systems. The good news is that more than a dozen initiatives are under way to help solve the DRIP dilemma by creating standards for describing data and transferring it among different systems. Many of these projects sound like the proverbial alphabet soup--CEDS, LRMI, SIF, Ed-Fi--but don't be surprised if you haven't heard of them.

Iwan Streichenberger, CEO of inBloom, an initiative that officially launched at SXSWedu in Austin, TX, in March, says these data initiatives are like the plumbing behind your systems: They are creating standards to define the key elements in the education system, then establishing protocols for how to transport them (and in many cases, use and display them).

But if data initiatives are simply plumbing, should you really care about them? The short answer is yes, you should, because these frameworks can change the lives of students, teachers, administrators, and parents. If these initiatives work as intended, the mantra will be, "Enter once, use many times."

To help technology leaders understand the various data initiatives, the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) has written a white paper that explains each of them as well as how they overlap and intersect. We sort them into three sometimes overlapping categories: The first category covers initiatives that provide consistent data definitions; the second, those that facilitate the sharing of information across systems; and the third category encompasses the search, discovery, and alignment of resources. The data might look like this: 

District A                               District B

Jonatha                                 Jonathan

Tsumura II                            Tsumura, Suffix II

Race = Japanese                    Race = Asian

Gender = M                           Sex = M

When Jonatha(n) moves, it's  important that his crucial biographical information is shared correctly. The different data fields ("gender" versus "sex," in this case) need to be calibrated from one system to the next if data is to be transferred easily and quickly. Otherwise we are talking about manual data entry to deal with the inconsistencies. Imagine the staff hours to handle the transfer of 200 students, all with various data permutations. In plumbing terms, the pipes don't all need to be identical, but they do need to fit together so that everyone is drinking from the same well.

Keeping Data Flowing
While some initiatives describe data, others, those we group in the second category, move standardized data among systems. Continuing the example above, let's assume that the data describing Jonathan is made consistent through one of the data-description protocols. But there's still a problem: District A uses one student information system and gradebook, while District B uses different applications. How do the districts ensure that Jonathan's data moves accurately? That's where data-sharing initiatives come in. They provide rules that enable data to travel among applications without first having to be transformed in some way.

Two of the projects in this category, Ed-Fi and inBloom, also provide additional functionality, such as facilitating the reporting of data through dashboards.

Tapping Into Information

One element of LRMI is assigning metatags to information so a teacher will know not only the standard to which that a piece of content is tied, but also the type of content it is (movie, jpeg, etc.) so that it can be used most effectively. Metatagging also helps teachers and districts share information, lesson plans, and other resources.

Once a framework for finding resources is in place, initiatives such as GIM-CCSS come into play, with the goal of mapping digital content or assessment items to the Common Core State Standards as well as other state standards.

Avoiding Leaks
If all of these initiatives are just plumbing, though, why should CTOs act on them? Well, in the same way a bad plumbing job leads to insidious leaks that can undermine the integrity of your home, faulty information systems can hurt your district.

To achieve instructional integrity, your district needs to have policies that require any new software purchases to work together so that the data they carry moves smoothly and easily among programs. Remember, the goal is "enter once, use many times." Writing Requests for Proposals that take interoperability into account may seem like extra work for already overburdened CTOs, but it will pay off when the new systems are implemented.

When you choose a data system--say inBloom for data movement--you should not have to worry if it's compatible with other comparable systems. Thus, if your district is committed to, say, the Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF), a category two initiative that seeks to provide a common language to securely transport data among applications, then the software you invest in should be, too.

I asked Sharren Bates, chief product officer of inBloom, "If a CTO asks for inBloom compatibility, does he also have to ask for SIF compliance?" She said no, because inBloom has a "SIF adapter" that will ensure that any SIF-compliant software works with inBloom. Not all these initiatives are so friendly with each other, but they are trending more and more in that direction.

District technology leaders need to start requiring that any software company they work with helps ensure that their data can be turned into actionable information. Ask vendors what standards and initiatives they are familiar with, and which ones their products are compatible with.

The more we can raise awareness of these initiatives within all areas of the education data ecosystem, the faster the benefits will accrue to students, teachers, CTOs, and parents--and the faster we can get rid of that infernal DRIP.

Inside the Initiatives

The sheer number of data standards and frameworks can be intimidating. Here's a simple description of each, excerpted from an upcoming SETDA white paper, with links for those who want more detailed information.

Data Definition

Assessment Interoperability Framework (AIF) provides a common structure to allow for the transfer of any data associated with assessment systems; including student and teacher information, learning standards, assessment items, results, and related data across systems.

Common Education Data Standards (CEDS) provides a common structure through a data dictionary and a logical data model for data that needs to be shared across education organizations.

IMS specifications enable content and software to be created in a form that can be mixed and matched by teachers.

P20W Education Standards Council (PESC) consists of 10 standards for sharing specific types of education data, such as transcript and admissions information.

Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF) includes a technical standard that is used by education software developers to ease the transfer of data among applications in use by schools, districts, and state education agencies. You might think of CEDS as the proverbial brick and SIF as the mortar that lies between to create the solid house.

Data Sharing

Digital Passport is a tool that brokers the exchange of student data between states or districts to enable electronic record transfer as students move from one school to another.

Ed-Fi is a data model combined with a tool suite that streamlines the sharing of student data and also provides the elements of dashboards that educators can use to improve the academic outcomes of students.

InBloom provides cloud-based storage for schools and districts to maintain data from multiple systems in a common location with a set of APIs to make it easier for developers to build applications using school data.

MyData is the functionality within any system that maintains student data, which allows students and their families to export their data in an open format to maintain a copy of their own education records.

Open Badges Infrastructure (OBI) is an open platform for storing and sharing recognition for skills and achievements that students have completed. Any organization can issue badges, and learners can manage and display their badges from across the web in a badge backpack.

Content Alignment

Granular Identifiers and Metadata for the Common Core State Standards (GIM-CCSS) supplies fine-granulated identifiers to the Common Core standards to enable them to be aligned to education resources. Digital content creators can use these identifiers to align their materials to specific standards.

The Learning Registry is an open repository of metadata about digital learning resources across the internet, including location and information about alignment to learning standards.

The Learning Resource Metadata Initiative (LRMI) provides a common structure for tagging of learning resources that can be used by search engines and content delivery platforms to deliver more precise results and richer filtering capabilities than traditional web searches.