Expert Viewpoint


What interoperability means for learning environments.

Interoperability is neither a term that flows easily off the tongue, nor one that automatically appears in a spellcheck dictionary. Yet, interoperability plays a crucial role in supporting teaching and learning and alleviating school system costs.

If more education stakeholders understood the impact of interoperability on their students, teachers and administrators, IT leaders would be able to better advocate for related resources.

The nuts and bolts

The key to understanding interoperability is contained in the word itself — “ability.” That is, the:

  • Ability to reallocate resources

  • Ability to readily access data

  • Ability to keep data secure

  • Ability to roster students on day one

  • Ability to ensure data quality

What happens if school systems do not address the interoperability challenge? Districts will continue to face issues with siloed data, difficulties addressing student rostering inaccuracies in data transfer, end-user frustration managing multiple log-ins, as well as unnecessary and costly expense retrofitting.

We know that as educators grow more sophisticated in their use of technology, gaps increase in the integration and interfaces among disparate applications. How can you, as an education stakeholder, start to address such a complicated challenge?

You can begin by taking a look at the CoSN Interoperability Maturity Model, which includes an interactive assessment to guide you along the way. There are five areas against which you can evaluate your system’s current status:

  • Leadership & Vision

  • IT Governance

  • Data Governance

  • Information & System Integration

  • Infrastructure

In CoSN’s research, we found that there’s no single path to addressing how interoperability issues challenge your own situation. This was based on CoSN’s interview of IT leaders in various stages of the Interoperability Maturity Model. We learned about their journeys to enhance the level of interoperability within their school systems and hope their Case Studies shed light on what may work for yours.

Because K-12 education hasn’t really focused on interoperability, CoSN also created two resources to educate edtech leaders on why interoperability standards matter — one is for the non-technical leader and the other is a full primer. And if you’re looking for a glossary of interoperability standards, visit Project Unicorn’s Standard Glossary V1.

Putting a plan into action

Now, applying this to your school system: Let’s say you are putting together a Request for Proposal (RFP) for a new classroom management system. How do you ensure that you’re setting the stage for interoperability requirements up front? You can use the CoSN RFP guidelines as a reference point and CoSN’s interoperability online Cost Calculator as part of your vetting process.

It’s likely that at some point you’ll need to convince someone who does not have a technology background why interoperability is so important. That’s why we have also created discussion tools, including a customizable PowerPoint presentation that covers statistics, text and cost — all to help you start the conversation.

All of these tools are free to use and can be found in CoSN’s Interoperability Toolkit. We encourage you to review and sign the Project Unicorn District Pledge as well. The pledge demonstrates a district’s commitment to provide secure access to student data, educate practitioners and families about student privacy, promote equity and ensure fiscal responsibility for edtech purchases.

Oh, and one other “ability” that we didn’t mention: Dealing with interoperability challenges up front will give you the ability to help your colleagues get their evenings and Sundays back!

About the Authors

Keith R. Krueger is the CEO of the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN).

Paula Maylahn is Interoperability Project Director at CoSN.