Ed-tech leaders schooled on interoperability standards

Interoperability presents an issue for educational technology leaders who often must integrate diverse products made by different developers.

When school technology directors purchase an innovative product from one vendor and an exciting upgrade from another vendor, schools can find themselves in a tangle of incompatible formats. A primer released this spring by the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA) explains how adoption of interoperability standards can streamline technology systems in K-20 education.

Interoperability, the ability of different systems to work together, presents an issue for educational technology leaders who often must integrate diverse products made by different developers. Those developers, too, must walk a fine line when trying to create products that encourage brand loyalty but also can be readily adapted to diverse systems.

SIIA’s report, titled “Primer on K-20 Education Interoperability Standards,” provides a framework for understanding interoperability standards that facilitate the exchange of content from different technology applications and systems. To provide a context for standards’ development and implementation, the primer surveys the challenges and benefits of adopting interoperability standards.

The standards discussed in the primer span the educational field, addressing topics ranging from data exchange to digital rights and privacy. The text of the primer does not require extensive technical expertise or extensive knowledge of interoperability, nor does it focus on end user experience.

Rather, the pragmatic focus of the primer aims to reach middlemen such as product managers and school technology staff—people who are not directly engaged in creating the standards, but who need to have a context for decision making, said Ed Walker, executive vice president of Consulting Services for Education and the primer’s author.

“There has been an uptick in interest in adoption of technology in recent years. We’ve hit a tipping point: Education is not asking if, but asking how and when best to use technology,” said Mark Schneiderman, SIIA’s senior director of educational policy. “The key issue is to make it as seamless and painless as possible for teachers to adopt and integrate technology. [To do that,] inoperability is key.”

Walker said that a combination of factors made it crucial to release the primer at this moment in ed-tech development. First, “basic standards are now mature enough that people can and should be using them.” And second, a “general feeling that U.S. education is in trouble” has spurred increased interest in interoperability by the federal Education Department.

There has been a “push for results, and the only silver bullet is interoperability—to look not at microcosms, but to look across states,” Walker said. “Otherwise it’s just piecemeal.”

Coupled with rapidly developing innovations in pedagogy, leadership, and technology, interoperability adoption is more urgent than ever. “People stand on the edge of the pool and want to wait and see. We’re past that stage,” Walker said. “We need to start now—it’s going to cost more later than today.”

When deciding which standards to include in the framework, Schneiderman said the SIIA working group chose the standards they found the most “mature, relevant, and specific.” The framework provides an overview of standards that apply to key functions in the educational domain:

Moving Content: Educators often mix and match digital content in a variety of formats, from eBooks to video files. To facilitate the movement of content in and among learning management systems, most providers of educational content comply with IMS Common Cartridge, which is an eXtensible Markup Language (XML) standard. A number of international and U.S. governments also require the content management component of SCORM 2004. It is relatively straightforward to include both SCORM and Common Cartridge assets, as both are based on IMS.

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