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.

Exchanging Data: Instructional and non-instructional data exist in a range of formats that frequently must be used together. For example, an administrator might need to compare a student’s financial aid application to the student’s record in a learning management system. A data standard released by the SIF Association describes the format of student data primarily used by K-12 administrations, such as food services, bus transportation, and library automation. Another set of standards by Postsecondary Electronic Standards Council (PESC) address administrative applications specific to secondary and post-secondary environments, such as applying for admission, requesting transcripts, and managing student aid. In collaboration, the SIF Association and PESC will create integrated K-20 standards consistent with the emerging Common Educational Data Standard (CEDS).

Integrating Educational and Administrative Applications: Creating data in interoperable formats is only useful if the applications that use those data can work together. For example, to authenticate users and authorize them to perform certain actions, educational applications must be integrated with identity management systems.

  • PESC’s Data Transport Standard (DTS) specifies a web service architecture that enables applications to send and respond to requests using standard web service protocols, and it’s a recommended replacement for common eMail transfer and file transfer protocols such as POP3/SMTP or FTP.
  • The SIF standard specifies data formats, rules, and definitions for using SIF Agents, Zones, and Zone Integration Servers (ZIS) to manage access, routing, delivery, and security. Under this system, applications can communicate within and between different levels in an administrative hierarchy. For example, a state could publish teacher certification data to district databases and receive data from the district and school levels.
  • The IMS Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) standard complements the Common Cartridge content standard and provides a framework for integrating learning applications both integrated within content, and externally through the web. For example, LTI would address the security of connecting a virtual laboratory to an LMS.

Accessibility: When integrating education systems, schools must maintain special concerns for providing equitable learning opportunities to all students, including students with disabilities. For example, assessment results need to align not only with curriculum and competency standards, but also with accessibility requirements. Fulfilling this combination of requirements depends on standards for exchanging data across many administrative sub-systems and applications. The Accessible Portable Item Protocol (APIP) provides assessment developers with a standard file format for digital test items. By using a standard test format, schools can construct a profile of a user’s accessibility needs and interaction preferences, thus enabling accessible assessment of students with disabilities and special needs.

With a better understanding of the issues involved with interoperability, education leaders will see “what they could and should be striving for,” Schneiderman said. “[School leaders] are used to not having interoperability, so we want to encourage a mindshift to be more active in requesting this.”

“Top-down requests” for specific standards from the legislature do not work, because they are imposed on the market. Legislative actions “don’t allow for the flexibility needed on the ground as needs and technologies change,” he said.

Schneiderman said that for standards to be truly effective, they must “grow up through the market” and create a “confluence of the development side meeting the demands of consumers.”

The primer seeks to inform vendors and consumers of educational technology that both sides stand to gain from adopting interoperability standards. Interoperability might require developers of educational digital content to revise their business model, but it ultimately will help attract more consumers, thus advancing education goals while still fulfilling business needs. For school technology leaders, interoperability can ease the management of large-scale tasks such as moving educational content, sharing student and staff data, and integrating new applications.

Education decision makers need to “be encouraged to be proactive consumers. … [They] need to make clear to vendors that interoperability is needed, and to build into the criteria of making decisions about what products and services to adopt,” Scheiderman said. And vendors need to “see interoperability as a platform on top of which innovation can happen … to see that overall, it’s good for the growth of technology.”

To see these benefits, both consumers and vendors need to achieve a better understanding of what defines interoperability. “I want [consumers] to move from saying, ‘I want all content to be usable in all systems,’ to saying, ‘I want this content to be usable in this system,’” Walker said.

As for vendors, Walker said they have a responsibility not only to create products that pass compliance tests for interoperability standards, but also to demonstrate that their products work in their consumers’ environments.

“We need to get people to give operational definitions of interoperability rather than theoretical ones,” Walker said, “and to move from a ‘tell me’ version of interoperability to a ‘show me’ version.”

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