Report: Seamlessly integrating tech solutions needed for schools

As LEAs and schools increasingly turn to technology to deliver content aligned to individual student needs and preferences, and to identify learning gaps, district leaders say the need to develop products and solutions using a standards-based approach has become more apparent.

Indeed, interoperability — a technical term to explain the ability to seamlessly share data between multiple digital applications — is a function that appears to be an ongoing point of concern for school system leaders as classrooms adopt new solutions to meet educational needs, according to the Consortium for School Networking.

Their recently released paper, Eliminating Ed Tech Havoc: Why Open Standards Matter, serves as a primer on interoperability systems and how they affect teaching and learning today. It also calls for district leaders and vendors to reach consensus on standards adoption — for the good of teaching and learning.

The paper is based on discussions between district leaders in a series of meetings convened by CoSN. During the meetings, the participants agreed that there is a need for a “single resource that would help them navigate all aspects of the interoperability landscape.”

“At CoSN, we see smart chief technology officers demanding interoperability so that school districts can mix and match solutions that best fit their needs, and allow them to remix and rematch with local content,” the paper said. “Openness is a core and growing value.”

Devoid of such standards, experts said that districts must “jump through time-consuming, inefficient, and costly hoops” in attempts to personalize learning using technologic solutions.

“Creating workarounds for proprietary frameworks are necessary in the absence of standards-based products,” the paper noted. “These workarounds weigh heavily on districts’ time and budgets.”

‘Proprietary systems’

Seamless integration of technologies and data-sharing is often seen as a daunting task for district leaders, said Keith Bockwoldt, director of technology services at Township High School District 214 in Arlington Heights, Illinois. But when “systems do not talk to one another … districts are forced to have manual processes, or develop integrations to make multiple systems talk with each other,” he explained in an email exchange.

“Vendors are creating proprietary systems, forcing school districts to conform to their methods,” he said.

He therefore advised districts to require interoperability in their RFP processes. Bockwoldt said vendors should develop products using commonly accepted interoperability standards — solutions that are known as plug-and-play — which can easily integrate into a district’s IT ecosystem.

The goal of plug-and-play solutions, according to the paper, is to provide district chief technology officers the ability to better integrate data between systems, implement new solutions with ease, access all solutions using a single sign-on, and continue to add new applications for educators and students as needed.

“In an ideal world, data just flows back and forth,” said Michael Jamerson, director of technology for Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation in Indiana, and founding member of the Consortium for School Networking Indiana chapter. “There are, in many cases, programs [used by districts] called Application Program Interfaces that allow programs to move that data back and forth easily. But in other cases, there’s nothing.”

“In my district, we are fortunate to have a talented team that are experts, and believe in integrating systems for seamless transactions of data,” Bockwoldt said in an email. “While this is beneficial, there becomes a burden on the school district to manage the numerous integrations they developed.”

‘Demand-side pressure’

Bockwoldt said vendors and educators have been in talks about “plug-and-play” solutions. As of now, however, he’s observed no real traction for vendors to align open standards to support the education community. “There is engagement and interest, [but] slow movement towards the agreement of common standards,” Bockwoldt said.

Businesses have perhaps shied away from open standards because they don’t support their bottom line, as suggested in the CoSN paper.

“Until vendors have a business case for moving to open standards, they won’t have a compelling reason to adopt them,” said the report. “An open standard means plug-and-play with competitors, which is not necessarily something vendors want to encourage. Historically, companies have created technology that establishes lock-in — keeping customers within a company’s own ecosystem.”

The paper indicates that a push for standards needs to come from districts if companies are to change their proprietary development strategy.

“I hope districts will understand the need to come together as a community to have a common conversation with vendors about using open standards that enable transactional data communications,” Bockwoldt said. “It’s not fair to students and staff to have to log in to different systems, with different passwords, and not use one common login. [It] also creates a burden on school district’s technology staff having to handle individual integrations differently for each vendor.”

Emily Ann Brown covers education technology and STEM education issues for LRP Publications.

Copyright 2016© LRP Publications, Education Daily®