At ISTE, a State-Level Push for Smart and Secure Data-Sharing

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After urging ed-tech vendors and districts to sign pledges to support data “interoperability,” an advocacy group is taking it up a notch and asking entire states to make a similar commitment.

The effort is being pressed by Project Unicorn in collaboration with two state-level organizations. They’re asking states to become champions for interoperability, generally defined as the goal of promoting the smooth and secure sharing of data across different proprietary platforms.

Over the past few years, Project Unicorn has asked vendors and school districts to put their names on pledges in which they agree to adhere to a core set of interoperability principles, rather than allowing K-12 data to sit in isolated, proprietary silos.

Districts signing the earlier pledge, for instance, agree not to buy ed-tech tools that do not meet specific data-sharing and privacy thresholds.

The new state policy, by contrast, is called a “commitment to principles,” and is meant to be broader, said Erin Mote, the executive director of InnovateEDU, a nonprofit of which Project Unicorn is a part.

Mote talked about the new state policy on Sunday at a “vendor summit” of ed-tech providers held at the ISTE annual conference, a massive ed-tech gathering being staged this week in Philadelphia.

Project Unicorn worked collaboratively in designing the state policy with the Council of Chief State School Officers, which represents directors of state education agencies, and the State Educational Technology Directors Association, which represents state ed-tech chiefs.

States signing the commitment agree to act as champions for interoperability in a variety of ways. One is that they’ll try to build support for best practices across different state agencies, not just those focused on education. The commitment calls, for instance, for those who sign to bring together state education, assessment, finance, and professional learning staff to “maintain a flexible interoperability implementation plan.”

In addition, states that sign are also asked to collaborate with districts and schools on their interoperability efforts, and establish a data governance structure that encourages interoperability.

In many states, the signer of the commitment is likely to be from the state education agency, said Mote, though it could also include a state’s chief information officer, who the state ed-tech director might answer to.

“We’ve heard from districts it would be helpful to have support at the state level for interoperability,” Mote said in an interview. Eventually, “where I see the most promise is when a state takes leadership and provides a clear roadmap for vendors as to what’s acceptable behavior.”

Looking for State Leadership

Over the past few years, K-12 officials in many school systems have tried to set stricter standards on the vendors they hire to make sure their ed-tech tools can share data with other tech systems they use—as opposed to allowing that data to be housed in  isolated silos.

Ideally, a district with interoperability would have the ability to analyze data flowing from traditionally disparate sources—in areas like attendance, scheduling, academic performance, and state or federally required data—so that educators can home in on patterns and create strategies to improve teaching and learning, academic or behavior-focused interventions, and other policies.

Project Unicorn was inspired to begin working on a state-focused policy partly because a few states had signed the district-focused pledge, Mote said. While Project Unicorn officials were grateful for their commitment, the pledge wasn’t really designed for them.

While Project Unicorn’s district and vendor pledges are more prescriptive, “it’s hard to write the same sort of procurement language into a state pledge,” Mote said, because state data practices are so different.

Among other benefits, Mote believes a state-level focus on interoperability could result in education agencies reducing the redundancy of their requests for data from the K-12 districts the regulate.

Too often today, districts share data with states through episodic uploads of that information, said Mote. A better, more interoperable system would allow data to change at the state level when it changes at the district level. That would make the data more useful, and make it easier for states and districts to track and use information, such as data related to students who are highly transient, and have moved from district to district, she argued.

The state policy will build upon work on innovative early steps on interoperability that a few states have already pushed along on their own, said Mote. She pointed to work in Oklahoma, Michigan, and Rhode Island, among others.

Currently, there is often “no reciprocity” between state and local data, said Mote. A superior approach would create “safe, secure bi-directional data that’s encrypted at rest and in transit.”

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