K-12 Frustrations With Ed-Tech Interoperability Surface at ASU/GSV

Associate Editor

Salt Lake City, Utah

The lack of ed-tech interoperability costs school districts time, money, and efficiency–a fact that caused several flashpoints at the 2017 ASU/GSV Summit held here Monday.

Interoperability refers to the seamless sharing of data, content, and services among systems and applications, according to the Consortium for School Networking or CoSN.

As hundreds of ed-tech products have made their way into classrooms throughout the country, interoperability often has not, leaving educators to face the challenge of how to juggle using multiple digital resources—signing into one and then the other, each generating its own distinct data set—to support teaching and learning.

In a panel about what keeps district chief technology officers up at night, one answer centered on how often ed-tech company executives—hundreds of whom attend ASU/GSV—are sometimes unwilling to make their products interoperable.

CTO to Ed-Tech Sales: Put Yourselves in Our Shoes

“If we made you use five different systems, and you couldn’t use Salesforce to manage all your leads, how efficient and effective would it be for you to lead your organization?” asked Vince Scheivert, chief information officer of Albermarle County, Va. schools, addressing the ed-tech executives in the audience, many of whom use the popular sales software. “Don’t ask us to do that with kids.”

In Arlington Heights, Ill., five programmers are needed to help his district do integrations because of a lack of interoperability, said Keith Bockwoldt, the director of technology services for Township High School District 214.

“We have a high-achieving district, and we need to transfer data back and forth,” said Bockwoldt. “If I’m locked into a proprietary protocol, we have to spend too much time on the back end” to make the transfer among databases successful. “We’re not magicians,” he said.

A Sudden Quadrupling of Cost

A district’s demand for interoperability was cited as the reason for a last-minute price hike for an instructional software—four times the original amount quoted—in the Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township in Indiana.

Last week, Pete Just, the district’s chief technology officer, was surprised at the price increase request in the 11th hour of a nine-month procurement process, just as he was about to put a purchase order in for the contract.

“They have a good product. The teachers loved what they saw,” said Just, who had already been given preliminary approval by the school board to buy it, at the price originally quoted by the company months before the final contract was to be drawn up. The RFP the district released specified that the product be capable of complying with “IMS Common Cartridge or LTI [for Learning Tools Interoperability] integrations,” Just said.

The sudden change from the original price quoted left Just contacting other districts in his state to see if his experience was unique. He found that two other districts had similar experiences. Now, Metropolitan will have to decide whether to go with its second choice of a provider for the instructional software it needs.

“A lack of vendor cooperation is our daily challenge,” said Just, who attributed the problem to C-suite leaders agreeing to interoperability as a concept, but having a field level staff that isn’t aligned with those promises.

Showing his frustration with the process, Just wrote a LinkedIn blog post after attending another ASU/GSV panel–with only education company representatives speaking about interoperability: “IMS Global Learning Consortium standards are essential, but publishers and providers need to get serious about delivery of their products with affordable metadata level integrations,” he said. “If that happened, more districts would have a simple and student centered learning ecosystem in place today.”

Ed-Tech Companies Talk Interoperability

The panel earlier in the day highlighted executives from four ed-tech companies who were touting the importance, and the challenges, of interoperability.

Melissa Loble, vice president of platforms and partnerships for Instructure, the company that markets the Canvas LMS, said the last two major RFPs her company received from very large school districts included matrices of at least 60 tools that the districts identified as essential for an LMS to work well with. “The only way we can do that is if we all use standards” and the same approaches, said Loble.

Tyler Bosmeny, the CEO of Clever, said he has “a sober view of where we’re at today” in terms of schools’ ability to use ed-tech well. “As an industry, we have a long ways to go on some of the most basic foundations of interoperability,” he said.

As an example, he pointed to single sign-on, which he said in many school districts is still a challenge, with students needing to have 10 or 15 different usernames and passwords to access the ed-tech in their classrooms. Two years ago, Clever created a single sign-on solution, which was made free to schools and applications, and is used today by 1 in 10 students in the U.S.

Interoperability will “only fuel the ability of all of us to innovate,” predicted Steve Liffick, the general manager of School Data Sync at Microsoft.

But Stephen Laster, the chief digital officer of McGraw-Hill Education, apologized “for the fact that this meeting is happening today.” If companies “were really doing interoperability well, nobody would be in the room. The fact that we’re having this session” shows that many ed-tech companies are missing the mark.


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