Read the Fine Print on Ed Tech to Take Charge of Student Data

Founder, CEO & Chief Data Wizard at Schoolrunner
Art: Brandon Worthington

Most people have no idea what an API is and that’s ok. But if you’re purchasing ed-tech products, it’s time to learn.

In simple terms an API, or application programming interface, is a clear protocol that allows other software programs to get data into and out of your system. Check out the Clever API Explorer for a concrete example.

When I started Schoolrunner in 2012 (long after the dawn of the API) I naively assumed that the tools being used at most schools would feature APIs. I got a rude awakening when a friend asked me to join him on a conference call with a vendor to discuss getting their data out of the vendor’s product. The CEO said they were working on an API and when I asked about the technology they were going to use (JSON vs SOAP/XML) I got the phone equivalent of a blank stare. The worst part though was that the school had little leverage because the ink was already dry on the contract.

Allowing Schools to Control Their Data

With the limited resources that schools have, APIs are a critical tool for schools to efficiently sift through the mountains of data and automatically take action to solve important problems.

But don’t take my word for it. Brandon Worthington is a New Orleans teacher turned school data manager turned software developer who understands the key role APIs play and why they’re important. Worthington has used Schoolrunner, which uses APIs, to customize student reports and groups and tap into student and staff data dashboards to drive instruction.

He wrote the letter below to help schools understand the power of APIs.

APIs are a powerful tool for analyzing and managing data. If you have a tech background or some coding experience, you might already know what this means. If not, this is a great time to learn and totally worth a few more minutes of reading.

API stands for application programming interface. APIs allow one program to access data and resources from another program. Many of your favorite websites and mobile apps are probably powered by APIs. For example, APIs allow your Tweets to show up on Facebook or a mobile app to display stock prices.

Schoolrunner’s API allows you to access all of the raw data that teachers enter into the program. This includes raw attendance records, behaviors, assessment scores, GPAs, course grades, standards scores, section enrollments, and a lot more. Besides retrieving data from the API, you can even upload new data, such as assessment scores or student photos.

APIs Can Automatically Mine for Information

In Worthington’s letter he details some of the types of information that educators can extract from raw data using APIs. It may sound intimidating to do this, but the right ed-tech tool makes it easy.

Worthington’s letter on APIs continues:

While many ed-tech tools say they allow schools to “own their own data” they really mean that they have a few reports they let you download as a CSV or a PDF. Using Schoolrunner’s APIs, I’ve created programs to do things like:

  • Automatically email reminders to teachers who don’t align their assessments to standards
  • Automatically email parents when their child is failing a class
  • Generate district-level KPI dashboards
  • Importing a specific subset of records into our Student Information System for state reporting purposes

I won’t get into all of the nitty gritty details about how this works exactly, but suffice it to say none of those things would’ve happened without APIs.

In order to use the APIs, you will need some basic coding skills, but I was able to teach myself using free online resources. The APIs can be used with any number of languages, but most of the projects I’ve worked on involve using Python to pull data from an API and then take some action based on what I know is important.

I hope this got you thinking about some interesting possibilities for maximizing your school’s use of data via APIs.


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