Data Interoperability in K-12: Why it Matters

Teacher helping kids with computers in elementary school thanks to the help of data interoperability

By Bill Fitzgerald

This is a blog series about interoperability: the seamless, secure, and controlled exchange of data between applications.  In this series, we will highlight the ways that data interoperability is laying the foundation for innovation and helping enable great classroom instruction. We will also hear from partners who are implementing solutions to overcome the lack of data interoperability today in the K-12 sector. You can find the whole series here.

Tell us about yourself and your role at Common Sense Media.

My current role at Common Sense Media (Common Sense) is the Director of the Privacy Evaluation Initiative. Before I joined Common Sense, my first career was as a teacher in K12. I started off as an elementary special needs aide and then I taught students in literature, history, and integrated humanities courses. I was also a technology director at the K12 level for about 10 years.

How do you define interoperability?

In its most basic form, I define interoperability as only having to do something once. For a learner, it means eliminating repetitive tasks that demonstrate the same thing.  For example, if a learner has demonstrated mastery of a subject one day, he/she shouldn’t have to redo that work again and again.

Similarly, we shouldn’t be expecting teachers or district staff to be doing repetitive tasks. While there are some things technology will never be able to replace, duplicate data entry is not one of those. When interoperability is done well, we can stop thinking about how to record what we’re doing and just do it.

Why should districts and teachers care about interoperability?

The word “interoperability” is one of the biggest barriers to people understanding interoperability. We already have interoperability in so many different areas of our lives, we just don’t think about it because it’s convenient.  For example, ten years ago it was very difficult to use multiple devices and have all of our emails across each device.

But today if we’re using a mobile device and a computer, we get the same email in both places and we don’t even think about it – and this happened because most of us, without realizing it, started using a different protocol for email. Interoperability makes things more convenient and we don’t think about syncing email now because that’s been the norm for the last five years.

Applying this to education: when someone from a district has to copy something by hand or we have tech staff writing a script to move data from one point to another, that’s a problem that could be solved by interoperability.

What’s the value of data interoperability to districts?

Done right, interoperability can save districts, teachers and learners huge amounts of time. This is an immediate advantage at the district level because they are moving larger amounts of data than either schools or learners.

When we are trying to evaluate what works in schools, it’s often very difficult to do apples to apples comparisons because of noise in our data sets. Interoperability doesn’t eliminate noise in our data sets, but it at least makes the noise a lot easier to spot because interoperability forces us to be a lot cleaner in what we collect and a lot more precise in how we move it. Just having that as a base starting point lets us be a lot more informed about how we use that information.

What’s the value of data interoperability for teachers?

A lot of the same values that accrue at the district level also accrue at the teacher level. If a teacher has reasonable confidence that he/she is getting good data in a specific area, he/she can then start to ask questions and make observations of that data set.

Once interoperability is in place, we can start working with teachers and students to ask questions about the data. Interoperability creates the opportunity for deeper levels of reflection in real-time than would be possible without it.

How do you think interoperability enhances student data privacy protection?

There are some significant wins that happen with interoperability. But as we talk about wins, we also need to highlight what some of the potential risks are. As we all know, every gain comes with risk and most risks come with the potential for gain.

The wins: If we’re using a tool that has interoperability built in, we can assume that tool has been designed with a solid data architecture, and it’s easy to track what the tool collects and what the tool doesn’t collect. Right at the outset, we have a much clearer idea about the information we’re collecting, which lets us be more intentional about how we protect it.

The risks: Because we have increased precision and streamlined processes for collecting data, we could be creating a bigger and more precise data set. If we use interoperable systems to create data sets that are both larger and more precise, we have created a data set that is simultaneously more valuable, and in more need of protection against a breach. The benefits of interoperability require us to step up our training and support for people maintaining and working with the data.

Ultimately, though, a system that is designed to be interoperable allows us a greater level of control and transparency about what data we’re collecting, which in turn allows us to be more intentional about how we protect it.

Is there anything else we need to know?

Interoperability is one of the least interesting things to talk about. With the possible exception of privacy, it’s also one of the most important. When it’s done right, nobody sees it because it just works. It makes so many things easier.

Even though this is not exciting to talk about, we can’t let that deter us from making interoperability a reality in education. A lot of the changes we care about in education – like using technology to improve student outcomes – will be a lot easier to achieve when we use systems that are interoperable.

Other blogs in this series:

Bill directs the Privacy Evaluation Initiative at Common Sense Media, a program designed to evaluate privacy policies and practices of vendors building educational technology. You can find Bill on Twitter at @funnymonkey.

This post originally ran on the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation blog.

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