School & District Management

Houston District Leaders’ Interoperability Push Sparks Big Reaction

By Benjamin Herold — December 16, 2014 2 min read
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Earlier this month, I wrote a long story about a very technical topic that prompted a big reaction.

In “Big Districts Pressure Publishers on Digital-Content Delivery,” I wrote about how the 215,000-student Houston Independent School District is leading the charge to force publishers to adopt common interoperability standards. The goal is to make it easier for teachers and students to access and choose from an array of individual instructional materials by making it easier for districts to procure small “chunks” of digital content.

Houston’s leadership on this issue is just one reason that Superintendent Terry Grier and Chief Technology Information Officer Lenny Schad were picked as Education Week Leaders To Learn From for 2015. You can get a sense of their overall work—and that of two other K-12 leaders awarded with this distinction—on our Leaders To Learn From website. The video below, featuring both Grier and Schad, will also make you want to run through a brick wall in pursuit of better K-12 education. Full profiles of all honored district leaders will be published in the new year.

But I wanted to revisit the issue of interoperability here because of the volume and variety of reaction that the earlier story received.

First, here’s how Grier described the HISD’s end goal when it comes to overhauling the way K-12 districts interact with publishers (by requiring that those publishers comply with interoperability standards put forth by IMG Global, a Lake Mary, Fla.-based nonprofit membership organization):

“The important piece is, what do we need in Houston to help our kids learn at the highest level? It may be Chapter 1 out of your textbook and Chapter 3 out of her textbook and Chapter 4 out of his textbook. How do we develop a relationship with you where you can change your model of marketing and [sales] so we can buy that from you?”

Schad said Houston’s approach was initially met with a combination of apprehension and skepticism from publishers. But that has quickly changed, he said:

“You’re either going to provide the content in that [modular] way, or your textbook becomes irrelevant, because teachers can find as good or better resource on the Internet today, right now. I don’t know that [publishers] can live under the illusion any longer that their content is the content we can get. Teachers have and will go around that in the blink of an eye.”

After the story was published, I received a flurry of email responses, all of which expressed, in one way or another, what a big deal people think this interoperability issue is.

Take this message from Jena Draper, the founder of Texas-based ed-tech startup Navvie, Inc., which is launching a new service this week:

“I created Navvie for the simple fact that one book and one resource is not enough. My frustration for single sourced learning led me to create education a premium online content marketplace—think iTunes meets Etsy with modular, individual offerings sold direct to consumer. Say goodbye to long contracts and lengthy sales cycles and hello to LTI compliant, interoperable a-la-cart content.”

Or what about this message from a communications consultant for Miami-based PassTheNotes, “a platform that allows publishers to create, customize, and distribute content in a secure and fully licensed managed platform throughout districts, schools, and classrooms:

“PassTheNotes creates an interactive online learning community where teachers can assign student work, track participation and performance, provide targeted feedback with our annotation tools, collaborate with other teachers and share best practices, all online and in real-time. PassTheNotes is currently being used by students, teachers and administrators in 38 states across 110 districts, is an IMS Global learning consortium affiliate member, and is developing Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI).”

Or this, from Metria Learning, based in Bellevue, Wash.:

“I read your article today (“Big Districts Pressure Publishers on Digital-Content Delivery”) with great interest. Our new venture recently released the Metria Master Teacher Edition that enables individual teachers to do just what the big districts in your article are trying to do—acquire instructional materials in small chunks, and use those chunks to support rigorous curricular plans that are tightly aligned with the Common Core State Standards. Teachers can try it for free, and in about 5 minutes they can create and start customizing a year-long exemplar CCSS unit plan for K-12 Math or ELA.”

Clearly, interoperability is going to be a big ed-tech issue to watch heading into 2015, and the superintendent and CIO in Houston are going to be district leaders to watch for those who want to see how the trend breaks.

As Schad of the HISD told me, the push for interoperability “is disruptive on both ends of the table,” for vendors and school district personnel alike.

Photo: Houston school district Superintendent Terry B. Grier, left, and Chief Technology Information Officer Lenny J. Schad.--Swikar Patel/Education Week

See also:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.