School & District Management

Momentum Grows for Digital-Content ‘Interoperability’ Standards

By Benjamin Herold — March 17, 2015 3 min read
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Interoperability standards might not sound particularly sexy or controversial, but a growing push by districts to get digital-content providers and other vendors to adopt the same technical rules of the road is prompting both optimism and unease in the ed-tech world.

“This is big,” said Sean McDonough, a consultant with Bloomington, Minn.-based Edmentum (makers of popular online-learning programs such as Study Island.)

“We have done some of these things in isolation,” McDonough said following a panel on interoperability at the annual conference of the Consortium for School Networking, being held here this week.

“Now, the question is, how do we make [interoperability] part and parcel of all of our services?”

For a full recap on what interoperability standards are and why they matter, check out this December story in Education Week.

In a nutshell: A handful of big school systems, including the 215,000-student Houston Independent School District, are either requiring or strongly suggesting that their vendors meet their requirements for packaging digital content so that teachers and students could access small chunks of content from multiple sources with a single login and password, without ever leaving a single online platform.

For vendors, that means adopting technical standards put forth by Lake Mary, Fla.-based nonprofit IMS Global Learning Consortium.

Districts are clearly interested in this issue: Our December story got a big reaction, and Tuesday’s CoSN panel, which featured officials from the HISD, IMS Global, and Norwegian learning management system-maker itslearning, drew a large and involved crowd.

But it is vendors who might have the most at stake with this emerging trend.

“I can certainly understand why others might see this as threatening,” said McDonough of Edmentum.

“I think we’re in the Wild West” when it comes to interoperability right now, he said. “That’s why I applaud Houston. They’re basically setting the bar. This is going to be the new normal.”

McDonough said his company has been certified as compliant with the basic-level IMS Global standards, and is currently weighing whether to get more involved.

Jeff Patterson, the founder and CEO of Bloomington, Ill.-based Gaggle, which offers schools both a learning management system and tools for protecting student safety in online platforms, struck a similar note after the panel.

“The underlying issue is that most vendors want to control everything. Everyone wants to be the source, where both kids and teachers log in first,” Patterson said. “But I believe we should be sharing the ball.”

Digital content providers have all kinds of reasons for being wary of that kind of sharing, not least of which is that it will likely mean losing considerable control over how their content is broken up and used in classrooms.

But the lack of agreed-upon interoperability standards has also been a barrier, as has lingering hesitation caused by previous pushes by districts to get vendors to adopt technical standards that they never ended up using.

Patterson of Gaggle said IMS Global may be ready to change that. He said he came away from the CoSN panel impressed with the “maturity” of IMS’s standards and is now strongly considering making the move to get his product certified as compliant.

“I think it’s going to be easy,” he said.

Continued movement in that direction could be huge for districts, said Beatriz Arnillas, the senior manager of instructional technology in the HISD.

In order to pay for and distribute digital devices and invest in other digital-learning initiatives, Arnillas said, districts have to find savings elsewhere, and widespread adoption of common interoperability standards can help.

“Districts should be looking to save money from...costly third-party integrations,” she said.

Photo: Juana Aruna, a senior, works on an assignment in her Environmental Systems class at Cesar Chavez High School in Houston. --Swikar Patel/Education Week

See also:

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