Big Districts Pressure Publishers on Digital-Content Delivery

By Benjamin Herold — December 01, 2014 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 7 min read
Students participate in classes at Houston’s Energy Institute High School, where a new system for using digital content is being tested.
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Corrected: A previous version of the story misspelled the name of Stephen Midgley, a technology consultant who advises the U.S. Department of Education (and others) on interoperability issues.

A handful of large school districts are aggressively pushing big publishers and other providers of digital content to overhaul the way they deliver instructional materials, a movement that experts say could upend long-established purchasing patterns and help educators more easily access materials from multiple vendors.

The movement is being led by the 215,000-student district here and the 187,000-student Orange County, Fla., schools, which have declared they will no longer do business with content vendors that do not adopt “interoperability standards” put forth by the IMS Global Learning Consortium, a Lake Mary, Fla.-based nonprofit membership organization. Other prominent districts—including Denver; Gwinnett County, Ga.; and Nashville, Tenn.—are moving in a similar direction.

It’s a technical but potentially significant step.

A shift toward shared interoperability standards for K-12 digital content would help school districts avoid being either locked into the product ecosystem of an individual vendor or left to navigate a thicket of proprietary content-delivery systems that often don’t mesh well with one another.

It could also transform how schools purchase and consume digital content. The standards could allow districts to procure small “chunks” of content (individual chapters, lessons or videos, for example) from multiple vendors, perhaps through licensing agreements, rather than rely on big buys of yearlong or grade-span textbook series from a single publisher.

“It’s the same thing that happened in the record industry. People don’t want albums, they want to buy the songs separately,” said George O. Perrault, the director of instructional technology for the Orange County school system, based in Orlando.

The districts’ goal is to make it easier for teachers to access and choose from an array of individual materials, saving them time and helping them personalize their instruction.

Building a Content Hub

Already, large vendors—including Discovery Education, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Pearson—have begun to meet the districts’ terms.

“It is absolutely significant that [big districts] are signaling that this issue is important and there is a solution that works,” said Douglas A. Levin, the executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, based in Glen Burnie, Md. “This is a case where the buyer has the ability to determine what the market looks like.”

The new policy here in the Houston Independent School District is being implemented in conjunction with a larger HISD educational technology initiative known as PowerUp. In addition to distributing a laptop computer to each of its 65,000 secondary school students, the district has said that it will no longer buy print textbooks for its 46 high schools.

Juana Aruna, a senior, works on an assignment in her Environmental Systems class at Cesar Chavez High School in Houston. The school is one of 48 in the district taking part in a pilot test of the new digital content hub.

Instead, the district is putting in place a new “digital teaching and learning platform” developed by a Norwegian software company called itslearning. Known as the “Hub,” the system is meant to serve as a central repository for all the digital resources used in Houston classrooms. Those resources include purchased content from well over 200 publishers and providers of supplemental materials.

Historically, much of that content could be accessed only through providers’ own websites or software systems. That meant dozens of separate logins and passwords for students and staff members. It often also meant a tedious path—from the vendor’s login page, to its homepage, to the relevant page for the desired class, and so on—to the specific lesson or learning activity a teacher hoped to use.

“It becomes unmanageable,” said Lenny J. Schad, Houston’s chief information officer. “Busting down those silos and getting the content and the functionality into your own system is the direction everybody needs to be going.”

The first step is getting content providers to agree to develop and package their digital materials in a consistent way, using the same language.

Evaluating Ed-Tech: No Easy Task

School administrators, and ed-tech companies trying to do business with K-12 systems, have contrasting views on what factors they believe guide district decisions to buy digital tools.


SOURCE: Digital Promise, Education Industry Association, Johns Hopkins University

So Houston drew a line in the policy sand. In a letter dated Aug. 7 of this year, Daniel F. Gohl, the district’s chief academic officer, informed vendors they would be considered for business only if they provided content that complied with IMS Global standards. One of the standards is called “learning tools interoperability,” or LTI, and the other is called “common cartridge.”

Officials from the HISD point to several benefits of their stance.

Once digital content is IMS Global-compliant, it can be accessed through a single username and password and opened directly within the district’s Hub, saving teachers significant time and headaches. It can also be tagged with a wide range of metadata, including the academic standards the content covers, making it easily searchable.

And, critically, LTI or common-cartridge integration also allows for data on how students are interacting with digital content to be passed back to the district in real time.

Such features are the foundation of Houston’s long-term vision: a district-controlled digital ecosystem that allows teachers to quickly find relevant content from many sources, access and share those materials with their students immediately, and collect information on how those students are learning—all without ever leaving the Hub.

Work in Progress

Houston’s digital platform has been rolled out to 48 schools so far. At least seven publishers have delivered to the district content that is either LTI- or common-cartridge-compliant.

‘Interoperability’ Standards Address Digital-Content Silos

A flood of digital content is opening up new learning opportunities for students, but creating technical and logistical headaches for educators.

To help manage all the new instructional materials, many in the ed-tech world are promoting adoption of “interoperability standards”—essentially, technical specifications for developing, sharing, and opening digital content in a consistent format.

A number of such standards exist, but the ones gaining the most traction in K-12 are learning tools interoperability, or LTI, and common cartridge, both developed by the IMS Global Learning Consortium, based in Lake Mary, Fla.

“I believe that LTI is a great solution,” said Stephen M. Midgley, a technology consultant who advises the U.S. Department of Education (and others) on interoperability issues. “The reasons I like it are that it’s technically accessible, it doesn’t try to do too much, it’s not expensive to implement, and it solves a key problem.”

Following are descriptions of the IMS Global standards:

  • Learning Tools Interoperability: A technical specification for authenticating and securely logging in users to a content provider’s digital online or software system. Through a series of secure links, users are pointed directly to a specific learning object (a chapter, lesson, or video, for example). With LTI, the content remains housed on the third party’s servers, but users can access and open that content within their own platform, such as a learning management system. LTI is similar to single-sign on technologies, but with added benefits, including the ability to pass student data for analytics back to educators in real time.
  • Common Cartridge: A set of open technical standards for “packaging” digital content in a consistent format so that it can be opened in a wide variety of platforms, such as learning management systems. With Common Cartridge, the content—including interactive materials and assessments—is typically “ingested” into the LMS, rather than hosted externally. Common Cartridge allows for extensive metadata tagging so that discrete learning objects (a video or game, for example) can be searched by academic standards, grade level, and student learning preferences.
  • Thin Common Cartridge: A blend of LTI and Common Cartridge, this specification is friendly to interactive content and assessments, but lets content continue to reside on third-party servers. Thin Common Cartridge allows for robust metadata tagging and exchange of student data between third-party software and schools.

But that material is currently being tested, leaving Houston’s new ecosystem very much a work in progress.

Still, Jillian L. Estrella’s 9th grade biology class at Energy Institute High School here offers a glimpse of the potential.

It’s the first day of a three-week, project-based unit on cells and viruses. Twenty-two students are sitting in groups, working on their personal laptops, provided by the district. A stack of Pearson textbooks sits unused under a desk in the corner of the room.

“I don’t do paper,” said Ms. Estrella, a second-year teacher.

The students log in to the Hub, where they watch a teacher-produced video that establishes their mission: conduct research to identify the life forms on a meteor that has crashed in Houston, then develop a presentation to inform the public.

After watching the video, students are free to select their own paths through an array of instructional resources and research materials that Ms. Estrella has curated for them on the Hub. The list includes four YouTube videos, two online games, articles from freshman-level university science classes, an instructional video from the popular free website Khan Academy, and a digital version of the Pearson textbook.

For the moment, most of that material must be opened outside the Hub. Because the system’s search engine is not yet available to teachers, Ms. Estrella had to hunt down most of the content online, via Google. And data on learning and usage are not yet being passed back to the Hub.

But Ms. Estrella said she can already see the system’s benefits.

“Everything is in one place,” she said. “It’s incredibly useful.”

Leaders from other districts say that they admire and agree with the stance being taken in Houston and in Florida’s Orange County, but that it will likely take time for their own schools to follow suit, in part because many older technology systems now in use aren’t equipped to fulfill such a comprehensive vision.

“This is the direction we’re planning to go in,” said Kecia Ray, the executive director of learning technology for the 81,000-student Metro Nashville school system in Tennessee. “We’re just not quite there yet.”

Industry representatives, meanwhile, are mostly taking a cautious approach, waiting to see if this new strategy sticks and just how disruptive it will be to their existing business models.

Many vendors are rightly concerned that districts’ desire to break their content into small chunks may limit the materials’ effectiveness, said Mark Schneiderman, the senior director of education policy for the Software & Information Industry Association, a Washington-based trade association.

But overall, Mr. Schneiderman said, a single set of agreed-upon interoperability standards would be a plus for vendors long frustrated by districts that don’t know what technical specifications they want.

At least one prominent publisher is placing a big bet that districts are going to coalesce around the IMS Global interoperability standards, reshaping the K-12 digital content market.

Boston-based Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has committed to making all of its new digital content (and some of its existing content, including Go Math, a popular elementary curriculum) available in an LTI or common-cartridge-compliant format, said Mary Cullinane, the company’s chief content officer.

“When large districts like Houston draw a line in the sand, it sends a message,” Ms. Cullinane said. “This idea is clearly present in the industry, and [the IMS Global standards] are the vehicle that allows it to happen.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 03, 2014 edition of Education Week as Districts Press Publishers On Digital-Content Access


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