Special Report
IT Infrastructure & Management Opinion

6 Things Schools Need to Know About Interoperability

By Bill Fitzgerald — October 30, 2018 6 min read
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In the world of education technology, it serves as a sort of Rorschach test: If you want to know how people feel about data use, privacy, security, and the role of tech in schools, ask them how they feel about interoperability.

Interoperability, unlike many technical terms, tends to provoke strong reactions from those who understand the nuances of the issue and what’s at stake. But as many school district leaders surely know, the topic is barely understood by the public at large. Experience has taught techies that the best way to talk about interoperability and be understood is to avoid using the term entirely—and focus instead on what they want it to accomplish.

Here are six things district leaders need to consider when thinking about their interoperability, what to expect from ed-tech vendors, and how to communicate their goals with the school district and the community.

1. Interoperability has had different definitions and standards. Figure out what yours is.

Conversations about interoperability can go off the rails from the start, as district officials try to settle on a definition of what it means. We can cut through the miscommunication by differentiating between interoperability standards (the various rules and definitions used to move different types of information) and plain old interoperability (the ability to move information easily to where we need it).

We need to remember that not all interoperability standards are equal. Some interoperability standards (for example, oEmbed) are narrowly scoped to do a single thing very well. Other interoperability standards (for example, LTI and LTI Advantage) are sprawling, and offer multiple ways to do multiple things. Comparing different interoperability standards often devolves to an apples-to-oranges discussion.

2. Accept that when interoperability works, it goes unnoticed.

Most of us use and benefit from interoperability every day without thinking about it. This is when interoperability works. Most of us check our email on our phone and on our laptops; messages we read on one device show as read on any other device. Most people haven’t experienced email any other way—because of improvements in internet protocol that allow these exchanges. Email didn’t change, but the means of interacting with email that was supported by interoperability across all devices did.

But few people know or understand the tech advances that played out in the dark ages before smartphones. This is what happens when interoperability works: It fades into the background, boring and forgotten.

3. Interoperability is not about collecting data.

Interoperability is also often conflated with data collection. This false equivalence impairs our ability to understand the benefits and risks related to interoperability. Interoperability doesn’t make data collection easier or harder. If every company on the planet promised to never use any interoperability standards again, data collection could continue indefinitely. Stopping data interoperability doesn’t affect data collection, and stopping interoperability wouldn’t stop data use.

Stopping interoperability would, however, ensure that it remained easier for vendors to collect and handle data in ways that fall short of best practice and remain opaque.

4. Bad commercial ed-tech products can stand in the way of interoperability—and good design has big upsides.

Interoperability advocates often claim that adopting interoperability standards improves the quality of educational software. This argument has merit. When a company makes an informed decision to use an interoperability standard, that product benefits from a solid data architecture as the foundation of its work. Good data architecture is invisible to most people until they know where to look. Most data standards represent thousands of hours of hard-won experience solving problems; when companies buy into one, it provides them with the equivalent of free consulting on their product.

Interoperability: Tips to Consider, Mistakes to Avoid

District chief technology officers who are trying to implement interoperability offered suggestions for peers in other school systems.

Click here to read their seven pieces of advice.

The elephant in the room, however, is that a lot of K-12 educational software suffers from poor design and shortsighted technical choices. When we read about a data breach, we are often reading about the visible effects of poor technical decisions. And we shouldn’t kid ourselves: Large companies with ample resources are just as likely to fall short as small startups.

Interoperability standards won’t solve the problem of bad software, but intelligent adoption of an interoperability standard can reduce a school district’s exposure. One question from district officials can help uncover whether a vendor has used an interoperability standard effectively: “What problem did you solve by adopting an interoperability standard?”

A good answer can often be conveyed in one or two sentences. Obviously, the full answer won’t be as concise, but if the technical decisions have been made for the right reasons, the explanations behind them should be straightforward.

5. Data-privacy questions about interoperability are more complicated than either side that debates those questions acknowledges.

A lot of privacy advocates rail about interoperability, and a lot of interoperability advocates talk up how interoperability has privacy benefits. In many cases, both sides only get half the story. The misunderstandings often arise from confusion around how ownership, access, consent, and control of data affect student-data privacy.

With digital information, access to data can eliminate any need to own the data. To use a non-digital example: If your friend owns a car, yet you can use the car whenever you need it, you can effectively get all the benefits of the car without actually owning it.

The same is true of data. If a company says that you own your data, yet also claims that it can allow affiliates to access your data, the actual ownership doesn’t mean much. When a company uses an interoperability standard with its product, three things can generally be said to be true: 1) The product will have a clear sense of the data it collects; 2) the product will potentially have access to a larger amount of data; and 3) the data collected and stored by a product will be easier to move.

About This Report

This Education Week examination of school districts’ pursuit of interoperability is the first of three special reports focused on the needs of K-12 district technology leaders, including chief technology officers. Each report in the series features exclusive results of a new, nationally representative survey of CTOs, conducted by the Consortium for School Networking, which represents K-12 district technology officials.

Point 1 makes it easier for a vendor to be transparent. This is a net win for privacy and a huge advantage when assessing risk. Point 2 won’t always be true, but when it is, a larger store of data is theoretically of greater value and at greater risk. Point 3 creates privacy concerns but allows people greater control over their information.

Supporting interoperability means that a vendor has made at least some steps to help people use a process to get their information out of that system. This is a critical first step to supporting data portability—the ability for people to take their information out of one system and use it someplace else. Most consumer systems make this incredibly difficult to do, if they support it at all. From a business perspective, the rationale behind this is clear: If a company makes it easy for a person to leave a platform, then some companies are worried that people will do just that.

6. Interoperability creates the potential for better ed-tech vendor practices, but it doesn’t guarantee it.

This is where the lines between interoperability and privacy get very blurry. Ed-tech companies that support interoperability show a level of respect for people using their services. By supporting interoperability, they have taken a critical first step toward ensuring that people not only own, but have unbroken access to the information they create in a system. Those vendors are also taking steps to improve transparency, which is essential to understanding what ownership of and access to data means in practical terms. Informed consent around data use is not possible without transparent practices, and interoperability simplifies the conditions that lead to informed consent.

But supporting an interoperability standard only creates the potential for better practice. As always, good practice must come from education companies doing the right thing—and from schools, students, and parents demanding meaningful rights and ownership over the data that quantifies the learning experience.


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