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Tearing Down the Walls Between Software Silos

By Benjamin Herold — September 29, 2014 4 min read
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To save teachers time and provide them with easier access to better data about student learning, school leaders increasingly want to tear down the walls separating the myriad software programs, apps, and educational content used in their classrooms.

Learning management systems can play a crucial role in making that happen.

But lingering technical hurdles, turf battles among vendors, and the glacial pace of technology adoption in many school systems mean that a fully integrated ed-tech ecosystem with LMS software as its hub remains more of a vision than a reality.

“Right now, a funny mix of digital tools and humans take the data that is coming out of disparate online learning programs, analyze it, and give it back to teachers in an actionable format,” said Julia F. Freeland, a research fellow for the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, a San Mateo, Calif.-based think tank that supports new digital learning models. “Down the line, the ideal LMS would be performing some of those functions. But that’s contingent on it getting useful data.”

Some progress has been made: In recent years, many districts have pushed for greater integration between LMS software and student-information systems, leading to tangible benefits such as automated nightly updating of course-enrollment information, even for students who have moved between schools.

That work was previously done manually, often taking weeks.

Connecting Data Silos

But now, a push is underway to get vendors to go much further. Some forward-thinking districts, including the 42,000-student Forsyth County schools in Georgia, are already working to connect their learning management systems with teacher gradebooks, assessment platforms, online libraries of instructional content, and student- and parent-messaging systems.

The goal is to build a one-stop shop for teachers to take attendance, distribute assignments and tests, grade student work, examine detailed reports of student progress, and find tailored instructional resources from a variety of sources—all within a single platform.

How Software Systems Talk to Each Other

Forsyth County school district leaders in Georgia are working to connect their learning management system with teacher gradebooks, assessment platforms, online libraries of instructional content, and student- and parent-messaging systems. Following is a look at how the district is moving in this new technological direction:

• Each night, itslearning software communicates automatically with the student-information system, Infinite Campus, in the Forsyth County schools in Georgia via an Application Programming Interface, or API—essentially computer code that lets software programs talk to each other.

• When a teacher logs into itslearning the next morning, the software contains updated enrollment, attendance, discipline, and academic-performance data for each student.

• If an assessment is planned, the teacher can enter the district’s testing platform, known as Learning Station, by clicking on a tab within itslearning. No new logins or passwords are needed, and the user interface remains the same, allowing the teacher to quickly find the quiz, test, or project that he or she wishes to administer or assign that day. The LMS also allows teachers to assign project-based activities.

• When the students complete the assessment, their results are sent right back to Learning Station. On the same screen the teacher used to distribute the assessment, he or she can now see how each student performed relative to the academic standards being tested.

• Another click sends those results back into the LMS. Officials from itslearning and the Forsyth County schools are also working on functionality that will allow the results to be sent automatically to Infinite Campus, eliminating the need for teachers to manually enter (and re-enter) student scores into multiple systems.

• Rather than spend time on data entry, the teacher can click on each student’s name, or one of the specific standards that was being assessed, to find assignments recommended by itslearning based on the student’s test performance and preferred learning style.

• Those assignments are intended to be accessible through itslearning, too. Forsyth district officials have worked to build a library of instructional content that is tagged by academic standard, grade level, resource type (for example, video, text, interactive tutorial), and keywords. The district also recently required that all its educational content providers begin working to comply with technical standards that will allow their materials to be accessible through the LMS.

• Then, with the click of a final button, the teacher—still working within the LMS, never having logged into a different software program—assigns customized content to each student, beginning the cycle over again.

Such “interoperability” has recently become a big priority for districts looking to buy new learning management systems, said Andrew M. Ryff, the director of marketing for itslearning, a Norwegian company that has recently begun making inroads in the United States, with clients including Forsyth County, the Houston Independent School District, and a handful of others.

“Data is very important to these districts, and having it in these disparate systems prevents them from seeing the big picture,” Mr. Ryff said.

For years, that was the case in Forsyth County.

Prior to receiving a $5 million Investing in Innovation grant from the U.S. Department of Education in 2010, the district relied on three distinct software systems to track student records, manage instructional content, and conduct assessments.

“It was three different silos,” said Jason Naile, now the district’s coordinator of digital learning. “Teachers had to pull grades down from the assessment engine, enter it into the student-information system, and then go to the LMS to assign work.”

The transition to a more integrated system was rocky, including false starts with two separate vendors before Forsyth County eventually contracted with itslearning in late 2012.

“For too long, districts have suffered with disparate platforms that didn’t work well together,” said Mr. Ryff of itslearning. “Now, they’re really forcing the hand of private industry to make sure the tools they’re investing in work well together.”

Barriers to Innovation

Makers of other learning management systems are also responding to districts’ calls for increased interoperability, said Donald K. McIntosh, the president of Trimeritus e-Learning Solutions Inc., a consulting service based in Vancouver, British Columbia, that helps mostly North American companies and schools select learning management systems.

One big barrier is a lack of agreed-upon standards—both for the technical process of how software systems should pass information back and forth and for the ways that instructional content is labeled so that it can be easily found.

Further complicating matters, some companies are reluctant to integrate with competitors’ products, and some publishers are reluctant to allow their content to flow freely into districts’ learning management systems.

Changing how schools actually use new technology, even in forward-thinking systems, also just takes time.

Last school year, for example, was the first in which Forsyth County schools used itslearning. The company’s integration with the district’s content partners was not complete, and its integration with Forsyth County’s assessment platform wasn’t ready until late spring. The itslearning recommendation engine, rolled out midyear, was only available to about one-fourth of schools.

As a result, usage varied widely, with even the most tech-savvy schools using itslearning more like a traditional LMS than the integrated hub that district and company officials envision.

“My teachers were a bit all over the place,” said Rebecca G. Johnson, the principal of the 1,250-student Shiloh Point Elementary School.

By the end of last school year, though, itslearning was being used widely to develop and share common classroom assessments, push assignments out to Shiloh Point students, and review some student-performance information, Ms. Johnson said.

Gone were the previous data-team meetings in which teachers called out student scores written on slips of paper so their colleagues could enter them into an electronic form.

The plan this school year, Ms. Johnson said, is to begin assigning and scoring tests and delivering differentiated instructional materials to students, all within the LMS.

“We really are in our infancy,” she said. “The more we do, the more we realize we can do.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 2014 edition of Education Week as Tearing Down the Walls Between Software Silos


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