Progress reports go out on Thursday and the teachers are up in arms because they can’t enter scores into their online gradebook. This isn’t because the internet is down or due to a device malfunction—it’s because the online gradebook isn’t able to share data with the student information system (SIS).
In technical parlance, this is an issue of interoperability—or rather, the lack of it. When two systems don’t “speak” to one another or store data in the same format, it makes it hard to pass information back and forth. And it’s scenarios like this that put pressure on edtech companies to make their tools more interoperable.
Empower Learning, an Ohio-based developer of a learning management system (LMS), understands this pressure well. Eight years ago, some of its customers requested that Empower support the Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF), an open data interoperability standard that was then in vogue with K-12 schools and districts. The company agreed—and made it happen.
Becoming SIF-compliant required a large investment from the company in terms of financial cost, human resources and time, according to Scott Bacon, Empower’s founder and chief research and development officer. Unfortunately, he says SIF has since fallen out of favor with SISs over time.
So in 2018, when Empower was pressured by a large district customer to support a different open data standard—IMS Global’s OneRoster—the company was reluctant. “We’d rather not spend more R&D [research & development] trying to accommodate, yet again, another interoperability framework when we have no idea about its longevity,” he explains.
Empower is hardly the only education company that has had to adapt its wares to support shifting trends in data interoperability. As standards come and go, edtech developers are tasked with supporting new technical integrations demanded by school and district customers. Each effort presents challenges and based on its experience, Empower is approaching things differently the second time around.
Why Interoperability Is so Critical for Empower
Empower Learning, which offers an LMS and gradebook, is designed to support schools transitioning to a competency-based education model. Its tools aim to provide educators with insights into two core questions: What does the student know now and what does the student need to do next?
In a competency-based model, skills are broken down into granular levels, and students progress at their own pace by demonstrating mastery of those skills. This approach is different from the traditional time-based system, where all learners progress at the same pace, whether or not they’ve mastered the material.
The model demands that teachers develop a deep understanding of the standards and gather evidence of learning more frequently. It’s a mindshift for teachers, especially when it comes to assessment, because scoring is so different. In a traditional grading model, students usually get one lump grade, usually based on a percentage, for an entire subject—say, math. But in a competency-based model, teachers must assess and record a student’s performance on each academic standard within and across subjects.
“One of the big reasons why interoperability is so important, especially in a competency-based system, is because we’ve ratcheted up the amount of scoring that a teacher has to do,” says Bacon. Empower’s LMS aims to mitigate the teacher’s burden to gather evidence, enter scores and synthesize the data to determine an overall score.
Empower’s LMS addresses some of the challenges of this scoring approach by recording evidence of learning from different systems, aligning it to a district’s standards and then calculating a summative score for each standard. But it’s a complex task that requires Empower to have many algorithms and rules in place. As such, it’s no surprise that Bacon says the company’s greatest challenge lies in scoring.
Students can upload and view their evidence of learning. (Photo Credit: Empower Learning)
Interoperability is key for Empower because it needs to integrate with other systems. It connects with curriculum and assessment tools to gather evidence of learning. It must sync with SISs, primarily to share data related to enrollment, rosters and staff, so teachers and students can see all of their classes when they open up their homepage. It also exports data to SISs that will be useful for generating final grades or transcripts.
From its founding in 2003, Empower’s team has used custom scripts and queries to pull data from SISs to create exportable files to send to their customers nightly. With this approach, the data was at most 24-hour stale, but Bacon says it worked. “In many cases,” he explains, “we still use our own internal tools for interoperability.”
Why Support SIF?
Without a common data standard, Empower’s team had to develop a custom solution to get data to and from each unique SIS it wanted to work with. The approach was working for many customers, but eight years ago, a few demanded that the company support SIF, a data standard that was adopted by schools at the time.
Feeling pressure from its customers, Empower assessed SIF and decided it seemed like a strong solution for interoperability, and one that might make it easier to work with new districts. “The promise was that it would be easy to get everything going and highly secure and all these great things and it was a lot of that—except the easy part,” Bacon reflects. “It took a lot of effort for us to create our own SIF agent.”
SIF creates a kind of Rosetta Stone across various education software systems so they can speak the same language. It offers a data schema that companies use to map their fields to. In this case, both Empower and the SISs map their fields to SIF’s schema, which make it possible for the parties to share information field-to-field. Bacon describes the SIF agent as the translator.
There’s a lot of nuance to the schema. If everything is set up correctly initially, Bacon says it can be wonderful. If not, it’s difficult to reverse engineer to figure out what went wrong. He attributes part of the problem to a lack of knowledge on the district side, but also admits that districts have varying levels of technical expertise. “It’s almost unfair to ask them to perform at a needed level with SIF.”
Bacon tells EdSurge that it’s rare to have someone within a district with the technical know-how to understand how SIF works. “We’re restricted as far as our access to the district side, and when something’s not going right and then on the other side of the wall, you’ve got someone who doesn’t really understand or isn’t trained in it, it’s a nightmare.”
To support SIF, Empower dedicated one full-time and one part-time employee to developing a SIF agent that could be adapted to its system. Bacon recalls that it took about three months to create the first version, but while it was functional, it had many gaps. It has taken many years of continuous improvement to develop the SIF agent that Empower uses today.
In hindsight, Bacon reflects that it would have been better to hire a company with expertise in developing SIF agents, admitting that it would have helped with the unexpected difficulties that his team encountered.
Empower still uses SIF today and its scripts can access data from certain SISs they work with. Recently, however, the company faced another challenge when another customer pushed them to support yet another data interoperability standard: OneRoster.
Supporting OneRoster—But Not Alone
Infinite Campus, one of the two most common SISs that Empower integrates with, allows Empower to take roster data out. However, Bacon says the SIS recently started placing restrictions on letting other tools put grade data in, making it difficult—or impossible—to use custom solutions. In other words, Infinite Campus blocked Empower from being able to put grade data, such as final scores, into its system, unless it was OneRoster certified.
This was a major issue for one of Empower’s customers because the district’s state required transcripts to be housed in Infinite Campus, which is used across the state. Without Empower being able to input scores into Infinite Campus, the district could not meet the state’s requirements.
At the end of the day, Bacon says, “You’ve got to have transcripts and you’ve got to be able to get the data back in.” It was this roadblock that ultimately pushed Empower to support OneRoster.
Students' learning goals and progress which need to be passed back to the SIS. (Photo credit: Empower Learning)
His team wasn’t too keen on supporting another interoperability standard. But Bacon recognized that OneRoster has become the go-to standard for many districts, and increasingly for edtech vendors. In 2018, there were 32 OneRoster certified products. Currently, as of 2019, there are 244. That led him to believe that integrating with OneRoster could lead to more business opportunities. “From a company standpoint, it will allow us to integrate with other systems and opens a whole new sector that we don’t have to create a custom solution for.”
But Bacon wanted to do things differently this time. Based on the difficult experience developing an agent for SIF, Empower decided not to build the integration in-house. Instead, they’re contracting an external organization to handle the transition.
Empower turned to Kimono, a company with which it had a longstanding relationship, to manage the development of the integration. “We’ve given them our schema and they’re going to map OneRoster and set it up for us. We’re only testing the integration of the work someone is doing for us,” Bacon explains.
Kimono, based in Utah, has built a business around supporting education companies to become more interoperable by acting as a data translator.
Who Bears the Cost of Interoperability?
Supporting a new data interoperability standard requires a significant investment, whether it’s done in-house or through contracting with another company. The question is: Who bears the cost?
Any application can connect with Infinite Campus to get student and teacher roster data out, and there is no fee for that action. But in order to put grade data into its system, Empower was required to take two steps: become OneRoster certified and become an Infinite Campus “partner organization.” There’s a cost associated with both.
The OneRoster certification process requires that vendors become a member of IMS Global. There are multiple membership levels with fees ranging from a modest $350 to $55,000 a year, depending on the type and size of the organization. There are also annual membership fees for school districts that are lower, ranging from $100 to $5,000. The certification expires after one year, so vendors must repeat the process annually due to the evolution of specifications. In other words, it’s not a one-time fee.
Becoming an Infinite Campus partner organization also required Empower to pay a fee, which Bacon regards as prohibitively high.
Barry Brahier, chief product officer at Infinite Campus, says that cost is justified because any data that is sent from an external system into Infinite Campus’ gradebook can ultimately end up on a student’s transcript, so the integration process has to work and the data must be accurate. The partnership “is holding ourselves and our partners at a very high level,” he says. “We’re the SIS, we’re the system of record.”
Steve Setzer, national account executive at Kimono, views Infinite Campus’ pricing strategy as understandable, given their concern about data integrity. “They don’t accept data from just anybody,” Setzer says, speculating that it’s Infinite Campus’ way of saying, “We’re going to put you through these hoops because when you put data back into our system,” we want to be sure that it’s valid.
In this case, Empower isn’t the only party that pays. The district is also required to purchase an add-on component from Infinite Campus called Campus Learning in order to pass back scores.
“There is a sense in which ultimately every [interoperability] cost is borne by the school district, no matter how you try to hide it or shuffle it around,” says Setzer. His argument is that whatever fees vendors pay is often passed down to school officials.
Weighing the Outcomes
In terms of financial costs, there’s not much of a difference between building interoperability support in-house versus outsourcing it to a company like Kimono, Bacon says. But for his team, there’s a clear benefit in paying someone else to handle all the development work needed to create the integration. “Instead of us being certified and going through all the hoops to do this and paying all that money, we just went with a company that is [already] certified.”
“Our team does have to learn the interface that Kimono sets up,” Bacon explains. However, Empower’s job involves less technical work and more management, while Kimono is responsible for keeping the agent updated and debugging it if any issues arise.
In addition to easing the burden for his own team, Bacon also hopes Kimono’s support will make it easier for district-side personnel.
“We’re rerouting who the headaches go to. Instead of me or the client, it’s the middle guy,” Bacon shares, with a sigh of relief.
In the 2019-2020 school year, Empower will roll out its integration with OneRoster and the company will measure impact by identifying whether the data was communicated accurately, if there are fewer tickets and complaints from clients, and if the time Bacon’s team must allocate to interoperability issues is reduced.
Both Bacon and Setzer suggest that partnerships can be quite useful for companies looking to support a new data standard. Bacon advises companies to partner (and pay for) an expert up front to help mitigate unforeseen pitfalls. It’s not an easy decision for young companies or those strapped for cash, but it’s a decision that in the long run may avoid some headaches.