Why Teachers Need Interoperability — Whether They Know It or Not

Oct 27, 2020

Imagine a world in which a teacher begins the school year with a comprehensive personal profile of each student in her class—a report that incorporates insights on academic performance, social-emotional development, behavior, attendance and a host of related data. Without having to conduct numerous assessments and informal interviews throughout the opening weeks, she can actually “know” her students before they arrive in her classroom and meet them where they are on day one. This is the promise of interoperability—perhaps more valuable at this particular moment than ever before as COVID-19 wreaks havoc on American schools and exacerbates an already stark achievement gap.

The need for a clear, comprehensible snapshot of student progress informed by multiple data points has never been greater than it is right now.

Through the secure and controlled exchange of data, interoperability establishes a seamless network of communication across distinct technology platforms. Put more simply, systems that are interoperable speak to one another.

For educators, interoperability holds great potential—enabling the easy collection of complete and reliable student data from various sources, which streamlines workflows, eliminates guesswork, facilitates communication and may even address equity gaps within schools. Ultimately, interoperability’s value is determined by the ways in which educators and administrators interact with interoperable systems. Under ideal conditions, the composite data on each individual student that is compiled through these systems encourages meaningful conversations between teachers, counselors, administrators and parents. With each new piece of data contributing to the overall set, a picture of the whole child develops, one that is automatically refined on a continual basis for the benefit of all stakeholders.

The need for a clear, comprehensible snapshot of student progress informed by multiple data points has never been greater than it is right now. With schools around the world experiencing a devastating interruption to traditional instruction due to the pandemic, parents are forced to take on the role of at-home learning facilitator, and teachers are missing out on crucial insights gained from in-person observation of student performance. Without interoperable tools for remote learning, it’s difficult for teachers to pinpoint and address problems, coordinate with their colleagues and articulate learning goals to students’ families. In the broad shift to remote learning, tools that prioritize the gathering and communication of relevant data are well positioned to meet the new demand for edtech.

To understand how interoperability concerns factor into product development, we spoke directly with some of the folks responsible for creating the tools that educators rely upon. Featured in iNACOL’s 2019 Innovation Corner Tools Spotlight, these companies have doubled down on data collection, consumption and communication to refine their products and maximize their impact on teaching and learning:

  • Socrates uses artificial intelligence to personalize learning for students, making real-time adjustments to their needs and guiding them to long-term skills mastery through a gamification approach.
  • Spotlight Education’s Video Reporting Technology converts education data drawn from virtually any source into a visual story in the form of a personalized infographic or video.
  • Mindprint Learning develops individualized learner profiles and learning plans, customized for students by subject, based on a cognitive assessment that identifies strengths and needs in complex reasoning, memory, executive functions and processing.

Designing for Challenges

While interoperability has long been considered a necessity for certain industries—healthcare, finance and security, to name a few—the world of education has struggled to prioritize actionable cross-platform data collection. Brian Rosenberg, CEO of Socrates, previously worked in healthcare, where, he says, “creating standardized and transferable medical records has been a key initiative for the industry.” The comparative lag within education can be attributed, at least in part, to systemic challenges.

The K-12 procurement cycle is notoriously complex. Purchase decisions within a school or district often involve a lengthy and cumbersome process. Once a tool is purchased, its rollout and implementation require considerable coordination and a substantial time investment. All the while, new products are entering the education market at a dizzying pace. For these reasons, among others, few schools or districts have the most appropriate tech solutions to meet their current needs, which is why many are plagued with interoperability woes.

Yet, it could also be argued that one of the biggest obstacles to the widespread development and adoption of interoperable technology is not some inherent flaw within the education system itself but a simple lack of awareness. As Mike Fee, Co-Founder of Spotlight Education posits, many of the educators using his product “are likely unaware of interoperability as a concept.” And the same holds true for some product developers. In fact, Fee himself admits that Spotlight wasn’t entirely familiar with the term in their early days: "We didn't know to call it interoperability, but we recognized the need to be able to work with and represent different forms of data from different sources from day one; it's always been a central part of our platform."

However, this apparent roadblock could actually be viewed as an opportunity for edtech companies, as Fee hints at above. Users—whether teachers, counselors, administrators or anyone else—don’t need to be concerned with interoperability on a conceptual level; they just need it to work. With thoughtful design, edtech products can do the heavy lifting: compiling and connecting the various data points needed to tell the full story of a student’s educational journey. This frees up the classroom teacher to focus on instruction, rather than data analysis. Done well, the effects of interoperability should be felt, but they need not be seen.

“The more information teachers have, and the easier it is to access, the more effective they can be,” says Rosenberg. It’s essential that products enable educators to track bits of information across multiple sources without requiring them to invest extra time and effort in determining whether the data points are relevant or how they might all fit together.

Users don’t need to be concerned with interoperability on a conceptual level; they just need it to work.

“It’s the combination of high quality data that enables teachers to make the best decisions for their students,” says Nancy Weinstein, Founder and CEO of Mindprint Learning. “Providing teachers only the most relevant information for the specific circumstance is essential. Take, for example, spatial skills. Except in the most extreme cases, spatial skills are not going to affect a student's reading comprehension. However, in geometry class, spatial skills are critical. In other words, having information about a student's spatial skills could be distracting for the ELA teacher, but it can be game-changing for the geometry teacher.”

Operating Beneath the Surface

Removing decisions about interoperability from the educator equation altogether may be the best approach. In fact, many product design teams actively work to make the data network nearly invisible to users. Such a strategy could lead to broader adoption and, in turn, a much more robust student data pool.

Weinstein emphasizes the importance of easing the teacher workload: “Administrators are concerned that teachers won’t use a product unless it is a ‘one-click’ solution. Interoperability allows us to interpret the data for them in a way that could be very difficult or time consuming for them to do on their own.” Detailing what this looks like for teachers, she explains, “We know our data is critical, but we recognize that achievement data and SEL data are also essential, which is why we welcome partnerships and interoperability with companies like NWEA. In schools that use NWEA / MAP Growth [a national benchmark assessment], that data is automatically incorporated into the Mindprint Growth Plan. No need to look at data from our report, then from the MAP Growth report and understand how they intersect, which recommendations to follow, etc.—it’s all in one place. We integrate the most critical MAP Growth data with Mindprint scores, which enables teachers to understand both sets of scores and how to use them in a way that best supports their students.”

Product developers whom we interviewed also emphasized the importance of soliciting and responding to educator feedback when crafting interoperable features. As Fee explains, user surveys are a regular feature of Spotlight’s product improvement process: “Every new application includes a survey. We ask several questions, including questions related to interoperability (though we may not call it that, exactly).” By subtly prioritizing interoperability, these companies are paving the way for smoother integration of data-informed tools into the classroom.

Seamless integration of new features—which implies behind-the-scenes improvements—is also key for teachers to make the most of interoperability. For example, “Socrates is in the cloud, so we can apply new changes automatically and customers do not need to worry about upgrading—the new features just appear,” says Rosenberg. “We apply new updates every few weeks, therefore our software is constantly evolving, and needs that are identified are quickly resolved.” This allows educators to focus primarily on the student profile that emerges from the collected data, as opposed to the process of gathering that data.

Addressing Missed Connections

Interoperable edtech products can also serve as a crucial asset for promoting equity in the classroom by reducing the potential for misinterpretation of data and the impact of unconscious bias. The right data interpreted the right way ensures that teachers can identify each student’s particular struggles and address them appropriately.

This may, for example, prevent miscategorizing a student as simply unmotivated. “Students with weak attention are often labeled as behavior problems rather than getting the learning help they need,” Weinstein laments. “The student takes MAP Growth and doesn't do well. The results seem to confirm that this is a kid who ‘doesn't care’ about school.” However, linking MAP Growth data to Mindprint’s social-emotional learning data indicates, “that the student is struggling with executive functions and, in many cases, has strong reasoning capabilities that were hidden because of the weak attention,” she explains. Teachers can act on this data to support the student and celebrate those strong reasoning skills.

Interoperable products can also help break down language barriers. As Weinstein explains, “Mindprint’s assessment is made up of mostly non-verbal tasks, so we are able to identify highly capable students who might be considered less than capable due to limited English proficiency.” Thanks to interoperability, Mindprint is able to combine their assessment data with data from other sources to help schools identify students from underrepresented groups and recommend them for gifted programs. This goes a long way toward creating inclusive school communities and boosting engagement, especially for those students who may not be willing or able to clearly communicate their difficulties.

And the need for clear communication, of course, reaches well beyond the walls of a school, out into the community. This point is not lost on Spotlight, whose products rely on interoperability to “convert a student's assessment data into a personalized video, viewable by parents, in their home language,” Fee explains. “As parent engagement has been shown to benefit students' academic outcomes, by making education data accessible, understandable and actionable to virtually any parent or student, we close an information gap, on the way to closing achievement gaps.”

The right data interpreted the right way ensures that teachers can identify each student’s particular struggles and address them appropriately.

Rosenberg expands this same line of thought, addressing the concerns of both time and place: “Socrates’ ability to personalize learning for each student is essential to closing equity gaps. We draw on a variety of data sources to identify gaps in the child’s knowledge and track their progress against those gaps during the school year, over the summer and into the following school year, ensuring that those gaps are addressed. Students benefit from this technology regardless of where they go to school, and it works just as well in a remote learning environment. This is important, as we expect these gaps will only grow as students are learning from home, where parent engagement is critical to success. To that end, we provide parents with information about where their child needs the most help, allowing them to maximize the time they get with their child. We also provide educational videos to help parents help their kids.”

Clearly, educators, students and even parents have much to gain from interoperability, especially with COVID-19 changing the nature of teaching and learning and threatening to widen the achievement gap. Whether it’s a quietly embedded solution like single sign-on technology or a complex report that shapes personalized learning plans to accompany students throughout their entire school careers, the potential benefits are innumerable. And while schools and districts must absolutely continue to advocate for the best interoperable solutions to serve their unique populations, educators should not have to become proficient in data science to take full advantage of them. Forward-thinking edtech product development will do much to promote full-scale adoption and the eventual success of interoperability in education.


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