Plugging Into Digital Interoperability

What it is, why it’s vital, and who can help.

GUEST COLUMN | by Erin Mote and Paul Johansen

The concept of interoperability can seem intimidating. Education technology provides quick access to information and personalized learning, but knowing how to make the most out of your school’s technological investment can be a challenge. Educators signed up to inspire students to find their passion and change the world, not spend time evaluating software and running tech support or turning data into information.

‘…knowing how to make the most out of your school’s technological investment can be a challenge.’

Injecting innovation into the classroom can be complicated and challenging. But when the right software solutions work together, education technology can provide valuable and time-saving resources, create an equitable learning environment, tailor interventions, promote acceleration and effectively measure student progress — letting teachers get back to doing what they do best. 

Setting the Stage

Almost overnight, we saw a dramatic spike in the adoption of new digital products as school districts scrambled to manage how to deliver education during the pandemic. The average number of tech products school districts access in a given month has almost tripled over the last several years, from 548 during the 2017-18 school year, to 1,417 during the 2021-22 school year.

While some districts shy away from technology, others may rush in without asking the right questions, such as whether the application supports their district’s overall curriculum strategy, and whether it integrates with the existing software in use. This can create an overload of digital resources that don’t operate harmoniously together, leading to implications for student data privacy and cybersecurity and making it difficult to create a digital ecosystem for learning. Additionally, siloed technology platforms can create inefficiencies and waste time and effort.

What is Interoperability?

Application interoperability is the seamless, secure, and controlled exchange of usable data between applications. In other words, how applications speak to one another. Interoperability has always been a challenge, but the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) and The Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) have recently prioritized it as the number one issue across the edtech ecosystem—so significant that they are reengineering their guidelines to address it. 

There are numerous benefits of school systems effectively integrating their edtech applications. Data shows that properly integrated applications engage more teachers and enroll more students — and that those students undertake more learning and diagnostic activities. Interoperability also opens up opportunities for administrators and teachers to harness data for new interventions and programs that improve student outcomes and works to create an equitable learning environment, seamlessly providing digital tools accessible to students with a range of abilities, languages, and learning needs. The overarching benefit is that interoperability delivers data and resources efficiently and accurately, superseding the tedious manual processes which were highly susceptible to human error. 

Looking at Interoperability with a Strategic Lens 

Every district has unique guidelines and procedures for procuring edtech products, and most districts do not require teachers and principals to choose from a list of approved partners to use them. Creating a robust database of approved applications that operate well together while meeting your educational goals minimizes the time investment needed from teachers to become tech experts. It also gives teachers the autonomy to choose educational tools they think have the most impact in the classroom. Teachers are the hub of the education wheel – understanding and connecting the needs of students, administrators and parents – and should have an integral part in the district’s digital strategy development.  

It’s also advantageous to give educators the opportunity to connect with an expert well versed in interoperability – someone who knows what works through extensive experience, and what questions to ask when considering a reformulation of your district’s edtech blueprint. The right partner should adhere to interoperability standards and demonstrate a commitment to Project Unicorn, the national initiative dedicated to the secure, controlled interchange of data. 

Taking a strategic approach by investing time upfront to make interoperability a priority saves teachers time so they can focus on teaching, makes it easier for students to access more learning supports and resources, and ultimately increases the return on investment for school districts seeking the most value from interoperability standards.

Erin Mote is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of Project Unicorn/InnovateEDU. Erin leads the organization and its major projects including technology product development, work on data interoperability and data systems, and an urban education Fellowship for new educators. Paul Johansen is Chief Technology Officer at Edmentum, overseeing talented groups develop and deliver solutions for an ever-changing educational landscape. 


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