Interoperability is an Educational Imperative
Standards play an important role in all aspects of our lives. Everything we take for granted – from standard light bulbs and batteries to the width of roads – could be significantly disrupted without the uniformity produced by consensus around a standard.
Interoperability is an Educational Imperative
Educational systems are accelerating their transition to the digital age – moving from print to digital content, blending virtual learning with the traditional classroom, and leveraging data in sophisticated ways to support instructional and policy decisions. The adoption of technology is having a positive impact. But growing sophistication in the use of technology is exposing gaps in processes, which are slowing pedagogical and technical innovation and limiting gains in efficiency and effectiveness.
Students, educators, and administrators have come to expect seamless integration of disparate content resources, data from various sources, multiple software applications, and enterprise IT systems. They seek to blend the best of breed applications and resources, leverage data horizontally and vertically, and employ adaptive software engines to personalize learning by aligning dynamic results with academic content and instruction. Increasingly they do so anytime and everywhere using any platform and device.
Underlying each facet of this vision is the tacit requirement for interoperability. The usability of isolated data, content, and applications is rapidly diminishing. Educational agencies and institutions are seeking to strategically leverage their assets across a number of systems. Interoperability is a necessary capability for the systems that are emerging.
The case for interoperability is increasingly compelling. Perfect interoperability would make it possible to use any data, any digital content, and any software application on any system. Users could easily and continuously access, create, and share content or data from multiple sources on any device, using any platform to perform a variety of tasks. Developers could quickly and cheaply mix and match digital resources and software applications and readily integrate them with existing administrative systems and software.
Primary Areas of Educational Interoperability
Most educational interactions rely on interoperability among a variety of content repositories, data management systems, and software applications. Three general kinds of activity are involved in such interactions:
- Moving the digital content required for learning and assessment to enable its integrated use in an array of platforms;
- Exchanging academic and administrative data among databases and software applications as required to assess performance and support administrative reporting; and
- Integrating educational and administrative applications with each other and with local and system-wide enterprise software systems to support complete scenarios of interaction.
To support such activity, the components that make up educational systems must observe standards for:
- Describing digital content, and school and student data;
- Programming interfaces for applications; and
- Communicating among applications.
As an example, consider a scenario of instruction in which a student logs into a learning management system (LMS), is presented with digital content from a repository, and makes responses that are recorded by the LMS and exchanged with a student information system. Moving digital content from a repository to an LMS requires that the repository and the LMS share a common description of the content (i.e., a content packaging standard) and have compatible program interfaces (i.e., an application programming interface standard). Identifying the student and recording results in the student information system requires that the LMS and the Student Information System (SIS) share formats for describing student data (i.e., a data standard) and also have compatible programming interfaces. (See Figure 1)
Implementing these technical standards allows a compliant content repository, SIS, or LMS to be integrated with another compliant system. Even this simple example illustrates the power of interoperability standards to facilitate the use of content and exchange of data across applications, to increase consumer choice, and to reduce the developer effort required to assemble data/content or change components. The more applications that use the standards, the greater will be their value.
As Figure 1 illustrates, a complete standard must provide a formal description of the structure of some collection of content or data and specific instructions for how that content or data is to be transported between the components of a network system and processed within them. To do this the standard either incorporates or refers to definitions or rules that address the following:
- Meta-data: Data about data that identifies and describes the elements of an item of content or set of data in a standard manner so that they can be recognized and used across applications that subscribe to the standard in question;
- Transport protocols: Common procedures for establishing connections over networks between systems/applications to enable transferring of content or data, or for executing functions by different components of a networked system; and
- Interface rules: Standard Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) with instructions for using the common functions of an application, such as accepting input, executing a routine, providing data, etc.
Specifying metadata, protocols, and interfaces is only the first and, in some respects, the easiest step in creating a useful standard. A successful standard is an ecosystem. To be useful, a standard must also be implemented by vendors and its compliance required by consumers. A stable organization with active communities of vendors and consumers must be created and sustained, and compliance or certification tests must be developed and maintained to support its use. Resources such as best practice guides and case libraries must be made available to help software vendors create, and institutions and practitioners acquire compliant products and services.
This post content mainly comes from the beginning part of “SIIA Primer on K-20 Education Interoperability Standards”, readers should continue the reading for complete details. As we move into mobile era, a large number of standards support the use of mobile devices in today’s society, yet only a small number define how to use them for learning. The chapter “Educational Standards for Mobile Learning and Mobile Application Development” in the free book “Increasing Access through Mobile Learning” reviews the efforts related to content and tracking for the transition to mobile learning.