Just as monetary standards simplify marketplace transactions, exchanging education data between systems and applications is difficult without data standards. Without interoperability—the quick and easy transfer of data between systems via a common set of data definitions, codes, and technical software standards—resource exchange is laborious and taxing. In other words, whether resources are being exchanged in the marketplace, or data are being transferred among data systems, shared standards allow easy and reliable transactions.
Interoperability is the quick and easy transfer of data between systems via a common set of data standards (definitions, codes, and technical specifications).
An interoperable system is "an environment in which diverse data systems seamlessly exchange information with little or no additional effort" (Collins and Fruth 2007). Use of widely accepted technical specifications based on common definitions and codes facilitates this kind of environment and allows information to be easily and safely shared among numerous systems and applications regardless of the platform or vendor. The standards offered by the Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF) Association are perhaps the most commonly used, though some states and districts have achieved or are exploring interoperability through other means. While many states have implemented or are pursuing interoperability, and the federal government strongly encourages the establishment of integrated and interoperable data systems, the majority of education systems are still working with numerous isolated applications.* This reality costs countless staff hours and resources, and limits education staff's ability to effectively use the data collected.
An LDS should allow for the timely and simple exchange of data between applications in and among schools, districts, states, and other education institutions; as well as agencies and organizations outside the education system. By ensuring compatibility, interoperability opens the door to vast quantities of longitudinal data that may otherwise be too laborious to acquire. These diverse data allow us to explore questions previously difficult to answer due to an inability to link data from various sources—sources that illuminate many dimensions of students' lives. In this sense, interoperability allows us to easily view a more complete and accurate picture than is possible using only fragmented sets of data.
Effective use of data requires information from various sources and applications to work together to enable easy analysis and reporting. Data should enter the system at a single point; each data element should have a single, authoritative "source of truth"; the various applications should share data; and the data should be usable many times and for many purposes. This will free staff from entering information into each of the systems (enrollment, library, school lunch, etc.). By eliminating the need for redundant effort, interoperability also improves data quality by decreasing the risk for data entry errors, and saves time for activities other than tedious data entry and management. Staff will, therefore, have more time to offer better services to students, focus on teaching, and improve student achievement through more effective and timely analysis and data-driven decisionmaking. (Schools Interoperability Framework Association 2006)
How does a state or local education agency achieve interoperability using, and based upon, education technology standards? The shift to interoperability requires the support of many agency staff, including decisionmakers, data system managers, technical staff, program areas, and the end users of the system. This is an overall culture change in the organization in terms of the way data are collected, viewed, used, and shared. By bringing together the different players in the agency to discuss and answer key, guiding questions, you can begin to form a team and garner the support needed to make the project a success. Without support across the education agency, the chances of succeeding will diminish because, while interoperability is a great enabler, it is also viewed with skepticism because it is change that is being enabled.
When deciding to implement an interoperable solution, an organization will need to address several key questions, such as:
The answers to these questions will determine the scope and breadth of the project. As we drill into these key guiding questions, it becomes apparent why discussing and addressing them with the team forms the foundation for interoperability.
"Will this project connect systems from multiple local levels to gain a comprehensive view?"
This is the second guiding question for the group to consider, and it is perhaps the most important as its answer can greatly expand the reach and timeline of the project. If this project is for one district or state, that is one reflection. But if it is to span entities, many additional considerations come into play, such as which systems need to be interoperable and which contain the data needed, and are there multiple data collections involving multiple program areas?
"What are the data we are trying to share and why?"
These two questions of "what" and "why" go hand in hand. They will take time to analyze and discuss as a group in order to determine what is, or is not, comprehensive enough to be included in a meaningful interoperable system.
"Will the project be developed and implemented in-house or will
a vendor direct the process?"
This question is significant to the project for several reasons. If you have the technical staff and capacity to take on a project of this scope in house, the cost may be greatly reduced but it may also increase implementation time. By the same token, working with a vendor whose core competence is implementing solutions may greatly reduce the implementation time, but it can increase the cost and the final system may also be based on a proprietary solution rather than a true, publicly available and widely used interoperable solution. This, to some degree, can be solved if you tell the vendor your project must be built on specific, commonly used education technology standards such as those developed by the SIF Association or PESC.
"Will the existing software applications and data structures be repurposed or will new ones be purchased or developed?"
When repurposing existing software applications and data structures, you will either use existing software that has already used, or could use, widely accepted standards. For example, many existing applications can be repurposed and adapted to incorporate (or accept) SIF standards. Alternatively, you can buy or develop new applications based on standards. An example would be one of the many software applications that have been SIF-certified.
Different states and districts will pursue different timelines for an interoperability project. With the help of a vendor specializing in educational data systems, one state is working on a 12-month rollout timeline that includes processes such as hardware and infrastructure development, training, and knowledge transfer. While this may be considered an aggressive timeline to many, it may be appropriate for others. Generally, districts and states plan a phased implementation over a period of 2 to 5 years. This may seem a long time to implement an interoperable system, but experience shows that this is the reality. The time involved should be considered especially when developing a project that incorporates multiple entities.
Phases of the project based on the systems development life cycle include, but are not limited to, the following:
Some states have experienced pushback from their districts because of the extra workload and significant costs that may be associated with implementing an interoperable solution; similarly, some districts have experienced resistance from their schools. This resistance may be more likely in states where districts are especially autonomous or resistant to change. To overcome these obstacles, some states try to include at least several of the largest districts in the interoperability framework project with the hopes that this success will interest smaller districts that may have the most to gain from such data sharing. Other states have decided to temporarily leave some districts out of the interoperability framework, either because they are too small or their current software applications are not ready. In these cases, the state may allow the districts to submit and receive data as they have in the past, sometimes even on paper, as they wait to move to a fully interoperable system. The ultimate, real-world benefits to all involved should be stressed to gain buy-in for the transition to interoperability.
Portability is the ability to exchange student record and transcript information electronically from system to system, across districts, and between P–12 and postsecondary institutes—within a state and across states.
Hurricane Katrina and the resulting displacement of students highlighted the need to be able to transfer student information, not just within a state but between systems around the country. Data portability is "the ability to exchange student record and transcript information electronically from system to system, across districts, and between P–12 and postsecondary institutes—within a state and across states." This option of maintaining, moving, and sharing a set of personal student information allows districts and states to quickly, easily, securely, and quite cheaply attain information on students who transfer in an out of their school system, and helps them to distinguish transfers from dropouts.
When an interoperable solution is implemented, portability and interoperability can and should work hand in hand. With the thought of allowing information to flow seamlessly or be "ported" between systems, you are enabling data portability at the level of the project's scope—locally or between entities. Many refer to this in terms of the portability of "content" rather than of data but, viewed holistically, portability can refer to any large amount of data or content that needs to be shared. Interoperability also relates to the meaning of the data once they have been ported between systems. Some states are working on content delivery systems that are both interoperable and portable. Others are seeking the ability to move a student's e-transcript, whole student record, or portfolio of work between trusted entities, using portability as well as interoperability. Portability can also imply the ability to exchange large amounts of data, such as a state report, packaged in a way that allows for easier movement within an interoperable framework. Many experts believe that future innovations will allow for greater levels of data portability and interoperability across sites. Others are proponents of storing all student transcript information in a central location and allowing secure, on-demand access by authorized parties rather than relying on other means of moving the data between education agencies and across operating platforms.