“Interoperability” is a word that might make you squirm. Making multiple platforms “talk” to one another to create on-demand data seems impossible. Think about this. What could students achieve if the technology and applications in their classrooms were connected and working together for their ultimate benefit? Or, what sort of time savings could teachers achieve if they had well-connected data systems delivering accurate, actionable, real-time performance information about their students’ learning progressions?
Data interoperability has the potential to improve outcomes for everyone. Solving school and district interoperability challenges is critical to giving teachers the information they need to do their jobs and to enable innovation in their classroom practices. Project Unicorn is a new initiative created to improve data interoperability in K-12 education. By signing the Project Unicorn pledge, school districts, teachers, and vendors commit to leveraging data to create better outcomes for students, save time for teachers, and increase efficiencies for schools. Both our districts are committed to creating easier data interoperability, and we hope sharing our experiences will help guide your future decisions and purchases.
Cameron Berube: 4 Must-Have Features of a Personalized Learning Tool
Providence Public Schools is the largest district in Rhode Island, making up 25% of the state’s entire elementary and secondary student population. In 2013, we embraced the statewide personalized learning (PL) initiative, but realized we needed to make significant strides in moving towards a streamlined PL experience for students and faculty. As the director of curriculum and instruction, I worked with the district, parents, students, and community organizations to develop a districtwide five-year plan for creating solid PL standards.
We dove head-first into piloting a new PL tool. While on a compressed timeline, we experienced technical challenges during data transfer and configuration, miscommunication between the programing and technical teams, and data-privacy issues. The implementation was a blessing in disguise, because it helped us prioritize our needs and create a checklist of “must-have” features for any new platforms. The list of criteria prioritizes district interoperability and PL standards, while providing our individual schools the flexibility to choose vendors that fit their needs.
1.) Within the tool, teachers have to be able to sort for different sizes of content.
For example, teachers need to be able to segment a small, individual assignment for computer work or segment a group of students versus a class project. Teachers need alignment to the academic standards they’re utilizing at the full breadth of that standard.
2.) The usability experience with a particular tool or platform must be flexible.
A variety of features is a nice-to-have, but ultimately, the technology must suit our teachers’ needs. Does it allow for flexible grouping within instruction modules? Can the tool recommend variations of student groups based on existing performance data? The usability experience is key.
3.) End users must be considered from the beginning—including how data reports can be pulled.
A lack of consideration about data usage for students, parents, and educators can lead to a lot of manual work and big headaches for teachers and academic coaches.
4.) The flow of data must be bi-directional.
Most companies only get data going in one direction, and most surprisingly, it’s often heading in theirs—whereas my teachers only can access a PDF. Not only is this inefficient; it’s unhelpful for both students and the district at large in the long term.
What does the future hold for Providence Public Schools? If existing progress is any indication, there will be even greater autonomy in school management, enhanced data access and interoperability, and significantly improved student learning outcomes.
Josh Allen: Using Data to Support a Culture of Flexibility
Denver Public Schools (DPS) is Colorado’s largest school district, with more than 4,300 teachers instructing students in elementary, middle, and high schools, along with a mix of non-traditional and charter schools. As the director of IT Architecture for the district, it’s my job to accommodate the needs of various schools on both the academic and operational sides and ensure that they have the tools and resources they need to successfully teach students.
DPS has a culture of flexibility and empowers schools to operate within their own preferences, meaning school leaders select assessments and curriculum specific to the populations they’re educating. Orchestrating student data collection for 190 schools using many different technology tools is not an easy task. It requires dedicated resources in terms of staff allocation, technical support, and time, all of which are often constrained in K–12 environments.
DPS has been testing various forms of data-driven instruction, meaning our educators need access to robust reporting and analysis platforms to create lesson plans. We are building an environment where educators can easily import information critical to supporting student progress, but there are a lot of moving pieces—especially for a district our size.
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DPS requires a minimum of one interim assessment per trimester in grades 3-8 ELA and math. These assessments are administered to all students in a grade or course, and the data from these assessments is formative and is used to adjust instruction. Teachers are encouraged to use more informal and more frequent formative assessments during the learning to differentiate instruction for all students.
In a world of flexibility, DPS creates assessments, like interims and high school course assessments, which schools can choose to use. Schools can also choose to create their own assessments from scratch, use the item banks in our IMS to create assessments, use assessments that come with their curricular material, or purchase a separate assessment solution to meet their data needs.
When searching for technology tools, we consider data access and interoperability standards at the very beginning. We include integration standards in our RFPs and cite data integration into our new system as an important criterion. We also make sure all data is readily available to all stakeholders including parents, students, educators, and administration.
Currently, parents can view students’ performance by accessing a parent portal—a district-built system developed by a partnership with our academic portal team and our IT development group. As a DPS parent myself, I use these tools to view and track my children’s progress. Everyone wants a single dashboard view, making data accessible to all stakeholders to ensure no student falls behind.
DPS has a governing committee who manages our portal interoperability. Our district invested in creating a data warehouse so time-sensitive data, regardless of platform, can be stored in one centralized location. Although it is somewhat difficult to have so much data in so many formats coming into the warehouse, it has led to a dramatic improvement in data-driven instruction and interoperability within our district.
Cameron Berube is the Executive Director of Teaching and Learning for Providence Public Schools in Rhode Island. Follow Cameron on Twitter @CameronBerube
Josh Allen is the Director of IT Architecture for Denver Public Schools. Follow Josh on Twitter @joshuaallen
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