Ed-Tech CEO Reacts to Frustrations with K-12 Software Interoperability: ASU/GSV

At the 2017 ASU/GSV conference in Salt Lake City, which featured education heavyweights like Betsy DeVos and Arne Duncan, educators and vendors alike bemoaned the current lack of ed-tech interoperability. As Edweek Market Brief reported, the siloed software situation “costs school districts time, money, and efficiency...leaving educators to face the challenge of learning how to juggle using multiple digital resources.”

Chris Contini, CEO of OnCourse Systems for Education, believes that the solution to this interoperability challenge may be closer than anyone believes.

Why do you think the solution to interoperability is so close?

Contini: “Like with any innovation, the first thing you change isn’t the technology, it’s the mindset. Most K-12 purchasing occurs to fill an immediate need. The district then accumulates single-use tools that all speak different languages. Trying to get them connected after-the-fact is like trying to put spilled milk back in the bottle. We recommend that, as districts do strategic planning, they change priorities to put partnership ABOVE products.

What do you mean by partnership?

Contini: Ten years ago, every edtech provider was safe in their harbor, doing the thing they did well. Look now and you’ll see a massive shift toward “unification”. Student Information System providers are buying or building Learning Management Systems and assessment systems. Data warehouses are being replaced by data visualization technology natively integrated into these platforms.

What I mean is, districts should take a really hard look at where their core SIS platform is innovating and ask, “How is their platform growing to meet our needs?” and “Do their priorities align with our 1, 3, and 5 year plans?”

What would you say to districts who prefer best-of-breed over a suite approach?

Contini: We’ve spent fifteen years analyzing hundreds of thousands of educators interacting with our software. I know this: the bells-and-whistles of software rank FAR below being simple and functionally sound. “Give me some real value, then just get me in front of my kids faster.”

Ultimately, no one is going out to find the best-of-breed calculator, camera, and MP3 player anymore. So the question is – does having one or two neat features outweigh solving our systemic, resource-draining interoperability problem?

Do you think that schools will have to settle for lower quality software to pursue this all-in-one approach?

Contini: Five years ago, yes. Now, with cloud technology really coming into its own, motivated ed-tech platform providers can offer extraordinary innovation, breadth, and responsiveness.

The other thing to keep in mind is: software is commoditizing quickly. For example – every LMS does mostly the same things now. Both OnCourse and Google Classroom integrate with Google Docs, allow teachers to differentiate assignments, and get classrooms collaborating.

In our case though, OnCourse Classroom integrates with the OnCourse SIS so teachers don’t have to manage rosters. Grades automatically flow to the OnCourse Gradebook. It integrates with OnCourse Analytics, OnCourse Connect (portal for students/parents), and will soon bridge formative assessments, via standard, into OnCourse’s new benchmark Assessment platform. The value and convenience for the teacher skyrockets with native interoperability.

So you feel that interoperability should fall on the vendor more than the school district?

Contini: In some ways, yes. Providers often have better resources to take advantage of the API economy and provide real value to teachers and students.

Take the OnCourse Classroom LMS, for example. In the not-so-distant past, teachers were using their ingenuity to create interactive formative assessments from electronic forms and the like. Many are still quite limited at creating an interactive experience in their current LMS. At OnCourse, we partnered with a company called Learnosity via API to offer more than fifty "technology-enhanced item" types to enhance our assessment platforms. Invisible to users, no work required on the district, but tremendous added value.

You CAN go overboard though. There are some platform providers who try to short-circuit the innovation process through rapid-fire acquisitions bolted on. If too much of this happens, you get the "Frankenstein" situation where nothing really is cohesive.

There's a sweet spot. If you force it, the teacher and student experience suffers.

What would you say to the CTOs like Pete Just of Metropolitan School District who said that “a lack of vendor cooperation is our daily challenge. Publishers and providers need to get serious about delivery of their products with affordable metadata level integrations.”?

Mr. Just is right that providers need to do better, but the reason interoperability standards are hard to come by is because they are hard to get right. We’ve seen a lot of ideas come and go over fifteen years, and not a lot of great execution.

At ASU/GSV, the representative of Instructure LMS described getting an RFP with 60 tools to integrate with. This is the problem of trying to acquire a single software in a vacuum. It’s why LMS products are becoming consumed into better integrated platforms.

What tips would you give to school districts?

The ecosystem in many school districts is 80% disparate tools and 20% platform. Really, it’s a grab-bag of isolated programs doing their own thing. There’s a very real and serious cost to teacher and students.

We recommend finding a partner who can give you 80% integrated platform, then you can spend less time and money on plugging in the remaining 20% of specialized tools.

We have seen magic happen when all of the systems are natively talking to each other, like in Hopewell Valley Regional School District, who uses the OnCourse Student Information System, LMS, Lesson Planner, and Teacher Evaluation software. Read a case study on HVRSD here.

Chris Contini is the Chief Executive Officer at OnCourse Systems for Education, provider of a fully-integrated K-12 platform.

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