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Explaining the “I” Word: What is Interoperability and Why Does It Matter in K12 Education?

April 30, 2024   •   Insights

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Maren Madalyn, contributing writer for Red Rover.

During my years as a counselor, there was one school year in which I dreaded the end of each week. Normally, Fridays were everyone’s favorite day, preludes to the much-beloved weekend.

But that year, our district had implemented a new behavior data analytics tool. At the start, though the system was elegant in many ways (for district administrators), it did not cleanly or consistently connect with our student information system (SIS), where counselors and teaching staff had documented behavior reports for years.

Those Friday afternoons, once peaceful transitions into a few days of rest, quickly became frustrating hours I spent trying to detangle and reformat student data to funnel from the SIS into this new system. This was on top of the data munging I already did in preparation for IEPs, Special Education staff meetings, and more!

Fortunately, the whole process became smoother and eventually saved time for school staff as the district made additional improvements to link the two solutions throughout the year. Though I had heard of it before, this experience was the first time I truly understood the power and necessity of the “i” word: interoperability.

Let’s dig deeper into this concept and why interoperability is so critical for all K12, from teachers to district administrators to state officials — and beyond.

Interoperability, the invisible hero in K12 data management

In the simplest terms, “interoperability” refers to how data is accessed, exchanged, integrated, and used with integrity across different information systems (NNLM, HIMSS). When implemented well, interoperable systems create more efficiency by taking direct human intervention out of the equation and giving that time back to employees. Interoperability can also improve the security and quality of data usage, analysis, and management.

Though the concept can quickly get technical from that starting point, you may be surprised to learn that interoperability is actively present in many of our day-to-day lives.

Think about a doctor prescribing medication for a patient. Imagine the critical information needed to fill this prescription: the specific type, dosage, and more, as well as data about the patient like name and date of birth. All this data must make its way accurately and securely from the doctor’s office to the patient’s preferred pharmacy to pick up the correct medication — two completely different software solutions that manage data differently, based on how pharmacists and doctors use each solution.

Yet somehow, these systems communicate with one another to make sure that the right information lands in the right place. And odds are, this patient can pick up their correctly prescribed medication without issue.

That’s interoperability.

Other places you can find interoperability in action include telecommunications, emergency services, intergovernmental agency collaboration, and — you guessed it! — K12 education organizations.

Why educators need the “I” word

The more tech tools become ubiquitous in classrooms, the greater the need for these tools to “talk data” to each other. When edtech solutions successfully achieve interoperability, educators save time otherwise spent preparing data, and both staff and student information is reliably and securely stored, ready for use whenever and wherever needed.

Yet, if you ask any teacher or principal in your neighborhood, the odds are high that they’ve experienced a decent amount of pain with navigating data across their software solutions.

Three reasons stand out:

  1. Comfort: Educators aren’t data analysts, nor should they have to be to get key information about their students or programs. Navigating the vast sea of education data available can be intimidating to administrators, teachers, and other school staff, who are increasingly expected to leverage data to inform practice in a sensical way.
  2. Time: When two solutions don’t share common data — or don’t connect smoothly to one another to do so — educators may end up spending hundreds of hours just exporting, adjusting, combining, filtering, and cleaning multiple datasets to try and piece together the information they need.
  3. Complexity: Even when systems share the same data, they may format or treat them differently. This adds to the complexity that educators must navigate when examining multiple sets of information across solutions.

In the end, this is a recipe for a frustrated educator, left wondering why these edtech tools are giving them more headaches than alleviating them.

You can imagine the amazing opportunities that interoperable systems can offer educators! Here are just a few scenarios in which interoperability, the invisible hero of K12 data management, saves the day:

  • Teachers receive closer to real-time insights on student performance across multiple assessments or grading sources.
  • As they plan for the upcoming year, principals and teacher leaders analyze data across multiple areas to understand trends in what their students need, such as recent standardized test scores, student feedback on a social-emotional learning survey, last year's attendance rates, and more.
  • District IT staff members easily grant secure access to authorized staff who review more sensitive student information as part of their role, such as school counselors.
  • HR administrators save time and energy by interconnecting the district absence management solution with payroll and time-tracking tools, instead of hand-crafting reports across all three systems.

Despite these amazing opportunities, interoperability in education is not yet at the maturity of other complex systems like healthcare. Why?

The challenges of achieving true interoperability

In short, K12 interoperability is still evolving in terms of sophistication and consistency across both solution providers and education organizations.

Much like the diverse landscape of edtech solutions available, there is a swathe of different data models and approaches used by solution providers, which adds complexity when trying to interconnect these solutions together. On the district and school side, administrators may also configure their software such that even two organizations using the same solution, like a student information system, have completely different data formats and outputs from one another.

This isn’t to say that any one party is to blame for these disconnects. Sometimes the technology behind a solution is just too old and too rigid to modernize — a common challenge for many long-standing solutions. For schools that rely on such solutions, migrating off of them requires time, budget, and energy — all precious resources for educators.

Integration isn’t the same thing as interoperability.

It’s worth clarifying too that integration and interoperability are not interchangeable concepts or terms.

Both are important for smooth technology experiences. But as Jim Campbell with AEM aptly puts it, calling an integration something interoperable “is about the same as shipping boxed spaghetti from Des Moines to an osteria in Rome and calling it ‘authentic Italian pasta.’”

Yes, integration does technically allow for data to be shared between two systems, meeting the bare minimum requirement for a solution to be considered ‘interoperable.’ But true interoperability requires a deep understanding of the nature, purpose, and use cases for data. That means both vendors and education organizations must share this common understanding.

Further, solution providers must collaborate with educators to codesign solutions that uplevel seamless data sharing and management, resulting in a simple and elegant user experience.

Easier said than done!

Fortunately, several forward-thinking organizations are blazing a trail forward for educators and vendors alike toward this gargantuan vision of true K12 education interoperability. Explore the resources below to learn more about their work, from advocating for common data models to coaching district leaders in best practices for data management processes:

  • Common data standards for edtech solutions: Ed-Fi, CEDs

“Interoperability” in K12 platforms vs. point solutions

Edtech solutions typically come in two flavors: K12 platforms and point solutions. Let’s see how these solutions stack against each other when it comes to achieving interoperability and empowering educators with time saved and headaches spared around data.

K12 Platforms

A K12 software platform offers an ‘end-to-end’ system with multiple solutions integrated in one place. By tackling multiple challenges for school and district admins — from managing student grades to recruiting substitute teachers — K12 platforms boast creating a seamless, integrated, and interoperable user experience for educators.

One login, many solutions, data all in one place. It’s an attractive prospect.

But this is just one of several myths about the benefits of K12 platforms. Here are just a few ways in which interoperability can go wrong with these kinds of solutions— or worse, may not exist at all:

  • Inconsistent data storage and management: Despite using the same platform to access tools and solutions, educators may struggle with consistency in how data is treated across each solution. This can result in messy datasets or worse, data that cannot be combined without human intervention. This challenge is especially true when vendors elect to buy instead of build their solutions.
  • Lack of feature parity: Feature parity means that educators experience a similar or the same user experience across the platform, and can use the same tools like data filters no matter which solution they access. But when K12 platforms compile multiple solutions into one place, educators often discover that some tools and even data are limited to specific solutions.
  • Clunky user experience: Improved user experience is absolutely a key outcome of interoperability; the whole point is to make it easier for educators to navigate their data. But despite big promises made by K12 platforms, educators are not guaranteed a seamless experience by moving everything into a single platform. Solution providers are themselves limited in what changes they can even make to platforms as they grow in complexity. They often end up implementing only surface-level improvements, and surface level doesn’t cut it when it comes to interoperability.

To summarize these pain points, imagine an HR admin who wants to compare teacher absence records with substitute teacher schedules to ensure there are no gaps in coverage. Their K12 platform stores each dataset in two separate solutions. As they go to export the data, they find that they can’t filter both datasets with the same parameters (like ‘day of the week,’ ‘length of absence,’ etc). Further, the substitute teacher scheduling portal uses different codes to identify assigned classrooms from the teacher absence management system, meaning the HR admin has to figure out how to map the two different classroom codes between these systems.

With K12 platforms, educators like this HR admin are stuck doing the heavy lifting with their data, consuming valuable time and energy.

Point Solutions

In contrast to K12 platforms, point solutions (also called “best of breed” solutions) focus on solving one specific problem for educators and solving it well. Rather than spread wide to tackle every challenge under the sun, point solutions often go deep with their targeted approach.

With point solutions, interoperability involves ensuring that the solution’s data and information can link smoothly, cleanly, and consistently with other adjacent systems, usually addressing problems beyond the scope of the solution. Integrity in these connections must meet educators’ needs and use cases.

At first glance, this might sound like integration in disguise, but interoperability is quite possible — and successful — in point solutions. Here are three advantages in interoperability that point solutions offer over K12 platforms:

  • Responsiveness: Because of the specific focus of their point solutions, providers can more quickly respond to emergent needs from districts and schools, implementing adjustments that expand which tools their solutions connect with seamlessly. On the other hand, K12 platforms are often built with technology that cannot or is extremely difficult to revise, limiting their ability to respond quickly and effectively to new K12 data needs.
  • Smaller dataset, more flexibility: There’s nimbleness afforded to point solutions that K12 platforms do not and cannot achieve. Point solutions often have a smaller, targeted dataset within its system, since the solution is narrowly focused by design. This makes it technically easier for solution providers to adapt this dataset to meet the interoperability needs of educators and their tools. K12 platforms, however, face more complexities in improving interoperability within and without the system simply because they use a larger volume of data.
  • Simplified user experience: With point solutions’ flexibility and responsiveness to interoperability needs, educators typically don’t have to take on extra work to force different data systems to cooperate.

As an example, a large district in Ohio was struggling to easily manage payroll for extra duty coverage, particularly as their schools faced an unprecedented teacher shortage. The process was cumbersome — from managing the inflow of requests, dispersing them to a pool of teachers for reassignment, and then handling payroll on the back end. Worse, their process was prone to error given the level of human management required. The district turned to Red Rover’s absence management solution, which seamlessly connected with their payroll systems, Munis and Kronos.

Point solutions are often further down the road toward K12 interoperability and thus a better offer for educators seeking to simplify their data management practices.

Our commitment to an interoperable future

Let’s face it, true interoperability is tough and complex, and there aren’t shortcuts you can take (though if we find them, you’ll be first to know). But it is well worth the effort to serve educators and students.

Red Rover deeply understands these intricacies — so deeply that it influenced one of our core commitments as an organization to create truly seamless experiences for all of our partners.

That’s why at Red Rover we:

  • Provide a dedicated technician to every partner, committed to ensuring interoperability between our solutions and your tools is achieved — no matter what it takes; and
  • Commit to ongoing efforts to expand and improve the interoperable capabilities in our solutions, just as the landscape of K12 workforce tools evolves.

And our philosophy is paying off — in happier partners, time saved, and sanity restored. Request a demo today to learn how Red Rover can bring the same benefits to you.

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