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Interoperability, that magical thing that enables two disparate systems to engage in open sharing of data, is at the forefront of education reform.

When enabled in a secure and privacy-protected environment, interoperability allows for more timely provision of data into the hands of students, parents, educators and administrators. It serves as the underlying foundation for meaningful advancements in the outcomes of all students.

The drum beat for greater interoperability in the education ecosystem is growing louder, thanks to groups like Common Education Data Standards, Project Unicorn, and others. A growing understanding of what interoperability enables is empowering administrators and educators to demand interoperability as the foundation for the systems and applications they use. At the same time, vendors are noting the value a standards-based interoperable solution can offer and are building this into their product roadmaps.

There is an intruder, however, sneaking in wearing the mask of interoperability. While this intruder can offer some value in certain scenarios, it is not synonymous with interoperability and can impede progress. This intruder is called integration.

Integration vs. interoperability

Like interoperability, integration enables systems to share meaningful data. It has been the case for some time that application providers or third-party integrators have been able to, for example, connect a student information system (SIS) to a learning management system (LMS) and enable data to move between the two without manual intervention.

While it might be technically accurate to say that this SIS to LMS implementation is “interoperable,” in that data is electronically sent and received by the two systems, it is about the same as shipping boxed spaghetti from Des Moines to an osteria in Rome and calling it “authentic Italian pasta.”

Two forms of integration

Integration of data systems tends to come in two primary types: large provider and integrator. Let’s briefly look at each of these and uncover why they do not stack up to the full vision of interoperability.

Large Provider

It is becoming more and more common for larger education systems and software providers to build or acquire an ever-growing set of education solutions. For example, what was a SIS vendor may now also include a gradebook component and a transportation module and maybe even an LMS or an individualized education plan (IEP) function.

To the credit of some of these large providers, they do invest resources in integration of these tools. For example, if the LMS and IEP are purchased together by the same provider, there often is an investment to ensure these applications are integrated with the existing SIS solution. While data will flow between applications integrated in this way, any systems that are not a part of the provider’s offering will not be able to easily send or receive data in this environment.

In contrast, interoperability is not based on a specific provider or a reduced set of resources that have been modified to work with each other. True interoperability enables freedom of choice for the educator regardless of the company who is providing the resource.

Integrator

Another common scenario is where a third-party integrator is put in the middle of many disparate systems already deployed. This is the brute force, make-it-happen solution. Here, the integrator’s role is to serve as middle man between these systems and do the hard work of connecting all the pipes to make data flow, like an information plumber.

In these environments, the integrator may have a product of their own that serves as the store-and-forward hub through which the data flows between applications or works directly with the vendors or databases for the various systems. Through sweat and customization, the integrator builds out the necessary integrations to enable data movement.

Unlike interoperability where the framework, processes, and protocols are already known by all applications in the environment, here each connection is a custom-built solution that cannot easily be replaced or replicated. Each connection is a new plan, new set of pipes, and new bill from the plumber.

True interoperability

Let’s unpack what interoperability is meant to be. True interoperability is standards-based, vendor-agnostic and practitioner-driven.

Standards-based

You cannot have true, open and seamless interoperability without standards at the core. Standards enable all systems to come to the table, know what is expected of them and what they can expect from others, and lay out in advance the context and rules by which the interactions will take place.

Vendor-agnostic

Whereas integration is almost entirely dependent upon the vendor and specific vendor solutions that are in place, interoperability neither cares nor needs to know about the company or its specific solution. Again, the standards are clear, the framework is set, the rules established, and the means of interaction defined. Thus, any system, regardless of provider, with the appropriate security authorization can be connected into and communicate with the interoperability solution in place.

Practitioner-driven

For far too long, the combination of systems, applications, and available data has been driven by budgets and IT. Replacing Application A, which our educators say isn’t meeting the needs of our students, with Application B is next to impossible due to the costs associated with integrating a new application, inability to use the preferred application because it isn’t a part of the SIS vendor’s offerings, and/or limited IT resources unable to accommodate lengthy manual integration processes, etc. Standards-driven interoperability enables “plug-and-play” models that reduce the overhead, infrastructure and total cost.

Integration does not equal interoperability

To truly move forward, we need to own up to the reality that integration, although it might work in the near term with the toolset selected now, in the long run is hampering our ability to establish an education ecosystem truly responsive to the needs for where our students are right now.

Interoperability is based on a set of open standards and widely understood norms that give any system the opportunity to be provisioned into an environment. With very little effort, the system can begin sharing appropriate data with the other systems in that environment.

Interoperability puts the power back in the hands of the educator. When interoperability is in place, educators can select the right mix of tools to meet the needs of their students, where they are right now. It empowers educators and administrators with the ability to choose best-of-breed solutions that meet the specific needs of their environment and students. It enables them to do this with much greater flexibility, creating a more nimble and responsive set of tools and resources that can be plugged in or pulled out of their toolbox with relative ease.

Questions or comments? Reach out to us anytime.

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