How Houston ISD Is Winning By Insisting That Its Data Systems Truly Work...

School Infrastructure

How Houston ISD Is Winning By Insisting That Its Data Systems Truly Work Together

By L. Beatriz Arnillas     Sep 23, 2015

How Houston ISD Is Winning By Insisting That Its Data Systems Truly Work Together

This article is part of the guide: Going Back to School With the 2016 EdSurge Fifty States Project.

Most of us are so excited about using technology as a mechanism for empowering students. We can design exciting lessons in the language that young people (and non-young people) use today. In addition to making learner-centered instruction easier to implement, technology can bring content from a myriad excellent sources, and provide us with the ability to adopt active and project-based learning with greater ease.


One of the main challenges we face is that digital content providers deliver material in their own platforms. Users have to remember many login/password sets, and student scores and user data remain in each of these platforms, encoded in proprietary formats. This severely limits what districts can do with data.

Imagine what we could do with digital content and user data if they resided in one platform. Teachers and students could safely search for content by topics or learning standards. Data could be used to support personalized learning and we could easily support teacher peer collaboration by providing data analysis of usage, processes, time on task, and assessment results across diverse types of learning materials, regardless of who provided them. This, my friends, is what we refer to as “interoperability”--the process through which we make digital resources available in a single platform without additional logins. Besides from accessing content from multiple sources, with IMS Global Interoperability, teachers can securely view educational data and use it to re-teach, and students can use it to re-learn.

The Houston Independent School District (HISD)’s response to this challenge has been to adopt IMS Global’s Learning Tools Interoperability Standards. Through these standards, we have eliminated multiple login/passwords and we are able to open high-quality digital content provided by multiple vendors in one platform, which we call “The HUB.”

Let me take you through how we got to a place of interoperability--and why IMS Global Interoperability Standards should be a non-negotiable condition when purchasing any content, and teaching and learning platforms (TLPs).

Identifying Our District Needs

Two years ago, Houston ISD was shopping for a high quality Teaching and Learning Platform (TLP). While we were researching products, we ran into the terms “IMS Global”, “Common Cartridge” and “LTI” (“Learning Tools Interoperability”). We asked ourselves, “What do all of these ideas mean?”

Upon reading a little bit, we realized that IMS Global provided new guidelines for packaging content, which could help K-12 teachers and students purchase content from various different publishers, and still have all the content show up in one single location. In addition, this content would be searchable from inside the platform, by keywords and/or learning standards.

A Common Hub For Resources

We decided that our TLP had to be IMS Global conformance-certified. ItsLearning, the separate product we selected to be our Houston “HUB,” was a platform certified for IMS Global standards, and ItsLearning made a commitment to work with us to make sure that we connected users to all the content we needed. (And just for reference, Desire2Learn/Brightspace, Canvas, Schoology, Blackboard and Moodle are also IMS Interoperability “clients”).

When vendors provide districts with content packaged in one of these standards, we enable one of the following ways of accessing materials:

  • Through a “Common Cartridge” (CC®) and “Thin Common Cartridge” (TCC®), learning resources are ingested into the digital library of the teaching and learning platform, or TLP. A TLP is more than an LMS--a learning management system. A TLP includes Curriculum, content, and learning management systems. The learning resources are available to search by keywords or standards, and the content is divided in small units, sometimes smaller than chapters, which we call “discrete chunks of content.”
  • An LTI link (or Learning Tools Interoperability link) connects an entire set of content resources as a large package (like an e-Book) to our TLP, without users having to provide additional login IDs or passwords.

In addition to making access easier by eliminating multiple logins, we’ve created a number of conditions that enable personalized learning. Through the Common Cartridge’s meta-tags, one can search for content and the library produces a large list of content chunks from several different providers for each topic. For example, in our HUB, you could find content for a Social Sciences topic from ABC Clio, Knovation, NBC Learn, or a publisher. Teachers can enter keywords, or the number for a Texas Learning Standards (TEKS), and the library will display a list of digital objects that match the topic or standard. This kind of environment provides learners with options amongst a variety of pedagogical models and learning styles.

Looking to Buy and/or Build Your Own Digital Environment?

When districts want to select a Learning Management System (LMS) or a Teaching and Learning Platform (TLP), they can request RFP (request for procurement) sample documents from IMS Global or districts like Houston that have adopted learning tools interoperability. This will ensure the purchase of a platform that has the functions described here, that work well for interoperability.

Keep in mind: there are other personalized learning features--beyond the ability to search-- in an LMS/TLP. One of those is a Recommendations Engine, where content integrated via CC or TCC is discoverable by the TLP’s recommendation engine. Assessment questions created by teachers can be tagged to a specific learning standard. Upon submissions, teachers can see which standards have not been mastered by which students. The recommendations engine produces a list of all the digital materials in the library for each standard a student did not master, and teacher and student select which of these will be used for re-teaching or re-learning, based on the student’s learning preferences.

To ensure that the functions mentioned above are enabled, districts should make IMS Global Interoperability Standards a non-negotiable condition when purchasing an LMS/TLP, and content. This should no longer be too hard for districts, since so many K-12 publishers have adopted them. For a complete list, visit

Ready to create your digital environment? Here are my recommended steps in how you select an LMS and content providers:

  1. Both the LMS and content providers’ products should be IMS Global conformance-certified.
  2. Each TLP has some discretion on how they implement the interoperability standards. Be sure and request a “technical requirements” document from your TLP; this document provides details to publishers about what version of packages are currently available in the platform you have purchased.
  3. The district, TLP and content providers must become members of the IMS consortium. The standards are free and open source. No one owns the standards--or rather, all members of the consortium do--as it is a cooperative model, but being members provides all with technical assistance to troubleshoot when challenges arise.
  4. The district’s TLP and each content provider must make a commitment to deliver the packages according to standards and to work together, along with district leaders, throughout the integration process.

For more information, check out this link to IMS Interoperability Standards best practices in K-12.

The standards described above are not the only interoperability standards available. CoSN has a recently-updated Interoperability Standards primer for districts. Open standards can save districts and vendors hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But at the end of the day, here’s the big lesson: with open source interoperability, districts and publishers can deliver an environment that both enables personalized learning and cuts costs--and that saved money can be very useful elsewhere in district systems.

L. Beatriz Arnillas is the director of IT – education technology for the Houston Independent School District.

This post is part of the EdSurge Fifty States Project (representing the state of Texas). The project is supported in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the individual contributors alone and do not reflect the views of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Learn more about EdSurge operations, ethics and policies here. Learn more about EdSurge supporters here.

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