opinion

How to Turn a District’s Edtech Portfolio From a Hodgepodge to an Ecosystem

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This fall, Jillian Estrella started her fourth year as a science teacher at the Energy Institute High School in Houston. To most outsiders, Energy Institute High School might feel like a school of the future. There are Smart TVs in every classroom and interactive whiteboards and table tablets in the student media lounge. All course content, assignments, grades, shared documents and study tools are delivered digitally. They are accessible through a centralized online portal that the school district rolled out three years ago.

On the first day of school, students have laptops assigned to them, and through the district portal, they have instant access to dozens of resources and apps—from Khan Academy to Google Drive to McGraw-Hill Education. When Ms. Estrella opens her own laptop on day one, she can click into one of these apps and track what her students are doing and how they are progressing. The various digital programs interact with one another and student data flows between each one. Why? Because school leaders in Houston have focused on solving a key issue: interoperability.

Four years ago, before the Houston Independent School District (HISD) began to tackle the interoperability issue, student digital learning wouldn’t have been so simple and so seamless. For example, if Ms. Estrella wanted her classes to use a variety of different digital tools, she would have to input all the names and email addresses of her students—manually—and generate new usernames and passwords for each of the various programs. Then she would have to figure out a system to help students remember those login credentials.

In the past, “I didn’t make use of as many digital apps because I didn’t have time to input all that information,” Ms. Estrella said, recalling her first year in the classroom. The problem she faced was that the different online tools and programs that were available to her students didn’t operate together and couldn’t exchange information.

Districts often offer a long list of digital resources—usually an a la carte combination of sophisticated learning management systems and adaptive technology programs, as well as a multitude of apps and free “open” resources on the web. But if the systems don’t fit together and the programs can’t “speak” to each other, then basic information can’t be exchanged, and many processes, which should happen automatically, have to be repeated manually.

The interoperability issue is becoming more and more important as the learning experience becomes more digital. In HISD, they’ve gone a long way toward solving the problem. And Energy Institute High School is an inspiring example of how learning can be unleashed when a district’s edtech portfolio becomes less of a hodgepodge and more of an ecosystem.

The educational technology industry is a competitive landscape with well-intentioned providers believing their solutions can make the biggest difference for students. But, as an industry, we need to do what we can to make it easier for schools and districts, like HISD, to build elegant ecosystems.

An important first step toward that is to embrace interoperability standards provided by groups like IMS Global Learning Consortium that, when adopted by districts and companies, will allow digital tools to fit together like a system. L. Beatriz Arnillas, director of IT at HISD, walks through how the the district did it—namely by requiring learning management systems and digital resource providers to adhere to a single set of specifications.

If we want to unlock the full potential of each learner and empower great teachers, like Ms. Estrella, we need to work together to address the interoperability issues that districts and their schools face. Common standards, without tolls or penalties, have historically propelled innovation in many other industries—and it should be no different for education. If we can solve this challenge, we can give teachers more time to teach, offer students access to a wider range of learning tools and, ultimately, provide school districts with a new way to manage digital programs and systems in a seamless, effective manner.

To solve this will mean fewer hiccups. Less grit in the system. More time for learning.  

Christine Willig is president of McGraw-Hill Education’s K-12 group

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