The decade ahead: Change is coming in data interoperability

In August 2007, I was sitting in a windowless conference room at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, CA, where edtech leaders were enthusiastically preparing to announce their free Google Apps for Education product offering to the world.

It was an exciting moment for their organization, as well as for universities and colleges globally that were ready to move off their expensive, on-premise email servers for unlimited, high availability, cloud-based email storage.  However, the key message stuck with me that day wasn’t so much about their big unveil, but rather a discussion about the dire need for “computer science appreciation” courses and curriculum in the K-12 system.

“Everyone, even elementary students, should have the skillset to create a webpage and understand the basics of HTML and some higher-level programming experience! In 10 years this will be the norm!” A Vice President at Google made this statement during one of the discussions.  And at that time it seemed like an extraordinary vision.

Well, here we are.  August 2017.  And that prediction couldn’t have been more accurate!   We now have computer science, programming, and web design courses happening at all levels of K-12, including elementary school – impressive strides for a sector known for being less than agile.

Given the leaps and bounds we’ve made, what extraordinary vision should guide us for the next 10 years?

If the key messages from ASU + GSV Education Technology Summit and ISTE this year are any indication, in 2027, all data feeds and integrations among disparate educational systems will be secure and real-time via standardized API end points.  Think about that: the data you need, where you need it, and when you need it.

It makes sense.  Every other industry is quickly moving to an “internet of things” architecture, and our education sector, though historically very slow to move, is heading that way as well.

Encouragingly, the fast rise of supporting initiatives like Project Unicorn are driving demand so that teachers and students might benefit from this vision becoming reality.  Project Unicorn’s ultimate mission is to move our lagging education sector forward by improving data interoperability at scale and with fidelity. Since launching at the ASU GSV, more than 70 districts representing more than two million students have now pledged that the secure, controlled exchange of data  is too important to ignore any longer.

The first phase of Project Unicorn sought to create a common definition of data interoperability while building a set of partnerships capable of giving this mission a voice.  With the support of subject matter experts at EdSurge and Getting Smart, interviews were conducted and case studies developed which highlight both (1) the challenges present in the current state of the sector, and, (2) the necessary future direction of data interoperability in K-12.  While EdSurge interviewed five leading edtech vendors (Illuminate EducationLexia LearningZealNewsela, and Reasoning Mind) on their experience with district demand and their attempts to build coherent data exchange mechanisms within their tools, Getting Smart simultaneously examined the  factors driving a growing need and prioritization for data interoperability within three of our nation’s most innovative school districts: Providence Public SchoolsDenver Public Schools, and Achievement First.

Project Unicorn’s ultimate mission is to move our lagging education sector forward by improving data interoperability at scale and with fidelity.

The insights from these studies were resoundingly clear to us at the foundation!  District leaders have two major action items:

  1. It’s time to ditch the 1990s architectures, continuously upgraded mainframe systems, and manually updated spreadsheets.
  2. Districts must embrace modern integration principles and demand real-time API data transmissions, both inbound and outbound, from each and every edtech system in use.

Every vendor said the same thing: If districts would only demand compliance with data standards and use secure bi-directional API feeds from the very beginning, we could clean up the fragmented state of the current sector. Imagine – we could stop emailing spreadsheets with student data in the clear. Nightly or weekly batch integration jobs would disappear.

Superintendents and district technology/information leaders must make their wishes known and think about how to create a fully interoperable data ecosystem within their school district.


Think about it.  What if district leaders [and even teachers!] started to ask some of these important and obvious questions to vendors:

  1. “Hey, how does your tool connect the data it uses with other tools’ data?” or
  2. “Hey, how can I see your tools’ insights next to these other 12 systems I’m already using in the classroom?” or
  3. “Hey, can your app provide real-time data out to other systems?”

We don’t have to wait until 2027.  Enabling the “magical” interconnectedness of data systems we seek in the education sector is possible. Districts and teachers simply need to demand it…  Loudly!