Philip Heimes is Chief Technology Officer for the Center for Educational Innovation (CEI) and Co-Creator of EASOL, the Educator and Student Open Learning initiative. Since 2007, Philip has helped CEI implement open source technologies to support innovative educational initiatives in its schools, including a data-sharing platform for a federally-funded educator performance-based compensation program.

I don’t need to do a hard sell to get the education technology startups my organization works with to use the newly released Ed-Fi ODS API 2.0; After talking with them for about five minutes, they understand why it makes good business sense.

I was already an Ed-Fi convert from my work as chief technology officer for the New York City-based Center for Educational Innovation (CEI). I saw how elegantly Ed-Fi technology solved our data challenges, namely how to help a group of independent charter schools harness the power of their data to improve teaching and learning. Each school had its own student information, assessment, HR, and local and state systems they had to draw data from and feed back into. Ed-Fi technology let us create a secure data store that could draw from multiple sources, adopt the common data standard we urgently needed and gave us the foundation to build a “flex reporter” to generate the myriad unique reports our charter schools produce on a regular basis.

Our work with the Ed-Fi ODS API has made it possible for us to go beyond our original goals of data management and reporting to create EASOL: the Educator and Student Open Learning initiative. EASOL is a comprehensive digital ecosystem that can meet our schools’ wide range of data and technology needs AND allow for integration of third party applications. The Ed-Fi ODS API makes this integration possible and well suited for ed-tech startup companies trying to enter the market. Since these companies are starting from the ground floor, no redesign is required to align data models. The Ed-Fi Data Standard provides a robust data model along with open sourced technology that is key to mitigating risk and decreasing time to market.

In August 2015, Jason Hoekstra, a core member of the EASOL development team, came up with the idea of connecting with early stage application developers to get them aligned with the Ed-Fi Data Standard so that they can be interoperable from the start (up). Jason’s idea was to connect with the top accelerator for ed-tech start-ups in the country to test out the theory. He contacted Ash Kaluarachchi, Director of New York City-based ed-tech accelerator EDGE, which works to get the next must-have learning tools into the hands of teachers and parents. They vet some 500 software startups to award the top 10 with $170,000, three months’ office space to build and code, and a mentor. Ash saw our vision and got us a meeting with EDGE Co-Founders Don Burton and Jonathan Harber, who gave us the huge opportunity to provide EASOL (and Ed-Fi) as a service to their start-ups.

Typically, these startups don’t think about a data model or data mapping and ingestion, setting them up for panic when they are eight weeks in, running out of time and money, and realize that even getting a student roster into their app will be a challenge. We showed the start-ups at EDGE that using Ed-Fi technology means they are part of an open-source ecosystem that can take care of the “back end” so that they can focus on their mission-specific goals. Ed-Fi makes it possible for them to:

  • Go beyond just pulling student rosters into their apps. With Ed-Fi, they can align their apps with myriad data points such as student assessment data, instructional time and teacher assignments.
  • Use this data to demonstrate how they deliver on the specific goals of their applications, which is the true “proof of concept” that they need in order to convince educators to use their apps.
  • Fully respect student privacy, fulfill the mandates of FERPA and help ensure that students using their tools are good online citizens.

Since the end of September, we’ve experienced EDGE’s insane pace and creativity. Five K-12 start-ups in the 2015 EDGE cohort have begun the onboarding process with the Ed-Fi Alliance and have shown off their applications to our EASOL pilot schools here in New York City. To date, every demo has turned into a sale as school leaders immediately recognize the power of these applications, particularly when they are integrated into their school’s digital “ecosystem” (EASOL). Suddenly, implementation and adoption are much lower hurdles to jump for these “disruptive” technologies because the “disruptions” are welcome additions to teaching and learning that can be introduced seamlessly through EASOL’s Ed-Fi Powered ecosystem.

After two months at EDGE, we can now see how ed-tech accelerators like EDGE can help grow the Ed-Fi Alliance. Because EDGE is based on a mentorship model, the accelerator is ideal for generating a community among developers, investors and thought leaders. And because accelerator participants are at the start-up or early implementation stages, they can reshape the culture of ed-tech development to make interoperability a priority without incurring the costs of “retrofitting” or system redesign.

All of us at EASOL came to the EDGE project as educators looking to further our schools’ goals, which boil down to providing an excellent education for all students. Now that we’ve entered the ed-tech arena, we can envision a day when even for-profit companies adopt the Ed-Fi Alliance community-minded approach that collaboration equals success. (The start-ups’ fast sales at our schools show that it can be a profitable model.)

The bottom line: the Ed-Fi Alliance is helping start-ups deliver innovative classroom tools—from gameified learning environments to blended learning—that are built to be “plug and play” and respect privacy. Start-ups see that plugging into an open-source ecosystem is a big flexibility advantage. And schools are ready for tools that talk to each other.

**Check out the API sandbox for the 2015 K-12 cohort at EDGE: http://edge.easol.org.