Our nation’s 17,000 school districts are managing through an unprecedented change unlike any we’ve seen in the last century. Over the last 45 days they have been tasked with pivoting on a dime to move from the traditional model of school to one that puts technology squarely front and center. Now more than ever, having a data architecture that can support rapid changes, and provide real-time, secure and comprehensive data is of critical importance.
I’ve been involved with the Ed-Fi Alliance since Ed-Fi 1.0. In my roles I have overseen Ed-Fi implementations ranging from small to big, including charter schools, local educational agencies, and a state educational agency. With this perspective, I believe the ideal, most effective Ed-Fi implementation must include a seamless ODS/API connection, interoperability between all systems, and the ability to provide key insights to educators. While many ingredients are required to reach this end, there is a foundational element that brings everything else together: technology that enables repeatable deployments.
A successful Ed-Fi implementation is scalable and sustainable. It enables education agencies to add additional entities (be it individual schools or entire districts) and additional source systems. If designed well from the get-go, an enterprise Ed-Fi ecosystem will provide data interoperability at a manageable cost with a great return on investment. And, it will deliver real-time data, resulting in timely data-driven decision making.
The Cost of Custom
One-off scripts lead to one custom implementation after another. Custom implementations are hard to scale and difficult to maintain and sustain – especially without dedicated staff.
In today’s Ed-Fi environment, scripts and other custom integrations are utilized to move data in and data out from source systems to the ODS and vice versa. Often, these scripts are designed for a very specific environment. They are not sharable, so there is little to no benefit to the overall field of education. When education agencies rely on a “technology-quilt” of custom scripts, and other proprietary connections to exchange data, they risk missing their project timelines and going over budget. They are not very sustainable and are fragile in regard to maintenance (ongoing operations, limitations and costs due to changing source systems over time, etc.). Custom integrations also place a heavy burden on school district staff such as data base or system administrators. Further, these one-off scripts are not typically in the mainstream support path of source system vendors.
The pitfalls I am describing are well understood across education. So what can we do to address these challenges?
In the long-term, meeting these objectives will rely heavily on Ed-Fi APIs. Nothing deploys faster and no other tool can be deployed as quickly. However, as a whole, the education technology community has not reached that level of technical maturity. We are a diverse community with many levels of competencies, and as a result, Ed-Fi APIs and Ed-Fi API clients are unavailable from a broad spectrum of data-source vendors.
ED-FI BADGES for source system vendors
How can we begin to change this dynamic? I have two suggestions. First, to get us moving in the right direction, I recommend that every source system vendor in the community obtain an Ed-Fi badge. Ed-Fi certifications allow product developers to demonstrate a product’s fidelity to Ed-Fi standards and guidelines. Ed-Fi Badges allow product developers to demonstrate support for Ed-Fi standards and technology, particularly in areas that are not yet covered by an Ed-Fi certification.
I can tell you firsthand that the lift of building out an API client is not as daunting as you think and the ROI is tremendous. In a previous role, while leading the development of an Ed-Fi API client for a large student information system vendor, we went through the official Ed-Fi certification process in just three days at a very manageable two-hours per day. For Ed-Fi vendors to stay competitive, I believe the certification is a necessity given the frequency they are required by school districts and published RFPs.
School districts request Ed-Fi certified Apis
Secondly, school districts across the country must rally around the value of Ed-Fi certified APIs and demand them from their source system vendors. To create a successful API ecosystem, it is critical to start at the beginning of the data food chain. Since the Ed-Fi ODS needs to be fed with source system data to power the real-time data tools, source system APIs are the place to start.
Long-term strategies are important. However, we also need to approach Ed-Fi implementations in a more holistic way to bring down cost today. In my personal journey from a system integrator and solution architect to Head of Interoperability at Hoonuit, I have wrestled intensely with these problems. Here are three immediate suggestions based on my experiences leading solution-based data projects for the K–12 market.
Replicable and sharable artifacts beyond APIs
First suggestion. We need replicable and sharable artifacts beyond APIs. A shift toward enterprise-grade, real-time connections via standards-based interoperable environments is the holistic approach that would result in replicable solutions. They would mitigate risk and improve sustainability for both school districts and vendors. Enterprise grade connections provide a clear set of requirements for vendors and bring quality tools and choice to educational organizations. Most importantly, they would bring down the overall cost for school districts.
I am confident that we can make a difference by providing a single deployment with shareable connections as we partner with source system vendors to provide API clients. We can meet education agencies where they are today and mitigate their dependency on one-off connectors by utilizing APIs and API clients. It is important to facilitate those conversations and engage them as partners during an Ed-Fi implementation.
We can accelerate API adoptions throughout the Ed-Fi community by pledging support and discussing about the benefits of the Ed-Fi API with all stakeholders in the spirit of partnership. Hoonuit is trying to lead by example. In our new partnership with Educational Service Center Region 4, we are working together to encourage school districts to have these API conversations with their vendors and promote further API adoption in Texas.
school districts take advantage of Ed-Fi’s Implementation Playbook
Second suggestion. I believe it is critical that school districts take advantage of Ed-Fi’s Implementation Playbook. There are hundreds of school districts, charters, and collaboratives that have successfully operationalized Ed-Fi. Take advantage of their experiences! The Implementation Playbook provides a step-by-step guide and walk-through of the different Ed-Fi phases, including exploration and project planning, data governance, implementation, and rollout. It includes a technology overview, tips to define your unique Ed-Fi use case, and the knowledge needed to tackle Ed-Fi with your technology providers.
Ed-Fi Data Import Tool Native Deployment
Third suggestion. As a short-term option, the Ed-Fi Data Import Tool can be deployed natively in our solution alongside the API and ODS – allowing for the creation and defining of data maps (data maps are CSV to Ed-Fi API mappings). As a result, agencies have shareable artifacts for all mapping activities aligned to the strategic visions of education agencies as they push for the development and use of Ed-Fi API clients.
I Am Here to Help!
My recent move from a custom solution and software development company to my new role at Hoonuit, a leading provider of data management, analytics, and professional learning solutions, has opened up incredible possibilities to help the Ed-Fi Community. As I work with our product team to uncover ways at utilizing APIs downstream, I look forward to collaborating with all of you, learning your pain points, and exploring new ways to help school districts, teachers, and students achieve the benefits of true interoperability.
About the Author
Philip Heimes is the Head of Interoperability at Hoonuit. Previously, he served as Director of Educational Technology at RESPEC, Chief Technology Officer for the Center of Educational Innovation, and founded the Education and Student Open Learning (EASOL) organization.