Why can’t our data just get along?

Two organizations that have been promoting interoperability among disparate educational data systems have established a new goal: creating a separate set of standards and specifications for sharing the digitized content of what teachers teach and students learn.

To help bring that about, the two groups–the Schools Interoperability Framework Association (SIFA) and the U.S. Defense Department’s Advanced Distributive Learning (ADL) Initiative–have announced an agreement to collaborate in developing a new version of the ADL’s widely used Sharable Content Object Reference Model, or SCORM.

The organizations have scheduled a series of regional meetings with interested parties this month and next to consider how to proceed.

But it’s a tall order, and the potentially controversial details have yet to be worked out. In fact, according to Jill Abbott, a SIFA strategist who concentrates on teaching and learning issues, the project is at least 12 to 18 months away from reaching a consensus among educators and vendors for generating a new set of standards and specifications.

Tentatively dubbed “Core SCORM,” the new model will seek to meet “the needs of educators worldwide,” the two groups say in a joint statement about their partnership. Larry Fruth II, SIFA’s executive director, sees the project as potentially far-reaching–and as the natural next step in a continuing campaign to get diverse educational software and hardware to work well with one another.

Interoperability has become increasingly important in education as vendors have introduced an increasing volume of learning- and management-related products that ordinarily might not interact with other applications or systems. The resulting lack of compatibility can prevent users from readily sharing data or force them to re-enter information on multiple systems, a potentially tedious and costly process.

So far, most interoperability activities in elementary and secondary education have dealt primarily with administrative needs, including such things as student information systems, food services, student transportation, and financial management. In the planned focus on teaching and learning, Fruth says, efforts to improve interoperability in the schools have reached a point where they can successfully incorporate the underlying content of education.

Abbott says Core SCORM will address such considerations as the aggregation of learning content, search and discovery, and tracking student achievement.

“We are now at a maturity level” in confronting ed-tech interoperability, says Fruth, a former teacher and state-education official in Ohio who became head of SIFA four years ago. The association is a non-profit collaborative of more than 600 schools, school districts, states, the U.S. Department of Education, international government agencies, software vendors, and consultants.

Paul Jesukiewicz, deputy director of the ADL, says Core SCORM will make it easier for educators to work more productively with different applications–for example, by linking education content with assessment results, grades, and other data about individual students. Teachers don’t have time to work separately with dozens of different applications to accomplish that, Jesukiewicz explains, and they need “one set of content that works on all systems.”

For fees of up to $2,500, vendors can apply to SIFA for certification that their products comply with requirements for interoperability.

SCORM standards have been used extensively throughout the world in such domains as medicine, banking, government, the military, and higher education, Jesukiewicz notes, and now it is time for the K-12 community to satisfy its own unique requirements for interoperability.

The ADL official says it won’t be necessary for educators who depend on software from different vendors to understand how Core SCORM makes the applications interact. “It needs to just work,” he says.

It is unclear at this juncture whether SIFA and ADL will achieve extensive adoption of Core SCORM. For one thing, Fruth says, the teaching-and-learning components will have to win broad acceptance in the education community–a result that SIFA hopes to encourage by consulting with various groups involved in ed tech, educational administration, and curricular issues.

Meanwhile, other organizations besides SIFA and ADL are involved in projects to improve interoperability throughout the world, and it remains to be seen whether a new effort directed specifically at elementary and secondary education will catch on.

According to a person involved in education technology who has participated in recent discussions about Core SCORM, not everyone agrees that a new approach to ed-tech interoperability is needed “just for K-12,” particularly when other standards are already available.

Speaking anonymously, the source expressed particular concern that Core SCORM might not be compatible with specifications from the IMS Global Learning Consortium, a 10-year-old organization that describes itself as “the leading advocate for the use of technology to support and enhance learning worldwide.”

Meanwhile, publishers of education software do not have a single perspective on interoperability issues, says Karen Billings, vice president in charge of the education division at the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA).

On one hand, she says, the association has been supporting interoperability in education “in many different ways,” and has been “trying to work with all of the standards organizations.” The software industry recognizes that, from an educator’s perspective, it can be difficult to work with many different platforms, Billings comments, and that many school districts “like to have products that were developed [specifically] for them”–and that include, for example, state education standards.

On the other hand, Billings says, vendors have concerns about digital-rights management, and must weigh the costs and benefits involved in satisfying interoperability requirements.

Another issue is that interoperability can be complicated. Billings reports “confusion in the marketplace” that extends even to “what the simple term ‘interoperability’ means.” She says SIIA has been preparing a primer for its members about K-12 interoperability and “it has taken us months just to put together a glossary that people can agree on.”

A Core SCORM prospectus describes SIFA’s vision for the new model in these words: “Schools will be enabled to better utilize data by implementing technology in a manner that leverages the promise and capabilities between disparate applications.” The document says that every learning-management system determined to be SCORM conformant has a “rigorously defined set of capabilities and behaviors.”

ADL’s vision, the prospectus says, is to “provide access to the highest-quality learning and performance aiding that can be tailored to individual needs and delivered cost effectively, anytime and anywhere.”


Schools Interoperability Framework Association

Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative

IMS Global Learning Consortium

Software & Information Industry Association, Education Division

eSchool News Staff

Want to share a great resource? Let us know at submissions@eschoolmedia.com.