Nestled at the foothills of the high Uinta Mountains lies Evanston, Wyoming—home to Uinta County School District #1 (UCSD #1). At an elevation of 6749 feet above sea level, the school district is accustomed to seeing things from a different perspective. And so when it came to tackling the challenge of data interoperability—the seamless, secure, and controlled exchange of data between applications—UCSD #1 took a wide-angle approach.
Dreaming big, the district reached out to as many stakeholders as possible in order to gather the greatest possible number of ideas. With input from UCSD #1’s chief financial officer to the director of transportation to educators working on curriculum, they collectively wondered: What might it look like to map all of the district resources visually in one location? What if there were a visualization tool that could allow district staff to see all of the pieces of the puzzle in one place?
Showcasing student growth: UCSD #1 advanced data interoperability using the design thinking process and collaborating closely with vendors.
Together with the San Diego County Office of Education, Stephenville Independent School District, Vancouver Public Schools, and a team of researchers and developers, Uinta County School District #1 formed the Digital Promise Assessment Data Interoperability Challenge Collaborative. During the 2018-2019 school year, the Collaborative hosted focus groups with teachers; facilitated brainstorming sessions with designers; performed quality assurance tests with developers; and engaged in conversations with vendors. Their goal? To prototype solutions that will lead to more equitable opportunities for every student.
Get Rolling with Data Interoperability: The Digital Promise Data Interoperability Challenge Collaborative identified six key factors for districts to consider when implementing data interoperability. Download and share this infographic!
During this collaborative research and development (R&D) process, participants learned that achieving data interoperability is a multifaceted challenge. Here are four lessons taken from their journey to interoperability:
1. Focus on a specific challenge before trying to scale.
The San Diego County Office of Education (SDCOE) supports more than half a million students across 42 school districts and 780 schools. One of the unique challenges SDCOE faces is serving the large military and migrant populations in the county; data cohesion is essential to support students who transfer between school districts.
Originally, SDCOE wanted to build a “universal transcript” that showed data from elementary through career. However, the district quickly realized that having such wide representation presented its own set of challenges. Because most of the districts in San Diego County are elementary school districts, the county decided to pivot and focus only on elementary school literacy data. To date, SDCOE has been able to build two literacy data dashboards and hopes to expand in the years ahead.
“From my perspective, really listening and understanding what the problem is and what the needs are from each district is critical to inform our work as a county,” says Patrick Gittisriboongul, Assistant Superintendent for Innovation for SDCOE.
Equity and impact through data: With a county-wide data-sharing agreement, San Diego County connects districts into a secure, integrated data system.
“After this program is built, I’d like to see a county-wide dashboard that actually has all of the information of all of our 42 school districts that we serve, broken down at the building level, broken down at the student level, broken down at the classroom level,” adds Gittisriboongul. “I think it’s very important to have that granular view of our entire county.”
2. Collaborate with districts working on similar challenges.
Vancouver Public Schools’ weLearn 1:1 initiative ensures that all students have access to the tools they need to be in control of the pace, path, and place of their learning. A side effect of that initiative, however, is an enormous influx of data from many different tools. Because these tools don’t work together, valuable information is often not used to its full potential.
While participating in the Challenge Collaborative, Vancouver district leaders spoke with vendors and colleagues from other districts. Out of those conversations came a renewed sense of purpose for tackling the challenge. After a year of biweekly meetings with teachers, principals and district administrators, Vancouver Public Schools successfully built an operational data store with three integrated data sets. In the future, the district aims to build on this data store, connect it to existing data warehouses, and build new visualizations on top of them at can help inform instruction and achieve personalized learning for every student.
Differentiating instruction with data: Vancouver Public Schools is laying the foundation for a unified look at student achievement.
3. Engage vendors early and often.
One thing that Stephenville Independent School District underestimated was the amount of time it would require to align vendor priorities to their own efforts. On the one hand, the district could pursue custom integrations, which are costly but quick to implement. On the other hand, it could pursue shared data standards, which are ideal over the long term, but require a sizable commitment from vendors. In the end, SISD wanted to strike a balance of idealism and pragmatism to keep moving its work forward.
“It takes a lot of time to call, share information, educate, and negotiate with vendors,” says Shelby Womack, Executive Director of Technology and Digital Learning for Stephenville Independent School District. “Over time, we learned that vendors have their own set of hurdles to get through on the journey towards data interoperability. Understanding this has allowed us to better clarify what we’re asking for and to be more prepared to share resources while educating them on the challenges we face.”
Data-informed instruction: Stephenville Independent School District is building a foundation for teachers to inform instruction with data.
In order to demonstrate demand for change, Womack suggests working with other districts to push vendors toward adopting data standards: “One thing we learned is that the size of the district is not the only thing that matters; vendors are likely to put a feature on their product roadmap if many districts, even small ones, ask for it.”
4. Stay focused on the end-users: teachers and students.
With big data-driven dreams, Uinta County School District #1 started its work unsure of what the solution should look like. Stakeholder conversations surfaced many ideas and opinions, but eventually, UCSD #1 leaders realized that they needed to narrow their focus to the end users of the product: teachers and students.
At the conclusion of a focus group meeting, teachers reached consensus on a single needs statement: “I need a tool that will help me be more efficient when I am communicating evidence of growth to students.”
“The teachers in our district really helped us understand what they needed: what data they are collecting, how they are using it, and what would be most useful to visualize,” says Jaraun Davis, Chief Technology Officer for UCSDt #1.
Ultimately, the district developed an operational data store with standards-aligned data, and has plans to build visualizations to meet individual student needs.
Though the year-long Challenge Collaborative process has ended, each district plans to continue its interoperability work. As the districts move forward in their own ways, one thing is clear: Assessment data is most powerful when it is in the hands of teachers, parents, and students—and data interoperability will get it there.