Any industry with a large set of diversified technological products (such as education) inevitably needs help with interoperability. A common example is the teacher who needs to update their grades but has to copy and paste from their assignment tool to their student information system. That teacher will spend a lot of time moving grades between systems instead of one system having a simple way to import into another. Data standards in education aim to make data exchangeable.

In a large, multi-stakeholder industry such as education, however, getting standards implemented can be very challenging. Stakeholders range from schools to universities; from learning institution staff to parents; and from local to federal policymakers. The issue of accepting “one standard” can sometimes intersect larger issues within the industry ranging from politics, technology, and user experiences. It's the wide breadth of stakeholders through all aspects of the education sector that makes standardization a harrowing process.

There have been several attempts to create industry-wide standards that allow educators, learning institutions, edtech businesses, and others to easily share and interpret data with one another. Below are some of the groups that are creating and maintaining data standards for education.

CEDS (Common Education Data Standards)

The CEDS started as an initiative by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) to provide a standard "language" that would allow for consistent data handling between different state and federal education agencies. The CEDS publishes a vocabulary of standard definitions, sets, and technical specifications that allow stakeholders in education to communicate with one another. Many agencies, programs, organizations, institutions, and vendors collaborate to further develop and maintain the CEDS. The definitions and schema of metadata within other standards are often aligned with those of the CEDS.

ED-Fi Alliance

The Ed-Fi Alliance is a non-profit organization funded by the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation to provide standards and software that can support actionable insights for schools and state agencies that support K12 education. The Ed-Fi standard enables interoperability between student information systems, learning management systems, and assessment systems through a unifying data model. Ed-Fi also provides tools to its members, which as its Operational Data Store and API, allows school administrators the ability to pull information from all of their platforms into one database with a dashboard.

Access 4 Learning (A4L)

A4L, formerly known as the (Schools Interoperability Framework Association) is a non-profit collaboration of members from government agencies, institutions, organizations, and software vendors.

A4L publishes the SIF (Schools Interoperability Framework) specification, which is used to enable interoperability between a diverse collection of applications. SIF is comprised of two components: the Data Model and the Infrastructure. The Data Model is a list of XML schemas that define objects based on a country's specific education model. The Infrastructure defines the architecture for sharing data between institutions.

A4L also supports the Unity standard, which contains a comprehensive data model that supports other commonly used standards. Unity provides an implementation blueprint to support existing, widely used security controls and API standards.

1EdTech Consortium

1EdTech Consortium (1EdTech; formerly IMS Global Consortium) is a non-profit organization dedicated to advancements in interoperability between learning institutions and vendors. 1EdTech offers standards and frameworks that support initiatives around content integration, credentialing, analytics, and assessments. Some of the major standards that are developed by 1EdTech include the LTI specification, OneRoster, Open Badging, and Caliper Analytics.

Postsecondary Electronic Standards Council (PESC)

The PESC is an association of software vendors, universities, government agencies, and organizations dedicated to the development of standards to facilitate information transfers between post-secondary institutions. The PESC promotes the use of various technologies (such as JSON, PDF, XML, and EDI) in the creation of standardized data exchanges, such as in the use of transferring high school and college transcripts. The PECS also governs the Edexchange service, which allows PESC members to exchange data and documents in a secure, peer-to-peer network.

Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative (ADL)

The ADL is a program of the United States Department of Defense (DoD) that works closely with public and private organizations to study emerging learning technologies and to develop methods for enhancing interoperability. The ADL is one of the main contributors to the Shared Content Object Reference Model (SCORM) and the Experience API (xAPI, also known as the Tin Can API).

SCORM is a standard used to distribute digital content into learning management systems. The xAPI specification captures data about a learner's online and offline experiences. This specification allows different systems to communicate learning experiences using a common vocabulary.

Dublin Core Metadata Initiative (DCMI)

The DCMI, a project of the Association for Information Science & Technology, supports innovation in metadata design. The DCMI is also the steward for the development of the Learning Resource Metadata Initiative (LMRI). LMRI is a specification for tagging digital learning content and is aligned with the CEDS in the use of its common vocabulary.

International Organization for Standardization (ISO)

The ISO is an international standard-setting NGO that is composed of various national standards organizations. The ISO covers standards across a wide range of technologies and industries, including education. In 2018, the ISO published ISO 21001, "Educational organizations – Management systems for educational organizations – Requirements with guidance for use". This standard defines how an educational organization should implement a management system to meet the needs of its learners. The requirements of ISO 21001 are generic and designed to be used by any organization that produces a curriculum to support its educational directives.

Project Unicorn

While Project Unicorn is not a “standards organization”, they do promote the use of standards among its members to improve educational interoperability. Project Unicorn does not focus on supporting an individual set of standards but does highlight widely used standards such as those maintained by CEDS, the Ed-Fi Alliance, A4L, and 1EdTech. The goal of Project Unicorn is to advocate for the secure and controlled exchange of educational data. Ultimately, Project Unicorn is focused on advocating for interoperability.

Looking Future Forward

Progress in interoperability can be made through standards, but to extend industry-wide success, more innovative solutions will have to be built. In today’s reality, some standards are not adopted by all because some inhibit a user’s experience and some exclude valuable data. As edtech products continue to be created and business grows, so too does the need to develop and apply ways to support interoperability.

*Updated | 4.25.24

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