Interoperability is playing an increasingly important role in education. Schools and educators now, more than ever, need digital products that can exchange data seamlessly and securely. Interoperability reduces the workload for educators, schools, and vendors by providing standard processes to import and export data. It also gives all parties the ability to properly contextualize data and readily access necessary information. Additionally, support for standardization allows schools to easily understand how their data is being processed and used by vendors.

One of the organizations leading the charge for interoperability is Project Unicorn. Project Unicorn is an initiative of InnovateEDU to promote interoperability within educational data. Project Unicorn does not actively endorse the use of a specific product, vendor, or standard. Rather, the initiative is designed to make buyers, vendors, and other actors in the K-12 space aware of the need for interoperable data to improve student outcomes.

Districts, state education agencies, and vendors can all join Project Unicorn by signing the Data Interoperability Pledge. The pledge for EdTech vendors is a commitment to enhance the interoperability and security of their products. Additionally, the pledge states that vendors will commit to the following:

  • Ensure that their products meet at least a Level 2 on the Project Unicorn Interoperability Rubric within one year;
  • Commit to ultimately reaching Level 4 on the Project Unicorn Interoperability Rubric; and
  • Sign the Future of Privacy Forum Student Privacy Pledge within a year.

The Interoperability Rubric

The Project Unicorn Interoperability Rubric measures how well an EdTech product supports interoperability. The metrics in the rubric are graded between Levels 1 - 4, with Level 1 providing the least interoperability and Level 4 providing the most. The rubric evaluates products on the following metrics:

Data Quality

With regards to interoperability, data quality refers to how students are represented in the data model. Better data quality means that students are assigned unique identifiers that are used to track the student over time. Data quality is further enhanced when the unique identifier is imported directly from a school or a record-keeping platform, such as an SIS.

Data Granularity

Highly interoperable data should be defined into hierarchical units. For example, student data could be recorded as part of a section, within a course, within a school, within a district. Defining data into multiple units better helps vendors export and import relevant data.

Export Process

An interoperable export process focuses on ensuring that data can be transmitted via standard exchange protocols. At a minimum, the export should be manually downloadable in a machine-readable format, such as a CSV file. Highly interoperable export processes will use industry standard aligned APIs to export data between products and platforms.

Export Security

To support a basic level of interoperability, exports should be encrypted to protect sensitive school data. An even more robust option would be to encrypt student data with data restrictions and additional safeguards, such as requiring a VPN or authentication.

Export Frequency

Exports that can be produced with a high level of frequency increase interoperability. Ideally, the export can occur in real time, as data, such as enrollments and grades, can change day-to-day or even hour-to-hour.

Export Format

Exports should be in a consistent, machine-readable file format. A better solution is to provide the export in an industry standard file format, such as OneRoster® or LTI®.

Import Process, Import Security, Import Frequency, and Import Format

In addition to the four export metrics, the Interoperability Rubric includes four import metrics. The import metrics are evaluated similarly to their export counterparts. Products that support interoperability should be able to import data through a standardized process and in a standard format. Additionally, interoperability is enhanced when a product can import student data frequently and securely.

Technical Descriptions and Examples

The rubric provides real-world examples and descriptions of what interoperability looks like at each level. At Level 1, student data is defined by the vendor and is extracted manually using tools specific to the product’s interface. An example of this is a teacher downloading a PDF of assessment data from a learning management system. This is a Level 1 example because the data in the PDF is not machine-readable and can only be generated through a manual request. No other tool that the teacher uses would be able to interpret the data in the file.

Conversely, a Level 4 implementation would see data exchanged in standard formats and APIs that can occur in real-time. An example of this would be a product implementing LTI assignment and grade services. Since LTI is a widely supported standard among learning management systems, the teacher will be able to instantaneously exchange data between the product and their LMS, regardless of which platform they use.

The Project Unicorn Tier Rating

When vendors sign the Data Interoperability Pledge, they receive a self-assessment form that they complete and send back to Project Unicorn. Project Unicorn then grades the assessment against the Interoperability Rubric. A member will also check if the product is actually certified to support a certain standard if the self-assessment states that it does. The product is then given a ranking between 1 and 4. Vendors may reassess their product when they make updates to enhance interoperability.

How to Use the Interoperability Rubric

The Interoperability Rubric is a fantastic way to get started understanding how well your product supports interoperability in edtech. Analyze how you’re exchanging data to and from schools. Is it secure? Is it in a standardized format? Is it simple to export and import usable data to and from my product? Ask yourself these questions as you go through the rubric and begin to brainstorm how to incorporate interoperability into your product. You can start the process by signing the Data Interoperability Pledge over at Project Unicorn.

Learning Tools Interoperability® (LTI®) and OneRoster® are trademarks of the IMS Global Learning Consortium, Inc. (www.imsglobal.org)