Playing Nice: The EdTech Interoperability Landscape

Playing Nice: The EdTech Interoperability Landscape


IMS Global has almost exclusively led the charge in this area. Here’s what you need to know about the different acronyms and what to look for when reviewing various products:

Question and Test Interoperability (QTI) / Accessible Portable Item Protocol (APIP)

QTI and APIP are closely related, with both being relevant to “the exchange of item and test content and results data between authoring tools, item banks, test construction tools, learning platforms, assessment delivery systems, and scoring/analytics engine.” In short, if it has to do with testing, these are the specifications you’re looking for.

APIP encompasses all of QTI, with an added layer of accessibility features to address the needs of individual students. Affected groups include visual and auditory impairments, ELL students, and those with specific test environment needs. The full list of APIP-supported accommodations can be found here.

Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI)

LTI is the standard by which multiple different platforms, apps, and tools can come together to create a more seamless experience for the learner. Imagine an augmented reality biology app with which students can pass their phones over the old class skeleton to reveal tissue layers or circulatory systems, then take a quiz on the spot. It sounds like a fun lab day, but without interoperability, it could mean a lot of extra work for the teacher.

With LTI standards in place, that quiz grade can automatically pass back into the classroom’s LMS, the biology app can identify whether the student belongs to a specific learning group, and no custom development work is needed to make any of it happen. The old “if it’s not compatible with [insert LMS here], we can’t use it,” logic is out the window.

Common Cartridge (CC)

Whereas LTI addresses the need for different systems to exchange information about the learner or a given assignment, Common Cartridge provides a standard format for the development and sharing individual pieces of content. Common Cartridge content—from simple exams to full-scale, multimedia lessons—can be “plugged in” to learning platforms to provide a consistent, high quality experience without any concerns about formatting errors or functionality gaps. More than one district has already made it clear to vendors that they will not purchase or maintain licenses for any learning content that does not conform with Common Cartridge requirements.

3) Systems Integration

Data standards, when applied correctly on a large enough scale, can fundamentally change the user experience for the better, but how does it work? It’s not enough for systems to speak the same language if they’re not actually talking to each other. But that integration can take many forms. Here are three of the most popular:

Embedded Integration

This is what happens when two providers form a symbiotic partnership to provide built-in functionality via the other’s interface. Examples of this might include using an online payment vendor to pay lunch balances via a student information system’s parent portal or pressing a button in a human resources system to launch a background check from another company. This type of integration requires formal partnership and development work by two or more vendors.

Application Programming Interface (API)

APIs are fast becoming an expectation for some of the larger, foundational systems in a school’s technology infrastructure. An API is essentially a protocol with which a system makes data fields available in a standard and transparent format in such a way that other systems can pull it when needed via an “API call.” One of the more prevalent examples can be seen every time a teacher enters a grade in a learning management system and it is passed over to the student information system without the need for dual entry. Or when a class is created in the LMS and the entire roster populates from the SIS. One system “consumes” the API of the other system, extracting pure data and loading it in the context of its own interface.

Batch Imports and Exports  

What if a system does not have embedded integration or an API for a particular function? How does one go about getting the data out of there and into something else? The traditional approach to integration is built on recurring imports and exports. With this method, selected data is “pulled out” of one system in a standard format either manually or on a scheduled basis. The data is then either uploaded by the user in a standard file format (.csv is common) or, in an automated situation, sent to a specified location on the network, where it is “grabbed” by the system that needs it. The most common way to implement this type of integration is to set the system(s) to run these imports and exports overnight. It is not a viable solution for anything requiring real-time updates.

The Future of Interoperability

Maybe one day we’ll live in a world where an evolutionary edtech provider comes along with a product that does everything better than anyone else. Until then, the need to integrate data, content, and systems will remain a priority.

Proprietary, complicated, and locked down aren’t going to cut it in the age of interoperability. Open, accessible, and flexible will win out every time.    

Follow-Up Resources: CoSN and Project Unicorn

Working Together to Strategically Connect the K-12 Enterprise: Interoperability Standards for Education (CoSN, 2017)

Project Unicorn (InnovateEDU, et. al., 2017)


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About the Author
Author: John Jennings
I am the digital media manager at Skyward and managing editor for the Advancing K12 Blog. I am a champion of culture and sworn enemy of red tape.

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