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Big Data Rising: The Latest IT Trend Only Reinforces the Importance of Interoperability

Michael Nutter

April 5, 2017

Without interoperability, your school’s big data initiative is all dressed up with nowhere to go, trapped in dozens of silos. Establishing interoperability will be a significant challenge, but it’s the only way to ensure that the data you collect will ultimately produce real results.

Over the past few decades, digital technology has made enormous advances and improvements in relatively short order. Unfortunately, few industries have had as much trouble keeping up with these strides as the education sector. Educators are only just now reaching the technological competency that most businesses have had for years.

And to make matters worse, that years-long game of catch-up is about to start all over again — this time with big data. Districts everywhere are rushing out to buy dozens of different types of software that will collect data on everything from standardized test scores to school lunches. But if that data isn’t interoperable, it’ll only make life harder for teachers, students, and administrators.

Why Bigger Data Is Better Data

But first let’s answer a simple, yet important question: what’s so “big” about big data? It’s not just the fact that so much of it is now being collected, but also that seemingly irrelevant data points can be used to bring to light insights that would have otherwise been impossible to find. This is done by finding correlations between disparate data streams, suggesting a relationship between two variables that might be adjusted to improve the learning experience in some way.

For example, you might not initially expect that the food one student eats at lunch would have a significant effect on the amount of time it takes for her to complete a given test. But when schools are actively encouraged to monitor these factors digitally, they may discover these sorts of unlikely relationships. Perhaps the most crucial benefit of this strategy is that it lets educators identify factors impacting particular students as well as entire classes or schools, making it easy to offer children the individualized attention they need in K-12 education.

But without interoperability, this strategy isn’t just useless — it’s a huge hindrance that forces teachers to focus their attention on reams of data rather than their students. Interoperability refers to a software’s ability to produce data that’s compatible or can communicate with data produced by other software. Without it, each application you use will store its particular data sets in a silo, meaning that correlations will only be discoverable between data sets produced by the same application.

Why That’s a Problem

At first, that may just seem like an inconvenience, rather than a disaster. Maybe these data sets don’t automatically discover correlations, but as long as they exist, any correlations between them will always be discoverable.

But manually analyzing these massive quantities of information is a nightmare for even the most experienced statistician. With literally millions of granular data points, many of them incomprehensible to those who aren’t familiar with the software generating them, simply plotting out trends becomes an almost impossible task. As a result, schools spend money hiring researchers and consultants to produce reports, a solution that’s both expensive and defeats the purpose of this massive data aggregation project in the first place.

Many businesses have achieved interoperability by only using hardware and applications that come from the same provider. For instance, a company can get all the capabilities it needs from Microsoft computers and the Office 365 application suite. But this approach is unfortunately not available to many schools because of the infrastructure already in place, which was often purchased and installed hastily in order to secure grants.

Rather than start fresh and replace current IT systems, it makes more sense to invest in solutions like Middleware, or to only replace software that doesn’t align with a given interoperability standard. You should sit down with consultants and vendors to find a comprehensive solution that accounts for their individual data architecture, use cases, and process flows, and prepare for some troubleshooting early on in the deployment process.

Without a fast and effective solution, these data silos will continue to pile up with years and years of useless information, and schools will again find themselves lagging behind other industries in terms of technological literacy. Interoperability will require more time, money, and careful planning — but the alternative is another few decades of corrective IT projects that drain both productivity and budget.

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