The Inevitable Future of Education Data

Contributor: Anthony Wu, Co-Founder @LearnSprout

Put yourselves in the shoes of a teacher just stepping into her first classroom in 2012. She was born in the mid-80s, a product of Generation Y, and grew up as a digital native well-versed in always-on social networking and ubiquitous access to information. By middle school, this generation had the world wide web and early Yahoo!. By high school – affordable cell phones, text messages, AIM, and Google. By college – blogs, Wikipedia, Facebook and smartphones! Entering the professional workforce, members of this generation can’t help but expect a world where information is instantaneously accessible and portable to every device they interact with.

Now, the truth: this teacher steps into a typical US K-12 school, and gets the rude awakening that they must rewind their technology assumptions by a decade. This is a world of outdated PCs running on old operating systems, connecting to locally managed (read: siloed) servers that talk to the external world inelegantly, if at all. User friendliness, data accessibility, data portability, etc are complete afterthoughts in these legacy systems. As a group, these young educators will demand technological change to fit their expectations, and we – the next generations of edtech companies, must meet this challenge and drive a rapid software upgrade cycle in education.

Inside of most schools, legacy IT systems contain valuable data that can be extracted and analyzed to drive informed teaching practices, but it’s neither accessible nor portable to the many independent developers who can build tools around it. This type of extraction and analysis happens continually in the private enterprise market. In fact companies are willing to fork over the custom software integration costs because financially-incentivized business managers understand the immense value of data in driving better decisions. In the education environment, budgets are short and the tech domain expertise is lacking, so the higher order data analysis simply doesn’t happen. What a pity. We don’t accept this status quo; it simply doesn’t have to be this way.

Contrast the state of current edtech to that of the consumer app ecosystem now dominated by app store economics: sell your app to a large audience of users on platforms that guarantees feature and data consistency, where the cost per user acquisition does not have to be in the tens of dollars. This ability of the app platforms that drive volume sales to an app developer enables many of them to charge 99 cents for their work or simply give it away for free. Today, this type of platform is sorely lacking in the education sector, but we believe it is inevitable. Our team at LearnSprout, working with many of our peer companies in this space, is building this reality for schools and teachers – bringing them to a world where discovering and paying for just the right tool for a teacher or classroom is a simple click away. No IT integrations, no expense approvals, no central decision making required. This is a future where innovative teachers can deploy the best tools for their teaching styles and students’ needs – quickly and painlessly.

We believe in this near future in which education data is accessible and portable. Imagine a system of record where information architecture is built from the ground up to provide accessibility and portability as a core functionality, not an afterthought. This layer of transparency will enable analytical apps that allow administrators to make informed decisions based on evidence, not gut instincts and half baked hypotheses. “Data. Data. Data!” is the driving force behind today’s leading web companies that continually iterate their products to good user experiences. The same methodology, driven by scientific experimentation and measurement, can be used in education to find what works and drive better outcomes for students. It’s exciting to see companies in our space working to bring this capability to education.

The LearnSprout team has physically visited dozens of schools to talk to teachers and administrators about their needs and study their use cases with IT. Through these interviews, we have found grassroots motivation move towards cloud-based, multi-device accessible solutions such as Google Apps. However, isolated efforts to deploy new technology in singular sites does not translate to a systemic change.

Edtech companies need to meet this grassroots demand with scalable solutions that deploys widely. This means demanding open data from the systems of record, and making that data portable through the modern exchange formats and protocols. Furthermore, every developer should design with interoperability in mind from Day 1. LearnSprout’s vision is to provide a set of Developer APIs over student information systems, where developer access control and authorization is handled by the widely accepted OAuth protocol, and data is delivered in developer-friendly formats. Using this set of services and protocols, education developers can consume this data and deliver apps to their customers via whatever device they own, not unlike how consumer apps are built on top of, and push data back to the Facebook and Twitter platforms.

Our belief is that end users – the teachers, the students, understand the value of accessible and portable data, but at the administrative level schools are held up by Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt about security and privacy. Protecting student information should be a top priority at every edtech company, we just have to do a better job of educating decision makers on the successful transition that is happening in the private enterprise, and assure them that as a group of early technology adopters, we are here to help them apply industry best practices. Lead by example, hold their hand through technical jargon.

At LearnSprout, we bring an immense passion to this field, because we believe education is the fundamental pillar of a well functioning society. Combine that with the current technological revolution in cloud computing and ubiquitous information access, we think this is an exciting time to be edtech entrepreneurs. We hope more educators and technologists will join us.

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