This article originally appeared in The Cloud Goes to School (sponsored).

We’re in the midst of a quantum leap in the way students learn and educators teach. Textbooks can be downloaded on any digital device, curriculum and classroom projects can be accessed online and mobile devices outpace pen and paper. The more districts adopt digital curriculum, and therefore the cloud, the easier it should be to personalize education.

But using the cloud to power this new learning model is more difficult than it should be — often because of challenges in making multiple cloud-based services work together.

The problem is that data stored in hosted student information systems (SISs), learning management systems (LMSs), teaching and learning platforms (TLPs), and proprietary digital content platforms doesn’t flow easily — or at all — between these applications. And without grades, assessments and content existing in one cohesive environment, teachers can’t see the larger picture.

The good news: This challenge is getting easier to solve. Interoperability standards for cloud-based technology are improving, allowing digital content and technologies to better interact. These standards let systems and devices exchange, interpret and present data to an end user. Ultimately, interoperability standards will help educators seamlessly tap into rich curriculum available through cloud computing and share student data among systems.

Benefits of Curriculum in the Cloud

Movers and shakers in K-12 education are realizing benefits of cloud computing. The list of innovators is growing every day. What are the drivers behind this transformation? In a 2016 Center for Digital Education (CDE) survey of nearly 100 K-12 decision-makers, school leaders cited anytime, anywhere access to curriculum (90%), cost savings (64%) and ease of maintenance (64%).

Districts are implementing learner-centered instruction powered by devices and initiatives suited for their budgets and instructional goals. One-to-one (1:1) programs utilizing tablets, laptops and handheld devices provide access to multiple sources of rich learning content and shared resources 24/7. Digital textbooks provide students with up-to-date, dynamic content and save significant dollars on regular reinvestments in static paper texts.

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Houston Independent School District (HISD), one of the largest school districts in the country serving more than 200,000 students, is developing digital materials accessible through a single sign-on within the district’s “HUB.” The district-controlled digital ecosystem provides personalized learning experiences and equitable access to the latest technology, tools and infrastructure for every student. The district is driving costs down and efficiencies up by fully engaging students and eliminating the need to purchase and manage content and services.

Chesterfield County Public Schools in Virginia outfitted middle and high school students with Chromebooks to be used at school and at home. The focus is now turning to the elementary school level, providing Chromebooks for students in grades 2 through 5 and tablets for kindergarten through first grade. Students will have access to every application on the school portal — appropriate to their grade level — displayed on individualized student dashboards. 

“This closes the digital divide and levels the playing field,” says Brian Jones, the district’s executive director of technology. “And though we can’t specifically tie student writing achievements to Chromebooks, last year we saw double-digit increases in assessments of student writing at the middle school level and nothing else had changed.” Chesterfield is scaling up cloud computing through the utilization of hosted data storage, and it reports saving money and man-hours, which are redirected toward maintaining a more reliable network.

Schools in Lawrence, Kan., provide 10,500 students with digital textbooks. “It’s about access to up-to-date content and curriculum that is dynamic, relevant and personalized,” says Dr. Angelique Nedved, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning for Lawrence Public Schools.

Turbulence-Inducing Challenges

But the proliferation of hosted services increases pressure for integration. The results aren’t pretty when SISs, LMSs, and curated and Web-based curriculum don’t integrate. Teachers and students are forced to use multiple log-ins, causing confusion, frustration and wasted time. Teachers are concerned about reliability. Decision-makers are concerned about security and bandwidth requirements. All stakeholders are concerned about safety and privacy.

Houston's HUB

Houston Independent School District’s “HUB” is a platform that houses digital materials accessible through a single sign-on. HUB will eventually become the center of collaboration, personalization, curriculum, instruction and communication for all HISD staff, students and parents.

When CDE survey participants were asked what challenges their institutions have experienced using cloud-based technologies, nearly 50 percent of K-12 leaders said integrating cloud-based services and content into existing environments and 39 percent said integrating multiple cloud-based services. District administrators note difficulties in finding resources needed to knit together all of their systems — they struggle to manage varying agreements with software and systems vendors. “We need to have freedom to choose the best applications, and in today’s environment, we’re forced to choose what works with the systems we have,” one CDE survey participant noted.

Integration Standards: A Step Forward

Fortunately, the models for integrating cloud-based systems and content are taking shape. Standards organizations such as IMS Global Learning Consortium and Ed-Fi Alliance have made great strides in the past few years to provide frameworks for strategic alignments between curriculum and information technologies. Their standards are open and free, and anybody can take advantage of that.

IMS Global Learning Consortium, a nonprofit alliance of education institutions and education technology suppliers, provides a set of standards designed to foster interoperability among digital applications, platforms and content systems. The Common Cartridge (CC) standard supports distributed learning environments. Question & Test Interoperability (QTI) allows sharing of assessment items and systems. And Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) is a set of specifications that integrate Web-based instructional tools with LMSs.

The Ed-Fi Alliance, launched with funding from the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, provides a set of standards and technology components for interoperability, building a secure bridge between disparate data systems within a school district, including environmental data, enrollment data, longitudinal interaction data and educational context data. Ed-Fi Alliance teacher dashboards display results of student interactions with digital tools and mastery over time, along with enrollment and school scheduling information. The data is available in one place and supports teachers as they develop and implement personalized learning strategies.

However, despite progress on integration standards, confusion remains. Districts still struggle to customize data and content systems, and to provide plug-and-play environments for students and teachers.

Imagine a world where any educational entity can share information with any other — no need to shoehorn all the pieces to make them work reliably and securely; where students and teachers have seamless access to a shared pool of resources anytime, anywhere via any browser; where students have portal- or hub-based access to personalized instructional resources; and teachers have instant access to curriculum content, personalized student information and school data.

4 Must-Dos

While many districts are looking for ways to leverage digital content and data across a number of systems from a variety of sources, those who have taken the leap agree on key criteria for successful implementation.

1 // Take a Top-Down Approach
Any major operational shift requires leadership. When policymakers and decision-makers are at the table, it sends a positive message to stakeholders. When school boards invest in change, they are expressing confidence in districts to carry out the vision.

2 // Welcome Participation
Prior to implementing a district-wide 1:1 Chromebook initiative, Chesterfield County Public Schools invested time meeting individually with teachers and held district meetings with curriculum, teaching, administrative and IT staff to talk about the plan. The district also hosted community engagement meetings and hired a firm to conduct community research. After the roll-out, Camp Chromebook helped parents understand how their children would be using the devices and learn how to use the devices themselves.

3 // Teach the Teachers
Cloud computing heralds a paradigm shift in K-12 education.  Change is a process that involves rethinking and relearning how things are done. When change involves technology, it requires training in how the technology works and how it can enhance instruction. Some districts embed professional development for by employing Teachers on Special Assignment (TOSA), who have exemplary experience with digital learning to work with teachers in classrooms and workshops. Some districts have created new positions that support the implementation process. “It’s about how we can continue to provide support and reassure teachers,” says Lawrence Public Schools’ Nedved.

4 // Stand Your Ground
Districts should push learning platform and content vendors to commit to delivering according to standards. Some districts, including HISD, are making standards non-negotiable and charging the vendor market with accountability throughout the RFP and contract process. Standards organizations are partnering with vendors to provide certification and publishing lists of vendors and products that meet interoperability standards. District IT leaders say this imperative will transform how they purchase digital content.

In this world of the near future, SIS data, assessment and analytics, and curriculum are all connected and in one place; they are interoperable and accessible through a single authenticated sign-on. Vendors are certified under one integration standard, agnostic to on-site and cloud-based infrastructure. Students and teachers are free to choose tools without worrying if they’ll talk to each other.

A big step toward a more completely integrated future came in February when IMS Global Learning Consortium and Ed-Fi Alliance announced a landmark standards partnership. Ed-Fi Alliance will collaborate with IMS Global on the IMS OneRoster™ specification. The goal is to accelerate connecting district-level to state-level systems, including assessment, learning analytics and digital credentials.

“The collaboration with IMS Global,” says Troy Wheeler, president of Ed-Fi Alliance, “extends the utility of and builds a bridge between the two standards.” The partnership sends a positive signal that the market is beginning to mature, says Wheeler. “Both organizations have agreed to step forward together and commit to the work required to first create one unified approach to rostering for our collective group of stakeholders.”

What Does the Future Hold?

A shift in the way we learn and teach is happening around the globe, and we are on the brink of significant change that will affect the entire paradigm.

Standards aren’t static, say IMS Global administrators; they are constantly advancing to move K-12 education toward the next generation of the digital learning environment. The new digital classroom will be customized and individualized. Teachers will have student analytics at their fingertips and will be able to quickly and easily understand what is working and what is not. Students will have access to high-quality, personalized content and will plug and play into a self-directed learning setting. IT staff will oversee fully integrated and secure systems.

While visions for engaged student learning emerge nationwide, standards are being ironed out for the full integration of curriculum content and school data systems, forging unprecedented opportunities for teaching and learning in a cloud-based environment.