Erin Mote, executive director of InnovateEDU, says the typical teacher routinely spends 10 to 12 hours every week analyzing data from the different tools they use. “This is a huge challenge for teachers,” says Mote. “Interoperability, when it works well, is magical. But when it's not working, it's incredibly painful for teachers and for school administrators and for district folks, as well. And for vendors too, to be honest, because it means that finding a set of tools that really brings together the promise of different strategies for different students, integrated assessment, so on and so forth, just doesn't work.”
That's where Project Unicorn comes into the picture. Formed when Mote’s national group of technologists gathered to identify the core problems in data science and personalized learning, Project Unicorn has worked hard to help people understand that interoperability isn’t a scary thing. “It's actually all over our daily lives,” Mote explains. “Whether you're using an ATM that's not from your bank, and you’re still able to get money out; or when I fly somewhere, not having to go to a Delta TSA agent versus an American Airlines TSA agent; these examples illustrate that interoperability can be so seamless. It's so foundational that it works in the background, and it's kind of magical."
Though it seems like a modest proposal, the quest for interoperability is a bit more complicated than one might think. “I tell everyone that Project Unicorn is a 10-year venture,” says Mote, “because it's about changing behavior across an entire sector that has to happen, not only on the supply side, for vendors, investors, and such, but also on the demand side."
She remains encouraged about the momentum Project Unicorn has generated, placing great importance on the project’s mission to demystify the concept of interoperability, informing stakeholders that it simply represents a secure, controlled, interchange of data. The term can be intimidating, but Mote sees it as a supremely foundational issue. “In K-12 education,” Mote insists, “being able to get our data out, being able to own our data, students being able to see their data, teachers be able to use data in a private and secure way, this is what will allow us to create learning experiences that actually meet the changing demands of work and the changing demands of what education needs to look like. If we solve this, we unlock a huge amount of potential for students having visibility of their data. How great is it when a student knows exactly how they're doing, and they're getting that real time feedback? I know for a fact that when kids know what they need to do in order to grow, they do it.”
Project Unicorn was just launched in May of last year, and since that time, approximately 300 districts have signed the pledge and are now active members of the community, communicating with one another, receiving newsletters, asking for tools. “In some cases,” says Mote, “you have whole districts who have put a stake into the ground and said, ‘We're putting you on notice that, in a year from now, we won't be able to procure your tool unless you can show us how you get data out or how you're building to standards.’ And the power of unicorn is really the power of bringing together this voice across the country that signals to vendors that not only is something that is of the utmost importance to schools, and if their products are not interoperable, there is a real cost there for school districts, and that is no longer acceptable.”