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Demystifying Interoperability

Demystifying Interoperability 472

The education industry was humming last week in Philadelphia for the annual International Society for Technology in Education conference. While topics like 1:1 and digital literacy remain as important as ever, we’re also hearing some new buzzwords in the edtech lexicon with growing frequency.  APIs. Metadata. Common Cartridge. Interoperability.

 Interoperability is a central theme for those of us committed to improving student outcomes, though it may seem intangible and invisible outside the IT department. So, what exactly is interoperability, and why is it the next frontier in digital learning? The Aspen Institute’s Task Force on Learning and the Internet defines it as the ability of systems and organizations to work together; in education, the ability for students to move freely across networks to pursue their learning objectives or for educational data to move across different networks.

But why does it matter? With millions of students using sophisticated digital learning resources and curricula from multiple providers on myriad devices and platforms, we need to focus on supporting a learning experience that is streamlined, effective and flexible. Learning takes place everywhere and interoperable systems help create a unified digital environment by underpinning qualities like single-sign-on capability, access to multiple programs via one platform, the ability to work offline and compatibility with many different forms of content.  

For interoperable solutions to be most effective, implementation must be thoughtful and strategic. Here are four key components to address for successful digital learning networks:


Many HMH customers have expressed how vital flexible and integrated solutions are to successful technology use. Teachers need to be able to quickly switch between programs while giving a lecture, or to seamlessly combine open source content – for example, a YouTube video – with standards-aligned lessons. With the variety of tools and platforms on the market, educators and students can become mired in passwords, system requirements or slow connectivity. As content providers, we’ll afford our educators and students a great deal of freedom and choice if we support common industry standards and ensure digital assets engage smoothly with districts’ digital systems. That way, they can focus on learning.   


Flexibility paves the way for increasing accessibility. Equitable access to the internet and to adequate digital devices is paramount to using technology to address achievement gaps. One third of households do not have access to broadband internet access, and a majority of districts express concern that current internet access is not adequate for growing needs, like streaming videos.  As the lines between formal and informal learning continue to blend, and internet-based learning models become the norm, all students need the opportunity to complete assignments and study outside of the classroom. Interoperable solutions help school communities maximize resources by supporting offline and syncing capabilities, creating common parameters for internet usage or managing a student’s identity (preferences, curriculum, planning and communication tools) so that s/he can log-on anywhere, anytime.


Ongoing assessment and data management help make our decisions smarter. When our edtech systems can communicate easily with one another, we can gather better, more representative information. We can examine gains longitudinally, or calculate school credits earned from a variety of learning institutions. Equipped with knowledge, we can design road maps for change and make informed decisions that will increase efficacy.  


Perhaps what it is most exciting about the growing momentum behind edtech interoperability is the potential for creative solutions and industry-wide collaboration and partnership. The stakes are high for improving our learning systems – our children’s futures. There isn’t time for trial and error. Interoperability gives us the freedom to envision solutions outside of the box and be truly innovative.

You’re going to continue to hear a lot more about the power of interoperable solutions in the education space. When we think together as a larger community about leveraging open resources, working with solutions like Common Cartridge or inviting developers and start-ups to experiment with APIs, we are pooling resources, minds and expertise to build creative solutions that stretch beyond a single static platform or brand, and we’re giving everyone a voice in the process.


Claudia is Vice President of HMH Labs, a Boston-based incubation effort created by HMH in 2014 to fuel innovation and growth in education through the ideation, experimentation and rapid prototyping of new technology solutions. Under her leadership, Labs launched an online developer portal and exposed HMH APIs earlier this year, encouraging edtech developers, designers and educators to create learning applications that connect seamlessly with HMH ecosystems. HMH hosted its first Curious Codefest developer contest last month, welcoming nearly 100 developers for two days of innovative solution building and fostering curiosity.

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