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IT managers can eliminate edtech challenges

New solutions are available that can make software compatible
  • “There’s no worrying about having the right version or a PC powerful enough.”—Diane Pappas, project management CEO, LAUSD
  • “When an LMS works, it’s like magic.” —Lenny Schad, chief technology information officer, Houston ISD

Every K12 IT manager wants all school software to work together seamlessly, but incompatible programs often prevent the sharing of key data.

From notebooks unable to run the most popular software to communication failures between learning management systems and key learning programs, incompatibility can result in a mess where expensive technology designed to revolutionize instruction refuses to function with other digital tools.

Lately, some breakthroughs have been made: Low-cost Chromebooks will have new access to popular apps; advancements in single sign-on technology makes remembering multiple passwords a thing of the past; and learning management systems (LMS) can now—unlike in years past—accept a variety of data sources and perform key tasks automatically.

The result: Schools have fewer isolated silos of data, and the information—from grades to attendance to finance—becomes more actionable for educators.

App capacity

Chromebooks have taken schools by storm—the platform garnered 58 percent of sales to K12 schools in 2016, according to a recent FutureSource market analysis. It’s been growing every year, up from 50 percent in 2015 and 38 percent in 2014. But Chromebooks have also been a case study in incompatibility: They’re Android-based and Google-centric.

But the latest batch of Chromebooks will run Microsoft’s Android apps. This upgrade is still under development and works only on some existing models, but soon all new Chromebook systems will run Android apps.

For Jim Monti, director of education reform, compliance and IT at Rhode Island’s West Warwick Public Schools, this means access to previously unavailable programs—everything from early learning games to Microsoft’s Office trio of Word, Excel and PowerPoint. “The new software is a big change that makes Chromebooks a compelling choice versus PC or Mac notebooks,” he says.

Of the district’s 4,500 Chromebooks, only 15 use Android apps. That will grow as the district starts using 605 recently purchased inexpensive Chromebook touch-screen systems for a kindergarten rollout. And a 1-to-1 deployment is in the works for every student, teacher and administrator in the West Warwick school district.

“This has been a big deal for us because we can now afford computers for our students without taking money from somewhere else,” Monti says. “The expanded software will let us use these systems to their fullest.”

Eye on the market

LMSs, used mostly in larger districts, are in 58 percent of K12 schools across the nation, according to FutureSource’s market analysis. Analysts forecast the rapidly expanding K12 market to grow from

$197 million

to

$285 million

in 2020—a cumulative annual growth rate of about 10 percent.

Passwords of the past

“Single sign-on”—another evolving advancement in compatibility—allows teachers and students to log into all of the programs and apps they use during the school day without having to remember or enter dozens of passwords.

In the School District of Lee County in Florida, teachers and students simply have to click a launch icon on their laptops to open their learning programs, says Rob Stratton, the coordinator for instructional materials, media and instructional technology.

This ease of access, made possible by a program called ClassLink, has been a huge time-saver—particularly when teachers are learning new programs, Stratton says.

“Our teachers have lived the nightmare,” Stratton says. “That first 15 to 20 minutes of every training is about how do I get into the program, what’s my account? Now, with the just click of a button, they can get right to the heart of what the app does.”

An open standard called “One Roster,” a component of single sign-on, automates the process of setting up accounts for many educational programs. In the past, that tedious task had to be done manually by IT staff.

Another big benefit of single sign-on and One Roster is that concerns over keeping track of dozens of usernames and passwords won’t prevent districts from adding new learning programs. That flexibility inspired Lee County to introduce several new reading programs after administrators there decided literacy scores needed to improve, Stratton adds.

Common cartridge

An LMS should serve as a school’s or district’s central nervous system, collecting data from every class, office and employee. It’s how a modern school builds a robust digital learning environment and automates thousands of essential tasks each day.

But incompatibility issues between an LMS and a spectrum of software can jumble data or send information to the wrong place on the school’s servers. A concept called “Common Cartridge” has been designed to make this data mismatch a thing of the past.

At its essence, Common Cartridge allows an LMS to communicate more easily and accurately, but requires heavy-duty programming. The IMS Global Learning Consortium—an organization spanning K12, higher education and the edtech industry—supplies the specs, tools and code libraries that LMS developers need to write the compatibility software.

Common Cartridge is designed to route all data to the right place. After a schoolwide fourth-grade assessment, for instance, the LMS could compile and score the answers and then send the results to the system’s gradebook. It can also send the results to each school’s principal with lists of those well under or above the mean for potential remediation and enrichment.

It can even forward the entire results to the state education commissioner’s office. In other words, all the district’s heavy data lifting is done by the Common Cartridge software.

‘It’s all automatic’

For years, Orland Park 230 Consolidated District near Chicago used an LMS to create a virtual classroom, but stored data in a separate student information system. The two often spoke different languages, leading to a lot of manual work. For instance, John Connolly, the chief technology officer, started each year by creating files for each class.

“It took a lot of time, but with Common Cartridge, it’s all automatic now,” he says.

The move to a universal LMS world has one more advantage for districts: data portability. The Common Cartridge is “our exit plan, because at any time it allows us to move all our data to a new system without the hassles of converting the data,” Connolly says.

One of the biggest LMS deployments is taking place at Los Angeles USD, the second largest district in the U.S. Because the data is hosted online and the content is delivered in a Web browser, the system isn’t restricted to PCs, Macs or iPads. It’s compatible with just about any connected computer, from a desktop in a lab to a notebook, phone or tablet, says Diane Pappas, the district’s CEO of project management.

“There’s no worrying about having the right version or a PC powerful enough,” Pappas says. “And it has less of an impact on the district’s infrastructure.”

And Houston ISD’s move to a single, Common Cartridge-fueled LMS for its 284 schools has integrated a dozen digital content providers so successfully that 90 percent of the district’s high school classes no longer use printed textbooks, says Lenny Schad, the district’s chief technology information officer. “When an LMS works,” says Schad, “it’s like magic.”


Brian Nadel is an education technology writer based in New York.