The recent announcement that there is now one more technology standard for educational data may seem to be an obscure technical detail with little relation to school and classroom practice. Those who think this might want to think again. The Michael and Susan Dell Foundation (MSDF) announced their Ed-Fi standard that is meant to help states integrate the data they are collecting about education, including student performance information. Ed-Fi joins a handful of other digital information standards that exist for educational and aims to provide integration for different types of systems.
Standards enable markets, systems, and sectors
Technology standards are massively important for the performance of markets and systems. They allow interoperability and information visibility across many different types of organizations and contexts. There are many examples of how standards have developed in other fields. It was technical standards that made the Internet possible; both the TCP/IP standard that carries the data and the HTML standard that made it possible to easily exploit the network for sharing and connecting rich media. Dozens of important standards have come since, but these standards made the explosive growth of the Web and new economy possible. In the area of computers, the de-facto standard of the Intel chip and the Microsoft operating system as the chosen platform for business and much personal computing made it possible for the growth of a vast personal computing industry where application tools could be developed to run on a platform regardless of who sold it and sellers of hardware could provide a platform rich in value from multiple application options.
The nice thing about standards is there are so many to choose from
This quote about standards has been attributed to Grace Hopper, Ken Olsen, and others. The reality is that from a market and industry perspective multiple competing standards as exist in education are an impediment. Imagine if one had to choose between different digital television technologies so that one’s device only worked with some channels? The VHS/BetaMax context from the 1980s is an example of the waste from these competing standards. The good news is that industries tend to adopt a standard over time. While the field of education is still in a primordial competing standard state, efforts by MSFD and others to promote a unified standards framework can be seen as efforts to move the field forward. It is too early to tell if Ed-Fi will be the catalyst for this.
Each of the three major educational standards today came along at about the same time was built for a different purpose. The IMS Global Learning Consortium was founded in 1995 out of the group EDUCAUSE with a focus on media and tools. The Postsecondary Electronic Standards Council (PESC) began in 1997 to meet the needs of university administrators to share information relevant to their systems. The Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF) also began in 1997 as an effort to standardize the information required for K-12 school systems. Over time, each of these standards has evolved with partial overlap with the others and partial interoperability. The Federal government is also in the game with its Common Education Data Standards (CEDS) initiative and a National Education Data Model (NEDM). There are several national stakeholders working to develop CEDS (teachers are not among them) and the relationship between CEDS and the NEDM is not entirely clear.
Will Ed-Fi unify or add to the confusion?
Clearly the existence of multiple competing technology standards in education is an impediment to certain types of progress. Visions of the automatic collection and distribution of educational data that would inform researchers and policy makers is still a ways off. Ed-Fi takes on the ambitious goal of being a unifying or master standard to simplify reporting and put actionable information in the hands of the educators. This is a tall order, but one with great rewards for many in the field. There are many questions – technical and political – that this new standard introduces. After participating in the CEDS effort and providing funds to support it, did MSDF conclude that it would not be up to the task and that the free-market model of an open-standard supported by a foundation that was accessible to vendors was more effective than a process led by the federal government?