On the Road to Personalized Learning, One District Prioritizes Data Interoperability
Rhode Island’s largest district leads the state by signing the Project Unicorn pledge supporting standard for the secure and controlled exchange of data between applications.
By Sri Ravipati
When it comes to implementing blended and personalized learning, Rhode Island has been recognized as a national leader over the last few years. Recently, state educational leaders committed to being the first to scale personalized learning statewide. However, according to Cameron Berube, executive director of curriculum instruction for Providence Public Schools (PPS), districts have not placed enough emphasis on data interoperability: the secure and controlled exchange of data between applications.
With nearly 1,900 teaching and learning staff and 25,000 students across 42 schools, PPS educates a quarter of Rhode Island’s entire elementary and secondary population. Berube joined the design team responsible for implementing personalized learning throughout the public school system back in 2015. She oversees all curriculum and instructional practice areas, and works alongside the superintendent and chief academic officer.
“What I’ve observed in my role is that we [as a district] are moving toward school-based decision-making with products in the classroom to support teachers in becoming standards-based teachers,” she said. “That obviously increases the number of ed tech products we’re using.”
PPS currently utilizes more than 40 different learning tools and services. Following a challenging personalized learning pilot last school year, Berube has been a part of the district’s team advocating for increased data interoperability governance in order to form more strategic partnerships with ed tech vendors.
Paving the Way for Bidirectional Data
For the 2016–2017 school year, the district piloted Cortex, a personalized learning tool that maps learning progressions in mathematics from one grade level to the next. With a compressed timeline and shorthanded technical staff, they ran into security and privacy problems with the two-way application programming interface, which wasn’t compliant with the district’s existing student information system.
“We saw that data was not flowing in a bidirectional manner in our district,” Berube said.
PPS has since joined a national interoperability initiative unfolding in K–12 education, led by Project Unicorn. The Brooklyn-based nonprofit offers an interoperability pledge and resources that help districts to clearly define their expectations about how they receive data from ed tech products and services. Signatories pledge to:
1) Help students and families transition to connected classrooms;
2) Advocate for data interoperability to empower teachers, students, and families;
3) Accelerate progress toward data interoperability for all classrooms; and
4) Provide access to quality, data-standard-aligned digital content.
Since the pledge launched last spring, more than 200 school districts representing the interests of 2 million students have signed on. Project Unicorn, which doesn’t endorse any particular set of standards, asserts that interoperability at its core helps to facilitate student-centered, data-driven learning experiences by ensuring the seamless exchange of data between applications.
“Signing the pledge allows us as a district to push and say, ‘This is our data, and if you contract and continue with us as a vendor, we want that data back,’” Berube said. “Because we need to be looking at a full picture of each child in the district, and our students, parents, and teachers need to be able to look across multiple data points and see a larger portfolio of the whole child.”
As the district brings on other ed tech tools, Berube will maintain a focus on data interoperability, one that she hopes will set the tone for her colleagues around the state. “Since PPS represents 25 percent of the state, I think it’s important as a large district to signal interoperability. Because what will happen in Rhode Island is, once Providence moves in a certain direction, the rest of the state will follow.”
Sri Ravipati is a freelance writer based in Irvine, CA.