Last year toward the end of the semester, I was helping a student in an after-school homework club and asked him how he was doing in his classes. Alejandro responded that he was receiving a B in history and a C in math, but that he really didn’t have even a good guess in his four other classes.
I gave him an incredulous glance, and asked him to show me his district gradebook and his LMS (learning management system) account. Alejandro opened up his Chromebook, navigated to both his LMS and his district gradebook accounts, and sure enough, we could see all his assignments and even teacher feedback, but the final grade function was turned off and grades from the LMS did not transfer seamlessly to the district gradebook.
When I dug deeper, it appeared that the history and math teachers had taken the extra step of double entering scores both in the LMS and in the district gradebook, a task that is onerous when teachers have over 170 students.
So, why is Alejandro’s experience of not being able to see exactly how he's doing important? Because not knowing how you’re doing in a class makes it difficult to know how to improve, and the lack of interoperability of edtech systems within some school districts can make this challenging.
It’s easy to blame teachers for not double entering all of their grades, but that extra workload is untenable given the responsibilities that teachers face daily. There just isn’t enough time in the day!
Interoperability affects teacher efficiency and student learning
Technology, when integrated seamlessly, should make teaching and learning easier to access for both teachers and students, and when it doesn’t, then everyone suffers. When different learning and gradebook systems can communicate with one another, it reduces the amount of time and effort that educators need to spend on administrative tasks, and this can free up more time for educators to focus on student learning, which can help improve student outcomes.
There is no easy answer to resolving interoperability challenges that exist, as they often require time, effort and money to fix. The best course of action is to address interoperability of district systems before software is purchased. As Ben Franklin noted over 250 years ago, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Another key interoperability issue relates to how students experience learning when they are required to use multiple learning websites and platforms.
Sometimes, educators find a great website that requires students to create a user account. That might seem like a simple task. But having students click on a user agreement and provide personal information can be problematic at best and illegal at worst.
The problem, though, is the hurdle students encounter from creating an increasing number of logins and passwords in order to learn. Perhaps one extra username and password isn’t overly burdensome, but multiply that by the number of teachers each student has, and it can quickly become overwhelming and make learning difficult at best.
A district vetting process can solve interoperability issues
The good news is that increasingly districts are adopting a vetting process for edtech applications that includes a consideration for rostering. This means that new apps and sites are accepted into the learning environment only if they can be accessed seamlessly when the student logs on using their student account. This single sign on approach makes navigating between tools easy, and allows students to focus on learning rather than access.
Yes, many students can navigate multiple passwords, but creating barriers for our most vulnerable students who have already experienced frustrations with technology is indefensible. Access challenges should not be another thing that pushes students away from learning, collaboration, creation and everything else that a thoughtfully implemented set of edtech tools can offer.
As for Alejandro, the student in the after school homework club, we were able to contact his teachers to ask for clarification on how he was doing in class and where he needed to focus.
But Alejandro might be the exception to the rule. He was lucky enough to find out about the after-school homework help in the library, he had the motivation to come after a long day, he had the free time after school on this day to devote to this, and he had the wherewithal to figure out transportation home.
Many students, however, aren’t as lucky and are stymied by the lack of interoperability that exists in schools. Improving interoperability allows for more transparency and equitable access for students.
In the end, addressing these challenges reduces administrative burdens on educators, increases transparency, improves collaboration and ensures that all students have access to the same resources and opportunities.
Matt Hiefield, MAT, has 25 years of experience teaching high school social studies in the Beaverton (Oregon) School District and has also served as a teacher on special assignment for curriculum adoption, technology integration and digital equity initiatives. He is currently working for the Oregon Department of Education as a digital instructional materials coordinator, helping districts evaluate digital instructional material platforms.