Improving K-12 education with shared data and open APIs

Education startup InBloom offers a common data store and APIs any app can use

Recently, I wrote about Code for America, which aims to solve the data and application side of your local government. The K-12 education answer to Code for America is called InBloom (to which my company provides professional services). InBloom started as the Shared Learning Collaborative, with the idea of making student data more easily accessible to educators and creating a marketplace of applications that use the data. The collaborative received support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Carnegie Corporation of New York.

There is amazing software available these days, probably nowhere more cutting-edge than in the realm of entertainment. So why don't we have amazing educational software available throughout our school districts? There have been some good advances, such as Khan Academy. But why isn't there better software that ties together curriculum, teachers, students, grades, and learning tools?

The problem of data silos

Companies typically follow the money, which requires a sufficiently large market. In a sense the public school system in the United States does form a large market, but in reality it is thousands of markets. With no data standards, high integration costs, and proprietary software that doesn't interoperate, school districts have become data silos. This all means that school systems require highly customized applications.

"I've seen the risk time and time again where the interoperability issues obstruct [progress]," says Sharren Bates, chief product officer at InBloom. She wants a "K-12 experience where each student gets exactly the support they need to succeed."

When I first began to understand what InBloom could do to remedy the situation, I immediately thought of the novel "Ender's Game" by Orson Scott Card -- and no, I'm not referring to learning how to fight aliens. Although it's a small part of the story, I found a compelling aspect of "Ender's Game" to be the computer system that provides individualized training at the Battle School. I don't know how this will be portrayed in the upcoming movie, but in the book it was highly intriguing.

How InBloom addresses the data-silo problem

InBloom lets the school districts maintain control of their data while giving teachers, software developers, and parents the tools to use that data.

Instead of taking a one-size-fits-all approach, InBloom recognizes the importance of the states and school districts maintaining control over their own data. Says Bates, "School districts alone have the responsibility to discover their needs. [These are] local decisions: what to store, why to store, what apps to use, what to prioritize, etc. Think about this from district, parent, or teacher perspectives: How are the students doing and how can we help them succeed, based on the local priority, based around early literacy or attendance or math or mobility? What data you store and why comes back to why they want to answer that question."

InBloom didn't create yet another education software package, but instead took a more open source approach using competitions to address the data problem itself. The core technology is the InBloom Data Store, which is designed to store in a common format any educational data that a district chooses to use, including educational organizations, courses, students, assessments, enrollments, graduation, calendars, staff, attendance, and learning objectives. And it's all accessible by way of a RESTful CRUD (create, read, update, delete) API.

School districts retain control and authority over all the information in their systems, and InBloom is confident that its technology meets core regulatory requirements. For an application to have access to a school district's data, that district has to whitelist that application, and only users authorized by the district can use the application. OAuth2 is implemented to ensure secure logins, and users have access to data based on their rights as defined by the owner of the data, which is typically the district.

Thus, companies large and small, nonprofit and for-profit, and even individual developers can write software using the information that school districts store in the InBloom Data Store. These applications can then be used (sold to) the school districts that have adopted the Data Store.

In addition, InBloom provides numerous open source examples of applications using the InBloom Data Store, so the development community can take advantage of that existing software as kickoff points for their endeavours. And the InBloom Data Store itself is scheduled to be open-sourced later this year.

A second critical component is the Learning Registry Index. The LRI is the learning tools side, designed to store metadata about learning resources such as videos and online tutorials. It contains the Common Core Standards (CCSS), and once released LRI will let organizations create and share their own standards. It will also have tools to tie learning resources to the standards. Combined with the InBloom Data Store, the LRI provides an opportunity for programmers to develop applications that choose the appropriate learning tool for a particular educational objective based on a student's academic history and past experience with other learning tools.

How you can get involved

InBloom has been working with selected pilot districts in New York, Massachusetts, Colorado, North Carolina, and Illinois, providing tools to transfer/replicate existing data into the InBloom Data Store. The company is seeking participation from additional districts struggling to find data-driven tools.

InBloom provides a lot of materials for developers. You can create a sandbox account for free and begin writing your own applications to run against the InBloom Data Store and/or the upcoming InBloom LRI. There is extensive documentation on the InBloom Data Store, including a comprehensive data model. InBloom has been offering free codeathons as well, which provide a great opportunity to work with both developers and educators and to design and build applications that use the InBloom Data Store.

Individualized learning on the scale portrayed in "Ender's Game" may be more sci-fi than near-term reality, but I believe InBloom's is the first critical step to building personalized learning systems.

This article, "Improving K-12 education with shared data and open APIs ," was originally published at Keep up on the latest developments in application development and read more of Andrew Oliver's Strategic Developer blog at For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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