The Cloud Goes to School
by Camille Cole
Integration standards are easing the transition
to cloud-based technologies for K-12
We’re in the midst of a quantum leap in the way students learn and educators teach. Textbooks can
be downloaded on any digital device,curriculum and classroom projects can be accessed online
and mobile devices outpace pen and paper. The more districts adopt digital curriculum, and
therefore the cloud, the easier it should be to personalize education. But using the cloud to power
this new learning model is more difficult than it should be — often because of challenges in making
multiple cloud-based services work together. The problem is that data stored in hosted student
information systems (SISs), learning management systems (LMSs), teaching and learning platforms
(TLPs), and proprietary digital content platforms doesn’t flow easily — or at all — between these
applications. And without grades, assessments and content existing in one cohesive environment,
teachers can’t see the larger picture.
The good news: This challenge is getting easier to solve. Interoperability standards for cloud-based
technology are improving, allowing digital content and technologies to better interact. These
standards let systems and devices exchange, interpret and present data to an end user.Ultimately,
interoperability standards will help educators seamlessly tap into rich curriculum available through
cloud computing and share student data among systems.
Benefits of Curriculum in the Cloud
Movers and shakers in K-12 education are realizing benefits of cloud computing. The list of
innovators is growing every day. What are the drivers behind this transformation? In a 2016 Center
for Digital Education (CDE) survey of nearly 100 K-12 decision-makers, school leaders cited anytime,
anywhere access to curriculum (90%), cost savings (64%) and ease of maintenance (64%).
Districts are implementing learner-centered instruction powered by devices and initiatives suited
for their budgets and instructional goals. One-to-one (1:1) programs utilizing tablets, laptops and
handheld devices provide access to multiple sources of rich learning content and shared
resources 24/7. Digital textbooks provide students with up-to-date, dynamic content and
save significant dollars on regular reinvestments in static paper texts.
Houston Independent School District (HISD), one of the largest school districts in the country serving
more than 200,000 students, is developing digital materials accessible through a single sign-on
within the district’s “HUB.” The districtcontrolled digital ecosystem provides
personalized learning experiences and equitable access to the latest technology, tools and
infrastructure for every student. The district is driving costs down and efficiencies up by fully
engaging students and eliminating the need to purchase and manage content and services.
Chesterfield County Public
Schools in Virginia outfitted middle and high school students with Chromebooks to be used at
school and at home. The focus is now turning to the elementary school level, providing
Chromebooksfor students in grades 2 through 5 and tablets for kindergarten through first grade.
Students will have access to every application on the school portal — appropriate to their grade
level — displayed on individualized student dashboards.
“This closes the digital divide and
levels the playing field,” says Brian
Jones, the district’s executive director
of technology. “And though we
can’t specifically tie student writing
achievements to Chromebooks, last
year we saw double-digit increases
in assessments of student writing at
the middle school level and nothing
else had changed.”
Chesterfield is scaling up cloud computing through the utilization of hosted data storage,
and it reports saving money and manhours, which are redirected toward maintaining a more reliable
Schools in Lawrence, Kansas.,
provide 10,500 students with digital textbooks. “It’s about access to up-todate content and
curriculum that is dynamic, relevant and personalized,” says Dr. Angelique Nedved, assistant
superintendent of teaching and learning for Lawrence Public Schools.
But the proliferation of hosted services increases pressure for integration. The results aren’t pretty
when SISs, LMSs, and curated and Web-based curriculum don’t integrate. Teachers and students
are forced to use multiple log-ins, causing confusion, frustration and wasted time. Teachers
are concerned about reliability. Decision-makers are concerned about security and bandwidth
requirements. All stakeholders are concerned about safety and privacy. When CDE survey
participants were asked what challenges their institutions have experienced using cloud-based
technologies, nearly 50 percent of K-12 leaders said integrating cloud-based services and
content into existing environments and 39 percent said integrating multiple cloud-based services.
District administrators note difficulties in finding resources needed to knit together all of their
systems —they struggle to manage varying agreements with software and systems vendors. “We
need to have freedom to choose the best applications, and in today’s environment, we’re
forced to choose what works with the systems we have,” one CDE survey participant noted.
Integration Standards: A Step Forward
Fortunately, the models for integrating cloud-based systems and content are taking shape.
Standards organizations such as IMS Global Learning Consortium and Ed-Fi Alliance have made
great strides in the past few years to provide frameworks for strategic alignments between
curriculum and information technologies. Their standards are open and free, and anybody can take
advantage of that. IMS Global Learning Consortium, a nonprofit alliance of education institutions
and education technology suppliers, provides a set of standards designed to foster interoperability
among digital applications, platforms and content systems. The Common Cartridge (CC) standard
supports distributed learning environments.
Question & Test Interoperability
(QTI) allows sharing of assessment items and systems. And Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) is a
set of specifications that integrate Webbased instructional tools with LMSs. The Ed-Fi Alliance,
launched with funding from the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, provides a set of standards and
technology components for interoperability, building a secure bridge between disparate data
systems within a school district, including environmental data, enrollment data, longitudinal
interaction data and educational context data. Ed-Fi Alliance teacher dashboards display results of
student interactions with digital tools and mastery over time, along with enrollment and school
scheduling information. The data is available in one place and supports teachers as they develop
and implement personalized learning strategies. However, despite progress on integration
standards, confusion remains. Districts still struggle to customize data and content systems,
and to provide plug-and-play environments for students and teachers. Imagine a world where any
educational entity can share information with any other — no need to shoehorn all the pieces to
make them work reliably and securely; where students and teachers have seamless access to a
shared pool of resources anytime, anywhere via any browser; where students have portal- or hub-
based access to personalized instructional resources; and teachers have instant access to
curriculum content, personalized student information and school data.
In this world of the near future, SIS data, assessment and analytics, and curriculum are all
connected and in one place; they are interoperable and accessible through a single
authenticated sign-on. Vendors are certified under one integration standard, agnostic to on-site
and cloudbased infrastructure. Students and teachers are free to choose tools without
worrying if they’ll talk to each other.
What Does the Future Hold?
A shift in the way we learn and
teach is happening around the
globe, and we are on the brink
of significant change that will
affect the entire paradigm.
Standards aren’t static, say IMS
Global administrators; they are
constantly advancing to move K-12
education toward the next generation
of the digital learning environment.
The new digital classroom will be
customized and individualized.
Teachers will have student analytics
at their fingertips and will be able to
quickly and easily understand what
is working and what is not. Students
will have access to high-quality,
personalized content and will plug
and play into a self-directed learning
setting. IT staff will oversee fully
integrated and secure systems.
While visions for engaged
student learning emerge nationwide,
standards are being ironed out for
the full integration of curriculum
content and school data systems,
forging unprecedented opportunities
for teaching and learning in a
by Camille Cole, The Center for Digital Education's Converge, 2016