Ed-Fi Alliance: Taming the state and local data beasts

You've heard about InBloom. Now the Ed-Fi Alliance is bringing even more big data sensibility to states and districts.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

Last week, I had the pleasure of speaking with Lori Fey, the former director of US Policy Initiatives with the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation. Shortly before, the foundation had announced that it was spinning off its Ed-Fi Alliance initiative into a separate non-profit that Lori would be leading. Ed-Fi, one of the key projects in the Foundation's education portfolio now had a life of its own and for good reason. The data standard and related toolset has now been adopted by states encompassing 39 percent of the nation's teachers and 36 percent of its students.

The Ed-Fi solution is a universal educational data standard and tool suite (unifying data model, data exchange framework, application framework, and sample dashboard source code) that enables vital academic information on K-12 students to be consolidated from the different data systems of school districts while leaving the management and governance of data within those districts and states. Ed-Fi components act as a universal translator of academic data, integrating and organizing information so that educators can start addressing the individual needs of each student from day one, and can measure progress and refine action plans throughout the school year.

I recently covered InBloom, a project designed to provide a framework for the integration of disparate educational data sources that is also laying the groundwork for far easier access to student data for educators and policy makers on the ground. Interestingly, InBloom is actually using Ed-Fi technology as its intake mechanism for a variety of data. For more than a few reasons, education has run several years behind the rest of the technological universe in its adoption of serious data management and analytics tools, even though the education sector arguably has the greatest need for such tools to improve student achievement and educational accountability. These two companies are quickly dragging education kicking and screaming into the 21st century, where big data reigns.

Actually, though, according to Fey, there isn't too much kicking or screaming. Because Ed-Fi includes sample dashboards and a well thought out underlying framework for data integration, rollouts at state and local levels have gone faster than expected and teachers are already gaining access to powerful dashboards built on the technology. The Ed-Fi Alliance is also helping states share the software it has developed for data integration, custom dashboards, etc, around the Ed-Fi framework, making future adoptions easier. For example, if a state has integrated Ed-Fi with an existing Cognos data warehouse, the code will be accessible by other states using Cognos, significantly lowering barriers to adoption.

Fey also noted that some states are using Ed-Fi as a reason to rebuild their existing data stores around the standard. However, because the standard and tools are all XML-based and free to license, such rebuilds have been unnecessary for states and districts happy with their current systems. Publicly accessible technical documentation is extremely robust already, with everything from a complete data handbook to UML diagrams of the "Unifying Data Model" to a sample SQL Server script for creating an empty Ed-Fi database.

The data model itself is also quite complete with structure that accommodates drill-down from macro-level state data to individual student data, inclusive of special education and even extracurricular activities. I'm a data geek at heart, so I get more excited than most folks by XML schemas and data dictionaries, but it's hard not to be excited at the possibility of finally being able to compare apples to apples at the national level while still providing teachers and local administrators with easily accessible student-level data, all through the same framework.

Data management is never a simple thing, especially with the sorts of heterogeneous data sources we tend to accumulate in education. However, at a recent Dell event I had a chance to see Dell's Next Generation Learning Platform in action briefly and talked about the interaction of InBloom with this sort of software. Layering on Ed-Fi's framework for managing and accessing student data from the classroom to the state levels starts bringing us far closer to the vision of analytics in education that many educators and policy advocates have been talking about (but not seeing) for too long.

Author's note: The Ed-Fi Alliance and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation (of which Ed-Fi is a wholly-owned subsidiary) are not affiliated with Dell, although there are clearly some synergies; I referenced the Dell event and their Next-gen Learning Platform as an example of the sorts of ecosystems that can grow around the right approaches to student data. InBloom is also an entirely separate entity from Dell, Ed-Fi, or the MSDF, but, again, InBloom's efforts are clearly related, relevant, and actually leverage Ed-Fi technology for some aspects of data management.

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