Over the next few months, a handful of states will take early steps to try to solve a problem that’s become a by-product of the digital age: navigating the flood of student data.

Right now, all sorts of student data are being kept in everything from testing programs and instructional software to grade books and learning management systems. But the data are often trapped in the program and not easily extracted or combined with other data on the same student, creating the educational equivalent of the Hotel California: data can check in any time it likes, but it can never leave. Or be used effectively by teachers.

So a new initiative, supported by state education leaders and funded by prominent foundations, plans to provide a place in the cloud for each state to store all data for every student, using “free” open source software. And, in the process, student achievement information will be connected to instructional apps and web resources. That is, as long as the effort can address concerns about technology, privacy, and whether enough education companies will want to build products for a system that could undermine parts of their own businesses.

In a nutshell, this describes the complicated Shared Learning Infrastructure, being built by the near-namesake Shared Learning Collaborative.

The SLI has had low visibility so far. Started in 2011, encouraged by the Council of Chief State School Officers (the state superintendents of public instruction group that was one of the driving forces behind the Common Core State Standards), and funded by the Carnegie Corporation and Gates Foundation, the SLC has signed on nine states with the promise of creating a less expensive, more connected way to store student data with the potential to make student learning more personal.


Perhaps the best way to understand the SLI initiative – this nuts-and-bolts, multi-state, grand-vision education technology project that just went into its pilot alpha release – is to visualize plumbing. Think of twin buckets in the cloud:

1. The main part of the Shared Learning Infrastructure is a huge, carefully structured bucket: the data store/warehouse, which holds, well, a bucket-load of student data across grades and subjects, such as individual student names, demographic information, discipline history, grades, test results, teachers, attendance, graduation requirements, even detail of standards mastered.

This is all data that schools already have, but it’s not necessarily stored all in the same place, in the same way (think of the historic tech disconnect of Beta vs. VHS videotape formats), or even synched and easily available when it’s needed. SLI is designed to serve all these needs and be based on technology that will be open source, free for states and districts to use, modify and share — all appealing to administrators.

2. A second, companion bucket inside SLI is information about instructional content and materials. But it doesn’t hold the instructional resources themselves. This bucket provides pointers to the resources everywhere on the web, leveraging tagging and indexes of the Learning Resource Metadata Initiative and U.S. Department of Education Learning Registry. And these resources, through the pointers, are aligned to the new Common Core standards. That alignment provides a connection between the instructional materials and the student test data in the first, big bucket.

3. The third part isn’t another bucket. It’s spigots and faucets that stick out of the buckets – the APIs, or Application Programming Interfaces. APIs are simply a way for school administration, instructional and assessment software outside of the bucket to receive a flow of information from inside the bucket and pour its own back in. This is what the school, teachers and students primarily work with: the software that works with the SLI, connected by the APIs.

The hope is that schools and students will be able to benefit when these pieces are connected. If a student changes schools, either by moving from one grade to another or simply moving, that student’s data would follow her in a consistent format (assuming the new school is also in a state that uses the SLI). Then, it’s theoretically easier to understand a student’s — or even an entire student group’s — performance over time throughout their educational career, because all of that granular data, regardless of grade, is in one bucket.

Teachers and students could also benefit through easier-to-personalize instruction – a holy grail of education technology. Since the bucket of student data is explicitly tied to the Common Core standards, and the second bucket of content in the SLI is also tied to the same Common Core, connecting the two could create a clearer path to what needs to be learned based on what a student has shown he or she (or a group of students with similar learning patterns) does, or doesn’t, understand. As Brandt Redd, senior technology officer for education programs at the Gates Foundation, noted in a presentation at an education industry conference, SLI is part of the cycle, “How did I do? What don’t I know? How do I learn this? … That data isn’t getting back to the teachers and students.”

For their part, the pilot districts in the initial states see practical appeal in having one place to store and pull data rather than try to extract it from multiple administration, instructional and testing programs, all of which may not play nicely together. Tom Stella, assistant superintendent of Everett Public Schools in Massachusetts, summed up his district’s perspective at a Software and Information Industry Association SLC workshop this spring in San Francisco: “The fewer places I have to go to get assessment data,” the better.


But there are still a number of issues that remain before the spigots can be turned on. One of the biggest, of course, is that the technology all works, which is the point of a new developer’s Sandbox that lets companies test applications.

A second is the privacy and security of student data. On its website, the SLI prominently addresses this concern by stating that states, districts and schools “retain ownership and control of their data,” any existing privacy and security policies will continue, and it’ll be the districts — not the SLC — that will determine which apps get data access.” The SLC adds that it’s building the technology so schools using it can be in compliance with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).

A third is how many education companies will build products that connect to the SLI and take advantage of its features.

This last piece isn’t a small detail. It’s pretty clear that the SLI could easily replace a good part of the data back end of a number of products, including student information systems. (One SLC official estimated, very cautiously, that 10-20% of such products are related to storing data.) Having ready-built student data storage could also make it easier for some companies to compete with those who already offer their own proprietary “personalized” products that they’ve engineered independently, and cause those companies to lose a competitive leg up.

With the education industry, SLC is using both the carrot and the stick. The carrot is the official stance.

“Students aren’t going to have a great educational experience (simply) because you solved the data problem again,” said Gates’ Sharren Bates at the Software and Information Industry Association’s Ed Tech Industry Summit this spring.

Instead, she urged, let the SLC solve the data storage problem one more time, and let the industry focus on the tools that use it. Other advantages being touted to the industry are that early-stage and established companies will no longer have to figure out how to integrate their software with data software used by each district and state – as long as the software works with the SLI’s APIs, it will work.

The stick appears to be coming from the pilot states and districts themselves. At the same San Francisco workshop, at least one of three state and district representatives implied they wouldn’t even look at a product that didn’t work with the SLI once they start using it. But the promise for companies is based on the assumption that enough states and districts beyond the pilot phase will adopt it, creating a critical mass of potential customers to make education technology developers want to pay attention.

A myriad of other issues include how software that interacts with the SLI will be approved (both as a technical and policy matter) and who will approve it, the computing power and bandwidth required of schools, and – key – who will pay to maintain the Infrastructure and do new SLI development after it’s launched and foundation financial support ends.

The SLC has made it clear it’s aware of these issues and appears to be working in a similarly low-key-yet-persistent way to address them. In the meantime, its SLI has gone into alpha release as of late June and plans a final release in December 2012 (assuming the Mayans don’t intrude). Committed to take part in the pilot are at least one school district in each of Massachusetts, New York, Illinois, North Carolina and Colorado, to be followed by Louisiana, Georgia, Delaware and Kentucky.

It’ll likely be some time in 2013 before we find out if the SLI will fully complete that complicated waterworks – or if it will become a fancy set of publicly owned buckets, attractive and exciting in design, but with spigots that remain closed because no one has constructed pipes to accept and renew the flow of data.

Frank Catalano is a consultant, author and veteran analyst of digital education and consumer technologies. He tweets @FrankCatalano, consults as Intrinsic Strategy, and writes the regular Practical Nerd column for GeekWire.

How Will Student Data Be Used? 9 July,2012Frank Catalano

  • Hi Frank-

    I can’t disagree that this is, ideally, what is needed. But my head spins thinking about the architecture required to handle the metatagging alone!  It hard for me to imagine this being built and actually working any time in the near or middle-term.  A little too pie-in-the-sky for me.  But don’t get me wrong, the idea is great!

    • Karen, as you might expect, the proof will be in the product. Even in what I described here, I wasn’t able to get into all the nuance and details of what the SLC plans to do, what its partners are likely to do, and what related and integral efforts (such as the Learning Resource Metadata Initiative and Learning Registry for tagging and content indices, respectively) are already doing. 

      There are a lot of moving parts. I think SLC is now in a critical pilot phase with the districts in the five initial states, and with third-party developers playing in its sandbox, to see how it all works together so far.

      • Grandma

        CCSS, SLC, SLI, LRMI, CEDS, Learning Registry, US ED & Gates. Hardly a care about the students. Either you know how bad this is, Frank, & pretending it’s good, or you have NO Idea how bad this is. Either way — none of this is good for children. Good for software manufactures, NGA, CCSSO. 

        If parents knew what was happening — it would stop. 

        Shame on the states for selling their children’s privacy. Parents trust schools, administrators, and lawmakers with doing the best for their children.

        The parents & students are being taken advantage of & if it’s not obvious, states need to do some soul searching. 

        • No pretending either way: I’m explaining what SLI is and hopes to do, challenges and all. In a manner, I hope, parents can understand.

          It’s hard to see how anyone could conclude, based on the analysis here, that this is generally “good for software manufacturers”. Many software manufacturers are wary, in that they’re not entirely certain how this will affect them.

          And SLC has stated “children’s privacy” is still in the hands of schools and administrators if they use SLI software.

          • I have to admit that there’s a legitimate conversation to be had around the issue of privacy. While, on the one hand, states and districts will have the last word about students’ privacy, there is, on the other hand, a tendency to continue a trajectory once the path’s been laid. I think SLI could be a good thing for those of us who work in schools. I also would like to see a debate about the issue of student privacy. Frank, do you know of privacy advocates who might also take a moderate stance on these sorts of issues in education?

          • Michael, I know there are a lot of organizations working on privacy issues surrounding student (and all sorts of other) data, but I don’t keep track of them closely. SLC has told me, as has one such org, that they’ve been in touch on some of the SLI issues.

          • Linda174

            There you said it….many software manufactures are way…how this will affect THEM…..I thought this was about the kids and learning…I thought this was the civil right$ i$$ue of our time.

            They can’t even fake it….the next American debacle will be the eduvultures all fighting for the money meant for the children.

          • It will affect everyone. Software manufacturers are just one group that will be affected, including teachers, administrators, students, parents and the entire entire education community My response was based on a comment that reached a conclusion about software manufacturers that wasn’t supported by the analysis. Others may disagree.

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  • Myrinda

    sorry, but that is creepy and big brother like, imo. Anything can be hacked, for one…and I do NOT like the idea of some “permanent record” following my child, especially when poor performance at the elementary level doesn’t always result in poor performance later. Not to mention I’m not on board with the common core junk anyway. I seriously doubt this will result in personalized education, more like more ‘It works for MOST kids, there must be something WRONG with yours”. These are some of the reasons we homeschool already…guess it’s time to start opting out of the standard testing as well 🙁

    • Gathering data and coalescing it always has a potential upside and downside. I see parallels with this effort in education and the efforts in health care to gather all of a patient’s medical records and history in one place. The upside is the individual (not the institution in which it was created) is now the center of the data, with the portability and convenience that implies. The downside, possibly, is who controls visibility into that data.

      In the case of medical records, I want all my information in one place so my health care providers know my history and how best to treat me in light of that. At the same time, I want to control release of identifiable data to health insurance companies (those which did not/are not paying for my care) and pharmaceutical firms.

      I see a similar situation with education records. There are potential benefits having a skilled education practitioner being able to see everything about my, or my son’s, education history. There are also downsides if it’s unknowingly released to third parties. Also, in anonymous aggregate, if there’s a trend that my education history indicates is similar to others in order to help me learn, I’d be very interested in that. 

      The SLC has made it very clear, on its website, in public meetings, and to me, that the states, districts and schools which now control the data will continue to control the data. But it’s at that level that privacy and security concerns should continue to be raised.

      • Lowie94

        From the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) amendment process, December 2011: “We decline to adopt the suggestion that schools be required to notify parents and eligible students when Personally Identifiable Information (PII) from education records is redisclosed to an outside entity, and to provide parents and eligible students with an opportunity to opt out of the disclosure.”


      • Linda174

        The teachers are making it very clear to you and SLC and inbloom and Gates and Rupert and Klein and any new names they come up with that we don’t need this educrap. We see, hear and live with out kids daily. We know them as human beings who think, create, wonder, question, dream. This is what the money bags and the billionaire boys don’t get: teaching is a human experience based upon developing and maintaining relationships. We are not making widgets. Kids are not data for sale. Teachers are not robots and testing is not teaching.

        Frank, get this message to them. We don’t want their digital educrap. They don’t care about the poor child stuck in a public school. They care about their piece of the pie. We don’t want or need SLC, inbloom or however else they plan to rebrand over and over again.

        • It’s not really up to meet to get anyone’s message to inBloom (which is the new name for the SLC) as I don’t work for or represent them. But they’re a not-for-profit that has been actively reaching out to teachers for input and there are many ways to contact them on their website. Though I might suggest when people do so, starting out by calling any proposed tool “educrap” is not likely a great way to get a receptive hearing. Being specific – to them – about concerns is.

          • Bill Farley

            Frank, the above said, you should disclose that you were a marketing exec at Pearson though …


          • That’s true (2004-2008), and not a secret as it’s on both my LinkedIn profile and personal website. (My editor at MindShift has a complete list of all my employers and clients going back 20 years.) At the time this was written in July 2012, Pearson was not involved in SLC. And may still not be.

          • Bill Farley

            Thanks for the disclosure.

          • Schoolnet/Pearson is one of three companies that will get contracts to create data dashboards directly from the inBloom cloud in NYS. http://www.oms.nysed.gov/press/SEDAwardsEDPContracts.html

          • Good to know. It’s worth noting the date on that news release is August 13, 2012, more than a month after this analysis of SLC was published, and the work cited is directly for the State of New York (and not for SLC, a.k.a. inBloom). I don’t think Pearson has signed on as a direct “provider” partner with inBloom, though many other education companies have in the past year (https://inbloom.org/providers).

  • Mary

    How can we afford this when we can’t afford schools?  Who will make a buck out it…

    • InBloom states this will save schools $5-10 per student per year over data systems schools currently use. But that’s their estimate, not mine.

  • Mary

    Another excellent reason for parents to opt their kids out!

  • Any discussion about how learning resources will be graded, as it were? And anything about whether or how teacher quality will be measured or how these resources will be tied to those who use them?

    • I didn’t have the opportunity to dig into how teacher information may be stored or used. There may be more about that on the SLC site (www.slcedu.org).  

      On the learning resources, it’s my understanding that SLC will rely a lot on the digital resource tagging and usage information that is in the Learning Registry, a project that was launched in beta last November by the U.S. Department of Education, and potentially from other sources. I recall the Learning Registry will include “paradata” with the resources that could include how teachers currently use the resources. It may be worth visiting the Learning Registry site (www.learningregistry.org) to find out more. 

      With everything seemingly in either alpha or beta, I suspect changes are likely.

  • Seems unwieldy and difficult to maintain, especially given the bloody nature of the SIS marketplace which is proprietary by design. How long does the Gates foundation plan on funding maintenance for SLC? If it manages to grow and become a de facto standard, will the burden then shift to taxpayers?

    I’d also be very interested to hear what the ACLU might have to say about the prospect of housing all student data on a single, national database. State-level implementations have faced strong opposition in the past:  http://bit.ly/R52Elf and http://bit.ly/OkAmyk

    Would student data be purged, or at least rendered anonymous after graduation, or would there be a risk of districts using the system to perform background checks on job applicants?

    What degree of preemptive behavior analysis (a la Minorty Report) could the system be capable of?

    Is there a wall that separates public education from “The Government”, or is it safe to assume that the database would be accessible by the FBI?

    IMO, vendor-supplied APIs for integration and EDI for record exchange are the proven solution. After all, we don’t see big business using a common cloud-based service for their B2B transactions, do we?

    • I think I can address two of the questions. As I understand it, there won’t be a single “national database.” While each state will use the same open source software that’s being developed, each will have its own “instance” of the SLI system and the data won’t be shared across instances. Essentially, it’s like installing Microsoft Word (or any program) on multiple computers: the software is the same, but the documents each computer can access are different. 

      Having a common data format would, I suspect, make it easier to transfer an individual student’s data from one participating state to another, if the student moves and if all the parties involved agree. That’s an important policy issue.

      As to paying for it, I understand the intent is to have the states themselves fund ongoing maintenance of the software and storage of the data, much as they would with any software product. I don’t know specifics, nor do I know if specifics have even been worked out.

  • Dave

    I’m going to weigh in here as an actual teacher working in the trenches. This software you’re talking about? Keep it. Please. Don’t send it to New York State. Teachers DON”T WANT IT. Poll us (fairly) and you will see this is true. We don’t NEED it. We talk to our students everyday. We observe them work. We meet with their parents. We ask them questions. We put work in front of the students to challenge them everyday, based on the standards du jour at the time, and we inspire them the best we can to rise to the challenge. Some students raise their game; others fall flat on their face. No matter how much data is stored on some “cloud,” it won’t change the fact that students and teachers alike make innumerable, immeasurable decisions day in and day out–and data, stored someplace else, is basically seen by teachers as next to useless. Sound obtuse? Maybe, but it’s true. What then, you may be wondering, does a teacher do to assess a student’s learning? (Remember, that’s all you and I are talking about here… figuring out what a student has learned and still needs to learn). Easy: We look, we listen, we give regular quizzes and tests to see what a child has retained (our tests, mind you, not some stupid state exam that helps Pearson make money and tries to catch “bad” teachers), we confer with children, we ask them what will interest them, what will make them tick and want to keep working hard at school. We focus on community and collaboration (at least when test prep doesn’t get in our way), and we educators prefer projects over multiple choice worksheets (I know, I know, we’re as childish as the children we teach). I am probably making no sense to you. But I’ll go back to my original point: keep your clouds and all your digital crap and start by, I don’t know, making sure the computers in the classroom work in the first place? That classrooms don’t have 40 kids packed in them like sardines, that buildings aren’t crumbling and molding, that dwindiling resources go to students and not tech companies. I’ve been told I’m an idealist: of course I am. I’m a teacher. But who would you want to have teaching your child?

  • CitizensArrested

    My big picture long term view is that this is nothing more than a part of the death by data debacle that those with no understanding of education envision as a solution for a mythical problem they have no understanding of in the first place. In the area of human endeavor where failure is not an option if you wish to avoid disastrous consequences, war, training the soldiers who actually fight the wars is guided by human experience and historical knowledge and not based on mere data. In the most competitive sector of education, elite private schools, there is no interest in wasting time and resources on cumbersome and decreasingly accurate data systems when a few people can do the various assessments needed faster and better by several orders of magnitude. At it’s most fundamental level, a reliance on data rather than on human expertise and institutional knowledge driven by a desire to continually improve and excel represents a failure of trust in what it means to be human. In the military, those in command completely understand the training, experience and support those doing the work on the front lines need to complete their missions. In education, the abject lack of this understanding by those making policy has never been more acute. Since those making policy place no value on that knowledge they substitute data for expertise as a way of having control.

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