Why is software interoperability so hard in education?

The idea that software vendors should make some of their functionality and their user’s data reasonably accessible to other vendors is not some brand new idea in the tech world. Outside of maybe Healthcare, most industries have seen software interoperability become table stakes for most all vendors. But in the education marketplace, it is the hot topic. This seemingly delayed excitement is due in part because it is historically rare that education software vendors provide truly open functionality in their products.

It certainly is great to see the discussion heat up. But as you begin to navigate the vendor landscape you realize it is very easy for software companies to sign a pledge and mention “interoperability” in a tweet but it’s clearly another thing to truly open up their products.

Why is it so hard to be open?

Defensive strategies

The big education software companies have built large market share and are desperate to hold onto it. Instead of focusing on their customer’s needs and building more intuitive products, they are buying up companies and locking down data. Too often we see vendors hide behind “student data security” citing FERPA and COPPA as if there is no safe harbor. No doubt, student data security should be a top priority. But it shouldn’t be an excuse for not allowing a customer’s data to move to another software application if it provides value to that customer and is done in a secure manner. After all, it is the customer’s data.

The myth of the one-stop shop

The other trend is for education software companies to play the one-stop-shop card. Abre provides a lot of functionality on our platform so clearly I’m a fan of the idea of consolidating more functions in one framework. But companies using this strategy do not get a pass on interoperability. If anything, the onus is even larger on them. One of the top benefits of the “all-in-one” strategy is that a great variety of data is potentially available for schools to learn from. Holding data back breaks a social contract. If you want to provide software to schools you have an obligation to do what is in the best interest of students.

Technical naivety

There are a lot of vendors whose products were built upon dated web standards. Many of these tools have not been updated to conform to how web applications are built today to assure security, simplify user accounting and efficient data management. Lastly, it is all too often we get uncertain looks when we ask about a vendor’s API (application program interface). An API is a set of protocols and routines on how an application should interact with other applications. If a modern software vendor doesn’t have a private or public API then we must question their technical prowess or their agenda, pick one (neither are good).

Why are you billing me for my data?

And there is another behavior that is starting to emerge in the education software marketplace. That is where a vendor charges fees to other vendors for accessing their APIs. The argument here is that it takes development time to create and manage an API so they should be compensated for it. There are two reasons why this is wrong:

  • See point above about APIs. Any modern software vendor builds an API as a way to maintain and develop their application for internal purposes. It makes a more efficient dev team to have a robust, usable API. So the argument that they are building it for the express purpose of allowing other vendors access falls flat for me.
  • Interoperability is good for their customers. They are thinking about the value chain all wrong. You build interoperable tools because your customers gain value from having their data accessible in tangential applications.

Charging fees for access to an API is effectively an additional tax on their customers. Vendors like Abre have an underlying cost structure. The price of our software is based on that cost structure. If other vendors make the cost higher, effectively adding a toll on their customer’s data, subsequently our costs have to go up. That is simple supply chain economics.

So what do you do if you’re an EdTech software buyer? . Demand that your vendors make your data available in a safe, secure fashion to you and the ecosystem of software vendors you’re building. Demand that your vendors start acting like Partners. Ask questions before you sign agreements and don’t do business with vendors who can’t or won’t allow you or your other partners access to your data.

But most important, demand that they start putting your needs ahead of their increasing profit margins.

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