Portable Education Data, One Click Away
on questions of compliance with student-privacy laws.
Michael D. Sessa, executive director of the Postsecondary Electronic Standards Council, which
works with vendors and institutions
to hammer out digital standards for
higher-education data, urges open-data advocates to draw a blueprint
before building the house. Instead
of focusing on mere access to data,
he says, stakeholders need to determine what kind of data they want
and what they’ll be using it for.
“Can we figure out what’s three
steps down the road in this progression?” he asks. “Or do we have to
go through every step every time?”
The heightened interest in open
data is good for higher education,
he says, but start-ups need to do a
better job of proving that students
will benefit from using the companies’ products.
ules and textbook information.
“The question of what’s the power
of open data is just a lot more fundamental than that,” he says.
Even so, he says, there is tremendous promise to be found in partnerships between scrappy, data-focused
enterprises and traditional colleges.
“Institutions that have autonomy
don’t change overnight,” he says.
“So you start with what’s easy, and
then you keep the pressure on to get
to the goal.”
ANNOUNCED in January, the “MyData but- ton” is a joint effort by the U.S Education Department and the White House Office of
Science and Technology Policy. It seeks to give students access to their own learning data by encouraging schools, colleges, and software companies
that store student information to make it available
in portable, machine-readable formats. Students
would go online to click on a button to download
their data, which they could plug into applications
created by third-party developers.
For example, students could download their financial-aid award offers and then use comparison-shopping tools to weigh their options at different
The project is just beginning, and it’s not yet
clear what kinds of data might eventually be included. Here are a few of the companies that are
taking part in the effort:
Educational Testing Service: standardized-test scores, through a partnership with an online
education company called StraighterLine.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: performance data
from the textbook publisher’s platform.
Parchment Inc.: online storage space for education credentials like transcript information.
Pearson Education: learning records and
grade books from its platforms.
wonder whether using
third-party apps might
lead to violations of
In the case of the MyData button being promoted by the Education Department, it’s not clear how
many different types of information
will be made available, although the
data will exist in machine-readable,
open formats. Participants will be
required to specify how the exported data are formatted. Because participants are not required to export
data in an identical format, a department official explains, developers
may have to do more work upfront,
but the information will get into students’ hands more quickly.
At least one company, Fidelis Education, has committed itself to use
the data students can download from
the Veterans Administration’s blue
As an enterprise that helps veterans pursue higher education and
training for civilian careers, Fidelis
plans to use the blue button’s mili-tary-service data in the admissions
process to verify that applicants are
who they claim to be. Gunnar Counselman, a co-founder and chief executive of the company, says having
access to an even more robust set of
data about alumni satisfaction and
employment could provide students
with a personalized way to pick colleges that goes beyond rankings.
He’s not convinced that such data
will be available anytime soon. But
the emergence of start-ups has had a
“Hawthorne effect” on universities,
he says—they’re more open as a result of being observed so intently by
The blue button for health care
was “very useful in that it got the
ball rolling,” Mr. Counselman says.
But he would be disappointed if the
type of education data made available were limited to course sched-
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