“When will all the digital textbook providers get on the same page?” Or when will TEA or Texas legislators crack the whip to get them all on the same page? You’d think that any textbook publisher making so much money off of Texas schools would be willing to reinvest in Texas schools and make life easier for under-paid, over-worked educators cranking out data files. Their collective failure to help school districts overcome the creation of data files–which allow students and teachers to access the expensive digital, online textbooks–means this expensive investment is wasted.

If we can’t get to the video-rich, expertly designed digital textbooks, what’s the point? That’s what is frustrating so many educators–and students, their parents–in schools today.

A no-cost alternative for school districts is working hard to remedy that–Clever.com.

Image Source: http://bit.ly/1jDi4yo

At the TCEA 2015 State Conference, a group of technology directors and instructional technology specialists met to discuss a problem that has them pulling out their hair–digital textbooks and automated account management. And, resolving this problem is a top priority for Texas schools.

Our foci is to support each other, as we join in our districts’ strategic conversations to identify solutions related to digital teaching and learning platforms; preparing RFP for Ed Tech systems; digital learning interoperability, and data exchange standards; systems integration and design to address current K12 educational needs; support of various sorts for 1:1 initiatives; Privacy, Safety and Security issues; data processes and governance in light of new federal and state-level concerns and laws. 

Source: Email, February 8, 2015, Author Anonymized to Protect Identity (leave comment if you want to “out” yourself).

What a great summary of the issues facing school districts. Let’s dig into these a bit more, since the howls of anguish have arisen in many places, from regional to state-wide meetings (e.g. TCEA TEC-SIG meetings).

ADVOCACY ALERT!!   

School district superintendent or CTO? Join other school districts in demanding that Textbook Providers standardize on single sign-on requirements, OR better yet, sign up with Clever.com. Attend the 12:30-3:30pm Texas District Meet-Up on October 30th (Friday) meet-up in Austin, Texas! Meeting will take place at the Courtyard by Marriott, Austin Airport in the Trinity Meeting Room (7809 East Ben White Blvd).

And, fill out the TCEA Survey intended to inform conversations at an SBOE Learning Workshop at the State Capitol on November 17th. 

Source: http://bit.ly/1OLz7uY

BIG PICTURE
This isn’t an issue that has just “popped up.” Like boiled frogs about to expire, technology specialists are trying to create and manage comma-delimited files, XML formats, for different vendors. For example, in one school district with approximately 10,000 students, there are 38 different information systems that have to be integrated.

Note:Read more about this challenge online, Data-Driven Districts Experience Growing Pains.

The multi-faceted problem has even drawn the attention of traditional media, such as the Austin-American Statesman, but no one needs “The News” to make an obvious observation…the benefits of digital textbooks have landed like a pile of bricks on the heads of school districts!

The digital transition gained momentum about four years ago when the state stopped paying for a textbook for every student in every course. School districts statewide were given a pot of money — $1.4 billion for this school year and next — to buy textbooks, forcing them to cut costs. Concurrently, textbook publishers were offering more cost-effective and spruced-up electronic products than ever before. Almost all texts on the state-adopted list this year have a digital option. Several textbook publishers, such as McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, offer cost-effective bundles that include a yearslong subscription to their digital editions along with a class set that often includes 25 printed versions. 

Source: Austin-American Statesman, Wave of Digital Textbooks Hits Area School Districts by Julie Chang.

THE PROBLEM
In spite of all this money for digital textbooks, districts are struggling to create student and teacher accounts for EACH separate textbook publisher they acknowledge. Imagine juggling thousands of student and teacher usernames and passwords for multiple textbook systems…and expecting students in grades 3-12 tracking all those separate usernames and passwords.

Single sign-on (SSO) is a property of access control of multiple related, but independent software systems. With this property a user logs in with a single ID to gain access to a connected system or systems without being prompted for different usernames or passwords, or in some configurations seamlessly sign on at each system. This is typically accomplished using the Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) and stored LDAP databases on servers.[1] A simple version of single sign-on can be achieved over IP networks using cookies but only if the sites share a common DNS parent domain.  

Benefits of using single sign-on include: 1) Reducing password fatigue from different user name and password combinations; 2) Reducing time spent re-entering passwords for the same identity; and 3) Reducing IT costs due to lower number of IT help desk calls about passwords
Source: Wikipedia

Single sign-on is no longer a nice to have, but a necessity now. More importantly, only a few school districts are staffed to accomplish this (after all, to get a systems interface specialist or database administrator can be as high as $85K, at minimum, if not closer to $125K…quite expensive).

View video

ONE SOLUTION: Clever
One possible solution, aside from building capacity in-district by hiring a database administrator who can slice and dice data files and set up automated account management, is to take advantage of 3 year old, Clever. As they say, Clever is a vendor that makes automated account management for all these different systems possible – Clever keeps educational applications rostered and up-to-date. We make using software in schools as easy as ABC.

“Why is Clever of value, especially to school districts that may already have these integrations in place?” I asked.
“Do you want to manage all those point to point integrations or let Clever handle one to many integrations?” With that answer, one immediately realizes the benefits that Clever offers–why waste some dynamic individual’s time slicing and dicing data files for various vendors? Instead, have that person create 5 files and let Clever do the hard work.

Earlier today, I had the chance to chat with a Clever representative and ask a few questions. Here are my notes from that eye-opening conversation:

  1. What does Clever do for schools?
    1. Clever eliminates the need for classroom teachers or technology specialists to maintain electronic rosters in multiple digital textbook systems. It also ensure security and privacy of student information, resulting in nightly or more frequent updates.
    2. Single Sign-On for students, and enables teachers to share links.
    3. Tiered access for district level staff (e.g. Curriculum Dept) and school levels is on the roadmap.
  2. How does my District sign up?
  3. How much does Clever cost school districts?
    1. Clever does NOT charge or cost school districts anything; want to create a free account for your school district? There’s nothing stopping you.
    2. Clever has a single sign-on solution for students to use…when students sign-in to Clever, they get access to every vendor service–some of which are free to school districts–that Clever has an arrangement with.
    3. But how does Clever make money? It signs a contract with a vendor partner (200 partners and counting so far, but not the Big 3 (Pearson, McGraw-Hill and Houghton-Mifflin) yet. Clever charges vendors per school, per month…the rate varies from vendor to vendor.
  4. How does it all work?
    1. How does Clever’s “data ingestion” process–getting data from districts into the vendors–work?
      1. The District is asked to prepare 5 files:
        1. A “teachers” file
        2. A “students” file
        3. A “sections” file
        4. An “enrollments” file
        5. A “schools” file
      2. Nightly (or 3-4 times per day) snapshots of data are transferred via Secure FTP (SFTP) and then made available in Clever’s system.
      3. If problems arise with the data, Clever captures those data warnings and makes them available to you for viewing and/or download as a comma-delimited file (a.k.a. CSV file).
      4. On the Vendor side, Clever has created an API to transfer data securely to the vendor.
    2. Clever works with a long list of student information systems (SISs). For Texans, you’ll want to know about the following:
      1. Yes – eSchool Plus
      2. Yes – Skyward
      3. No – iTCCS
      4. Pending Talks – TxEIS
    3. Once you are sending your 5 data files to Clever in an automated manner, Clever represents that data in a dashboard that allows the District access to ALL of the vendor partners Clever has. For example, if you want all students in the District to get access to Code.org or Khan Academy, you just indicate that via the panel. Or, if you only want math students at a certain campus to get access, then you make those selections and submit the request. The interface appears easy and straightforward.
    4. Once data is syncing on a regular schedule, students have the option to login to ANY of the systems with a single sign-on. Choices that I observed included the following:
      1. GoogleApps for Education – If you are a GoogleApps for Education school district, then students and staff–if they have GoogleApps accounts–can login.
      2. Active Directory Federated Services – If your District uses Active Directory (who doesn’t these days?), then those usernames and passwords can be used (although you’ll have to have an external server, which some IT directors shy away from).
  5. How secure is Clever? Simply, will Clever protect student data?
    1. Does Clever adhere to StudentDataPrinciples.org principles? I asked (find out more about this). Not sure, but we do adhere to the School Data Pledge.
    2. “Clever is very transparent about our commitment to privacy and security. We are their [school districts and smaller vendors] security infrastructure. We have invested in the resources so districts, as well as some of our vendors, don’t have to.” This is a great gift…if you haven’t started down the road of encrypting data transfers to multiple vendors, encrypting data while in transit (SFTP), then you may not fully appreciate the value of this service.
    3. “The last thing we want,” said the Clever representative I spoke with, “is the abuse of student data.” 
    4. What happens if a school district leaves Clever? If a school district leaves Clever, since data uploads/syncs happen frequently, only the historical snapshot remains, and that is removed in 30 days or sooner. 
    5. What happens if a vendor leaves Clever? In those situations, the District is notified and will need to work with vendor on data. Access to the Clever API (which provides data to the vendor partner) is severed.
    6. Would you sign a letter (view example) certifying that you will safeguard school district’s sensitive data? “We are happy to sign anything a District gives us, such as a Memo of Understanding (MOU).”
    7. Find out more here:
      1. clever.com/security
      2. Security White paper

Everything posted on Miguel Guhlin’s blogs/wikis are his personal opinion and do not necessarily represent the views of his employer(s) or its clients. Read Full Disclosure

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