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Sticker promoting Project Unicorn’s edtech company launch. (GeekWire Photo / Frank Catalano)

The rise of education technology in schools has also expanded one of edtech’s biggest hairballs: exchanging school, teacher and student data across different apps and systems.

Now, an initiative named Project Unicorn has just signed the first edtech companies to its effort to solve that problem.

The national project, run by the Brooklyn-based nonprofit InnovateEDU, began in 2017 by getting 26 school districts to agree to its pledge to improve school data interoperability across software programs. Less than a year later, the number of K-12 school systems has ballooned to more than 400 representing some 3.2 million students, and the first-ever edtech companies are also signing the vendor version of the pledge.

The 34 edtech vendors include well-known names, such as McGraw-Hill Education and Cengage Learning, and not-quite-household-brand startups, such as Clever and Newsela.

Making the case for companies to sign the pledge. (Project Unicorn Infographic)

The slightly different pledges are brief, and simple to the point that some may call simplistic. Districts agree to five points, including data privacy and security, equitable access to technology, and buying educational tools that meet certain interoperability standards within one year of signing the pledge.

Companies commit to four points, such as openly communicating and adhering to privacy policies, prioritizing interoperability in product roadmaps, and adopting some kind of industry data standard.

However, there is no specific data standard that’s required. Project Unicorn’s advocacy is for what it says is a “secure, controlled interchange of data.” Companies just have to adopt a data exchange standard that meets school needs when scored against a “rubric” that Project Unicorn developed.

It’s precisely that flexibility that may help Project Unicorn succeed where earlier efforts, based on a mandated data exchange tool or technique, have stalled. That, plus the real wallet power of a rapidly growing number of school districts which say they’ll give preference to buying from companies whose products are interoperable.

Project Unicorn’s Erin Mote living the brand at the vendor pledge launch. (GeekWire Photo / Frank Catalano)

“In many districts that have signed the pledge, it is your competitive advantage,” said Erin Mote, executive director of InnovateEDU, to companies attending the recent event launching the vendor pledge. Noting how much time teachers spend simply moving student data from one system to another, Mote added, “We need to help them get their Sundays back.”

But equally notable is which companies are not committing to the pledge yet — tech giants Microsoft, Amazon, Google, and Apple, all of which have a presence in the edtech market. (Amazon was in the room at the Project Unicorn launch event in San Diego, but seemed there more to observe and did not participate.)

“We focused on certain large players in categories like traditional publishers, new players, etc.,” said Mote, when asked about the four tech giants. “Getting large vendors to sign on before the launch was a challenge … We are in talks with some of the folks you mention and hope to have them signed off by June,” she said.

Some of the pledge-signing companies listed on Project Unicorn’s website.

Highline Public Schools south of Seattle signed the district pledge last June. Highline Chief Technology Officer Mark Finstrom said one motivation for the 19,000 student district was that it deals with large amounts of data, and previous interoperability efforts didn’t seem focused on improving school operations. “Standards in the past have not always been effective as they have been limited … or built as a compliance project,” he said.

Finstrom also is not surprised that Apple, Google, Amazon and Microsoft haven’t signed on yet. But he implied he wouldn’t mind if they did. “It is important to have large organizations looking out for their customers and not dictating or demanding that operations work in ‘just their way,'” he said.

Portland Public Schools also has signed the pledge and sees benefits if enough edtech products comply. “Districts can then choose the best software for the purpose instead of getting locked into a vendor,” Josh Klein, Portland’s chief information officer, said in a statement at the launch.

“This continued pressure from districts and raising their voice to champion interoperability will be the deciding factor in whether or not Project Unicorn is successful,” Mote said. She said the initiative is seeing continued momentum with a new school system is signing up every 2-3 days.

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