Start-Up Companies Tell White House Tech Chief of Struggles With Colleges

Philadelphia—Start-up technology companies have some gripes about higher education. One is that universities routinely make it hard for the public to access basic data, like course catalogs and book prices at the campus bookstore. Another is that when trying to sell services to a college, like a Web service that allows faculty members and students to organize and share their research and online readings, companies can’t find the people who make the purchasing decisions.

Those complaints got a high-level airing Thursday at Educause, at a round-table discussion with Aneesh Chopra, the U.S. chief technology officer, who cautioned them that the gathering was not a pity party and “we are here to get things done.” Also listening was James H. Shelton III, the assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement at the Department of Education. University CIO’s were also in the circle, as well as officials from giant software companies, such as SunGard Higher Education, that provide the technology backbones for most universities.

Everyone seemed to want to provide tools for student success, including putting more information from education records in students’ own hands, and the participants pointed lots of fingers at institutions that were getting in the way. Officials from SunGard spoke of an “educational positioning system,” like a GPS, in which students would hold their own course records, sometimes from multiple colleges, and be able to tell what courses they needed to take to reach a particular goal. “Why isn’t that happening?” Mr. Chopra asked. Institutions hold their own data and don’t share, a SunGard official responded. College CIO’s shot back that it was SunGard’s own systems that made it hard to exchange data. The tone was not antagonistic, but it was clear that opinions differed.

Younger companies took shots at the larger higher-education ecosystem. Michael Staton, CEO of Inigral, whose Schools app—run through Facebook—lets colleges build a social network among newly-admitted students, said, “I spent two years crawling college Web sites to get basic course-catalog information, and the sites made it incredible difficult.”

Mr. Staton is one of the driving forces behind Startup Alley, an area in the giant Educause exhibit hall where small and lightly-financed companies can try to attract attention. Many people working for those companies echoed his complaint about colleges. David Adewumi started OneSchool with the idea of offering a mobile app that would provide students with course information, professor contacts, and campus news. The company also wanted to give students information about textbooks so they could shop for the best price. But that information proved incredibly difficult to extract.

Victor Karkar, CEO of Scrible, an online reading and research-organizer service, said he found that university purchasing procedures for a service like his were so tangled and widely distributed that he had trouble finding those responsible for evaluating his product and saying “yes” or “no.”

At the round table, Mr. Chopra pointed out analogies to health care. Doctors and hospitals often maintain different records on the same patient and don’t share them with each other or the patient. “But all of their different systems can at least produce a simple text file,” he said. “That’s inter-operable.” In fact, the Veterans Administration created a blue button on its Web pages that let patients download those amalgamated records, he said.

“I promise you we can do a blue button in education,” he said. “Which university will be part of a coalition of the willing to make this happen?” A technology official from Oakland University raised her hand, followed by officials from Georgetown University and Montgomery College. “Great!” said Mr. Chopra. “Can we get an e-mail listserv going in the next 30 days? Then let’s launch in 90 days.”

As for course catalogs and bookstore data,  college officials said they were hindered by the formats of their enterprise software provided by companies like SunGard and Oracle. Mr. Shelton demurred. “You all have a lot of collective buying power,” he said. “Make it clear what standards you want.”

The meeting broke up, and the two federal official headed for Startup Alley to meet more education entrepreneurs. Later in the day, Mr. Chopra tweeted (@aneeshchopra on Twitter) that “Jim Shelton and I left Educause with 3 big ideas.” One was a blue button for student transcripts; the second was to have start-ups ask universities for proposals on ways to “liberate” student data; the third was for his office to release a memo to universities providing guidance on open-data requirements.

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