Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, speaking at the annual conference of the American Association of School Administrators in New Orleans in February, outlined a software initiative called the Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF). The new software standard is designed to increase compatibility among school software applications, he said.

More than 18 technology companies already have signed on to the software standard, but Apple and key Apple software partners were notably absent from the list.

Gates, who missed a scheduled appearance at last year’s AASA meeting because of the ongoing Justice Department action against alleged monopolistic practices by Microsoft, provided a demonstration of a working model showing how SIF could eventually help school districts make the most of their instructional and administrative software.

School districts typically use a wide range of applications procured from a variety of vendors to control instructional and administrative functions. But because many of these systems don’t communicate well with each other, administrators often find themselves entering the same data over and over again. Incompatible systems also limit the way school districts can compile and analyze data from different applications.

School district technology leaders actively involved in the development of SIF expressed support for a uniform software standard.

“The issue of application interoperability is huge for school districts,” said Jim Meacham, technology director for the Teton County School District in Jackson, Wyo. “[SIF will] allow us to redirect the time and money back to the education of students.”

Gates said the framework would not only tie together a variety of applications; it also would streamline the gathering of data for reports and analyses at the district, state, or federal level.

“So it doesn’t matter that within, say, a state you may have many different grading systems, or many different instructional systems, or many different attendance management systems,” Gates explained. “As long as those systems support this framework, you can gather all the information and see it in one place and do an immediate analysis.”

SIF support

Microsoft is leading the charge for SIF, but several other technology vendors and school technology officials are supporting the initiative.

As of late February, 18 vendors had joined Microsoft in the quest for a K-12 technology standard, including Chancery Software, Computer Curriculum Corp., Follett Software, Jackson Software, Jostens Learning Corp., Learning Tools International, Misty City Software, National Computer Systems, NeTel Educational Systems, Nichols Advanced Technologies, Pentamation Enterprises, PeopleSoft, PhoneMaster (U.S. Telecom), SNAP Systems, SRB International, Trapeze Software, TRO Learning, and Winnebago Software.

This leaves hundreds of vendors unaccounted for, but Manish Sharma, a Microsoft representative, said interest in SIF had picked up in the weeks following Gates’ address to AASA conference attendees.

Though encouraged to participate, vendors that do not commit support to the initiative will still be able to use the specification once it is completed. Sharma says the initial specification will be posted on the SIF web site for use by any K-12 technology vendor.

“Having something like SIF ties into the need for schools to be able to make faster, real-time decisions,” Sharma said.