The much-heralded Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF), an industry-led initiative to develop an open standard for ensuring that K-12 software applications work together, took a giant step closer to reality when pilot schools in Ballston Spa, N.Y., and Anoka-Hennepin, Minn., became the first in the nation to swap data seamlessly between applications from different vendors using the standard.

Representatives from the pilot schools and the participating companies were on hand at the National School Boards Association’s annual Technology and Learning Conference in Dallas, Nov. 10-13 to share their experiences with attendees. During the conference, SIF’s organizers also put out a call for schools to take part as future pilot sites for further testing and development of the standard.

“We’re looking for schools or districts that are unique and would provide great new examples of interoperability,” said Sue Kamp, acting director of the SIF initiative. She said she is seeking school teams with members representing such operations as curriculum, food service, transportation.

Applications are available on the SIF’s web site (see accompanying link). Interested schools and districts must have local or wide area networks in place to participate.

This isn’t the first time representatives from the industry have tried to solve the interoperability problem, according to Lee Wilson, vice president of marketing for Chancery Software and a member of SIF’s board of directors. But “I truly believe this one will succeed,” he said.

A big reason for such optimism is Microsoft’s leadership in the project, Wilson said. Microsoft initiated SIF earlier this year, but the company recently turned over control of the project to the Software and Information Industry Association (SIIA) to assure its competitors that SIF truly would be an open standard.

“Microsoft deserves an enormous amount of credit for using its presence in the market to get all the vendors together–there are only a few companies that would have the clout to do this,” Wilson said.

Microsoft has “insisted that it be an open project,” said Wilson. “I know there’s a lot of skepticism about Microsoft, but my experience [with the project] has been very good so far,” he added. When Microsoft came out with an initial version of the standard that was somewhat proprietary and representatives from other companies objected, Wilson said, Microsoft listened and came back with a truly open model based on Extensible Markup Language (XML) standards.

The company also has worked hard to get its direct competitors involved, Wilson noted: “I really applaud them for how they’ve handled this project. At times, it’s been like herding cats.”

In November, membership in the SIF working group numbered 48 technology companies—up from 18 when the initiative was first announced in February–and included Microsoft rivals Apple, Oracle, IBM, and Sun Microsystems, among others. As many as 10 additional companies have expressed interest as a result of the conference, Kamp said.

To take part in the SIF initiative, a company must sign a two-year commitment and invest money in the project, Kamp said–so participants are making a significant investment in the project’s success.

Another reason SIF is likely to succeed where other attempts have failed: Given the nature of school computing today, there’s a huge demand for a solution. “Before wide area networks, this wasn’t as much of an issue,” Kamp explained. “Now that it is, schools are really demanding interoperability in the systems they purchase.”

No more redundancies

Count Ballston Spa Central School District as a believer in the project as well. “We’re excited being on the cutting edge as part of the pilot,” said Jayson Crair, the district’s computer information specialist. “Now, for the first time, we can do live, accurate reporting of our student information. Once information is entered into the system, it’s automatically propagated into the other systems, saving us redundancies in data entry.”

Ballston Spa tested SIF in its middle and high schools using Chancery’s Open District student information system, Advantage Learning Systems’ Perfect Copy instructional software, DataTeam Systems’ Lunch Express food service system, and Creighton Manning’s Versatrans transportation software.

The district, which serves 4,200 students in five buildings, was chosen to participate in the pilot because it already was using Chancery’s WinSchool, which is part of Open District, and Versatrans.

The project was tested on-site in October, with representatives from all four vendors on hand. A server in the central district office running Zone Integration Server (ZIS), the software that enables SIF-compliant programs to communicate with each other, drives the system.

Though data transfer worked very well between the systems, the pilot wasn’t without its flaws. Ballston Spa halted the project temporarily for vendors to make some improvements but plans to run the system with live data in January.

“We learned an enormous amount from the pilot,” Wilson said. “For one thing, we had to increase our security measures for protecting the data.”

But already, the district has noticed a difference. Explaining the importance of SIF, Crair said, “We used to find that data was entered differently in different buildings, even though we had a standard way of doing it. People either weren’t familiar with the rules, or they just ignored them.”

Once, Crair found that data were being entered at the high school in lower case letters, while data from the middle school were being entered in upper case letters. The end result: duplicate records for each piece of information, meaning the data had to be “scrubbed” frequently.

The new SIF-compliant system will also benefit new families moving to the area, Crair said. Parents will be able to go to one central location to register their kids in school, instead of going to multiple sites. If the families are coming from other districts using SIF-compliant systems, the districts will be able to transfer the children’s records with no interoperability problems.

The bottom line for schools, Wilson said, will be much more accurate data for decision making, because the data will be entered in only one place and will be updated throughout other systems from different vendors automatically. Also, because district personnel won’t have to enter the same student information more than once, efficiencies will increase.

“The software people have seen the writing on the wall, and they better jump on board,” Crair said. Once the standard becomes final, “why would schools ever buy anything that wasn’t SIF-compliant?”

Though a preliminary developer specification exists, the final release spec and compliance process have not yet been established, Wilson said, so “anybody that says they’re SIF-compliant now is a liar.” But schools can ask prospective vendors if they are active participants in the SIF initiative, and they should include this as a requirement in future requests for proposals (RFPs), he added.

Kamp said she expects to see SIF-compliant products–that is, products that have been tested and approved by the SIF working group—on the market by the fall of 2000.

Links

Software and Information Industry Association
http://www.siia.net

Microsoft Corp.
http://www.microsoft.com

Chancery Software
http://www.chancery.com

Ballston Spa Central School District
http://www.ballstonspa.k12.ny.us