New standard promises ‘seamless software’ for schools

The unprecedented effort to make all K-12 instructional and administrative software programs work together seamlessly could be achieved as early as this summer, developers said. The first-ever Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF) standard—SIF Implementation Specification v1.0—was released at the National Educational Computing Conference in Atlanta on June 27.

More than 80 technology companies—makers of software covering everything from student information systems, to data analysis and reporting, to food services and transportation, to library automation—have agreed to incorporate the new specification into their products.

“This is an enormous milestone for the industry,” said Tony Lee, senior director of worldwide markets at Apple Computer Inc., in an interview.

“Getting vendors to cooperate in this way is extremely hard,” Lee said. However, “there’s a real desire to do things differently here, because it’s education.”

Sue Kamp, director of education market initiatives for the Software and Information Industry Association and acting director of SIF, said, “The education community was crying out for this. … Early adapters of SIF will become the model for the future of K-12 information management.”

Educators have a major problem with inefficiency using today’s software, because they often must spend countless hours entering the same data into the office system, the cafeteria system, the library system, and so on.

“Teachers don’t have time for double entry,” said Lee Wilson, vice president of marketing for Chancery Software Ltd. and a member of SIF’s board of directors.

SIF’s goal is to reduce the amount of time all staff members—from teachers and administrators to office clerks—spend entering and managing data by allowing information to flow seamlessly between software programs used by different departments, schools, and even districts.

How it works

SIF is an open set of specifications designed to support interoperability among a broad selection of software and technology.

The v1.0 specification, which can be downloaded from the SIF web site, allows different brands of software to share data using a common language.

The SIF specification is based on standard Extensible Markup Language (XML), which is not linked to a particular operating system or platform. XML defines common data formats and rules of interaction and architecture.

Translating data to XML doesn’t require each vendor to learn and support the intricacies of another vendor’s applications. Vendors merely have to integrate the SIF specification into their current software to build an “SIF interface agent,” Kamp said.

Once configured, the programs will share information by sending messages written in XML to each other through a Zone Integration Server (ZIS), the component where data from one piece of software communicate with data from another program.

At the Atlanta conference, Chancery announced the first hosted ZIS for Windows 2000 would be available for schools in September. Follett Software Co. and National Computer Systems also are working together to build a multiplatform ZIS, which will work with Windows 95, 98, NT, and 2000, as well as with Linux, Novell Netware, and Macintosh platforms.

The eSchool Technology Conference and Exposition in Orlando, Fla., Oct. 2 to 4, produced by this newspaper in cooperation with JDL Technologies, will include a technology “Command Center.” The center will offer educators the first live demonstration of SIF-compliant software, and technology experts will be on hand to discuss the new standards and answer school leaders’ questions.

SIF-compliant brands

Educators shopping for software should ask for products that are “SIF v1.0-compliant,” Kamp said, to ensure their instructional and administrative software will work together seamlessly.

Because the specification is so new, no compliant products are available yet, but developers expect the first SIF-compliant products to be released this summer, after compliance testing is completed.

“We want educators and districts to be absolutely sure that those products comply with SIF standards,” Lee explained.

Educators will have to upgrade or buy new software to use SIF. School leaders hope vendors will make SIF upgrades available to schools that want to integrate their software applications.

“It’s in the companies’ interest—for the schools that they serve—that they are SIF-compliant,” said Mark Silzer, manager of K-12 education for Sun Microsystems.

Since the release of the SIF specification, numerous companies have announced that they are working toward becoming SIF-compliant or building a ZIS.

In addition to Chancery, Follett, and NCS, Sagebrush Corp. said it is incorporating the SIF specification into its library automation programs, and Advantage Learning Systems said it is making its reading software programs SIF-compliant. The new IBM Insight at School, a data-warehousing solution, is also integrating the SIF specification. In addition, Simplexis, an eCommerce web site for educators, has announced it will support SIF.

Teachers at the Anoka-Hennepin, Minn., School District, one of the pilot sites for the development of the SIF specification, said SIF greatly increases the value of their investment in educational technology.

“I can’t check out books until all the students’ names are entered into the system,” said Sandi Sohr, who works at the media center for the district’s Ramsey Elementary School. “Last year, that meant students were unable to use our materials for the entire month of September. This year, they could check out books on the first day.”

Schools Interoperability Framework

Anoka-Hennepin School District hools.html

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