Back-to-school season used to signal a severe outbreak of RDES (repetitive data-entry syndrome), but now some schools believe they’ve found a cure—extensible markup language (XML).

Every year at about this time, as the new students begin arriving, the Upper Dauphin Area School District in central Pennsylvania has gone through the same ritual.

Clerks would enter names and other information into computers used by school administrators. They would repeat the process to create network passwords for students, and then again to activate a math tutorial, and then once more for an electronic gradebook, and yet again to issue library cards.

Beginning this fall, all that will change. Clerks will have to enter information only once, and the various computer systems that divide up the work will understand one another.

Starting this fall, the Upper Dauphin district computers will be using XML.

Built on the common architecture of the world wide web, XML is a kind of mandatory Esperanto for computers. It’s at the heart of a relatively new software technology that allows disparate systems to speak a common language.

By automating mundane clerical work, XML will let people focus more on the tasks that really matter.

“If you’re not going to have people worry more about entering student information, you can have people worry more about students’ education,” said Bryan Campbell, technology coordinator for the Upper Dauphin school district.

And computers could get smarter in the process.

Hidden XML tags that make automation possible could one day help school principals such as Kate Clark, leader of the Ocoee Middle School in Orlando, Fla., analyze data in new ways, improving student performance.

By linking a grading system with computers that process subsidized lunches, for example, educators could tell whether poorer students perform better with certain teachers.

“Right now, you can’t do all that without a lot of hand calculations,” said Clark.

XML is all about giving meaning to data.

As anybody reading eSchool News probably knows by now, web publishers using hypertext markup language, or HTML, can specify whether a sentence should appear in bold or italics, as well as what font, color, and size to use.

But the web’s current foundation won’t help a software application identify which number on an HTML page is the ZIP code.

And that makes Web pages often nothing more than glorified faxes.

Using XML, web publishers can mark ZIP codes and even specify whether they belong to senders or recipients.

A tech-savvy teacher could code online resumes to flag his or her special skills for prospective school district employers. The human resources department could launch a web-based search through thousands of electronic resumes for, say, Spanish speakers located nearby with at least five years of web design experience. Without XML, the human resources department would have to look through resumes one by one.

And after hiring an applicant, the school district could feed data from the resume directly into its employee databases.

The World Wide Web Consortium, a standards-setting body, released XML specifications in 1998.

Specifications are akin to letters of the alphabet, and various organizations have been working since to create words from those letters, along with grammatical rules to govern their use.

Schools and school vendors have set up the Schools Interoperability Framework to let systems at Upper Dauphin and Ocoee talk to one another. Human resource companies created rules for employment tasks. XML versions are in the works for spacecraft and computerized chess.

XML is also entering mainstream computing.

Microsoft Corp. is basing its next-generation .NET initiative on XML and has incorporated XML features called “Smart Tags” into its Office XP and Windows XP packages.

Using Smart Tags, users can type a stock symbol into a spreadsheet and automatically get the latest stock prices and company news. Or from a browser, tags can direct users to selected Web sites – a feature that has drawn vehement complaints from Microsoft’s detractors.

At the moment, XML use is rudimentary. Wes Rishel, a Gartner research director, says many industries have launched pilot projects, but “there’s very few, if any, large-scale production applications.”

One challenge has been integrating the hundreds of XML definition sets, some complementary but others conflicting.

Part of XML’s flexibility comes from its ability to let anyone define XML tags.

But that flexibility can lead to “a lot of confusion, a lot of experimentation and frankly a lot of chaos,” said Laura Walker, executive director of the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards, which is trying to coordinate some of the XML work.

David Sommer, director of electronic commerce for the Computing Technology Industry Association, doesn’t doubt that XML will take off. “It’s more a question of what standards are going to win out,” he said.

In the past, larger organizations communicated with others using customized protocols that were complicated and expensive to set up; separate arrangements often had to be made between pairs of organizations.

XML promises to unify all that. Examples are already beginning to emerge in business. Using XML, airlines, hotels, and rental car companies could all speak the same language without customizing computers. Dollar Rent A Car Systems Inc., for example, already uses XML to let Southwest Airlines agents book car rentals.

Not that customers will necessarily notice. Though travelers may be able to make all arrangements from a single Web site, they won’t need to know XML drives it.

Same goes for the health care applications.

XML could link medical records and lab results from school health clinics and hospitals. It could warn doctors of drug reactions and help them analyze the success rates of specific treatments for certain combinations of symptoms and family histories.

But patients, even doctors, would care only about the effects.

“If I’m on a business trip and (have to visit) an emergency room, my medical records could be accessed and they would know right away whether I’m allergic to penicillin,” said Rachael Sokolowski, a consultant working on health care standards.

The ease of sharing data raises new concerns among privacy advocates. There’s a version of XML being developed for marketing and consumer profiling.

But XML supporters say the tags can ultimately help enhance privacy. Software could restrict employee performance reviews to top decision-makers, filtering out low-level clerks in human resources who might now have access as well.

And XML is the basis for the Platform for Privacy Preferences, techniques being developed to let browsers automatically interpret Web sites’ privacy policies.

XML is “like a Swiss army knife. It’s hugely useful in a lot of different areas,” said Uttam Narsu, a research analyst with Giga Information Group. “By the end of next year, I will be hard pressed to find a single company that won’t be touched somehow by XML.”

Links:

World Wide Web Consortium
http://w3.org

Schools Interoperability Framework
http://www.sifinfo.org

XML resources
http://xml.org