A highly touted solution that lets different K-12 software programs share student data among multiple software programs without any retyping launched its long-awaited compliance program April 25.

The Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF) is an open-standard specification that lets different K-12 software programs—such as student information systems and library automation software—connect through a central server and share information in a common computer language.

Software companies can now certify that their software applications conform to the SIF Implementation Specification Version 1.1. Once the certification is complete, they can advertise their products as “SIF Compliant” so education customers will know that it truly works.

“There’s always been this bar that we have to cross before we can say we are SIF compliant. Now, with this process in place, we can finally say it,” said Mark Reichert, senior programmer at Mandarin Library Automation. Reichert was actively involved in developing the SIF Compliance Program.

Driven by K-12 education technology providers, SIF—formerly a division of the Software and Information Industry Association—aims to save educators from repeatedly entering and updating student information. The project’s goal is to enable diverse software applications to interact and share data efficiently, reliably, and securely in real time, regardless of their respective platforms.

The initiative has officially been under development since 1999. In August 2000, eSchool News reported that SIF Implementation Specification v1.0 had been released to software developers. In February 2002, a remote demonstration of SIF-compliant products proved the specification works.

A lack of a clear certification process for SIF-compliant products was among the factors that hindered the widespread adoption of the standard (see “eSN Analysis: Costs, complications slow SIF’s arrival in schools” http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showstory.cfm?ArticleID=3817).

“Ever since SIF came into being, our customers have been asking for SIF compliance even though it didn’t exist yet,” Reichert said.

To get certified, software companies must demonstrate that their software “interoperates” with other SIF-compliant applications by properly transmitting and receiving the specific set of standard messages, queries and events defined by the SIF Specification, written in XML, and sent using internet protocols.

The Open Group, a vendor- and technology-neutral consortium that specializes in compliance, will serve as the certification authority for the SIF Compliance Program. The Open Group will collect fees, process applications, and give the stamp of approval.

“[The Open Group] provides an online testing environment where a company can bring its product and run it through an online compliance test,” Reichert said.

Companies first fill out a comprehensive, detailed application to indicate what data objects and elements their software will support. Example objects—meaning categories of data—include “student personal,” “staff personal,” “library patron status,” and “student meal.” The elements—or field names—in the object could include name, address, phone number, bar code, library fines, meal privilege, and grade level.

Then, a test is generated for each area that the company claims is operable. SIF also provides a self-test, called the Agent Test Harnes, that companies can try before the formal compliance process.

The Open Group will post a list of all SIF-compliant applications and the Conformance Statements of each qualifying product on its web site.

Many companies are expected to begin certification in the coming weeks.

“This is going to be really beneficial for our clients. It will make them confident that our products will really interact with other programs,” said Judith Barnett, senior systems analyst at Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit, a regional service agency in Pennsylvania.

By getting certified “you’re promising to people who purchase your product that it does conform and it will continue to conform as long as you claim that you have SIF compliance,” she added.

To assist schools and school districts in specifying SIF-compliant applications in their purchasing processes, SIF has published a set of questions and indicators, which can be used in requests for proposal (see Links).

SIF also announced that it has incorporated as a separate, independent non-profit entity. Under its new status, SIF will be eligible for government funding and other education grants. The final transition is scheduled to take place by May 15.

Links:

The SIF Compliance Program
http://www.opengroup.org/sif/cert

The Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF)
http://www.sifinfo.org

The Open Group
http://www.opengroup.org

SIF Request for Proposal Language
http://www.sifinfo.org/getrfp.html