Making disparate software programs work together to exchange information is a constant challenge for educators. Often, educators find that critical student information is housed in a variety of applications that cannot easily exchange these data. While data integration is possible, it is usually time-consuming, ineffective, and expensive.

The Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF) promises to ease the development work needed to move data from place to place. Designed by educators and software companies that understand the current inefficiencies, as well as the potential benefits–more robust reporting, more efficient use of resources, more effective courses–that are possible with simpler data integration in schools, the SIF specification is now being used by hundreds of districts across the country. Other districts can realize these benefits, too, by deploying SIF-compliant products.

The first step toward reaching that goal is separating what SIF is from what it is not. What it is not is a commercial product. Instead, it is a set of data specifications that outline how information should flow among diverse applications in K-12 computing environments. The specs center on two items: a set of common data definitions, so applications understand the information they are working with, and a set of rules for how data can be shared, so data can be transferred from one system to another.

The data definitions, called "data objects," include information commonly generated in educational applications–for example, a student’s name, address, and telephone number are part of the "StudentPersonal" data object. The data interchange rules are based on open and widely used standards and are not tied to particular operating systems, network equipment, or application platforms. As a result, schools are able to implement SIF regardless of what computers, software, or networks they have.

Because applications are constantly being enhanced and the industry is always concocting new methods of processing information, SIF is dynamic and has been evolving continually since its initial inception in the spring of 2003. Much like software programs, SIF comes in various releases, and a series of three numbers illustrate its different versions. In release 1.5r1, the first number indicates a major release: a version of SIF with significantly new functionality stemming from a substantial change to SIF messaging rules or data objects. The second number (5 in the example) points to a minor release version (one with incremental new functionality), and the last item (r1 in the example) indicates that this is a revision, or "fix," which means there have been some minor text changes to the documentation associated with the release, but no changes to the specification’s functionality.

Because the process is dynamic, the SIF community has to decide when to take a snapshot of the standard, so vendors can design and users can buy SIF-compliant products. Usually, the snapshots are completed every 12 to 24 months. To date, two versions of SIF have been completed, and a third looms on the horizon.

The first version, SIF 1.1, was unveiled in March 2003. This version focused on common information stored in applications, such as student information systems. Enhancements included in SIF 1.5r1, which debuted in March 2004, featured expanded coverage of food-service, human-resource, and financial software, as well as the ability to track individual students and their progress over time–even if they move from district to district.

The SIF Association (SIFA) plans another major release of SIF this summer. Some of the more notable changes with version 2.0 are support for:

  • Expanded assessment measurements;
  • Updated objects;
  • Calendar information;
  • References to NCES (National Center for Education Statistics) code sets;
  • Discipline information;
  • More gradebook functionality;
  • Period-by-period attendance;
  • eTranscript functionality (the electronic exchange of student records); and
  • Enhanced reporting infrastructure.

In addition, the standard includes two new components: organizational profiles and functional profiles. "The profiles are groupings of common data elements, so schools can collect specific types of data more easily," said Larry Fruth, SIFA’s executive director. An organizational profile could include items that are required in a certain state, for example–such as test score results or funding data. A functional profile would outline items that are needed by a particular group of students–say, students with IEPs (individualized education plans), or those with various learning disabilities who need special attention.

 

While outlining standard specifications can be helpful, users and vendors need more than just a list of specs to reap the potential benefits of SIF–they need to be sure that different vendors’ products can interoperate. Toward this end, SIFA has developed a certification program to confirm that software programs do, indeed, adhere to SIF rules and object definitions.

The process begins with vendors completing a Conformance Statement Questionnaire, a declaration describing how their products meet the SIF requirements. This form includes a list of each of the SIF data objects supported by the application and the manner in which it is supported. Because SIF outlines a broad range of functionalities, vendors are free to pick and choose elements of the standard their software will support. In some cases, it makes sense for them to support all of the data objects; in others, a subset is more appropriate. In either case, vendors can say their products conform to the specification.

Vendors simply saying their products conform to SIF might not be enough to convince educators to deploy them. As a result, SIFA has contracted with the Open Group, an ad-hoc certification organization, to serve as the SIF Certification Authority. The Open Group oversees the SIF Certification Program, which involves a series of formal tests that validate whether software applications properly implement the SIF specification. A software program that successfully completes this testing process will be able to display the "SIF Certified" logo on its package, web site, and in promotional literature. As of press time, "approximately 75 vendors have gone through the certification process," said Mark Reichert, SIFA’s chief technology officer. A list of SIF-certified products appears on the Open Group’s web site.

Certification is important for both educators and software companies. With it, educators can have confidence that the "SIF Certified" applications they purchase will have some data objects in common and will route information in a similar manner. For software companies, the certification process verifies that their applications will be able to share information properly with software programs from other companies.

While helpful, SIF certification is not a panacea and does not mean that all SIF products will interoperate out of the box. There are a few other items that customers need to be aware of. First, software programs are certified only to a particular release of the SIF specification, so a user might need to tweak one product that has been certified for SIF 1.1 to work with another product that has been certified for SIF 1.5.r1. Currently, most vendors have enhanced their products to conform to SIF 1.5r1, while about a dozen still offer SIF 1.1 compliance. Because SIF 2.0 is just being completed, two steps are still needed before any products will be certified as 2.0 compliant: A conformance test needs to be developed, and then vendors need to pass their products through it. These steps are expected to be completed by the fall.

The second issue hindering interoperability revolves around vendor decisions. Because vendors may support various data elements, the level of interoperability among their products will vary. Consequently, users can expect to perform at least some customization before SIF-compliant products fully interoperate. All of these elements were put in place to help organizations implement SIF products. Once school leaders understand what SIF offers, they can help their schools reap its benefits.

Paul Korzeniowski is a freelance writer living in Sudbury, Mass., who writes frequently about education and technology.

Links:

SIF Specification
http://www.sifinfo.org/sif-specification.asp

SIF Certification
http://www.sifinfo.org/sif-certification.asp

Open Group
http://www.opengroup.org

SIF-certified products
http://www.opengroup.org/sif/cert/cert_prodlist.tpl