The Benefits of Open Software in Education

A lack of software interoperability can make deploying new technology in a school a challenging task. Often data is redundant, inefficient, inaccurate, and inaccessible. Even deciding whether to invest in new systems can be a challenge. The School Interoperability Framework Association (SIF Association) addresses the problems of software interoperability through their creation of a standard set of specifications for vendors and schools. We talked with Dr. Larry Fruth, executive director/CEO of the SIF Association about the standards, their benefits, and the future of software interoperability.

Can you give our readers a quick explanation of what the SIF Association does?

Dr. Fruth:
We’re a nonprofit membership association that basically brings together schools, state departments of education, government and international government entities, and vendors to agree on a blueprint for data interoperability. So, basically what we do is we take all those diverse stakeholders in education together, and we get them to agree on how we’re going to get data to move between one application and another, between applications at a school or state setting, and then move data reporting-wise from school to state, and from state to federal government.

What was the impetus for the formation of the association?

Dr. Furth:
About 12 years ago, a group of LEAs and schools brought their vendors together to say they were tired of repeating data input across all their applications, and they wanted to enter it [the data] once and use it many times.

So that really started the initiative, and it really started out as a vendor-oriented initiative. Microsoft was one of the major players at the beginning of SIF to drive this community to its original needs, which was data interoperability at the school level between software applications.

What types of applications are you concerned with?

Dr. Fruth:
Student information systems are usually the king at schools. But then you also have information needed by the transportation system, the foodservice system, the library system, gradebook applications; there are HR and finance implications.

The nice thing about the blueprint is that it is scalable. So if the school only wants to address the right bus transportation information, they can just interoperate the transportation system with the student information system. Some schools just do it sort of sequentially like that. But some schools take 12 or 14 applications that they have and make them all interoperate.

What types of benefits do schools see with SIF Implementation Specification?

Dr Fruth:
Well the benefits are really tied to data moving around between applications. So you actually have real data.

Another benefit is being able to switch applications. If you don’t use any standards, and you have a library system tied to your student information system, the vendors have to create a hook between those two. But what happens if your librarian doesn’t want to use that library system any more? They want to go with a different one. Now they have to build that hook again.

The value of using standards like SIF — open standards that are freely available — is that you can now choose to get the best applications you want at the school, state, or federal level.

I read that you have a certification system. Can you tell me a bit more about it?

Dr. Fruth:
We actually third party it out so that we are a neutral party — being a nonprofit. But what happens is a software application provider builds what we call an agent, which is basically a translator that adheres to the blueprint that we all collectively agree to.  What they can do, is take that application and their translator and go online, and test that against the blueprint itself to make sure that what they say their application can do is actually true. So, they actually go through certification.

If I’m a school looking for a student information system, and if I want to make sure it can exchange these bits of data, I can go right to that certification registry and look that up and say, “Okay this one and this one have what I need, and this one and this one don’t have what I need.” So it is a validation for vendors and their development, and it is also a quality control for schools and states as they look at what applications they want to put in place.

This sounds similar to ISO certification where different processes are standarized.

Dr. Fruth:
Yeah, that’s what we’re trying to do. There are a lot of different standards groups. [What we do is] more just a self-reporting, and then tested against that self-report validation that this software does what they say that it does. Many times schools purchase software that they think is going to do one thing and it doesn’t do what they want. So, this is more of a validation certification.

What do you see happening in the future with SIF Implementation Specification?

Dr. Fruth:
There is a need coming from the LEAs to really address the data they need to do their business and survive, to basically know where their kids are and report that to state governments and state to federal. I always couch that as student administrative data; that’s the data that will help you run your school and do your mandated reporting.

In the evolution of this, through my passion as a teacher and a parent, that data is now going to be linked to learning resources. So not only do you know what a child did on a test, but now you are going to be able to link a child to learning resources and really develop what I consider an individual instruction plan for each student.

So you see this is becoming much more connected to the learning process?

Dr. Fruth:
Yeah, I think that what we’ve done right now across the United States through these different data system initiatives, including on the federal side, is really try to focus on the identification, management, and movement of data. But I think the next wave for us collectively in education is what are you going to do with this data? The utilization of the data is going to be the critical thing of the future. What you need to do is link it to that learner and then make a better learning experience for him or her.

Do you have anything else we didn’t cover that you’d like to pass on to our readers?

Dr. Furth:
The more you demand open standards, the more benefits you are going to realize from that demand. Getting involved in the association is ideal, but if not, demanding it in your RFPs that you put out — open standards that everyone can build to — really levels the playing ground for everyone involved. It really allows for schools and states to get what they want out of their software investments.