SIF You Please: This Set of Standards Helps Schools Boost Interoperability Across Applications

A Louisiana school district adopts Schools Interoperability Framework standards to help stakeholders work smarter, not harder.

A Louisiana school district adopts Schools Interoperability Framework standards to help stakeholders work smarter, not harder.

Resource-strapped K–12 schools are constantly confronting this existential question: Is it better to work hard or to work smart? For Calcasieu Parish Public Schools, a public school system encompassing 1,000 square miles in southwestern Louisiana, the answer hinges on three letters: SIF.

Alphabet Soup

So, what is this mysterious acronym? And what can it do for your district?

A Louisiana school district adopts Schools Interoperability Framework standards to help stakeholders work smarter, not harder.

Resource-strapped K–12 schools are constantly confronting this existential question: Is it better to work hard or to work smart? For Calcasieu Parish Public Schools, a public school system encompassing 1,000 square miles in southwestern Louisiana, the answer hinges on three letters: SIF.

Alphabet Soup

So, what is this mysterious acronym? And what can it do for your district?

SIF stands for the Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF). It's a service-oriented architecture developed and supported by the education industry that enables pre-K–20 instructional and administrative software applications to interoperate seamlessly. The SIF standards, in development since the mid-1990s, are essentially free technical blueprints that make it easy for diverse solutions from competing manufacturers to interact and share data efficiently.

Schools obviously need a variety of applications to manage information, to keep operations running smoothly and to support their core mission of teaching and learning. SIF specifications establish common definitions for school information (data objects) and rules for data sharing (infrastructure). A “SIF agent” acts as the liaison between an application and the Zone Integration Server (ZIS) – the hub (or brain) of the operation that serves as the central commu­nication point in a SIF zone.

The SIF agent's job is to recognize the application's business logic and data structure, which allows data sharing between applications; to receive and translate SIF messages; and to submit data changes to the ZIS. “SIF data objects” are common data definitions shared by applications. The ZIS tracks all SIF agents in the zone, distributes all SIF messages, implements security rules and enforces what a SIF agent can and can't do within the zone.

In Practice

SIF strives to be an open, brand-neutral and platform-independent set of standards. That's what makes it so appealing to schools seeking interoperability across applications.

The Calcasieu Parish Public Schools system includes 5,100 employees, 33,000 students, 62 K–12 schools and 11 administrative sites in and around Lake Charles, La. The volume of information that circulates throughout our district is staggering – not surprising, given its size. For years, our stakeholders battled a host of data-sharing problems. Yet we kept doing what we had always done and expecting different results.

SIF has saved Calcasieu Parish Public Schools the equivalent of the annual data entry output of 17 full-time employees.

Despite increasingly limited resources and heightened efficiency expectations, we wasted time and money trying to integrate a patchwork of diverse applications. We entered the same data over and over again, with no real assurance of its integrity in any single application. We used time-consuming manual batch-import processes to generate data reports requested by our numerous departments and users. When those requests came in, we first had to determine if we even had the information they were seeking; then we had to figure out how to retrieve and deliver it.

While seeking solutions to these problems at the turn of the century, my IT colleagues and I happened to stumble upon a SIF workshop at a Consortium for School Networking conference. After learning what SIF could do and talking to other school districts facing similar challenges, we were convinced that we needed an industry-specific solution – and that SIF was the logical choice.

So we made our case to district leaders, and thankfully, they understood the stakes. They recognized that it was time to be data-proactive rather than data-reactive.

The strategic decision we made to adopt SIF standards has put us light-years ahead of where we would have been otherwise. Since the 2004–2005 school year, when we rolled out a technology plan that included SIF, we have saved roughly 33,000 hours of data entry work.

Thanks to SIF, we are now equipped to provide a higher level of service to our employees, students and parents. We have reduced overhead costs by shifting and automating manual functions – creating network and e-mail accounts, for example – while at the same time increasing the reliability and validity of the data in our cafeteria and library systems, among other applications. Specifically:

  • Our librarians now can focus more on student engagement than data entry.
  • Our cafeteria managers no longer have to maintain accurate student data for federal reporting; it's now done for them.

No Magic Bullet

Successfully integrating data from diverse systems doesn't happen overnight. SIF takes time to implement, so be ready to dedicate at least a few weeks to each integrated application.

Here are a few best practices to follow as your school makes its own transition to SIF:

Remember, you don't need a developer to manage SIF. SIF is a standard with virtually no unknowns, and many SIF products on the market today are essentially plug-and-play solutions. Technical expertise is not mandatory.

Identify key fields (such as student, faculty and staff ID numbers) for student and employee data to maintain accuracy across systems. Data accuracy can be achieved in a number of ways, but for the layperson the most convenient method is to use unique attributes that are common to every system. Like most software applications, SIF uses Globally Unique Identifiers, which provide unique reference numbers that won't be duplicated elsewhere.

Be prepared to deal with data inconsistencies for each agent implemented. Once data in an application is reconciled in real time with the data in other applications, inconsistencies become acutely visible and must be resolved.

Dedicate a staff member to teaching users how to correct data problems. The staff members who enter data into a district's many systems typically know how to maintain the data in only the system with which they regularly work. With SIF there's a designated“authoritative source” for data. If inconsistencies occur, staff must know how to address them because the previous processes can no longer be used.

Buy only SIF-compliant products. Even if your school or district isn't planning to implement SIF standards, it's worth verifying that a new or existing manufacturer's applications are SIF-certified – because you never know.

HOW SIF Helps

The Schools Interoperability Framework gives schools the flexibility to choose technology solutions without data integration consequences and the means to deliver targeted access to services and resources. Benefits vary by user type:

  1. Students and parents enjoy access to personalized student content, improved timeliness of service, accurate school data and increased efficiency.
  2. Teachers gain real-time access to critical information and better data analysis.
    SIF also allows them to manage their time more efficiently.
  3. Administrators see increased efficiency, reduced redundancy and errors, and fewer compatibility problems. Using existing systems and infrastructure also saves money.
  4. IT managers reduce support costs and the time needed to manage multiple data sources.
Jul 13 2010

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