INTEROPERABILITY: What It Is and How It Can Improve K-12 Central Office Administration
Interoperability is a technology concept that is gaining momentum in different business sectors. Tech leaders use the term to define how information from different data sources and software applications can be shared when linked effectively within a system or through system sharing.
Lack of interoperability is experienced when multiple components such as data systems and applications – whether on-premise or in the cloud – do not offer the flexibility to exchange data with one another in a secure manner. The most common option to serve this need is the use of manual and redundant processes that consequently result in increased human errors and inefficiencies, and eroded productivity.
While improved interoperability is advancing in different business sectors such as healthcare and education technology, the lack of interoperability continues to plague K-12 central offices that are responsible for all Human Resources, Payroll, Finance, and Benefit administration. It is not unusual for everyday functions, such as onboarding new hires, managing substitutes, creating payroll, etc., to require K-12 administrators to use disparate systems.
Implementing interoperability to improve K-12 central office administration, however, is a real, attainable state being made possible through PSST’s integration Platform as a Service technology, known as iPaaS.
What is Interoperability?
By definition, interoperability is the extent to which information systems and software applications have the ability to communicate with each other through the sharing of data, so it can be readily accessed and used with minimal manual processes. Interoperability also allows systems to connect in a secure, controlled and coordinated manner.
Interoperability is an unseen, but critical part of our everyday life. For example, when checking email on a smartphone, not much thought is given to the fact that it syncs with your computer. When answering a call using a button on your car’s steering wheel, Bluetooth automatically connects the devices. That’s interoperability in action.
There are many different categories of interoperability, each with its own challenges and evolving standards. Sharing files in various formats such as CSV, HTML, and PDF is one-way interoperability has evolved to allow a choice of tools to edit, file or open separate applications (Interoperability Standards for Education, 2018).
Interoperability Challenges for Education Technology Leaders
The recognition of the need for K-12 interoperability is growing within the education technology sector, which addresses classroom and content management for districts as well as student information. According to an education technology survey conducted by The League of Innovative Schools (July 2017):
- 70% of respondents report having taken steps toward being more interoperable
- 88% of respondents report data interoperability as having an impact on decision making or being a primary consideration in district level purchasing of an education technology solution
Additionally, for those in pursuit of increased interoperability, the survey also identified priorities and points of pain, which include:
- Saving time for administrators
- Improving data quality
- Visualizing data to help make informed decisions
When discussing interoperability challenges for education technology leaders in K-12 districts, the top issue is the lack of widely accepted technical standards. According to a fall 2018 online survey conducted by the Consortium for School Networking, 46 percent find having a common set of standards either “extremely challenging” or “very challenging.”
According to PowerSchool research, 74 percent of K-12 districts use at least 21 education technology products, while only 33 percent have at least half of their tech tools linked with their Student Information System.
Challenges for K-12 Administrators
Understanding interoperability and the holistic benefits it offers remains a challenge for K-12 central administration.
While interoperability has a presence in K-12 education technology, the K-12 central office or “back office” functions do not receive the same attention regarding the integration of data systems with on-premise or in-the-cloud software applications. For business staff in the K-12 central office (HR, Payroll, Benefit, and Finance), time is often spent logging into dozens of different applications and systems to gather various data points to execute daily administrative responsibilities. Everything from preparing payroll to managing substitutes to tracking a new hire is often executed with manual and, consequently, redundant processes. Pulling information from spreadsheets, using a mail/ merge program and even manually entering data is a daily occurrence. A routine administrative procedure can take several days and pass through multiple staff persons because of the number of disparate systems and software applications required to complete the paperwork.
This lack of interoperability is a palpable hindrance to K-12 districts – most of which are already challenged to manage their limited time, money and personnel resources.
Improved Interoperability in K-12 Central Office
“Interoperability is changing and evolving,” says Carl L. Williams, Sr., President and CEO of integration and compliance solutions provider PSST, LLC.
According to Williams, PSST has watched the need for interoperability for K-12 districts change rapidly in the last five years.
“We’ve been helping K-12 districts connect to their data through integration for the last 30 years,” Williams said. “While we have been successful with our intelligent, bi-directional integration solutions to connect K-12 HR, Finance, Payroll, and Benefit software to district data systems, we anticipated the need for a more seamless, holistic approach to interoperability. K-12 districts are under much more pressure today to access and use data for processes, reporting and decision making. It will only become even more so within the next five years.”
According to Williams, compliance, along with administration and management, places data burdens on K-12 central offices, especially when the access and use of data is limited by systems and software that do not integrate. To touch dozens of different data sources and applications to create a single report, hire a single employee or manage a single substitute, is not only time-consuming but increases the possibility of errors and uses staff time and resources ineffectively and inefficiently.
The benefits of interoperability make a strong case for a single platform approach to data connectivity. Such benefits include:
- improves collaboration between schools, districts, and government oversight by removing barriers that create disparate data silos and limited access to data;
- improves productivity through the elimination of manual processes and manual entry;
- improves data quality by eliminating the inherent errors that result from manual data entry;
- eliminates the need for manual data entry by providing integration between software and systems of record for real-time use and updates of data;
- improves security and compliance by eliminating the need for spreadsheets;
- minimizes paper forms, hence reducing data errors and redundancies; and
- therefore, allows time, money and resources to be focused where they matter most for K-12 districts – education.
Improving K-12 Data Connectivity with iPaaS Technology
Typically, school districts use different systems such as enterprise resource planning (ERP), student information systems (SIS), and learning management systems (LMS) to connect databases to their onpremise or in-the-cloud applications. This technology, however, does not have the ability to connect multiple programs into one seamless, secure system. Consequently, point-to-point integration is most often the solution used with these types of systems but is it not meeting the data-driven needs of today’s K-12 business office. Point-to-point integration merely connects two components that need to communicate with each other. If an organization uses more than two components or additional systems are added, then more point-to-point integrations must be created, but never at any point are all the systems operating in real-time together. As a result, K-12 districts often employ multiple point-to-point integrations, which over time, make the overall administration system, weighty and brittle.
Eventually, the complexity of more connections and interfaces reduces agility, drains internal resources and becomes unmanageable. Consequently, organizations can become resistant to change because of the impact on the infrastructure. It is usually only a matter of time; however, before an event such as an update to a single part of the infrastructure causes all the other components to fail.
iPaaS (Integration as a Platform) technology is a single platform approach that allows for a consistency with multiple systems, sources and software to be connected fluidly. iPaaS technology creates interoperability with flexibility and scalability that is not achievable with point-to-point integration.
Typically, an iPaaS platform provides pre-built connectors and templates that facilitate the development of integration flows and application programming interface (API) management (Rouse, 2017). This operates much like a contractor who is hired to oversee and manage various vendors to finish the job.
By bringing all of the data and applications into a single cloud-based location, information is connected and automated for real-time integration. iPaaS service brings together these different multiple interface components into a single platform and offers users real-time integration. By streaming together different applications into a single, cloud-based location, consistency is possible using integrated workflow templates.
Premier iPaaS for K-12 Administration
“Creating interoperability is an incredibly complex process for administrators in the K-12 space,” Williams explains. “Business requirements for K-12 administration are different from private sector enterprises and must be strictly accommodated because of numerous federal, state and local reporting and accountability requirements. Plus, every K-12 data system is different and its data structure must be accommodated for any type of integration.”
PSST has developed Connect Stream® iPaaS, the first iPaaS offering specific to the administration and business needs of the K-12 central office. As an unlimited multiple-point integration platform, Connect Stream® is changing the face of interoperability for K-12 districts. Connect Stream® iPaaS provides a completely seamless integration solution in a single platform where K-12 districts can access and use data across their entire organization.
Connect Stream® iPaaS also streamlines business intelligence to enable districts to make data-driven decisions, while allowing users to be more efficient, accurate and productive. Most importantly, Connect Stream® iPaaS saves time, money and resources for K-12 administrators and business staff.
“We knew from our experience with K-12 central offices, intelligent, bidirectional integration versus point-to-point was a given,” Williams says. “We also knew there were very specific issues to address. Our solution would have to be cloud-based, but also work with on-premise applications. It would have to have a variety of ways to move data, as well as accommodate multiple users across the organization with permissions and roles.”
With Connect Stream®, the iPaaS “normalizes” the data into a format that is universally recognized by all the K-12 software applications and/or SaaS, while maintaining the integrity of the original data source. This normalization allows the user to manage and access the information needed in real time across multiple software applications.
Williams explains that when iPaaS technology is used to connect data sources and software applications, “the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.”
“Like a Swiss army knife, each tool is useful in its own way, but when packaged together into one piece, you become prepared for any type of situation,” Williams says.
Each component is relevant to the school district and can be customized for a department based on the user’s role and permissions. As a whole, it provides an opportunity for sharing data across the organization to improve administrators’ ability to make data-driven decisions.
“The purpose of Connect Stream® iPaaS,” Williams says, “is to create true interoperability through the seamless access and use of all systems of record data and software applications for K-12 central offices. By doing that, we can help them save time, money and resources.”
K-12 Central Office Interview Findings
In October 2018, PSST, a seamless data integration solutions provider located in Louisville, Kentucky, conducted in-depth interviews with central office administrators from K-12 districts using either Tyler Munis® ERP or Oracle® Peoplesoft. The districts were comprised of medium size (2,500 to 9,999 students) and large size districts (more than 10,000 students).
Interviewees shared, that even when using robust ERP platforms such as Munis® and Oracle® Peoplesoft, central office administration still depended greatly on manual processes and spreadsheets to bridge the communication gap between data systems and software. Interview results indicate the districts have a strong desire to go paperless and eliminate manually inputting data into multiple systems. They identified “flexibility to quickly connect and integrate cloud application and systems” as their most important valued option. The desire to embrace more efficiency was indicated by 100% of the districts, but the lack of understanding of how interoperability achieves increased efficiency revealed an educational curve. For these K-12 central office administrators, the concept of interoperability where multiple applications from multiple vendors can be linked and data exchanged automatically sounds like a complex, lofty—if not impossible—goal.
PSST was founded in 1990 with a vision for improving efficiencies for K-12 and business administrators with integration and compliance solutions. Over the decades, PSST has established a reputation for its client-centered service and integration and compliance solutions that save time, money and resources for K-12 districts and businesses. We provide improved interoperability for Human Resources, Payroll, Finance, and Benefit information systems and related software products, allowing administrators to use their data when and how they need it in a secure and seamless environment.
For more information about PSST or Connect Stream® iPaaS, visit getconnectstream.com.