Interoperability in Education

Why interoperability?

Students need challenging and engaging learning experiences.  Teachers need tools to help them plan, deliver and report on learning programs that meet student needs.  Parents expect to monitor and support student progress through online links to schools.

Interoperability in education can be described through practical applications, including:

  • Improved access to learning resources and teaching tools 
  • Reliable and secure transfer of student data 
  • Online assessment and performance monitoring, and the linking of datasets used for reporting purposes 
  • Integration of products and services from multiple providers to create a seamless user experience
  • Access to the same service on a variety of devices

With the growing dependence on information and communication technology (ICT) in education, the need for the interconnection of systems is essential.  The challenge is maintaining connections between systems spirals, as the number of systems grows.

Systems Interoperability Framework

SIF, the Systems Interoperability Framework, is an open, industry supported standard used to link together data systems within the school sector. SIF is well established in the US, New Zealand and Australia.  SIF simplifies interoperability by using a common data model designed specifically to meet the needs of school education, and specifying infrastructure for a range of direct and brokered data integration models to exchange data between systems. Application of the standard enables systems to interact and share data efficiently, securely and cost effectively, regardless of the application and technology platform.  NSIP is chartered to support SIF AU, the Australian chapter of the international Access4Learning Community (formerly known as the SIF Association), as part of its mission to promote interoperability standards across the schools sector. State, Territory and Federal departments of education, along with a growing number of vendors are members of the SIF AU community.  The A4L Community (AU) develops and maintains the Australian data model as the Australian version of the SIF Implementation Specification and offers practical support to organisations involved in its application. The standard is maintained in Australia by a data standards working group which includes agency  representatives from all states and territories as well as developers of a wide range of ICT products used in Australian schools.   The infrastructure specification is managed by Access For Learning as a global organisation, with Australia contributing significant leadership through NSIP’s partnership with Systemic. While each of North America, Australia and New Zealand manage a data model specific to their regions, they work together to ensure consistency and good practice.  Led by vendor members of SIF AU, a heavily used subset of the SIF specification, the Student Information System Baseline Profile, or SBP, has been defined. The SBP is being used to facilitate data exchange between applications and organisations nationally.  The association is a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to achieving interoperability between information systems through the use of the Systems Interoperability Framework, and ensuring the standards meet the needs of the Australian schools sector. 

Data Mobility

In order for data to be used as effectively as possible, both systems and policies need to be in place to ensure that data reaches the right people, who need to access it to deliver the best experience for students in education, without it reaching the wrong people, compromising student privacy and safety.

At a technical level, data mobility takes the form of interoperability. In turn, Interoperability relies on technical standards which act like a common rail gauge for sharing data between ICT systems, allowing information to be exchanged accurately, efficiently and economically. It relies on using agreed data standards and common approaches to connecting ICT systems.

With agreed standards in place delays often experienced in IT projects can be reduced or eliminated and efficiencies achieved through the re-use of processes, data and infrastructure.

Interoperability however is only one aspect of data mobility. Data mobility also requires a common understanding between parties about the data being exchanged, and a common policy environment to ensure that privacy and security are respected in any information transfer.

Data Standards

The IT landscape in Australian education is diverse, with hundreds of different commercial offerings exchanging data with each other and with thousands of schools, either directly, or via school systems. Schools and school systems also exchange data with a number of government agencies, including the Commonwealth.There are contexts where a data exchange involves information specific to the two parties involved, which cannot be replicated elsewhere; but  it is unreasonably costly and inefficient for every data exchange to be treated as its own separate API with a custom data model. Most exchanges involve the same bundles of recurring information, which can be represented using a common standard.

NSIP was established to promote interoperability standards in Australian education, where well-defined data models and infrastructure specifications are used to make exchanges between parties consistent with each other. This establishes a level playing field in the market for vendors, and works against locking schools and agencies in with any one solution. It allows schools and agencies to distribute data efficiently in a consistent format. It also means that schools, school systems, agencies and vendors can work from a shared understanding of the data to be exchanged.
No one data standard can cover all possible data exchange scenarios, and adoption of data standards depends on the circumstances of the market and the configuration of exchanges, and not just the formal coverage of the data models. NSIP promotes the use of a range of standards in the education domain, according to how they best fit the exchange and the needs of parties.
The main standard NSIP has supported over the past decade has been the Systems Interoperability Framework (SIF). The standard includes: 
  • REST-based infrastructure for message exchange, including request/response and publish/subscribe, changes-since queries, and bulk object operations;
  • Data model covering administrative and establishment data essential to the operation of schools, including student and staff data, timetabling, attendance, financials, and student wellbeing.
SIF has been in use in the US over the last three decades, and its rich data model reflects the experience gained over that period. As used in Australia, the data model has been tailored to requirements of local education. The adoption of SIF in Australia in 2010 was the impetus for bringing NSIP into being, and it marked the beginning of collaboration between Australian states and territories around data exchange. SIF has been endorsed by all states and territories as an interoperability standard for the schools sector, and it is the preferred standard for exchange with school data hubs in multiple school systems. As SIF is the national education data standard, it is also used in national initiatives involving education data collection and data dissemination, including the Australian Government Schools Hub, the Student Data Transfer Exchange, and the publication of NAPLAN results.
NSIP is the custodian of the SIF data model in Australia, and manages it in consultation with the Data Standards Working Group, which includes representation from both school jurisdictions and education IT vendors. The standard is updated biannually to reflect the needs of its users, and is aligned to other data standardisation activities in Australia, including the ACARA Data Standards Manual and code sets from the Australian Bureau of Statistics
NSIP also works with other standards specific to particular types of data exchange. These include: