SIF Agents are extensions of each application that serve as the intermediary between the software application and the SIF Zone. SIF Agents are built into some applications, and they can be purchased for others.
The ZIS keeps track of the Agents registered in the Zone and manages transactions between Agents, enabling them to provide data and respond to requests. The ZIS is responsible for all access control, routing, and security within the system.
To begin a SIF implementation, a school district must have at least two systems that are SIF certified and ready to move data, and they must have a ZIS. From that point, whenever the district implements a new application that is SIF certified, it, too, can easily be made interoperable with the existing applications.
For example, Collins explains, imagine a district is using a SIF-certified courseware program. For it to be most effective, it should contain each student’s information. The teacher can enter this information manually for each student, but that isn’t the best use of the teacher’s time. Students can still use the software even if they don’t have their own accounts, but that means their work would be lost when they logged out and left the computer lab for the day. When using SIF and SIF Agents, the students’ names automatically would pre-populate the software. The students can log on under their own accounts, do their work, and save their work–and the next time they visit the computer lab, they could continue their learning from where they had stopped before. “That’s very important for the learning environment,” Collins says.
Or, say the phone number for a specific student changes. With a SIF implementation in place, when you update that number in your student information system, the number would change in every system across the board. If the student has an overdue library book, and the media specialist wants to call the parents to tell them about the fine, the official number on file automatically would be available.
SIF also makes vertical reporting–from the local to the state and federal levels–easier. Data from a variety of sources can easily be pulled together at a single entry point, rather than gathered haphazardly from a number of disparate places.
And educators have begun to learn that, by automating compliance reports, they can focus more of their time on teaching and learning.
Schools find success with SIF
The Northern Lebanon School District in Pennsylvania is a small rural district, with just 2,500 students and limited staff taking on many responsibilities. Data jobs were distributed across many people, with information being entered multiple times in multiple systems. Such multiple entry points led to a greater possibility of entry errors, so the quality of the data was not as high as it should have been.
The district wanted to speed up and streamline the data entry process and improve efficiencies to establish student accounts more quickly. “These are boring, mundane tasks that require careful attention. If they were automated, that would free us to do things that were more challenging–and less boring,” says Sally Bair, technology facilitator for the district.
But there was another reason to consider SIF. Several years ago, the state of Pennsylvania made a commitment to use SIF in its vertical reporting to the federal government at some point in the future. “We wanted to be ready when the state was ready and be among the first to move the data. That would make life easier at the state level and for the end users back in the districts. If applications have all the [information] that needs to be a piece of state reporting, and you have all the connections in place, then the data can just be pulled and moved, and that would be very powerful,” Bair explains. “It’s a good investment for the taxpayer, it streamlines workloads, and improves the quality of data.”
The district decided to implement SIF and began the process two years ago.
“We had to make some hardware changes. We needed to move our home drives to one location, and that meant redoing Active Directory so that everyone’s home drive would be mapped to its new location,” Bair says. Some organizational units within Active Directory had to be redone: Instead of having a folder within a folder within a folder within a folder (four levels), the structure had to be made more “flat.” When that was done, the district bought a custom-built Zone Integration Server (at a total cost of less than $5,000) and then began testing its existing SIF Agents and getting the applications to talk to each other in the background.
“We didn’t go live with them. We just tested them at that point. We waited until the rollover [between school years], then started bringing up our applications. We could go rather quickly [then], because we had tested them all,” Bair says.
The district started by getting its student information system (PowerSchool from Pearson School Systems) talking to Follett Destiny, which it used for library management. Microsoft Active Directory came next, then food services (eTritionWare Meal Tracker). Now, the district is buying a SIF Agent for every school in order to implement its athletic directory software (Schedule Star Athletic Director).