Whether you are looking at a new attendance system, online assessment tool, or state-of-the-art safety communication platform, there’s one phrase you’re sure to see everywhere: “Our system integrates with every SIS”. But too often, no matter how flashy the marketing, you’re left matching up and renaming column names on a report from your SIS to send over to a 3rd party software vendor. If vendors claim their tools “integrate with every major SIS”, why are you still left doing all of the work? Could you have known better beforehand?
The short answer: it depends. Deploying software fluidly and seamlessly in the K-12 world requires a savvy software team, cooperation from your SIS, and unfortunately, sometimes a bit of work from you too.
Regardless of the extent of an integration, at some level, you’re still just transferring information from your SIS to the vendor in question. This blog post will examine what exactly vendors mean when they claim to work with your SIS, and all of the different ways your information gets transferred.
“SIS Integration” means different things depending on what sort of functionality is required. There are plenty of cases where your SIS has no problem with a lighter form of integration, but isn’t able to hold up when a tighter connection becomes necessary. Let’s look at the different types of integrations that exist between SIS and 3rd party software:
Level 1: Single Sign-On & Account Provisioning
Let’s say, for example, you need to set up a new video content service for your school. Every student will have access to log into the service to view videos at their leisure. In this case, the integration would fall into our definition of Level 1 (it’s your lucky day).
The video service really only needs to know that a given student/user has been authenticated (i.e. the person at the computer is really that person and not a hacker, pretty much why we have passwords to begin with) as part of your school. The vendor is usually able to manage profiles for everyone with access, and the integration only exists so you don’t have to manually create accounts for every person in your school.
Especially with the advent of Google Apps for Education and its competitors, these integrations sometimes require no work whatsoever from your school. Things like Active Directory integrations are still sometimes involved, and there are plenty of services which exist solely to make this process smoother.
Basically, if this is the level of integration needed, almost any vendor could get away with claiming they integrate with your SIS.
Level 2: Rosters & Scheduling Data
As we noted in the previous section, while some products only require integrating with your SIS for accounts/authentication, other systems require a bit more information.
Let’s take Ruvna for example – Ruvna replaces paper and clipboard emergency rosters so that schools can account for students and faculty in real-time during crises and drills. When teachers login during a fire drill, for example, Ruvna brings them directly to their class rosters. Teachers have the ability to view all of the different classes they teach, along with viewing the rosters for any other teacher in the school (useful for substitutes, or if a teacher forgets their phone). This sort of setup requires Ruvna to understand exactly who all of the students are, who all of the teachers are, and which classes contain which people.
This is often complicated because every SIS, every school, and every vendor are extremely different. A vendor needs to work in schools with 8-day rotating schedules with 7 classes a day at the same time they work with schools using trimester blocks.
Of the 3 parties involved here (school, SIS, and vendor), at least 2 truly need to cooperate in order for an integration at this level to work. The school and the vendor can work together to create reports in the SIS with all of the necessary data, and in some cases the school can even initiate the process to automate getting this data synced (more on that to come). Alternatively, the vendor can work with the SIS to have a standard “integration template” that gets used whenever the two collaborate.
Usually, at least one of the 3 parties will also need to compromise. At Ruvna, we feel strongly this should be the vendor (us). For example, sometimes the school is unable to produce reports containing the information we need in our standard format, and the SIS quotes the school at a prohibitive price for them to do the work. At this point, Ruvna will accept whatever data the school can provide and our engineers do the rest. Sure, it’s a little more time consuming on our end, but that’s precisely the service that our schools expect when they do business with us.
Of course, as more SIS providers introduce APIs (more on this to come), integrating more of your school’s data with a vendor is becoming easier! But updating your SIS is…perhaps a topic for a different blog post.
To sum up Level 2 integrations – Quite often, vendors can “overextend” their ability to do this level of integration with “ANY” SIS. They almost always require a bit of work, but a good vendor should be doing the hard work for you. Our team at Ruvna usually gets these completed in under 14 days.
How Does Data Actually Get From The SIS Into The Vendor?
Regardless of the extent of an integration, at some level you’re still just transferring information from your SIS to the vendor in question. What are the different ways in which this data transfer occurs?
Manual Exports – Ease: 3/10 | Data Accuracy: 5/10
At Ruvna, this is our “least-favorite” option, but sometimes it is the only option available and can still be fully successful. With manual exports, someone from your school needs to manually provide new data to your vendor (either via email, or sometimes in the software itself). Of course, if the data you’re providing to the vendor does not change often (aka “static”), this could actually be an easy and logical strategy. However, if the data you’re providing is subject to change (like class schedules), it can quickly become cumbersome to remember to send new data to your vendor, and there’s a lot of room for mistakes.
- Complete control over when and what data is updated
- Easiest setup
- High risk for data errors since a human hand is involved
- Action required every time you want data updated
- Less and less common as schools begin utilizing cloud hosting rather than on-premises.
Automated Exports – Ease: 7/10 | Data Accuracy: 8/10
With automated exports, the task of generating data and sending it to the vendor is automated and occurs constantly. This way, your data is up-to-date without having to remember to push a button. Someone along the chain typically needs to write an automation “script” (a small piece of code) to setup the automation. SIS providers are often able to help with this setup, or you can attempt to write a script yourself to get the automation going.
- No work required from the school after initial setup
- Data is reliable and accurate
- SIS providers sometimes charge a hefty fee to automate exports
- School is still responsible for setting up the necessary data reports
API – Ease: 9/10 | Data Accuracy: 9/10
API, or Application Programming Interface, is how software interacts with other software. SIS providers are beginning to include APIs with their services, meaning that vendors can write code to handle your integration on their own. Rather than you “sending” data (even if automatically and at a regular interval), APIs allow the vendor to request new data at their disposal. Not all SIS providers offer an API, and they’re definitely not all without cost. But they’re likely the most accurate and easiest for schools.
- Minimal effort needed from school
- Data is reliable and accurate
- Not all SIS providers offer an API
Most software vendors (Ruvna included) advertise to schools that their software is compatible with most or all SIS providers. That term takes drastically differing definitions depending on the needs of your school, and the features of the software. No matter what, it’s important to do your research and understand what will be required of YOU during the implementation process.
Easy 3rd party integrations is also something that as a school, you should be demanding of from your SIS providers. Choosing a new SIS? Choose one with an API! The EdTech market is moving away from a model where everything you need is done with your SIS – your SIS needs to play nicely with others.