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Academic vs. Administrative Computing: Bridging the Gap - "Possible Solutions" (Article #3)

In the first two articles of this series, "Separate Evolution of Two Systems" and "The Impact of Data on Student Success," we focused on the disconnect between the two sides of campus computing, academic and administrative, examining the impact of the separate evolution of these systems on student success. One of the most significant impacts of these compartmentalized systems is the difficulty to put data together to see a holistic picture of the student. Today, there is increasing awareness that a holistic view of student performance, based on accurate data, can positively impact student success.

Now let's explore possible solutions to bridging the gap between the two sides of campus computing, and take a look at examples of solutions institutions are currently implementing.

Service-Oriented Solutions

legos One way to create a unified whole from a number of siloed systems is to treat different business functions as services. This way, a pattern of requests and responses can be made to get bits of data from one system and pass it to another as needed. Over the years, there have been several attempts to "service-ify" the key business functions related to students[1]. Course discovery, student registration, retrieving grades, applying for transcripts - these are all business processes that universities rely on. Yet these processes may be delivered in different ways depending on the providing vendor. Many such architectures have been envisioned, all with a universal layer that takes the vendor specific APIs and maps them to a documented set of services[2][3][4].

Next Generation Digital Learning Environment (NGDLE)

Next Generation Digital Learning Environment (NGDLE) Today, the Next Generation Digital Learning Environment (NGDLE) movement has spurred a new wave of conversations[5][6][7][8], and can be seen as an attempt to solve the problem created by disparate systems. The NGDLE vision explicitly includes interoperability and integration, a position which reflects the need to interact with educational data from multiple systems as a unified whole. In addition, personalization and an emphasis on analytics, advising, along with learning assessment all depend on a unified picture of the learner. In an ELI webinar, "Learning Analytics, Advising and Learning Assessment"[9], Vince Kellen of UC San Diego pointed out that an NGDLE will increasingly count on advanced analytics to tailor content and interaction towards learners.

Image credit: So what will a NGDLE look like? by @bryanMMathers is licensed under CC-BY-ND

Integrated Planning and Advising

Integrated Planning and Advising Other places where a holistic picture of the student is critical to transforming higher education is in the area of advising. In 2015, in response to a Gates Foundation grant, an EDUCAUSE challenge was created to provide funding to a group of institutions for integrating their planning and advising systems[10]. The idea was to alert advisors of the types of activities that students might be doing and enable them to be better positioned to intervene. Recognizing that the first step in transforming advising is to shift culture through increased communication, schools receiving the grant have seen progress through changes they have implemented using tools such as Education Advisory Board's Student Success Collaborative (EAB/SSC) and DegreeWorks[11]. Two years later, the work is far from done; when asked what advising tools are still lacking, academic advisors surveyed by EdSurge[12] said they are using multiple advising platforms and highlighted the need for better integration. This movement reflects a desire to work around disparate systems on campus and to provide a better view for advisors when it comes to gathering information about their advisees.


Standards Better interoperability and integration invariably involve standards. Organizations such as the IMS Global Learning Consortium and others are places where the higher education community comes together to enable a "plug and play" environment using products from multiple suppliers.  One such standard, Learning Information Services (LIS), fulfills a basic integration need between SISs and LMSs to synchronize courses and enrollments between SISs and downstream learning systems[13]. The standard has been adopted by the SIS and LMS vendors with the largest market share in higher education since 2012. An offshoot of LIS profiled for K12, called OneRoster, is achieving adoption throughout the K12 supplier market as well[14]. To facilitate the collection and analysis of learner activity, the community is exploring ways to employ standards such as xAPI and Caliper[15][16].

Integration Platform Solutions

In the last several years a new category of cloud-accessible integration platforms has emerged, referred to as Integration Platforms as a Service (iPaaS)[17]. While generic iPaaS solutions, including Mulesoft, Dell Boomi, and Informatica, have been around for longer, companies providing domain specific iPaaS functionality for education were quite rare. Even today, this market category is only served by a handful of companies, but the education community is starting to recognize that education iPaaS solutions can isolate the difficulties of "getting data from the SIS".

Companies focusing on intermediary integration platforms for Education data include N2N, Lingk, Classlink, Clever and KimonoCloud. The underlying business driver for these companies is slightly different based on their target market: in K12, the challenge has been connecting school districts to a heterogeneous ecosystem of learning apps; in higher education, the focus is more about avoiding vendor lock-in when using LMSs. In general, institutions do not want to have to customize their SIS to LMS interfaces, because doing so will increase the cost of switching to a different SIS or LMS provider. The common use case shared by these integration platform vendors is to enable a learning app to retrieve a roster identifying students and teachers in any given class.

On campus, there are those integrations which must be maintained at any cost; these tend to support mission-critical business functions such as student registration and grades:

  • Synchronizing users, courses, and enrollments between the SIS and the LMS
  • Populating final grades into the SIS at the end of the term
  • Bringing new students into the SIS from the CRM system when prospective students move through applicant stage into matriculation

The next level of integration priorities for schools tends to be one that has a high impact on students and is deemed strategic for the institution. The most common scenarios for these priorities include:

  • Exposing data such as course information, calendar events, and announcements in mobile apps
  • Connections with apps such as lecture capture tools, digital repositories, housing, cardkey access, point of sale, dining hall, and web conferencing systems
  • Sourcing data, typically through data warehouses, for reporting and analytics

Initially, the main market driver for higher education institutions to use integration platforms was to provide better access to student services through mobile devices. Many providers who specialized in mobile applications for universities soon realized it would be more efficient to trust an integration platform approach that insulates them from the nitty gritty ways in which source data from SISs need to be exposed for read and write.

Looking forward, administrative and academic systems may continue to exist in separate compartments. Knowing this, it is more important than ever to develop capabilities around integration platforms and interoperable data exchange standards to resolve the gaps between such systems, enabling institutions to use data for student success. Recent developments in this area are promising, and institutions should be demanding that their systems "talk to each other."  The final article in this series will continue to explore solutions to bridging the gap between academic and administrative computing, providing recommendations and next steps for higher education institutions.

Useful Reading:


[1], Aug 2005


[3], Sep 2002

[4] Kuali Student Architecture Overview, Feb 2011

[5] Next Steps for the NGDLE, O'Brien, July 2017 

[6] The NGDLE: We Are the Architects, Brown, July 2017

[7] The N2GDLE Vision: The "Next" Next Generation Digital Learning Environment, Long & Mott, July 2017

[8] Designing Next Generation Digital Learning Environments, Finkelstein et al, Feb 2017

[9] ELI Online Focus Session, NGDLE Discussion: Learning Analytics, Advising and Learning Assessment, Apr 2016




[13] IMS Global Learning Information Services Best Practice and Implementation Guide, Sep 2013






Linda Feng

Linda Feng

Software Architect
Linda Feng is a Principal Software Architect at Unicon, Inc., a leading provider of education technology consulting and digital services. Linda has deep experience in student information systems (SIS) integration, open standards, and big data/ learning analytics, most recently as Senior Product Manager for Canvas SIS Integrations and Canvas Data at Instructure. Prior to Instructure, Linda held the position of software architect for Oracle's Student Products Division. In the last several years, she served as co-chair of the IMS Global Learning Initiative Learning Information Services & Privacy Working Groups, helping to bring a new Enterprise interoperability standard to market.