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Where is My Integration Strategy?

The Perils of Being Behind and How to Get Caught Up

Higher education is a community filled with numerous and diverse business practices and policies. It’s easy to forget that behind the scenes of our teaching and learning objectives, there is a spectrum of support services in place to provide an optimal student experience. Every action a student takes during their college journey is an integration point, but equally, the services an institution provides for its staff and faculty are integration points as well.

My nearly 20 years of working as a manager and developer supporting student systems in higher education gave me firsthand experience of what it entails to support the prospective student through the lifecycle, from admission until they graduate to alumni status.

Your Campus is a City

When we imagine a student submitting their application to the institution, submitting a FAFSA application, obtaining their student id, creating their email, purchasing their books, signing up for housing and dining plan, paying tuition, enrolling in work-study, and so on… we need to remember there is also a fleet of faculty and staff maintaining this student lifecycle and the campus itself as well. Think payroll, taxes, insurance, evaluations, research grants, facility management… and that list goes on and on. Higher education is a networked community of actions; a small city, integrated heavily and thriving off of student, faculty, and staff data. Integrations are not just about teaching and learning, they involve keeping the community healthy through flows of data working their way through pipelines around a city. 

With this and the importance of maintaining your community in mind, what is your integration strategy to keep your city running smoothly? In my past experience, it didn’t exist, and I frightfully believe there are many institutions out there fighting to get caught up, swimming against the tide, trying to get a handle of the fast-paced digital transformation taking place now, and getting burnt out in the process. I’ll raise my hand and admit this was me at one point. Does this sound familiar, managing with minimal resources, trying to maintain day-to-day operations, integrating newly adopted systems, and managing existing integrations?

More Clouds in the Horizon

As more services are being offered through the cloud, many have jumped at the opportunity to use these options, thinking that transferring support to these services is the answer. There is no doubt there are numerous cutting-edge offerings that deliver great experiences, but the other side of this double-edged sword is writing and managing the integrations for these cloud services. As fast as you integrate a service, you might have a dozen upcoming contracts being signed by offices around campus wanting data integrated into their system. What you might already know is that integrations tend to be like snowflakes; they’re always different from the ones you’ve implemented before.

The Poor-Old Batch Feed

In a survey conducted by Unicon and posted to the EDUCAUSE mailing list, we found that when it came to integrations, APIs were the preferred approach. However, this strategy was dependent on vendors providing those capabilities, and in some cases, the available APIs were too complicated or poorly documented. Some institutions still found themselves resorting to CSV/Batch integrations, also referred to as the “poor-old batch feed” because they were “the easiest to develop and reliable”.  

“While still trying to do more with APIs, our integrations are probably still about 85% traditional, meaning pushing around flat files as opposed to dynamic calls to APIs.”

Shared by a survey participant

In my experience, it came down to time. In an effort to produce faster results, “easiest to develop and reliable” is what impacted my decision to fall back on the short-term solution because I had tight deadlines and other operational urgencies that needed to be addressed. I wasn’t looking for the best long-term solution, I was looking toward keeping up with the demands of the campus’s digital transformation.   

I Keep Hearing About Interoperability

If you are like I was, you’ve been hearing the word “interoperability,” but you don’t know where that fits into your integration strategy. If you’ve worked primarily in the administrative systems area of higher education as I did, it might make sense that you weren’t as focused on it. Interoperability and standards to me were about sending data using the technical formats and protocols (ie., XML, JSON) to exchange information, but not necessarily looking at the interpretation challenges of the various systems. I was more concerned about the functionality of large ERP/SIS systems and sending data to other campus systems quickly. I’ll stress the word quickly because my strategic vision was not on standards or interoperability, as I hadn’t gotten that far yet. I was still stuck in the tactical trenches of operations and sending the data required to complete integrations on time. 

However, for my friends in the teaching and learning sector, “Interoperability” is widely spoken of, for a good reason. The focus is on the student’s quality of engagement and having a holistic view of their educational experience. They wanted to see the whole picture of what’s going on with a student, and to advise them tactfully through any issues or challenges. As the pandemic showed us, data being siloed at a time when we needed to be flexible revealed where many operational faults existed. 

We’re now at a point where we have to be efficient and intentional in the ways we operate through integrations. Having a standard across systems, especially now that online instruction is continuing to grow and more cloud services are being adopted, is starting to become even more necessary.

A Vision of an Integration Strategy

A strategy can be adopted, and the implementation includes agreeing to a process. There are a few facets of the strategy to consider, which include how to intake integration projects within your campus as part of project management, the costs of implementing integrations, whether it’s done in-house or through a 3rd party vendor, and the tools to use to create and manage your integrations efficiently.  Integration is never a one-and-done operation; integrations require maintenance and are subject to adjustments as additional data is requested. 

In this series of articles, my colleagues and I will highlight further use cases and topics about integrations and interoperability. If you find yourself needing an assessment and strategic plan for your integrations or need help with performing integrations, Unicon is always here to provide that support.

Laura Fernandez-Moran

Laura Fernandez-Moran

Strategic Project Manager and Software Developer
Laura is a Strategic Project Manager and Software Developer at Unicon who focuses on strategic initiatives. Having joined Unicon in 2022, Laura brings over 15 years of experience in software development and academic administration for the higher education industry. During this time she has worked in many areas including marketing technology, teaching and learning, student information systems, and identity management. Prior to joining Unicon, Laura was the Manager of Student Systems at Rice University where she managed student administrative software and technical processes for the Offices of the Registrar, Cashier, Financial Aid, Admissions, and Academic Advising.