Nobody Reads a Column About Open Standards

But you won’t want to overlook the new XML-based transcript standard that’s revolutionizing electronic transmissions in the registrar’s office.

WE ALL KNOW what type of reaction you’re likely to get if you bring up a topic like “open standards” in a lighthearted social context. (“Excuse me, I think I see somebody over there I need to speak to…”) It’s just not a gripping conversational theme. Or is it? An administrator told me recently (with a modest chuckle) that implementing a pioneering open standard had made her a hero, at least in the eyes of her colleagues. So maybe we should show some respect for this topic! What follows is the story of how a genuinely geeky matter like open data standards can pay off for campus community members, vendors, and institutions.

Enterprise

OPEN DATA STANDARDS saved the
day for the University System of Georgia.

The standard involved in this tale is the new XML-based standard for exchanging postsecondary transcripts. Yes, there was a way for institutions to send and receive transcripts before this XML standard emerged. It was called EDI, or electronic data interchange, and it continues to be widely used. Yet, for the University System of Georgia, the problem was that EDI was too rigid and limited. Transcripts within the Georgia system were valueless unless they could record some fundamental requirements that were unique to the state. For instance, the state requires students to complete a 16-course college preparatory curriculum prior to being admitted to an institution. So the transcript of a transfer student must record how that Georgia-specific requirement has been fulfilled.

The rub? There are no user-defined fields within EDI. If you take liberties with the EDI format, it breaks. So the Georgia institutions were stuck with doing a lot of hand work with transcripts.

By fall 2006, however, transcripts passing in and out of most Georgia institutions will finally start to move at the pace we expect from electronic transmissions. Two developments made this possible: the creation of a standard by a truly community-based organization, and the implementation of that standard in software by a standards-savvy software vendor.

First, the community, acting through its surrogate in matters like this (the Postsecondary Electronic Standards Council), developed a versatile way of representing transcripts in Extensible Markup Language (XML). XML is the data description language that forms the lifeblood of Web services architecture (WSA). The principle behind WSA is that every program should provide an interface that welcomes other WSA-style programs to interact with it directly. XML is the Esperanto (international language) that programs can use to exchange data in these automated sessions.

PESC brings together subject-matter experts to hammer out standards for data exchange. In developing the XML transcript standard, the PESC committees included representatives of educational institutions that act as “trading partners”—professional organizations like the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, and vendors that provide the software and services that have to interact with the standards.

While PESC stands for the opposite of de facto, vendordriven standards, the organization tries to build a cooperative community that includes vendor participation. The current PESC board of directors includes representation from companies like Oracle, Datatel, SunGard SCT, Sallie Mae, and the National Student Clearinghouse, alongside the University of Oklahoma, the University of Illinois, and Bowling Green State University (OH). Says Michael Sessa, PESC’s executive director: “Our model is to pull the community together, look at all the factors, put a point out in the future and say, ‘That is where we want to be.’ Then we all march together. Vendors are part of the community. Our organization serves to mitigate any backlash against the vendors.”

By fall 2006, transcripts passing in and out of most Georgia institutions will finally start to move at the pace we expect from electronic transmissions, thanks to the adoption of a new open standard.

PESC and its open standards movement seem to be picking up momentum, with over 79 member organizations and affiliates. The organization is actively working on a range of standards on topics like degree audit, online loan counseling, student aid inquiry, admissions applications, national test score reporting, and high school transcripts.

One measure of how good a job PESC did with the new transcript standard was the outcome for the University System of Georgia. Although USG didn’t explicitly bring its needs to the PESC process, when the standard emerged, it worked just fine for all of Georgia’s unique needs. One more bridge had to be built, however, before the standard could fulfill its potential usefulness: Once the transcript arrived, it had to be able to be stoked automatically into the furnace of the institution’s admissions and student records system. Most of the Georgia institutions use SCT Banner, and as it turned out, SunGard SCT (now part of SunGard Higher Education) was ready to develop this XML bridge for Georgia to beta test, with the intention of rolling it out later as a feature of the base Banner product. “We have had four campuses successfully exchange transcripts in beta testing,” says Tonya Lam, associate vice chancellor for Student Affairs, Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia. “With 34 out of 35 of the institutions in the Georgia system on Banner, plus all 34 state technical colleges as well as a lot of the private schools in the state, encouraging SCT to roll this out quickly was a win-win for all of us.”

Other software vendors are following suit. Datatel, which already tightly integrates EDI-style transcripts with its Colleague system, is targeting a late 2006 or early 2007 release of its XML version. Graham Tracey, product manager, Enrollment and Student Services at Datatel and chair of the Submission Advisory Board (one of several Datatel representatives taking leadership positions within the PESC committee structure), believes the impact will go far beyond the transcript. “XML will be even bigger for admissions applications, where EDI has not had as much of an effect because every school’s application is so different,” says Tracey. But even more significantly, Tracey sees the open standards movement as changing how vendors approach the business. “We collaborate with our competitors on these standards, because it is better for everyone if we can make exchanging information among schools easier—just as it is for Amazon and its suppliers. Then we have to focus on how Colleague can provide a better solution. Using the standards to import a transcript or application is only part of the puzzle,” he says. “It is what you do with the data next that is important, so that there are fewer and fewer steps that the registrar or admissions office has to do by hand.”

The big payoff for institutions in Georgia will come at the beginning of the semester, when a large number of transcripts flow in and have to be handled promptly. The transcripts will be generated overnight—without the need for human intervention—by the transferring student’s home institution. The electronic transcript, packaged in XML, will be picked up from a remote clearinghouse server by the institution it is addressed to. Then the transfer applicant’s academic achievements will be run through the automated articulation agreements of the transfer credit module in SCT Banner. The resulting mapping of transferred courses will then be plugged into the new student’s record of progress toward a degree at the new institution, courtesy of Banner’s degree audit module, called CAPP (Curriculum, Advising, and Program Planning).

The result will be quicker turnaround for transfer students, better information for advisors who counsel the incoming students when they arrive, and a great reduction in backlog in the registrar’s office—leaving everyone more time to talk about educational topics that have nothing to do with three-letter acronyms.

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