Robust Integrations: Uncorking Quality, Flexibility and Value
The Pressure to Integrate
It is really no surprise that during the past decades colleges and universities have frequently found themselves under pressure to decrease their operating costs and increase revenue, while enhancing student success. Sometimes the pressure has been intense, even existential.
The university response has certainly been influenced by a combination of the student debt crisis, the increasing cost of university education assumed by students and their families, and, for public institutions, decreasing levels of public funding. For some private institutions (including some elite colleges) the pressures result from decreasing enrolments and historically high levels of tuition discounting.
In response, many colleges and universities have developed strategies that couple cost containment through staff rationalization, while trying to increase enrollments through online learning, extended education and international educational programming.
Embracing this type of strategy—while also aiming to improve learner outcomes and satisfaction—has led institutions to implement (or at least consider) services that enhance learner success measured through reduced student drop out and reduced time to graduation. Each of these strategies relies on improved use of technology for planning, management, implementation and monitoring of administrative operations as well as learning and teaching activities. That is, improved operational efficiency and effectiveness and better use of data to support learner and faculty needs generates new demands on digital information systems.
Rapid digitization has resulted in an environment in which many discrete information systems support a broad array of business and educational processes. When the smoothness of these processes is disrupted because the discrete applications provide a fragmented experience, our digital ecosystem feels distinctly unfriendly and alien. Systems that do not support human interaction without causing distress works against our desire to enhance student success. This point brings us back to the importance of digital systems that are internally integrated to provide coherent experiences. The challenge for system and software professionals is that the digital experience of learners is typically composed of hundreds of applications, systems and data sources that need to harmoniously support very complex behavior.
One way of looking at our problem is through design. Modern information system design manages complexity with modularity, where a system is composed of a number of smaller elements that work together. This gives the fundamental building blocks of integration where these modular components not only work together within their system but also with other systems across the business through Application Programming Interfaces (APIs). They provide a flexible approach to manage complex interactions across multiple systems and business processes.
This is the necessary alternative to traditional, monolithic systems with prescriptive integrations that only serve defined purposes, and are limiting to innovation and continuous improvement. The traditional style of integration serves as a “closed” limiting factor. It fails to embrace a modern platform approach where you can unlock value through leveraging a broad ecosystem of developers, and embrace products and solutions not thought of at the time the system was designed. In fact, a more traditional approach fails to account for the reality of mixed systems, services, and data sources residing across on-premises, remote and cloud-based resources, and the complexity associated with users who bring their own devices to school and work.
Embracing openness in architecture through loosely coupled, flexible and future-proof integrations, where data passes and methods are invoked in innovative and creative ways is essential. There needs to be a level of robustness in this to ensure appropriate levels of confidentiality, integrity and availability, but the robustness is an enabling sustaining factor, not a limitation on appropriate use.
A Case Study
In the case of student success data analytics, we need visibility across a broad variety of information systems and data sets. For example, a non-exhaustive list would include: central authentication system and access logs; learning management system data; lecture video repository usage logs; the student management system; the academic program information repository; and the library system. These all contain information about the operating environment within which students interact, learn, communicate with support staff, make requests for services, receive support and guidance, pay their bills, and engage in many other essential functions. In short, these are among the activities that facilitate student and organizational success.
The usability of this data is directly related to how reliable and effective the integrations are. The ability of an institution to realize the opportunity present in its data and system is reliant on integration.
Integration and technical concerns are vital but should meld seamlessly into the background of a great user experience. In fact, the purpose of integration is to make inherent fragmentation in modern information architectures and the technical solutions as invisible as possible to the user.
To determine which approaches to digital system integration will best serve the institution and user community, organizations need to ask these questions:
- What does this experience look like?
- What features and functionalities do stakeholders and actors require of an actionable model of student success enabled by rich data?
- Are the needs of systems users best served by preformatted dashboards providing baselines and trends, or do users have the desire and skills to create their own queries and interrogate data and data relationships across the enterprise in new and innovative ways?
- Do we expect the final user view to be decided before we build the integrations, or should we build the integrations in a comprehensive manner to meet all current and future expected known and unknown requirements?
- Conversely, do we need to design high quality integrations that are flexible and customizable to adapt and adjust to changing requirements?
Four Pieces of Advice
When assessing systems and platforms for acquisition or use:
1) Integrations must be flexible and future proof. You can’t afford expensive redesign or re-factoring of connected systems to test every new use case. Think through example future-use cases and measure flexibility and cost to implement as a thought experiment.
2) Chose open application programming interfaces and integrations where possible. Be wary of packaged integrations that allude to improving connectivity and data sharing, but are not extensible.
3) Reliability and robustness are critical, but must not be limiting factors, but enabling.
4) Most importantly always keep your business goals in mind. Leaders should aim to lower cost of future customization, establish flexibility to meet changing business needs and requirements, and deliver a quality end user solution at every stage.