Microsoft Corp. Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Bill Gates says every school district needs a “digital nervous system” that would help educators manage their schools more efficiently and serve students better.
But first, he told administrators at a national conference here last week, producers of school-management software must agree on a common standard for the ways their applications describe data, so they can work with any computer system.
He rallied educators to support a set of technical standards that Microsoft is developing with 18 other software companies ranging from Jostens Learning Corp. to Chancery Software, which makes school-management applications. Called the “Schools Interoperability Framework,” it would establish common definitions and units of data in those applications.
Mr. Gates presented the framework as a step toward the “digital nervous systems” of e-mail, World Wide Web sites, and software that schools could use to foster greater collaboration by administrators, teachers, parents, and students.
In an interview with Education Week after his speech to the American Association of School Administrators, Mr. Gates said: “The digital-nervous-system vision is about access to information, so that if you really empower people, get all the information out there and make it easy to find, it will enhance their curiosity and improve their ability to do analysis and make decisions.”
Currently, administrative software applications do not share data easily, unless they are created by the same company. Crossing to another company’s system usually requires a custom-designed solution.
“It’s a colossal nuisance trying to make these systems talk to each other,” said Neal O. Nored, a technical strategist for IBM Global Education who is familiar with the framework, although the International Business Machines Corp. is not listed as one of the project’s developers.
“It would be nice to have things in the same denominations, for lack of better words,” added Anne Castleberg, a Santa Barbara, Calif.-based consultant who does custom integration of administrative systems for a number of districts.
Some experts said the framework would be a boon to school administrators, because it would apply to all kinds of “back office” software, including systems for keeping student records and managing school transportation, food service, and library services.
No longer would school personnel have to retype the same information into computer systems multiple times, supporters of the idea say.
And applications that exploited the framework, they say, would give school administrators easier ways of using computers to chart trends in student progress or analyze how school bus or lunch schedules are related to academic performance or discipline referrals.
“There’s no question that [the framework] is a much more universal application” than custom-designed approaches, said K. David Weidner, the director of information technologies at the AASA. He is a former director of technology for the Rose Tree school district in Media, Pa.
Ms. Castleberg said that when school systems change software applications, they sometimes abandon historical data because of the cost of conversion. “They print it out and never look at it again,” which might make it impossible to analyze long-term trends, she said.
The “interoperability” framework would also help state policymakers compile trend data from districts, Mr. Gates suggested in his Feb. 22 speech.
Technology companies in the education market would benefit as well, Mr. Nored of IBM said. “All the bigger companies--Oracle [Corp.], IBM, Microsoft---we all see good standards as being a key to market growth.
“We’re very supportive and participate quite actively in anything that solves big problems and makes markets grow. If they do, we can sell a lot of stuff,” he said.
A Slice of the Pie
Mr. Nored explained why his company would have an interest in cooperating with a major competitor, such as Microsoft. “You’ve got to work with others to create a pie, then you fight to the death over your slice of it,” he said.
Microsoft is currently standing trial in a federal antitrust lawsuit over charges that the Redmond, Wash.-based company used its dominance in the computer market to wring advantages from its partners and competitors.
For the Schools Interoperability Framework to be accepted in the education market, observers say, it would have to work for software without regard to the computer platform on which it runs--such as the Windows, Macintosh, Unix, or Novel Netware operating systems.
Officials at Microsoft’s archrival, Sun Microsystems, Inc., are skeptical, however, of Microsoft’s leadership in developing the framework. They suggested that Mr. Gates’ company might tilt the standards to favor its own operating systems.
“If you look at people on the announcement, it appears to be all Microsoft partners. It appears to be an initiative to get schools to buy Microsoft applications” and programs that run on Microsoft’s NT operating system, said Kim Jones, the vice president of academic computing for Sun Microsystems. The Mountain View, Calif.-based company makes computers that use the Unix operating system.
In the interview, Mr. Gates rejected the claim that the framework might be biased. “It’s not at all Windows-specific. It’s not biased towards any Microsoft software,” he maintained.
There are other, partially overlapping, initiatives to set technical standards for software for the education market. One narrowly focused standard, called Speedee Express, is used for applications that transmit student transcripts between districts and--its original purpose--between schools and colleges.
Another standard that is under development is the Instructional Management System, organized by Educause, a coalition of higher education institutions and technology companies.
Its participants include many of some of the same companies--such as Microsoft--that are working on the Schools Interoperability Framework.
In fact, the IMS effort, which was unveiled to school officials attending the Consortium of School Networking conference in Washington last week, uses the Microsoft draft document as the starting point for its work on standards for administrative applications.
But the IMS initiative goes beyond back-office functions to include data standards for organizing and presenting digital education content. When finished and adopted by software companies, it would allow K-12 schools and universities to combine or switch among a variety of curriculum-management applications without having to overhaul their data.
Work in Progress
Meanwhile, the framework envisioned by Mr. Gates does not yet exist, cautioned J. Lee Wilson, the vice president of marketing and business for one of the participating companies, Chancery Software of Bellingham, Wash.
He pointed out that a glitzy demonstration during Mr. Gates’ speech here that showed how applications would zap data back and forth was “hard wired,” or staged, and only simulated a universal standard, Mr. Wilson said.
Microsoft officials suggested that the initial specifications for the framework might be approved by the end of this year, and that products meeting the standard could roll out as early next spring.
Mr. Wilson said he had seen three or four efforts to set industrywide standards for school management software fail over the past 10 years or so.
But computer technology and the evolution of the software industry have advanced since then, Mr. Wilson added. “We give this one the best chance yet of succeeding,” he said of the new initiative.
A version of this article appeared in the March 03, 1999 edition of Education Week as Gates Downloads a Proposal for Schools