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Interoperability: How to Turn a Blind Spot into a Strength

min read


Advancing solutions built on open technology standards represents the best chance for higher education to achieve long-term success.

IT leaders grapple with many issues on a daily basis—from information security to cost management to online learning. While an IT leader's success depends in part upon their ability to navigate pressing challenges, they must occasionally take a step back and ask the following question: From a technological perspective, what should a higher education institution look like?

Imagine a world where colleges and universities are full of possibility and potential, with campus ecosystems that empower students, alumni, faculty, and staff to bring their best to each of their interactions; where the seams between applications aren't visible; where complexity is an afterthought; and where teaching, learning, and administrative activities take center stage.

In short, colleges and universities should look a lot like the graduates they aim to create: smart, flexible, and ready to grow and adapt to change. Unfortunately, this vision is far from the reality at many institutions. The average technology ecosystem includes dozens of discrete applications, each serving a particular business need.

Digital transformation in higher education is unequivocally a good thing. But amid accelerating technology adoption, a crucial weakness has emerged: a lack of interoperability, particularly within the campus ecosystem—the network of technologies that make up the digital infrastructure at a college or university.

As a result of this weakness, IT teams are often bogged down with navigating the quirks and idiosyncrasies of specific brands of technology. Systems don't work together the way they should, or worse, inferior technologies win out because of their compatibility with legacy systems.

How Did the Pandemic Accelerate the Need for Flexible and Extensible Solutions?

The pandemic has truly underscored the need for interoperability at higher education institutions. Over the past eighteen months, all of us in the higher education community have seen how critical it is for an institution to be able to transform itself rapidly in the face of unanticipated change. We've also seen the pressure placed on institutions by shifts in how students value the college experience when it suddenly moves completely or partially online. It has never been more necessary for IT leaders to prioritize interoperability. Doing so will ensure success not only in the distant future but also in the near future, which, in some ways, is already here.

What Are the Hidden Costs of Closed Technologies?

The lack of interoperability is a natural part of the technological evolution in higher education. The rise of SaaS models in the campus ecosystem has occurred relatively recently. While the early impact of this shift has been exciting, higher education's adoption of SaaS best practices has lagged behind its adoption of SaaS technologies themselves. One of the most important best practices in this world is committing to interoperability.

Technologies that don't embrace openness can offer a certain allure. Their providers promise a better experience based on buying into a single system or cost savings that come from economies of scale.

However, the complexity and inflexibility of "closed" applications soon start to work against the best interests of an institution in one or more of the following ways:

  • They inevitably draw IT teams into the weeds. Once in the weeds, institutions are required to spend considerable resources navigating individual complexities, leaving them with precious little time to focus on strategic initiatives that add lasting value.
  • They limit operational agility. This naturally reduces an institution's ability to quickly and effectively respond to change.
  • They discourage choice and competition. Instead of being able to select the best tool for the job, IT leaders and teams are strongly incentivized to purchase technologies that work well with their legacy systems. Here, the promised cost savings of a one-provider approach often begins to erode.

Collectively, these forces lower the quality of the campus experience for all stakeholders and limit an institution's overall potential to help students succeed.

What Are the Benefits of Interoperability?

Colleges and universities can look to the courseware market for an example of how "openness" and "interoperability" benefit both institutions and providers.

Most courseware solutions integrate well with whichever LMS is being used, giving both faculty and institutions the benefit of flexibility and choice. An absence of technical barriers to entry gives courseware providers an incentive to innovate and develop new, more effective solutions. This, in turn, fosters competition, which promotes affordability.

Campus ecosystems today should be integrated, flexible, and extensible. They should be filled with solutions that work together but are loosely coupled to achieve the blue-sky vision for information technology in higher education. This type of interoperability is possible to achieve in the campus ecosystem with the widespread adoption of open technology standards, such as those advanced by IMS Global.

There are clear benefits to taking such an open approach.

  • IT teams will spend less time learning the arcane details of different technologies and more time working toward achieving strategic objectives.
  • With access to a greater range of solutions from different providers, colleges and universities will be better equipped to move quickly and confidently when facing unforeseen circumstances or when new challenges arise.
  • Faculty and staff will be able to freely share data across the institution while maintaining a single source of truth for analytics, enabling data-informed decision-making in support of student and institutional success.

Taken together, these benefits deliver an experience for all stakeholders that is more than the sum of its parts.

"[Our members] fared well in 2020 during the pivot to more flexible educational delivery required due to COVID-19," says Rob Abel, CEO of IMS Global, in the organization's 2020 annual report. "Designing and implementing an institutional edtech strategy based on open standards interoperability resulted in greater agility, scale, and confidence . . . enabling what was most important in these times: greater focus on supporting faculty and students."Footnote1

What Does "Committing to Interoperability" Really Mean?

From a technical perspective, ensuring interoperability is a straightforward proposition: build and adopt technologies based on open standards. But taking such a clear, prescribed set of actions requires a much bigger change in mindset.

For providers, committing to interoperability starts with recognizing that advancing a set of solutions that work only in isolation isn't in your organization's long-term interests, but belonging to and competing within the framework of a shared, open ecosystem is in its long-term interests.

Promoting interoperability requires institutions to take a hard look at what "closed" technologies are really costing them in terms of agility and incremental innovation and explore how solutions built on open technology standards developed by different providers can work together, loosely coupled, to deliver a seamless experience.

At Ellucian, we've committed to interoperability by adhering to IMS Global standards for higher education technology. We've reimagined our solutions as an integrated, open platform, where data flows freely and securely between all of an institution's software solutions—whether they're ours or not.

The sustained success of a higher education institution depends not just on its ability to use technology to achieve the objectives that are in full view but also on its capacity to build an open, flexible ecosystem that allows IT leaders and teams to respond to challenges and circumstances that can't be foreseen.

"Going forward, intentionally designed interoperability, working across an institutional product ecosystem, is what will make or break the power of digital edtech for faculty, learners, and administrators," writes IMS Global's Abel in a recent blog post.Footnote2

Advancing solutions built on open technology standards represents the best chance for higher education to achieve long-term success. Fostering a community of providers who innovate, collaborate, and compete together isn't just some lofty ideal—it's good business.


  1. IMS Annual Report 2020, Lake Mary, FL: IMS Global Learning Consortium, 2020. Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
  2. Rob Abel, "What's Under the Hood of Your EdTech," IMS Global Learning Consortium (blog), August 2021. Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.

Michael Wulff is Chief Technology Officer at Ellucian.

© 2021 Ellucian.