Why Do Companies Need SIS Integrations?

When edtech companies integrate their product with an SIS it enables them to perform new functions. One integration feature could be provisioning accounts automatically and ahead of the school year (known as “rostering”). When an educator can roster classes without going through the manual task of creating and organizing accounts it saves them hours of time and lessens the chance for human error.

The same could be said for automatically sharing learning outcomes to a learning institution’s gradebook - we call this feature, grade passback. Grade passback saves educators time by not copying and pasting grades, plus it lessens the chance for human error to occur since grades can be passed between systems without being “touched”.

Another integration feature example could be attendance sync, which would retrieve attendance data for an edtech product. Once that data is populated, the product could take that information and provide an analysis for its users – adding context to the data available from the SIS and value to users.  

According to the EdTech Top 40 Report from Instructure, on average students access 143 unique edtech tools and educators access 148. Because of the sheer number of edtech tools used within the classroom, educators would waste hundreds of hours without integrations throughout the year – trying to prepare and manage each tool for a student to use. Plus a learning institution trying to manage over a hundred login credentials for one student welcomes several security risks. Given the number of edtech products in use these days, learning institutions need edtech products that are (1) interoperable and (2) seamlessly share data. Being able to do these two things makes an edtech product more marketable and “sticky” (read: hard to let go of) for learning institutions of all types. This means happier customers (like school admins, educators, and students) and higher renewal rates.

Expected Technical Challenges

SIS Integrations have several technical challenges to overcome. That’s a given. Just like in other integrations, edtech developers connecting to an SIS can expect to solve problems related to data matching, SIS-specific quirks, and relationship management with SIS providers. We drafted a list of some of the top challenges that we believe edtech developers will face. This list was generated from our experiences connecting to the most popular SIS providers and some critical thinking.

Limited Documentation: Unclear documentation on an SIS provider’s API can delay or stop an integration. Developers might have to “poke and see” how the API reacts with different data, methods, and actions and then take a reverse engineering approach to infer the API’s complete functionality. Thorough documentation and support channels can be super helpful for developers during the integration process. But few SIS providers have details like these prepared.

Data Model Matching: Abstracting data models to stay flexible without erasing relationship distinctions isn’t easy. An edtech developer may encounter issues in aligning the data structures and formats. When data models don’t align, it impacts data quality. When data quality is compromised, the integration isn’t implemented correctly.

Authentication and Authorization: Implementing a secure authentication and authorization mechanism between the integration can be tricky. Ensuring that users have appropriate access without affecting data security is crucial. (we’ll get more into that in the next section.)

Versioning and Upgrades: Sometimes pushing an update from either integration end can negatively affect the connection. In some systems, it can be hard to troubleshoot. In others, the connection can remain untouched. When the connection begins to error, all eyes are on the developer to find a solution fast.

Performance issues: Even properly implemented integrations can cause performance problems. Users can experience things like slow response times and even outages. Developers have to be aware of things like:

  • API rate limits,
  • incorrect requests,
  • complex queries,
  • misconfigured caching,
  • network latency, and
  • lack of compression within their integrations.

Limited User Experiences: Sometimes a developer’s ability to integrate their tool with an SIS provider can dictate the user experience. If a developer doesn’t have the technical capacity or time to implement the integration and begins making compromising choices, or because of a lack of resources, the user experience can be impacted. Aligning user experiences and workflows to provide a seamless user journey is principal to product adoption.

Expected Data Security & Privacy Challenges

Protecting student PII (personally identifiable information) is a necessity for working with learning institutions. For edtech products and their connections (like an SIS integration), they need to protect against bad actors. These are challenges edtech developers can expect in data security and privacy.

Compliance: Edtech developers and SIS vendors need to follow a variety of laws and regulations, like:

  • the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA),
  • the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), or
  • the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

Some countries might assert data sovereignty laws. Data sovereignty demands that stored data outside of an organization's host country will remain subject to the country's laws. These laws and regulations govern how student data can be collected, used, and shared.

Vulnerabilities: An SIS integration needs robust security measures like:

  • encryption (for data at rest and in transit),
  • secure transmission protocols, and
  • preventing unauthorized access.

If the integration is not done properly, it can introduce security vulnerabilities to the system. This can allow unauthorized users to access sensitive data or bad actors to take control of the system.

Data Transparency: Students have a right to privacy. One best practice is to only collect necessary data for the product's purpose. It is also relevant to be transparent about:

  • how the product will collect data
  • how the collected data will be used, and
  • give students the ability to access and control their data.

Then retain data only as long as needed and later, delete it – to reduce the risk of data exposure. But that’s easier said than done.

Expected Resource Challenges

Many times edtech teams forget about resource issues (read: money, people, and time). Or what happens is a team considers these resource issues but underestimates them. Edtech products and SISs are different. So the resources for building these integrations can become uncontrollable, fast. Know that building an SIS integration will always use up several resources.

All-in Costs: Money may not be everything, but it can impact SIS integration issues. In a rough (and generous) estimation, it could cost over $47,500 to build and test 1 SIS integration. You can check our math with a 2-minute Glassdoor search. A beginning Software Developer (across any industry in the US) averages a salary of $95,000 per year. Then break up the average salary per month for 6 months. Notice that this doesn't include the cost of using the API, which some SIS providers charge. In short, integrations can be expensive to build.

Development Expertise: SIS integrations need specific expertise in APIs, data structures, and integration protocols. Junior – even some mid-senior – developers may need to upskill to overcome knowledge gaps. Or collaborate with other developers who are familiar with these systems. But this collaboration knowledge doesn’t always result in instant success.

Maintenance and Upgrades: Once built, the integration will need resources to manage:

  • ongoing maintenance,
  • bug fixes, and
  • system upgrades.

This includes handling compatibility, API changes, and evolving SIS requirements. This will create somewhat of a drain on human capacity and overall capital. If a developer is fixing an integration bug, then who is building the next feature set?

Time Constraints: SIS integrations can be time-consuming. Consider all the complexities involved in merging the different systems. With how unpredictable integrations are, developers will overextend their time. In our experience, setting 6 months to develop an SIS integration from start to finish, is generous. Some companies haven’t completed it after a year.  

Scalability: Learning institutions use all types of SIS providers. Scaling integrations bring new complexities into the mix. For example, learning institutions tend to configure their SIS differently – creating  “unclean” or “missing” data. A developer would have to clean that up. When it comes to scaling, integrations aren't a product's core value. So why would a developer focus on scaling issues for only auxiliary features?

In Short

SIS integrations come with several issues to be aware of before “jumping into a build”. Edtech developers and their teams can expect to face 3 categories of challenges.

  1. There are technical challenges like:
  • Limited Documentation
  • Data Model Matching
  • Authentication and Authorization
  • Versioning and Upgrades
  • Performance issues
  • Implementation Resource Implementations

2. There are also data security and privacy challenges like:

  • Compliance
  • Vulnerabilities
  • Data Transparency

3. And lastly resource challenges like:

  • All-in Costs
  • Development Expertise
  • Maintenance and Upgrades
  • Time Constraints
  • Scalability

Yes, SIS integrations can be challenging. But products with them are more likely to also have happier learning institution customers with easy-to-adopt products.

Learn More about Integrations

If you’re interested to learn more about Integrations here’re other articles we’ve written:

If you're looking for a partner who can help guide you through developing LMS integrations (like these), then let’s introduce ourselves. We’re Edlink!