Web services are the wave of the future, said Michael Sessa, CEO of the Postsecondary Electronic Standards Council.

Web services are not websites or Web applications. But they are application programming interfaces — a way for programs and systems to access data from other programs and systems, said Stephen Wheat, chief IT architect at Emory University in Atlanta.

And because more organizations are moving services to the cloud, outsourcing them and finding ways to cut costs in this economy, an environment where Web services can flourish has been created.

To grab data from another system, an application needs a Web service description. The description shows the operations an application can perform when it talks to another one. That way, other people know what to ask for when they collaborate. And with firewalls and other network control devices in place, no one should be afraid to share the definitions.

In the case of a banking Web service, an application can see that the service pays bills, makes deposits and completes other standard transactions. The description doesn't allow everyone to access the data. They have to contact the owner of the service and say, "I'd like to use data for this purpose, will you grant us access to the service?"

But in the world of Web services, everything was scattered and disarrayed, said Arnie Miles, a middleware architect and adjunct assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University. No one could manage the Web services they developed and used. And everyone used different standards that didn't talk to one another.

“There was no oversight, and because of that, you couldn’t build upon the efforts of your peers, whether they be local or across the world,” Miles said. "You didn’t know who was doing what, what was successful and what wasn’t, what was available and what wasn’t."

Until now.

In October, the council launched a beta version of the EdUnify Service-Oriented Architecture Governance Framework. EdUnify will make publishing, finding, organizing and combining Web services much easier for schools and universities, said Miles, who worked on a development team for EdUnify.  And it will also help create a culture of sharing Web services through a common standard.

Stop Developing the Same Web Services

By sharing Web services, universities respond to student needs much more quickly, Sessa said. And they also save months of development time, human resources and money.

“What we’re really trying to do is encourage the community to stop developing the same things over and over again,” Sessa said.

Most universities are already sharing research and business data, said Wheat, who helped lead EdUnify.

“Data’s moving anyway," he said. "The question is, 'How can we do that more effectively with these Web services?'”

When students want to transfer to another college, they have to manually enter their coursework into their new college's system.

But with academic history Web services, they don't have to.

In South Carolina,  universities and technical colleges started working together to help students complete their degrees. Through Web services they created and published in EdUnify, an authorized application can pull in students' academic history. Then the institution figures out which courses transfer and which degree programs they could get into.

“If you’re really looking to where this technology is all going, you very quickly get to the point where we should share all Web services.”

But not everyone wants to start sharing, Sessa said. People will say "standards are great — as long as you use mine." 

Start Developing Standards that Cross K-12 and Higher Ed

No one has developed a standard like EdUnify before because everyone's tied up in their own sales, he said. By sharing Web services and following the same standards, companies think that they'll lose their competitive advantage.

But that's not true.

While companies think they're built on data, they're actually built on service and price. With the leadership of a neutral third party like the council, they can share their data and maintain a competitive advantage.

"Unfortunately we don’t always live in a sharing world," Sessa said, "so we are trying to trail blaze here with a new paradigm, but everybody agrees that it’s needed.”

So far, more than 25 vendors, universities, states and nonprofit organizations support EdUnify.

The way companies make money tomorrow could be new, better and different, Miles said. For example, three companies create proprietary methods to share student transcripts and sell their service to universities. The proprietary methods cause each company to become an island. And as islands, they're limited in value because they can't talk to universities on different islands easily.

If the companies in this hypothetical example standardize on a method, then suddenly the islands can talk. Is the first company going to lose more business, or will business be worth more because the number of universities it can share with has tripled?

If sharing becomes the standard that universities expect, anyone who doesn't share won't get the business. And that's a viable business model.

With the standards that the council creates, developers can understand how to work together and take advantage of technology, Miles said.

“In this era of vastly increased communications, standardization is going to be of upmost importance, or we are going to fail to get the most out of the potential that the hardware brings to the table, that the technology brings to the table,” Miles said.

And that standardization has to bridge from pre-kindergarten to college. Down the road, EdUnify will connect higher education data and systems to pre-K through 12th grade as well as work force data systems.

"It is imperative that we not just work in islands of K-12 and higher ed," Miles said. "It is imperative that the standards cross that boundary line; it really has to be K-20 or pre-K through 20. This is imperative, and it’s not just in Web services, but it’s in everything.”  

Resources:

EdUnify Task Force

EdUnify registry

What is service-oriented architecture?

Tanya Roscorla  |  Managing Editor, CDE

Tanya Roscorla covers education technology in the classroom, behind the scenes and on the legislative agenda. Likes: Experimenting in the kitchen, cooking up cool crafts, reading good books.