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IMS Summit Report: Is Higher Education and Further Education fit for SOA? Only if the right governance is in place.

Christina Smart
Last modified 01 Oct, 2008
Published 01 Oct, 2008
That seemed to be one message emerging from the panel discussion on service oriented architectures (SOA) at the recent IMS Global Learning Consortium Summit on Interoperability. The session provided an opportunity to reflect collectively on whether service oriented architectures/approaches offer benefits to HE and FE institutions, and if so how institutions might start adopting SOA.

Mark Stiles from the University of Staffordshire chaired a panel with collective experience of implementing SOA. The panel included Ian Dolphin, formerly of University of Hull, now Director of the e-Framework, Dan Rehak of Learning Systems Architecture Lab and one of the inventors of the e-Framework, John Townsend of Liverpool John Moores University, and Ronald Ham from the SURF Foundation in the Netherlands.

The audience were largely SOA converts who believe SOA has real benefits to offer HE and FE in terms of process efficiencies and workflows. For that reason there was little discussion of the potential benefits, instead there was an open and reflective discussion of the challenges that institutions face when they embark on the SOA journey.

SOA Governance

Oleg Liber, Director of JISC CETIS, wondered whether governance of SOA is the biggest challenge that HE and FE institutions face. Currently, institutional systems broadly reflect the structure of the organisation, he said, so the finance department owns the finance system, and the registry owns the student record system. If an institution adopts an SOA where functions and services are devolved, who then owns the various services? And is there in fact ANYONE in the organisation who has a view of the whole? And who has ultimate authority over it? So to fully implement SOA, institutions need to have a corresponding change in the structure of the organisation, he said.

Reinforcing Oleg’s point, Jim Farmer from Georgetown University in the US said there was now a group of institutions that had implemented SOA, but that it had taken seven years to get all the functionality worked out. Two issues remained outstanding, he said. One was that of using hosted services which can lead to privacy problems. The other was implementing services that go across different departments, because Registrars that feel they own the student data while Financial Aid lay claim to financial data. Jim suggested that we’re now 10 years away from getting these governance issues resolved.

Once the decision to go down the SOA route has been made Wilbert Kraan of JISC CETIS suggested that there were two approaches that institutions could take to facilitate implementation. The first approach is to use a task force to mandate SOA across the institution, the second is to start by adopting SOA in systems that the rest of the institution care less about, like email services.

Making the Business Case

The panel agreed that it was important to make a business case to the senior management for adopting SOA as a guiding principle. Unfortunately, there is no single business case to make since institutions have widely ranging contexts and pressures. John Townsend stressed that senior management would not buy-in to SOA without a strong business case for doing so.

Dai Griffiths from the University of Bolton wondered what we should be telling teachers and learners about the benefits of SOA. There was some agreement that teachers shouldn’t need to know anything about the underlying structure only that it would be easier to swap in certain tools into the learning environments they use.

Managing Expectations

Ian Dolphin suggested that there was clearly a job to be done in advocating more widely within institutions the benefits of increased IT system flexibility.

Bill Olivier, Technical Director of JISC, explained how that flexibility could be achieved:

"What we want to get out of service oriented architecture is to standardise and turn into common services the big common chunks of stuff, but not all the processes that go on within institutions. One of the attractions of SOA is to pull out common elements and above them have light weight applications which are much easier to change, which allow institutions to remain varied and diverse."

However leads to a problem in managing expectations of senior managers, he said. Once vice chancellors and college principles become aware of the possibilities offered by more flexible systems – they want it immediately. So we need to find a way of presenting the case for SOA – but in a realistic timeframe, he said. He added that JISC’s role is to investigate the potential benefits for institutions of pursuing SOA.

Pain Points and Quick Wins

Rob Abel CEO of IMS GLC wondered where the quick wins lay for organisations. In the Netherlands scheduling is clearly a pain point, said Ronald Ham, but he added that scheduling is also probably one of the most complex areas to start with.

Scott Wilson from JISC CETIS suggested that systems that don’t require access control or authentication are a good place to start, which is why the XCRI work had started to look at the course catalogue. But that had led to other problems, for example one issue with course catalogue processes is that within many institutions, no one actually owns them.


Wilbert Kraan asked the panel whether HE and FE institutions had the sort of complexity that SOA had been very useful for resolving in the business world. Mark Stiles’s response was that many institutions increasingly had a number of consortia and partnerships with other institutions on a regional basis and SOA is essential for those consortia to work. The problem is that working across consortia leads straight to issues around identity management and access.

Readiness for SOA

John Norman, Director of The Centre for Applied Research in Educational Technologies at the University of Cambridge, raised the issue of readiness for SOA. He wondered whether we should ask not whether we’re ready for SOA, but whether there is an alternative? Ronald Ham suggested that institutions are now ready to look at SOA as an option.

Dan Rehak said that SOA is being adopted elsewhere and that the Ministry of Defence was now in bid phase for a complete training management system which would be service oriented.

Later in the discussion Scott Wilson wondered whether a set of criteria for readiness for SOA would be useful. He said similar criteria for Web 2.0 readiness might include.

  1. SOA
  2. Privacy
  3. Identity Management
  4. Business Intelligence

Lobbying Commercial Providers and Generalising Experiences

Speaking of the experiences in Dutch Universities Ronald Ham said that many institutions are now adopting commercial SOA products which means that there is a need for institutions to work together to ensure that APIs are standardised so that commercial systems can interoperate. Ian Dolphin added that sharing of experiences, approaches and documentation of adopting and implementing commercial SOA technologies would allow some more generalisable trends and needs to emerge.

Final Thoughts

Mark Stiles rounded off the session by asking each panel member to state their key final thought:

  • John Townsend concluded that governance was the key issue.
  • Ian Dolphin said Institutions faced a range of challenges and it was therefore vital to network with each other.
  • Dan Rehak urged people to think about the business requirements and functionality required and find out what the users needed.
  • Ronald Ham said it was crucial that people developed a better insight into how their organisation was working now.

Undoubtedly SOA has a great deal to offer HE and FE institutions, but of all the challenges that remain, the cultural and governance issues seem to me to be the most difficult to tackle. Within and institution there are many cultures, including finance, IT, academia etc, what Mark Stiles described as "An environment with conflicting professional cultures". These cultures often do not share a common language, or understanding of each others’ roles and concerns. Implementing SOA clearly involves opening up communication channels between these cultures and enabling staff to work together to realise benefits of a flexible IT infrastructure.

The slides from the rest of the IMS quarterly meeting are now available. JISC CETIS colleagues have also reported on the meeting. Sheila MacNeill reflects on the IMS meeting as a whole, and Adam Cooper discusses Learning Design developments highlighted at the Summit.


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