Digital Transformation with API First for Universities

Photo by Fabian Mardi on Unsplash

API First approach can accelerate your digital transformation efforts.

In 2017, the consumption of digital medium has increased exponentially and this is expected to continue to grow. With the growth of everything digital, the consumer market is also shifting. What used to be considered the latest trend (e.g. Mobile) is now considered mainstream. Consumers are now moving more towards everything connected. The expectation of a rich interaction via any medium is now expected or rather demanded by consumers with brands losing value if they are unable to deliver. But the education market has traditionally lagged behind its consumer counterparts. This is now changing and institutions understand that with the new digital consumers, brand presence and customer centric approach is very critical.

Education Technology companies (EdTech) entered into the market to take advantage of this and focus on trying to disrupt the market. One section of EdTech is focused on the disrupting the delivery of learning by decomposing the traditional learning approach and making it interactive and easy to consume. The other section is focused on enhancing the ability of institutions to do their work easier by introducing complementary tools and automation. Over the years, there have been significant investments in EdTech and it is a $1.8 Trillion market. With Internet penetration at 3.78 Billion users (50%) and Mobile usage at 4.91 Billion users (66%), there is still a lot of growth that needs to happen with respect to access¹. As this grows, the need for institutions to have a brand presence that exemplifies and connects to the digital users as consumers become even more critical.

“Education Technology Companies sell more than $1.3 trillion in products and services to Students, Schools & Enterprises, and Teachers”

As educational institutions evaluate their path forward, a common theme appears. The educational technology is a complex set of individual applications that have been connected to work together. This requires operational upkeep and maintenance of each of these applications and it also requires a keen focus on ensuring that there are investments done into integration technologies to support and operate this connectivity. Traditional models followed for this is to establish a batch based integration model, leveraging Extract, Transform, Load (ETL) models. This works great in cases where data access in real time is not critical and users expect information to be available after 24–48 hours. But today’s digital consumers expect results at the click of a button or the touch of a screen. The use of a varied number of applications also creates data silos that typically forces institutions to replicate information in many systems which add additional overhead. Some institutions have tried to solve this problem by leveraging one or many middleware tools to connect various applications together.

As Enterprise Architecture states, every organization should establish a “Foundation for Execution”². This drives how the overarching implementation approach is established and executed by teams. One typical approach is to go about the implementation of ERP platforms that start to standardize the applications. The institutions can then start to narrow down the list of application they have to support and establish operational excellence within that ecosystem. But is there a certain flaw with that approach? What do institutions do when the experience paradigm shifts? What happens when the new digital users start to use different form factors? A typical customer for an institution 5–7 years back would typically study on a computer and consume digital content on the Mobile. Today, even Mobile is starting to become a legacy form factor and digital users are starting to shift towards consuming and learning more and more via Video, Audio and accessing the content via Mobile. Augmented Reality is starting to become a real means of digital consumption with products like interactive smart books, 4D anatomy, and others³. While institutions are focused on modernizing their systems and operations, the consumer expectations are rapidly shifting and this makes it difficult to provide the ideal digital consumer experience that most students would prefer.

How do institutions manage this change?

An approach to solving for this is to look at this with a different lens. What if institutions are able to rapidly introduce changes leveraging their existing investments into ERP? This could be achieved by using an Application Programming Interface (API) first approach.

An Application Programming Interface (API) is the mechanism that can be used to send or get information from a system. For example, when y0u open Instagram and the app loads the list of all the photos, the app is sending a message to Instagram informing the system that you are the user and you are requesting the most recent set of photos, which the system sends back to the app. (What is an API?⁵).

A new platform requires spending money and time on new processes, staff, and operational considerations. Institutions could instead focus on creating an API layer that sits above existing ERP platforms. The ability to expose information this way would enable them to start to build value sooner. This requires an investment into data architecture to define a vocabulary that any department/institution in the organization understands. Once this has been defined and setup, an API build strategy to enable this standard data model needs to be executed.

How does this approach differ from moving to a new platform, implementing an ERP?

Standard ERP Model (graphics courtesy here)

Standard Platform implementation requires taking what institutions have today and shifting it over to a new platform generating risks. Part of this can be mitigated by leveraging Agile methodologies to perform this move iteratively. As the new platform matures, it becomes available to add more business value. But the time to generate this business value is longer. Leveraging an API first approach to continue to expose legacy ERP’s using a new data standard will provide quicker value and will allow the existing staff to continue to support and maintain the system. This does not mean the institutions should not upgrade their platforms to the latest available in the market. They absolutely must and it then provides a foundation for execution to meet the demands of the new age. But this does not have to be a big bang and leveraging the API first model allows the transition to happen incrementally while the new platform settles.

API First Model — Delivers quicker value (graphics courtesy here)

As new business API’s become available it starts to open up new opportunities and monetization capabilities. For instance, a proprietary and legacy platform that produces a great transcript can still be part of the new architecture by being wrapped by an API that speaks a standard language. An institution can look at this capability and potentially provide it as a service for its customers and partners. This is just an example of one of the possibilities and they are endless. This also can enable a “Institutional Department As a Service” model. (More on this in a future post) to allow internal departments to service the broader network or even the public.

As the API strategy evolves, the institutions can start to support things like “Personal APIs”⁴ — a new model where Students / Faculty decide what systems they would like to connect to, what data they would like to share or expose (even within Institutional systems) and empowering the users to create their own user journeys on the fly which would then enable a personalized experience driven by their desire and goals. We start to move from an Operations driven mindset to a Learner driven mindset.

Student decides which information is accessible (graphics courtesy here)


Data generates the business value not the platform

These are exciting times for Technology and Education. The availability of cloud services and easy access to computing resources has led to numerous means to build new platforms. But this does not fully address the institutional challenges. For institutions to start evolving, an API First mindset has to be established. This could come with platforms or would have to become part of the standard development processes. The focus has to shift from an ERP implementation to exposing information in a standard and secure way. As the API First approach matures, institutions can provide access to a myriad of data points that can be used for various needs. This also starts to establish the institution as a customer centric brand having the ability to rapidly absorb new changes in the consumer market, experiment with new form factors, experiment with new models like “Personal API” and allow data to generate value as opposed to a platform.

This article is based on my personal point of view. What are your thoughts? I welcome any feedback.

Twitter: @karthik_vik



  1. We are social. Hootsuite (Jan 2017)
  2. EA as a Strategy (Ross, Jeanne & Weill, Peter & C. Robertson, David. (2006). Enterprise Architecture as Strategy — Creating a Foundation for Business Execution.)
  3. Transform your classroom with AR
  4. Personal API
  5. What is an API?