Rich Rediker, CEO of Rediker Software, developer of the popular student information system, Administrator's Plus, responded this evening to my last post on trends in Web-based SIS applications. As a developer of a system whose bread and butter is client-server based, he obviously took exception to my enthusiasm for competitors that are leveraging Web 2.0 technologies to improve the experience of SIS applications delivered over the Internet. His comments are interesting, though, and I decided to post them outside of the TalkBacks. Here they are, for your consideration:
SIS Features are what matters
As the CEO of Rediker Software, I have been involved with SIS systems for an amazing 30 years. I employ over 30 programmers to offer the features that schools need. And our software has 30 years of features that nobody can replicate. We are currently used in over 100 countries as well as in all 50 states.
Of course web access is essential but there is much confusion between "browser based", "an application" and "web based". An SIS starts with the data. To access the data, you can use a browser front-end or a full featured application front end. We offer BOTH types of front ends.
It is now easy to deliver an application over the web giving users the best of all worlds. We host our SIS for many schools all over the world and using any browser, they can actually access our application and run it inside that browser. Consequently, both our browser and application interfaces are "web based".
Our application front end is called Administrator's Plus (AP) and our true browser front end is called APWeb. Our teachers use GQWeb to access their grade books from any browser and parents use the browser based Edline which is, the standard in parent web portals.
Just as Google DOCS only offers a small percentage of the features found in WORD, browser based front ends only offer a small percentage of an application's features. Technical coordinators may not miss these features but users will.
While our own browser components do not offer all of the functionality of our application, they allow all data to be viewed and edited as well as reports to be printed from any browser. While in the school, our users choose to access their data using the full featured Administrator's Plus (AP) When not in school, APWeb, GQWeb or Edline is used.
What are the kinds of features that do not lend themselves to the web interface: Taking pictures, designing ID cards using a Publisher like interface, syncing with a full featured PDA application, building a schedule, using multiple windows at once, designing reports etc.
In order to improve security when accessing data over the internet, we offer the unique option of using holding bins for all data changes. For example, parents can use APWeb Parent to edit certain demographic fields of your choice over the web. Back in school using AP, users can see in two columns the data as it exists in AP on the left and parents' edits on the right. The user can select to accept all edits or only certain ones.
In summary, when looking at SIS systems, look more at what the system can do and less at how that gets done. We recently received an RFP for a scheduling system and nowhere did it require that the software could actually build a schedule! Instead, it was concerned with the interface and back-end data base. Users want the best schedule and they do not care about those details.
I'd like to thank Mr. Rediker for taking the time to respond; I have to say that when Rediker software presented their SIS at a conference I attended, I was very impressed. The client-server interface, especially for scheduling and database management was incredibly slick. At the time, as I was buried under a disastrous web-based system and was pining for the days of WinSchool/MacSchool and their limited, yet highly-functional client-server approach, Rediker seemed like a no-brainer. So why did we end up looking elsewhere?
There were a few reasons, none of which are meant to bash Rediker's software. It really does have valuable features and a lot of happy users. I've also spoken with a number of poeple who have led migrations from Administrator's Plus to other student information systems recently, usually for the same reasons we decided that Rediker's applications weren't for us. In the end, it comes down to a decision of the features that you and your users value the most (as Mr. Rediker points out). There are countless vendors of SIS software out there, including Rediker; make sure you meet with four or five before you commit to one system or another and talk to existing users whenever you can. There is no one like a guidance department secretary to tell you what she really thinks of a system.
For us, here were our concerns as we went through this process:
- Users wanted a consistent interface with all features available, regardless of whether they were at school, at home, or elsewhere. If we chose to host the application ourselves (a great choice to access a client-server system and leverage it's speed), then the web front end seemed fairly limiting. On the other hand, Rediker will host the application for you and then give you access via the web front end or a full-blown Citrix implementation (allowing you to use the full application in a browser window). While this last option seemed attractive, the company had concerns about bandwidth limitations. This particular piece may have matured since we made our decision, but at the time, we were looking for something consistent, speedy, and straight-forward, regardless of location.
- Rediker has done a great job of finding software vendors that have features that supplement Administrator's Plus and then partnering with them. The teacher gradebook is an example (it is actually developed by Jackson Software). Similarly, parents are given access to student data via Edline, a widely regarded service that allows for a variety of student-teacher-parent interactions. However, since Edline is a separate product, a synchronization process must take place. This is not uncommon as vendors synchronize data frequently with Special Education applications, parent/student portals like Edline, and library automation systems. However, we were again looking for an integrated approach that gave all users (including parents and students) a consistent interface. Did we sacrifice some of the features in Edline for that? Yes we did, but it was a matter of choosing our priorities.
- Administrator's Plus is platform-independent if you host it with them and they deliver the service via Citrix/Terminal Services. While this wasn't necessarily a bad option, the related potential issues have already been noted above. We have users on everything from aging Macs to Linux platforms and were looking for a cross-platform system out of the box. The client software (assuming they didn't host the application) was Windows only.
- Without upgrading to their "Super Data Base", the structure of the database was largely closed. As another reader pointed out, Mr. Rediker developed this database himself for his own school 30 years ago. While that means that it has grown and matured into a product specifically geared towards student information system needs, we were concerned about proprietary database structures and technologies. We were just walking away from a wildly convoluted data system that, while running on SQL server, was nearly indecipherable. This may have been strictly a matter of "once bitten, twice shy", but a fully normalized database running on MySQL just sounded really attractive (the system used by the vendor we ultimately chose).
- Finally, the modular approach of the software surrounding Administrator's Plus meant separate pricing for each module. While this allows districts to pick and choose the features they want, we decided that this model would ultimately not be the best choice for our district. We, like many underfunded schools and districts, tend to purchase the bare minimums to save money short term. For better or worse, a model in which even the kitchen sink was included for the same price, made more sense for us.
Your district's requirements and past experiences may very well not be the same as ours, so some of our concerns may not apply. Talk back below and let us know how you decided/are deciding on an SIS.