It's that time again. That's right, time to schedule next year's classes and revisit the dark and dismal world of student management systems. For those of you who have done it, the S-word can strike fear in the hearts of many in educational IT. Scheduling, in and of itself, is a challenging task. Those involved must consider countless variables and dependencies in determining the course offerings and master schedule that will best meet the needs of a diverse student body while stretching limited teaching and classroom resources.
A number of software vendors provide incredibly expensive solutions to not only manage the scheduling process, but to also track thousands of fields of student data. These solutions, called Student Management Systems (or educational databases, or education information systems, or the bain of my existence, or any of a stream of expletives that grows more fierce as the year progresses), are increasingly becoming web-based and are designed to handle modeling, input, management, and reporting for a wide range of student data. Attendance, behavior, health records, grades, and yes, scheduling (dah-dah-dah-dummm), all feed through these systems.
The two largest vendors of this type of system are Chancery and Powerschool. Chancery has migrated from a client-server server solution to a web-based solution over the last few years. Powerschool, owned by Apple Computers, is also web-based and, not surprisingly, has focused its efforts on the Macintosh crowd, while Chancery's solutions remain Wintel-centric (although cross-platform support is improving).
So what's the point of the brief primer above? Well, at their core, these systems are supposed to make our jobs easier, whether we are teachers accessing student data, administrators preparing state reports, schedulers, or IT folks providing support to all of these individuals. The reality is that these systems are still immature, at best. More importantly, systems like Chancery SMS and and Powerschool are designed to scale to meet the needs of very large school districts. Chicago, for example, uses Chancery SMS to manage student information across the enterprise. These systems are, therefore, extremely complicated from a database perspective, quite expensive, and require full-time database administration and support at the district level. They scale up quite well for large districts, but scale down very poorly for small districts with limited resources to manage and maintain them.
And now, at long last, the real point of this blog...We need a solution for these smaller districts. Small school districts need reasonable access to student data and good solutions for scheduling students as much as Chicago, but shouldn't need to use a 10-pound sledgehammer when a small tack hammer would do quite nicely. What these districts need is a standards-based, streamlined, open-source solution, leveraging easy to use and program web technologies and providing clean, straight-forward interfaces for data input and reporting. Currently, to create new reports in Chancery SMS, it requires a full-time database administrator with significant expertise in Crystal Reports. I can quite easily envision, though, a database structure of sufficient simplicity that someone with moderate experience in PHP and SQL could write custom reports effectively.
If anyone out there is using something homegrown that works well, talk back - let me know how you did it, what works well, and what could use improvement. For now, I'm headed back to do some more scheduling. I can barely contain my enthusiasm.